Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Know-It-All - O, P


occupational disease - Hatters used to use mercury salts to make felt out of rabbit fur. The mercury poisoning led to erethism (a mental deterioration). Hence the phrase "mad as a hatter." Is your occupation fraught with such hazards?

ooze - Sediment must contain at least 30 percent skeletal remains of microscopic floating organisms to be considered ooze. 29 percent or less and you're just plain old sediment. Who makes these laws? Ooze, for crying out loud!

opossums - Opossums have 13 nipples. This is the kind of information I will retain from this book. Ask me in 50 years and I'll forget I even read it, but I'll still be able to tell you that opossums have 13 nipples. That's the way my mind works. Retain the odd and trivial, forget the important. Just ask my wife.


Paine, Thomas - This Revolutionary War hero and author of the Common Sense series which included the moving phrase "These are the times that try men's souls" was not well thought of by many in his day. Although he refused to take profits from Common Sense so more editions could be sold (a noble act), he later wrote a defense of the French Revolution and a pamphlet attacking organized religion. Even though he made it clear that he was a deist, he was charged with being an atheist. In other words, if you don't like the way our church does things, you must not love God. Huh.

He died broke, drunk and hated by many, but that's not the way he's remembered in our history books. I guess you never know how history will treat you.

patriotism - Here's a fact I actually knew - John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day - July 4, 1826, 50 years after the founding of the United States. Here's something you probably didn't know - another great man who died on the 4th of July (1996) was my grandfather, Pal. I always thought his gaining true independence on that day was kind of cool.

Phrine - A famous prostitute in ancient Greece who was put on trial for blasphemy, a capital offense. At trial, Phrine tore her dress and displayed her bosom, which so moved the jury, they acquitted her. Proving once again, that your average heterosexual man will do just about anything for a glance at a beautiful woman's asset's. There's nothing new under the sun. Or the blouse. Or in a man's mind.

plumbing - Let me clear something up once and for all. Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. That is a myth. The flush toilet was actually invented by Sir John Harington, God bless him! Harington was the godson of Queen Elizabeth I of England, a member of her court, a translator of epic poems, known as a wit and sometimes a scoundrel, and knighted for military service in Ireland. But to me, he's plain old John the unsung hero to us all.

P.S. - Allow me if you will to give another tip of the hat to my grandfather, Pal who was also a plumber.

precedent - This fact has nothing to do with precedent, but that's the entry under which I learned it. It's more interesting death trivia. Three men I have some reason to admire all died on November 22, 1963. Most people recognize that date as the day JFK was shot in Dallas. However, two great writers, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley also died that same day. Speaking of Huxley, read (or re-read as was the case for me recently) his classic Brave New World. It's scary how many of his fictitious futuristic ideas have become a reality.

Pythagoras - I knew about his geometric theorem - in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle), c, is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, b and a - that is, a² + b² = c². I did not know that he loved music or that he started a cult-like religious brotherhood in ancient Greece. I also learned why a square root is called a square root. There are 16 dots below:

. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .

At the root of that square (the bottom line) are 4 dots. 4 is the square root of 16. It's not just a random name someone came up with to confuse people like me who are bad at math. Are A.J. Jacobs and I the only people who didn't know that?

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Know-It-All - M, N

Happy birthday to my dad who is half way around the world right now. He'll read all of these entries and claim he already knew all this stuff. And I'll believe him. Come home safely. I'm proud of you and I'm glad you were born!


majuscule - Official name for uppercase letters, but that's not the most interesting thing I learned under this entry. Here it is: Abe Lincoln is the only president to hold a patent. It was for a device that lifts boats over levees.

manure - Whale poop (ambergris), when dry, takes on a sweet aroma and is used for spices and perfumes.

memory - The opposite of deja vu is jamais vu, a false unfamiliarity with a situation. I had a friend in college who I thought had that. Turns out he was just wasted all the time.

mime - Not my favorite form of entertainment, but I had no idea about its history. Mime started in Greco-Roman times and the usual mime plot included scenes of adultery and other vice. Some of the scenes were actually acted out on stage during the Roman empire. And that's not all! Execution scenes were carried out with convicted criminals in the place of actors. I'd like to see some namby-pamby-tight-rope-walkin'-boxed-in-park-clown try that!

Mussolini, Benito - This famous Italian, fascist dictator grew up poor because his father kept his mistress better fed and clothed than his family. Mussolini was an angry young man (I imagine he hated his father and that mistress of his) who spent his youth getting into trouble and stabbing his schoolmates with his penknife.

At the age of 27, Benito fell in love with a 16 year old named Rachel Guidi. How'd he meet her? She was the offspring of his fathers mistress from a previous marriage. Jerry Springer has nothing on these people.


