RIP Nelson Mandela

December 9, 2013

The world is that much better for your kindness, dignity, courage and good humor.


November 27, 2013

Back in Ye Olden Days, you could witness historic events only once, or rather, only as many times as the network chose to show them. Then along came the VCR and you could record momentous things and play them back again.
And now we have Youtube. I don’t have the time for videos of somebody’s cat going crazy over a Lady Gaga or a dog getting its head stuck in an ice cream carton. What I like to look at on Youtube are videos of historic moments, as covered by various networks. Many of these events were before my time, but I venture to say that the passage of time has not diminished their impact. It’s one thing to watch a documentary put together later, but when you watch actual live news coverage of that same event, as it happened, it can often stop you cold. These old clips still have an almost eerie immediacy about them.
Fifty years can’t diminish the effect of hearing Walter Cronkite’s voice break with sorrow as he announced that President Kennedy was dead.
Twenty-six years can’t dull the delight and relief in reporter Bruce Hall’s voice as he exclaimed “Why, here she comes!” as a little girl named Jessica was rescued from a well she’d fallen down more than two days earlier.
Even after twenty-seven years, watching the space shuttle Challenger lift off into a cold Florida sky with an ordinary science teacher aboard is chilling. We the Youtube-watchers already know the outcome; we know the shuttle was doomed before it cleared the launch pad. Watching the jubilant lift-off, we want to shout “No, stop! Abort! Wait for a warmer day!” But the people we’re watching in the video are frozen in time, unaware of the tragic turn of events about to take place in just over a minute.
Even having experienced my very own East Coast earthquake, it’s still startling to watch a clip of the 1989 World Series, watching the video feed suddenly begin to break up and hearing sportscaster Al Michaels cry out “We’re having an earth–!” just before the power went out.
And it still stirs the heart to hear Whitney Houston sing the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, at the height of the first Gulf War, even though her beautiful voice is now forever silenced.
I don’t like to think of myself as having “geeky” habits, but I guess hunting up examples of old news coverage is just such a habit.

Putting On Heirs

July 25, 2013

Have we heard enough about the Royal Baby yet? Come on, admit it. Well, I have, for sure. But I thought I’d take the opportunity here to straighten out a bit of confusion many people have regarding the terms “heir apparent” and “heir presumptive.”
Prince Charles is the heir apparent to the British throne. Nothing can stop him from assuming the throne except his own death before his mother’s.
Strictly speaking, Prince William is not the heir yet. You don’t become an heir till the person you’re heir to is dead. Thus, legally you are a devisee until that person’s death. But in practice nobody uses the term devisee so it doesn’t matter to our purposes here. Just pointing out that Prince William isn’t strictly an heir yet; he will be heir apparent once Queen Elizabeth II has died and William’s father, Charles, has become king.
An heir presumptive is not presumptuous or shady in any way. The concept is kind of hard to explain, but to do it let’s create our own Royal Family, the Higginbottoms. The Queen is Queen Sue Higginbottom and she’s married to her Prince Consort, Prince Frank. They have no children. The next in line after Sue, because she is childless, is her nephew, Prince Donald. He is heir presumptive. It is presumed he will ascend to the throne. If, however, Queen Sue has one of those change-of-life babies, we’ll call her Princess Denise, Denise becomes the heir apparent and Donald becomes … nothing much. He’s lost his chance unless and until Denise dies childless. In short, the heir presumptive can be knocked out of the running only if the reigning monarch produces a legitimate child.
The terms are not interchangeable, and they are mutually exclusive.
And now you know.

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.

Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

April 26, 2013

But let’s not get too carried away.
The Tampa (Florida) Women’s Club was hosting a fundraiser recently. Partygoers could pay $20 for a flute of champagne. 400 flutes of champagne were prepared, and 399 of them contained a cubic zirconia worth $10 at the bottom. The 400th glass held a one-carat diamond worth $5000, donated by a local jeweler.
Miriam Tucker, age 80, was the lucky lady who got the diamond in her champagne. She didn’t like to put her fingers into the bubbly, so she drank some of it, hoping to lower the level enough to get the diamond out neatly. But something went a bit wonky. While laughing with her friends at their table, Ms. Tucker became horribly aware of the fact that she had swallowed a $5000 rock and had to confess to the jeweller and event organizers.
But every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case the lining is studded with a precious jewel: Miriam Tucker had already scheduled a colonoscopy for the beginning of next week, so she dropped by her doctor’s office a bit early and the diamond was recovered safely and apparently none the worse for wear.
Just be mindful of this story next time you raise a brimming glass and toast to your health.

