QI: A selection #12

March 23, 2013

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

Vatican City has one of the highest crime rates in the world (608 crimes, 500 people in 2002). The small size (just 0.44sq km) accounts for the anomaly but also means the country has two Popes per sq km.

The record for the deepest any human has ever dived was set in 1960 by Jacques Piccard, and his assistant Don Walsh, in an area of the ocean called Challenger Deep, part of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. The trench is 1,580 miles (2,550km) long but only 225ft (69m) wide, and reaches a depth of about 6.8 miles (11km). It took them four hours and 48 minutes travelling in Trieste, a pressurised bathyscaphe (Greek bathos, “deep” + skaphos, “vessel”) in 1960. According to Piccard, “the bottom appeared light and clear”. In reality, the pressure there is so great you would have to heat water to 530C (986F) to get it to boil. In 2012, the film director James Cameron followed in their footsteps, and reached roughly the same depth in around 70 minutes.

Gangsters in Chicago were very unlikely to carry around machine guns in violin cases. Even a small weapon was unlikely to fit. Instead they used a nondescript “hard case” which looked a bit like a musical instrument carrier. It was compartmentalised to hold the different bits of the gun more easily.

Casu Marzu, an illegal Sardinian delicacy, is a putrefied cheese infested with live maggots. To make the cheese the makers encourage the cheese fly to lay eggs in Pecorino cheeses, which then hatch into maggots. The maggots then drag themselves through the cheese by their teeth, releasing an enzyme that causes the Pecorino’s fat to putrefy and turn into a sticky mass filled with worms, ready to eat. When you eat this, it is advisable to cover your eyes, as the maggots can jump and you really wouldn’t want one in your eye.

Jaffa Cakes are technically classified as cakes, not biscuits. Chocolate biscuits are subject to VAT at 17.5 per cent, but cakes are zero-rated. In 1991 the British government tried to have Jaffa Cakes reclassified as biscuits. McVitie’s vigorously opposed this, as it would have added considerably to the price. As part of their evidence to the VAT tribunal they baked a special 12-inch Jaffa Cake to demonstrate the product’s inherent cakiness, and won the case. The key difference between cakes and biscuits is that cakes go hard when stale, whereas biscuits go soft.

In recent years MI5 and MI6 have embraced a more transparent public persona. While the very existence of the services used to be denied, today the location of their head offices is widely available and staff members give interviews and write books. Not everything has changed, though. In 2008 an MI6 officer was interviewed on the One Show; but proceedings were interrupted when his false moustache fell off halfway through.

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu. It is the only capital city in the world with no traffic lights. When a test set was put in place residents complained because they were too impersonal; within days they were taken down and the traditional method – men in white gloves at either end of the main street – was reinstated. Bhutan had no roads, no electricity, no motor vehicles, no telephones and no postal service until the Sixties. Plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan since 1999 and in 2004 it became the first country in the world to outlaw tobacco.

Handwriting comes in cycles – a new form is introduced then develops into a finished style which becomes the ”hand of the period’’. You are ambidextrous if you have the ability to write with both hands. Former American President James Garfield (1831-81) could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with his other.

Historians can’t agree when we first started riding horses as well as eating them. They were probably domesticated independently many times and in many places, but the earliest known evidence points to Ukraine around 6,000 years ago, which is several hundred years before the oldest known wheel. It was one of the great turning points in human history (and an evolutionary meal ticket for the horse). Suddenly, we could travel huge distances quickly, trade across whole continents – and wage wars of unprecedented scale and savagery.

Joss sticks are incense-coated sticks burned in China and India, often in front of the thresholds to homes or businesses, as a propitiatory offering to the spirit of the place. The word “Joss” is a Chinese pidgin version of the Portuguese word for God – deus.

After you die, you could be turned into a coral reef (by a company called Eternal Reefs). Your ashes will be combined with concrete, sunk to the bottom of the ocean and will form an artificial reef to attract corals, sponges, algae and barnacles.