Napoleon - Here are five interesting facts about the diminutive Frenchman. One for every foot he measured.
1. Loved ice skating.
2. Was shown undying devotion by a man named Nicolas Chauvin who is memorialized in the word "chauvinism."
3. Made sure there wasn't a parish priest present when he married Josephine because he knew he'd probably dump her some day and wanted to avoid a messy divorce.
4. Commissioned a nude sculpture of himself.
5. Sold the western half of the United States to Jefferson for less than 3 cents an acre.

nonfictional prose - Don't ask me how this relates, but I now know that waves break when the wave depth equals 1.3 times the wave height. And that's nice to know.

numismatics - Ever wonder why coins have serrated edges? I know I have. When they were made out of gold and silver, criminals would shave down the smooth edges and melt down the valuable slivers. That's why we have the cool ridges now. Come on, drop that little tidbit into your next dinner party conversation and watch the pretty girls flock to you.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Know-It-All - J, K, L


James, Jesse - The greatest bank robber of the Wild West died in 1882 after being shot by a gang member. Here's the thing, after all the dangerous deeds he did in his life, he was shot in the back at his home while adjusting a picture on the wall. Huh.

Jefferson, Thomas - Paid newspaper reporters to libel his nemesis John Adams. Who says this country has wandered away from its founding principles?


I found absolutely nothing of interest in the K's. That's ironic sense know-it-all begins with a k. Or maybe not. The k is silent there too.


The L's absolutely make up for the K's lack of intrigue. I found the L section to be full of fun facts.

Lacoste, Rene - Parisian tennis player from the 1920's who led France to 6 Davis Cup victories and won a U.S. Open and a Wimbledon Championship. His nickname: the Crocodile...or the Alligator (we'll get to that in a minute). He later founded a line of sport shirts and other apparel with his "crocodile" emblem.

Wait a minute. I grew up in the '70's and '80's. I read the preppy handbook. I wore Izod shirts. Those were alligators over my left breast, not crocodiles! Turns out, according to the woman in charge of media relations at the New York headquarters for Lacoste, it's a crocodile. It's always been a crocodile.

I had to go to Google on this one. Unfortunately, that only confused me further. Apparently, the problem was one of translation. The American press gave him the nickname "The Alligator" which was changed in French to "The Crocodile." There has been confusion ever sense. I read an article in a September 2006 issue of Business Week entitled Lacoste: The Alligator's Back in Style. However, the same article stated, "they produced the breathable knit tennis shirts Lacoste designed, complete with the crocodile logo prominently displayed on the ..."

I guess we'll never know. And that's enough about that.

language - I knew about antonyms and synonyms, but I had never heard of capitonyms - when the meaning of a word changes according to whether it starts with a capital letter - Herb and herb, Polish and polish, etc. And what about miranyms? The word in between two opposites. When you have convex and concave, the miranym is flat.

Las Vegas - Mormons were the first settlers. Religious types have not fared very well when settling towns (see Hollywood).

Lloyd Webber, Sir Andrew - Or as I call him, Pumpkin Head. Come on, the man has an absurdly large melon! Anyway, the composer of many successful musicals including Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Jesus Christ Super Star is still no Stephen Sondheim. So there.

Luciano, Lucky - Famous New York mobster of the early 20th century. He was into bootlegging, prostitution and narcotics. In 1929 he was stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick, had his throat slit from ear to ear and was left for dead on Staten Island. He shook that little incident off, killed his boss and became the capo de tutti capi (boss of all bosses). In 1936 he was busted for running his prostitution ring, but continued to rule from his prison cell.

In 1942, there was some sabotage suspected in New York harbor, a place out of which the Allies were shipping key provisions. Navy intelligence went to Luciano in prison and asked for his help. Because he still controlled the waterfront and the longshoreman's union, he gave one order and all sabotage on the docks ended. As a gift of thanks from the American government, Luciano's sentence was commuted and he was deported to Italy where he lived until 1962 when he died of a heart attack.

Lucky Luciano, a great American hero. Who knew?

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Know-It-All - H, I


Hawthorne, Nathaniel - I remember reading The Scarlet Letter my freshman year of High School. I thought it was brilliant even though it made me mad. I realized I was alone in my thinking as every one of my classmates complained about the assignment. I love to read and looked forward to being assigned great works to devour. I also liked to be liked, so I kept my mouth shut about my admiration for great writing and acted like these assignments were a pain. I aced the tests though.

Here's what I didn't know about Hawthorne: In his later years, he took to writing the number 64 compulsively on scraps of paper. No wonder I liked him. I share some OCD characteristics with the man. Perhaps I'll write about those someday.

Heisman, John - The former Georgia Tech football coach who gave his name to the Heisman trophy supported himself in the off season by working as a Shakespearean actor. Ah, a man after my own heart! A lover of sports and theater. A rare find.

Hollywood - The town was founded by a man named Horace Wilcox who was "a prohibitionist who envisioned it a community based on his sober religious principles." Insert your own joke here.