Some People Will Swallow Anything

April 22, 2013

A while back I posted a blog about people who have literally eaten themselves to death, usually on a dare or for fame and fortune. I thought I’d covered the topic adequately, but apparently not.
Today there is a new health warning about a teenage fad called The Cinnamon Challenge. The premise is quite simple: swallow a spoonful of cinnamon in sixty seconds without the aid of a beverage.
The warning reminds us that cinnamon is an irritant, and that trying to swallow a large amount of it dry can lead to choking, sore throat and possible lung damage if inhaled.
Such idiotic adolescent dares are nothing new, of course. The grandmother of them all is probably the famous goldfish-eating contests that took place on college campuses in the 1930’s. An Ivy Leaguer named, of all things, Lothrop Withington, began it, and as fast as a fad could spread in those pre-Facebook days, this one went viral. The challenge started out as a simple “I dare you to eat this goldfish” but eventually progressed to “How many goldfish can you swallow?” (Yes, they were live goldfish.)
The fad died out quickly when 1. People realized that thirty live goldfish thrashing around in one’s gut was a pretty unpleasant sensation. and 2. Warnings were issued that goldfish (and incidentally, many other types of fish, including many types that are more acceptable to eat) often contain tapeworms, which pose a real threat to humans.
I think the doctors issuing the warning about cinnamon are off to a good start, but they need to get a bit more gross with their warning. A coughing fit and possible long-term lung damage is not really that much of a deterrent. Just look at all the kids who still start smoking. But if there was such a thing as a cinnamon tapeworm…

Four Profound Words

April 19, 2013

From a school poster made as a school project by Martin Richard, age 8, killed at the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, April 15, 2013:
“No more hurting people.”
Well said.
I would only like to add a couple more words of my own.
“Stop it. Just stop it. Everybody. Just stop.”

When I Order Diet, Please Be Quiet

February 3, 2013

There is much complaining and grumbling today about how rude People Today are. They push and shove; they seem incapable of understanding the simplest concepts, such as “We do not accept personal checks” or “No Smoking:; they endanger life and limb with their cars; they allow their children to behave like wild animals; and the ways they manage to annoy, confound and enrage others involving cell phones is without number.
This is nothing new, of course. Ancient graffiti unearthed in the ruins of ancient Pompeii, has been translated from Latin and contains such gems as “Septimus must die, for he did induce and permit his dogs to befoul and despoil the patio of his neighbor Fulvius” and “Octavia does menace and terrify all and sundry when she, having imbibed too much wine at last Lupercalia, navigated her chariot upon the promenade, compelling fellow revelers to leap for their very lives, as well as bespattering them with mud and offal from the street.:
What do you mean, you don’t believe me? Go to Pompeii yourself and ask the guide, Luigi, to show you. Tel him the Ghostess sent you.

Anyway, I have one small complaint to add to the litany of how-rudes. No, I’ll phrase it in the form of a polite request; I have very good manners.
My request is this: when we are dining together, sharing fellowship and convivial conversation, and I opt for diet soda, please do not say “Oh, you don’t need to drink diet! You’re nice and thin!”
First of all, it is none of your business, and in fact is not even remotely important or interesting, which soda I order. Secondly, the remark is so totally banal that it isn’t even a compliment.
Thirdly, don’t assume I have some kind of weight hang-up or problems with my body image. In fact, don’t assume that calories have anything to do with my soda choice, because they don’t.
Not that it is anybody’s business, but today, the mystery of Why the Ghostess Always Drinks Diet shall finally be solved.
Many years ago, the Ghostess went to the dentist for her regular checkup. She took reasonably good care of her teeth, as good as most people and a good deal better than some. So she was most distressed and embarrassed when her kindly dentist, who had known her since she was in pigtails and Mary Janes, informed her that she had a cavity. The Ghostess wracked her brain trying to think of a reason for this. And the only thing she could come up with was her fondness for soda. Regular soda, at least one per day. She was a college student, after all.
The Ghostess made arrangements to have this cavity filled at her earliest convenience, but in the meantime, she vowed that “a change is a-gonna come.” She had always disliked diet soda, but now she understood that if she was to continue enjoying carbonation, she would have to learn to like it.

And I did. It only took a couple of days before I not only liked the taste of diet soda, but actually preferred it to the regular kind. It was amazing how fast this happened. Others have told me that the same thing happened to them when they made The Switch. I can drink regular soda if it’s the only kind available, but I much prefer the diet kind.
Except for Sprite or 7-Up. The diet versions of those are just disgusting.

So now you know.