One of the last sovereign acts of Scotland was to invade the Panamanian isthmus of Darién. The scheme was dreamt up by William Paterson, the Scot who founded the Bank of England, who wanted to establish a trading post in Central America as a link between the riches of the Pacific and the trading nations of Western Europe. Patterson raised £400,000 in six months, a vast sum equal to a third of the total collective assets of the nation. Almost every Scotsman who could put his name to £5 invested. In 1698, 1,200 settlers left Leith. They were woefully underprepared and ill informed. The land was an un-farmable, mosquito-infested swamp. The colony barely lasted a year and only 300 people made it home. This was a disaster for Scotland that shattered morale and left the economy almost £250,000 in debt. Seven years later the country signed the 1707 Act of Union and accepted a political merger with England and Wales.

The piratical “Arrrr!” was invented by the actor Robert Newton for his role as Long John Silver in the 1950 film of Treasure Island. It was a (bad) imitation of a West Country accent. Maritime Pidgin English, to give it its grown-up name, is celebrated every September 29 on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The Stradivari family of Cremona were the most famous stringed instrument makers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Much of their mystique (and high price) is due to the quality of their sound. However, in blind testing conducted regularly from 1817 to the present, it has proved impossible to identify a “Strad” as being superior to comparably aged or even good modern instruments. The family didn’t only make violins: their output included mandolas, guitars and harps.

The mute swan is the heaviest bird in the world that can fly – it can weigh up to 22.5kg (about 3.5 stone). It isn’t mute: it hisses, snorts and grunts. The Pterosaur, a flying reptile that lived 100 million years ago is the largest known animal to have taken to the air. It had a wingspan the length of two buses.

Bagpipes, haggis, kilts, whisky and tartan: none of these originates in Scotland. Bagpipes are from Asia Minor; haggis was eaten in Ancient Greece. Kilts and whisky are an Irish invention. Even the Scots themselves were an Irish tribe who moved to what the Romans had called Caledonia in the fifth or sixth century AD.

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H. L. Mencken quotes

March 23, 2013

Henry Louis Mencken, known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, and a savage critic of American life and culture. Mencken, a contrarian who admired the German philosopher Nietzsche, had little time for representative democracy or religion. He has also served as an inspiration for the American libertarian movement. As Don Boudreaux has pointed out, it’s a great shame that he was born before the creation of the blogosphere. He would have certainly have been worth reading. Here are some of my favourite quotes:

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.

When a new source of taxation is found it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned. It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before.

A church is a place in which gentlemen who have never been to heaven brag about it to persons who will never get there.

A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas.

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.

Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

On Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class: … a cent’s worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables…. It was as if the practice of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words were flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, were lost. One wandered in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It was, and is, impossible to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It was clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It was without grace or distinction and it was often without the most elementary order…. Worse, there was nothing at the bottom of all this strident wind-music – the ideas it was designed to set forth were, in the overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they were ideas that were almost idiotic. The concepts underlying, say, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” were simply Socialism and well water.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease.

Demagogue: one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.

If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

On the economics profession: Its dismalness is largely a delusion, due to the fact that its chief ornaments, at least in our own day, are university professors. The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing; he has a special and unmatchable talent for dullness; his central aim is not to expose the truth clearly, but to exhibit his profundity, his esotericity — in brief, to stagger sophomores and other professors.

Immorality: the morality of those who are having a better time.

The worst government is often the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.

Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99 % of them are wrong.

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies.

On Woodrow Wilson: he accomplished with a great deal more skill than they did themselves the great task of reducing all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones – that he knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else.  The vulgar like and respect that sort of balderdash.  A discourse packed with valid ideas, accurately expressed, is quite incomprehensible to them.  What they want is the sough of vague and comforting words – words cast into phrases made familiar to them by the whooping of their customary political and ecclesiastical rabble-rousers, and by the highfalutin style of the newspapers that they read.  Woodrow knew how to conjure up such words.  He knew how to make them glow, and weep.  He wasted no time upon the heads of his dupes, but aimed directly at their ears, diaphragms and hearts.

The strange American ardor for passing laws, the insane belief in regulation and punishment, plays into the hands of the reformers, most of them quacks themselves. Their efforts, even when honest, seldom accomplish any appreciable good.

The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.