Illusion - Another case of learning something under a title heading that seemingly has nothing to do with the title heading. In traditional Balinese society, boy-girl twins were forced to marry because it was assumed they had sex in the womb. This reminded me of people who thought boys and girls should not swim together at camp when I was growing up. Their assumption that something might result from that activity only served to put ideas into my head. Of course it was okay to swim with ones sister, twin or not. We weren't as sick as the Balinese.

Intercourse - The encyclopedia needs to get its mind out of the gutter. There is an awful lot of sexual content. Damselflies mate in the air; amphibians have sperm packets; female button quails sleep around. I learned about "bundling", a Scottish tradition in which engaged couples were allowed to sleep in the same bed, but were sewn up in separate sleeping bags (there's an idea for mixed swimming at camp!). Here's my favorite new piece of information: Male and female bony fish have sex organs oriented either to the right or the left. Therefore, only opposite oriented individuals can mate. The ultimate example of how opposites attract. Also a wonderful plot for the sequel to Finding Nemo. Male bony fish with left oriented penis falls in love with female bony fish with left oriented vagina. Their love can only be consummated in their hearts! I'm calling Disney right now!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Know-It-All - F, G


Fahrenheit, Daniel - German physicist and inventor of the mercury thermometer (1714). I've always wondered why he did not choose 0 as the freezing point. Instead, he chose 0 as the temperature of an equal ice-salt mixture, 30 as the freezing point of water and 90 was supposed to be the normal body temperature of a human. Again, why choose 30 for the freezing point of water? And who cares about the temperature of an equal ice-salt mixture? He botched the numbers anyway. 32 is actually the freezing point of water and normal human temperature is 98.6! This is a prime example of how bad ideas can take root and stick future generations with bad systems. Ask me about church governance sometime.

Fleming, Ian - Famous for his Bond books, I did not realize he also wrote the the book about the flying car, Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang. He apparently loved gadgets.


Gandhi - Let me quote from the EB here, "(Gandhi) went through a phase of adolescent rebellion, marked by secret atheism, petty thefts, furtive smoking and - most shocking of all for a boy born in a Vaishnava family - meat eating." In a strange way, this gives me more hope for human nature. People can change. Hopefully I'll be able to remember that when I have teenagers of my own.

Gettysburg Address - This is for all you long winded preachers out there. Lincoln was not the featured speaker the day he gave this historic oration. The big attraction that day was a two hour harangue given by Massachusetts congressman and President of Harvard, Edward Everett. In two minutes, Lincoln relegated Everett to a historical footnote. Shorter is better.

Grateful Dead - I know the band, but I did not know the folktale. Here's the short version: Traveler finds the corpse of a man denied burial because he had too many debts, traveler pays for burial. Later, the spirit of the corpse appears in the form of an animal and saves the traveler from some sort of danger. Ladies and gentlemen, The Grateful Dead.

Greenland - Why is Iceland green and Greenland so icy? Because Eric the Red was banished from Iceland in 982 A.D. for manslaughter. In a felonious P.R. ploy to entice people to join him there, he called his new home Greenland. Like most P.R. people I know, Eric was shady, but smart.

It would have been appropriate for me to be up to the J's today for two reasons. First, congrats to the University of Kansas (as in, Jayhawks) on their national championship in men's basketball. What a game! Secondly, because today it is my brother J.'s birthday. Haven't quite made it that far, but happy birthday to you anyway. You could fill an encyclopedia with the good and important things I've learned from you.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Know-It-All - E

Sometimes the the most interesting tid-bits in Jacobs' book are found in the stories he tells while writing about an entry that has nothing to do with the actual encyclopedia entry.


eggplant - It was under the eggplant entry that I learned the dates October 4 through October 15, 1582 do not exist. That's when the Western world switched to the Gregorian calendar, and skipped those ten days. There has to be a way to turn that little nugget into a winning bar bet, doesn't there?

embalming - Martin Van Butchell was an 18th century English widower who had his dead wife embalmed (one of the first arterial embalmings ever), fashionably dressed, placed in a glass-lidded case, and set in the sitting room of their house. His reason? Mrs. Van Butchell - a very wealthy lady - had specified in her will that he could only have access to her money as long as she was above ground. Martin found a profitable loophole.

That loophole was as good as the one medieval bishops used to arm themselves with clubs to fight their enemies because they believed men of the cloth were not allowed to take up the sword. Or the monks who were not allowed to eat meat on Friday, so they simply convinced each other that baby rabbits were fish. Religious people are keenly adept at loophole discovery!

encyclopedia - The first edition of the Britannica came off the presses in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768. It's three fathers, Colin Macfarquhar, William Smellie and Andrew Bell shared an interest in learning and Greek inspired spelling. That explains the use of ae in their title Encycopaedia Britannica. I was wondering about that.