Archive for June, 2013

A Shout-Out

June 13, 2013

I would like to take this opportunity to sing the praises of my friend the Comtesse Despair, (I move in some elegant circles, n’est-ce pas?) who operates a site dedicated to fascinating facts of every description, the common factor being that they’re all of a wonderfully morbid nature. Ancient torture methods, the symptoms of dire illnesses, unspeakable crimes, mad rulers, and almost comically strange accidents. She’s got ’em all, and more. And she’s been collecting and posting for our viewing pleasure since August of 1996.
So please do visit her and take a walk on the dismal side. There’s something there to depress, disgust and amaze everybody! Here
is where you can find her updated incarnation, and you can even comment on the facts! To see her material from 1996 till 2008, when she upgraded, go
and enjoy!
And a special thank-you to the Comtesse for allowing me to contribute Facts to her site, and for plugging this very blog so enthusiastically.


Roy G. … What?

June 13, 2013

We all met him, didn’t we? I met him in the third grade and we’ve been friends ever since. You know him, right? Of course you do, even if you were never formally introduced. He’s Roy G. Biv.
This handy little mnemonic has helped countless generations of schoolkids remember the order of colors in a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
There’s one small problem, though. There is no visible violet in a rainbow. Isaac Newton (the fellow that liked to sit around under apple trees, remember?) was the first to understand that a rainbow is caused when white light is broken up and separated into its component colors by the prismatic effect of water droplets. In order from longest to shortest wavelengths, the colors of the visible spectrum are red, orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo. So where did violet come from?
Isaac Newton was an eccentric man, to put it kindly. He was childish, paranoid, prone to delusions and nearly incapable of normal social interactions. He was also highly superstitious. One of his superstitions was that the number seven was a lucky number. He believed so fervently in the power of seven that he added a seventh color to the spectrum. A color that was not really there.
So all of us have been taught not just a misconception, but a deliberate falsehood perpetrated by a scientist who still clung to unscientific beliefs.

Bonus track: There is another, less catchy, more literary-sounding mnemonic to remember the correct order of colors in the spectrum: Richard of York gave battle in vain.

Weather Words

June 13, 2013

It’s said that the Inuit have 400 different words for snow. Whether it’s true or not is hotly debated, however, so much so that am not entirely comfortable passing the information along to my innocent readers. But there’s a good reason why it seems so plausible that it’s been making the rounds since long before the dawn of the Internet Rumor Mill. The truth is, weather has always been and will continue to be a vitally important part of our lives, no matter who we are, where we are or what we do.
And hence, there are lots of interesting and obscure terms for weather phenomena that are fun to know and might just come in handy one day. If not when discussing your local forecast, then during a soon-to-be-unfriendly game of Scrabble. Here’s a few to get you started.

Haboob: This is worth knowing for its funny sound alone. Say it aloud a couple times; I’ll wait. You can’t help smiling, can you? It sounds like an Arabic insult, doesn’t it? “Ali, you great gallumphing haboob, you! You’ve spooked my camel!”
Okay, but what is a haboob? In a nutshell: a sandstorm, a bad one. A haboob forms and moves ahead of a thunderstorm in an arid region, most commonly in the Middle East, Saharan Africa, the US Southwest, and the desert regions of Australia. The wall of dust appears with little warning and advances quickly, (up to sixty miles per hour) filling the air with particles of all sizes, damaging cars and buildings and injuring the skin, eyes and respiratory tract of anybody foolish enough or unlucky enough to be caught out in it without a mask and goggles. Though the storm cloud is just behind the haboob, the rain usually evaporates before it hits the ground. However, when the rain does fall, the water is mixed with dust and you now have a mudstorm.

Virga: Yes, there’s even a name for weather that doesn’t happen. Remember just above when I mentioned that during the haboob the rain usually evaporates before it can fall? That’s virga. It happens often, especially in desert areas. It even happens in Antarctica, with snow instead of rain.

Derecho: I first encountered this Spanish word this very morning. A derecho is a powerful, very wide and fast-moving storm system notable for it’s straight-line winds that can reach 100 miles per hour. A derecho is at work in the Mid-Atlantic states right now, or soon will be. Despite the fact that the term is not often heard on the news, derechos are fairly common, and account for more wind damage than their better-known, rotating cousins, the tornadoes.

The Whispering of the Stars: This pretty, poetic phrase is the English translation of a native Siberian term. Siberia is one of the coldest continuously-inhabited places in the world. Winter temperatures routinely drop to eighty below, and ninety below is not unheard of. At such frigid temperatures, steel shatters like glass, skin freezes instantly, and supply-truck drivers in the remote region light fires directly beneath their trucks to thaw the engine blocks, and once they get the motor going, they don’t dare turn it off again.
Also in this extreme cold, if you do go outside and listen carefully, you’ll hear a soft tinkling sound. It is your own breath, freezing into tiny droplets of ice as soon as you exhale, those drops falling to the frozen ground, tinkling as they go. It’s seeing your breath but with added audio effects.
Just don’t stand out there listening to your breath for very long.