QI: A selection #11

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Deserts make up about a third of the Earth’s land surface but only about 20 per cent of these deserts are covered in sand. Sandy deserts are known as ergs. The word desert is now usually used in a climatic sense, but it was originally used to describe a place with a sparse population, from the Latin word desertus, meaning “abandoned”. Today, 13 per cent of the world’s population live in deserts. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, desert hunter-gatherers need 500sq miles of land per person to survive.

All the numbers on a roulette wheel added together make 666.

Ninety-nine per cent of American prunes, and 70 per cent of all the prunes in the world, are produced in California. Rising labour costs in the early 20th century resulted in one grower importing 500 monkeys to the Santa Clara Valley from Panama. Organised into gangs of 50, each with a human foreman, the monkeys were set loose into the orchards. They scampered up the trees, harvested all the plums, and ate the lot.

The invention of spectacles towards the end of the 13th century added at least 15 years to the academic and scientific careers of men whose work depended on reading. In the 17th century, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza made his living as a lens-grinder; this enabled him to do his philosophy independently of patronage, but may have led to his early death from a lung illness in 1677. By the 17th century, European glass had become cheap enough for ordinary people to use it for window panes. This not only protected them from the elements, but also flooded their houses with light, initiating a great leap forward in hygiene. Dirt and vermin became visible, and living spaces clean and disease free. Partly as a result, plague was eliminated from most of Europe by the early 18th century.

The hand-held wireless BlackBerry got its name because the small keys looked like seeds.

The Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri began the marathon at the 1912 Stockholm Games but, being exhausted after his 18-day journey to Sweden, stopped for a rest after nearly 19 miles and asked at a local house for a glass of water. Having drunk it, he fell asleep on the sofa and woke up the next morning. In 1967, aged 76, he was invited to return to the city and complete his run. His finishing time was therefore 54 years, eight months, six days, 32min and 20.3sec.

Communicating in water is a challenge. Smell is useless, sight limited and touch is tricky when you have fins rather than fingers. But sound waves travel four times faster under water, and whales have turned the ocean itself into a sophisticated communication system. Whale song is the loudest noise made by any single animal: some calls are so low in frequency they can be felt thousands of miles away. The half-hour songs of the humpback whale contain grammatical rules: sounds are combined into syntax, packing the song with millions of discrete units of information. Whales sing in different dialects depending on where they’re from, and sing different songs in different places at different time of the year. Whether these songs are satnav readouts, shipping forecasts, personal ads or epic poetry, we will never know. What we do know is that military sonar and general noise pollution in the sea has reduced their carrying range by 80 per cent – and many stranded whales are found to have severe inner ear damage.

There are about 14,000 racing camels in the UAE and until recently, the sport depended on the use of child jockeys, often taken from their parents and kept in dreadful living conditions. In 2005, the UAE and Qatar started using robot jockeys. They have two hands to control the reins and whip, GPS, and can monitor the camel’s heart rate. They are also dressed up with hats and sunglasses and given proper human-shaped heads, because in early experiments the inhuman robots spooked the camels.

It is often claimed that the cultures of the Americas didn’t invent the wheel. This isn’t quite true as there are wheeled children’s toys that date back to 1,500BC. The lack of wheeled vehicles in the archaeological record is usually explained by the lack of domesticated animals to pull them. They had no horses and the nearest thing to an ox (the bison) was never tamed. Llamas were – but they lived in the Andes, not a great area for moving carts and barrows.

Sandcastles are more dangerous than sharks. Since 1990, sandcastles have caused 16 fatalities, compared with the 12 killed in shark attacks. The main hazard is people falling into the holes they’ve dug. Myrtle Beach, Florida, holds the record for the longest sand sculpture and the tallest sand castle. The tallest sculpture towered almost 50ft in height, contained 4,800 cubic yards of sand and took 10 days to build; the longest stretched for over 16 miles.

If you want to supersize your beach experience, the world’s longest beaches are in Brazil and Texas. Praia do Cassino stretches from the southern Brazilian city of Rio Grande to the border with Uruguay, some 1,581 miles (2,545 km) or about as far as London to Moscow. Padre Island is the second largest island in the US (after Long Island) and is essentially a sandbar, 1 13 miles (182km) long, off the southern Texan coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety Mile Beach in the North Island of New Zealand turns out to be only 55 miles (88km) long. This miscalculation probably dates back to the early missionaries who reckoned to travel 30 miles a day on horseback. Because the beach took three days to traverse, they assumed it was 90 miles long, but horses walk much more slowly in sand.

Domestic life isn’t good for cats: milk gives them diarrhoea, cat food rots their gums and central heating causes them to moult all year round, causing their fur to clog up their digestive system. Nevertheless, 35 per cent of American cat owners never allow their cat to go outside. Only a quarter of American cat “owners” say they deliberately went out to acquire a cat: in 75 per cent of cases, it was the cat that acquired them. Studies show that many more people claim to own a cat than there are cats. The British government makes itself responsible for feeding 100,000 cats to keep down mice on government property.

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One Response to QI: A selection #11

  1. Alberto says:

    Thanks for the conversions into the decimal metric system.

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