My favourite trivia

 

I have a passion for trivia and here is a selection of what I have posted over the last year:

 

For 122 years, the Russian head of state has alternatively been either bald or hairy. It is said to be one reason why Putin (bald) won the election to succeed Yeltsin (hairy). The sequence is: Alexander II (hairy), Alexander III (bald), Nicholas II (hairy), Lenin (bald), Stalin (hairy), Krushchev (bald), Brezhnev (hairy), Andropov (bald), Chernenko (hairy), Gorbachev (bald), Yeltsin (hairy), Putin (bald). The recently elected President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, has a lovely head of hair.

 

The term utopia comes from the novel of that name, written by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century. More took two Greek words, Eutopia (good place) and Outopia (’no place’) to form a new word with an obvious ironic intention.

 

The English physician Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work that he considered more appropriate for women and children. In 1818 he published the infamous The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. That book may have vanished from our bookshelves but his name lives on in the eponymous verb to bowdlerise, which conjures up images of the unsubtle censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programs

 

Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Philip K. Dick and Vaclav Havel all studied philosophy at university.

 

For example at checkers they have an optimal level. In bridge chess, and Scrabble they are at super-human level; in fact for the first two they are at strong superhuman level. I am sure we all remember how the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. However at the game Go, translation and the kind of more menial work mentioned by Pinker in the quote above they are in the sub-human category. I don’t intend to look at their incapacity to play Go or the awful quality of machine translation. Rather I want to focus on computer conversations.

 

Thomas Friedman has a famous theory known as The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention in which he stated in a tongue-in-cheek way: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s”. Unfortunately, though I think trade is a good way of increasing cooperation, putting a McDonald’s in every country in the world will not be a solution as shown by counterexamples examples such as the NATO’s bombing of Serbia or the 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia.

 

The town of Pullman, 15 miles south of Chicago was founded in the 1880s by George Pullman (of luxury railway car fame) It was a utopian community based on the idea that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs. Pullman’s employees lived there and the town was run on a for-profit basis and had to return a profit of 7% annually. The community was unable to break down class barriers, which emerged with virulence and the experiment ended in failure.

 

In Papua New Guinea there are something like 850 languages for a population of just six million. This represents more than 10% of the world’s languages. Their harsh geography has created isolated communities – perfect breeding grounds for variety in language. Compare that to Europe with 300 million people and fewer than 50 native languages.

 

There is a conspiracy theory that the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise is owned by the Ku Klux Klan, and the chicken is laced with a drug that makes only black men impotent.

 

Bishop Robert Lowth who wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar, was most definitely a prescriptivist and he had some strong ideas about the perfectibility of English grammar. He believed that the English language could be reduced to a system of uniform rules, which he took from Latin grammar. The King James Bible, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Swift – no book or author was safe from the criticism of the Bishop. The notion of basing English grammar on Latin makes no sense but once prescriptive rules come into existence, they take on a life of their own and are very hard to shake off.

 

In 1937, in Munich, the Nazis organised an exhibition called Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) the intention was to ridicule modernism but the exhibition proved extremely popular. In fact, it was seen by 3 million as it toured the country. The 650 works chosen were a sample of the thousands the Nazis had confiscated from German museums. The works were hung in a chaotic way and were accompanied with slogans such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”, “An insult to German womanhood”, “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself – in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art” and ”Nature as seen by sick minds”.

 

The last two speakers of the Mexican language Zoque, now in their 70s, refuse to speak to one another.

 

In 1898 the German firm of Bayer devised a wonderful new cough suppressor called diacetylmorphine as a treatment for asthma, catarrh, bronchitis, emphysema and tuberculosis. They gave it the trademark name of Heroin and described it as “non-habit forming.”

 

In 2004 Kiichi Inoue, the Minister of State for Disaster Management, suggested that the murder of a classmate by an 11-year-old schoolgirl indicated a sign of women’s progress. He was quoted as saying “Men have committed thoughtless, harsh acts but I think this is the first for a girl.”

 

The largest alphabet is Khmer with seventy-four letters; the smallest is apparently Rokotas, used in the Solomon Islands with a mere eleven letters

 

In the last few years Epagogix, a London-based company with a background in risk management has emerged as a player in the film industry. Movie studios can approach them with details about their movie and compare it to Epagogix’s  enormous database of US film releases since 1970. They use neural networks to analyse film scripts by looking at script, location, cast, whether the hero is black or white and thousands of other variables. The computer can then assign a commercial value to each these constituent elements and then give the film a score that is a measure of its box-office potential. They claim they can estimate the likelihood of success much more accurately than more traditional methods. According to Epagogix they can estimate 80% of movies’ likely US box office takings to within $10m of the final figure. The human mind is incapable of calculating the complex interactions between multiple factors.

 

In classical times, memory was taught as one of the five elements of rhetoric. Being able to recite long poems or speeches required a system based on an imaginary multi-roomed building in which a speaker “placed” various objects. By assigning each place and object a meaning, the speaker could use them as memory aids (each room could be a verse, the objects in it the beginning of each line) and mentally move through the building in sequence. The same building could then be used to memorise different pieces of work.

 

The Ryugyong Hotel is an unfinished concrete skyscraper in Pyongyang, North Korea. Work initially began in 1987 but ceased in 1992 due to the government’s financial difficulties. It has yet to be opened but after 16 years of inactivity building has finally resumed this year. It has 105 stories and stands 330 m tall with 360,000 m² of floor space, making it by far the largest structure in Kim Jong-il communist paradise. When they first started, they intended it to be world’s tallest hotel. Critics have been less than complimentary about it. It has earned epithets such as the “worst building in the history of mankind”, “one of the most expensive white elephants in history” and the “Hotel of Doom”. The North Korean government has airbrushed the building out of pictures of the capital.

 

Eamon de Valera, Taoiseach (prime minister) during WWII, paid a visit to Eduard Hempel, director of the German diplomatic corps in Ireland to express condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker. The act was widely condemned by the international community and remains one of the biggest diplomatic blunders in the history of Ireland . But De Valera argued that to refuse condolences “would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy to the German nation and to Dr. Hempel himself. During the whole of the war, Dr. Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. … I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”

 

The popular idea of six degrees of separation, by which someone can be connected to anyone else in just six steps, emerged from the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Harvard. In 1967, Milgram sent packages to 160 random Nebraskans and asked them to forward each one to someone who would be better placed to get it to the target recipient, a Boston stockbroker. The majority, Milgram claimed, made it to Boston within six steps. The phrase was popularised by the eponymous play (and later film) written in 1990 by John Guare, inspired by the life of a conman called David Hampton, who posed as Sidney Poitier’s son and swindled many celebrities and New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the popular US college game of the 1990s, in which actors were assigned a Bacon number based on their career proximity to the ubiquitous actor, has inspired him to set up a charitable online social network called www.SixDegrees.org.

 

The first athlete disqualified from the Olympic Games for drug abuse was Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, who confessed to having two beers before the pistol-shooting discipline to calm his nerves during the 1968 Games in Mexico.

 

When he was Vice-President of the United States, George H.W. Bush caused widespread offence when, on being shown the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he remarked: “Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?” 

 

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare…Today, popular interest in the typing monkeys is sustained by numerous appearances in literature, television, radio, music, and the Internet. In 2003, an experiment was performed with six Celebes Crested Macaques, but their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter ‘S’

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