Time is on their side – how authoritarian rulers love tinkering with clocks and calendars

April 30, 2017

On August 15th 2015 North Korea went back in time. The government decreed that the clocks be turned by half an hour. So now North Korea has its own time zone, but what is the point of all this fuss? It has to be said that the Pyongyang regime has form in this area. It already had its own calendar – the Juche calendar, whose years are counted from 1912, which was the year in which its founder and “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung, was born. 1912 in the Gregorian calendar became Juche 1 in the new calendar, and we are now in Juche 106. The calendar began to be used on 9 September 1997, which is the day on which the Republic came into being. Curiously there are no pre-Juche years and the years before the Glorious Leader came into the world are based the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar around the world.

I just want to on a quick digression about the Gregorian calendar. It takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. Britain maintained the Julian calendar, which was 11 days behind for another 180 years. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with the majority of Western Europe. The introduction was not straightforward; 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March, New Year in the Julian calendar to 31st December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January, but it was necessary to synchronise the calendar in Britain with that of Europe. It was necessary to correct it by those eleven days. It was decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. This led to civil unrest with rioters demanding “Give us our eleven days”.

As we shall see such temporal megalomania is not new. There is long historical tradition of rulers adjusting clocks and calendars as a way of demonstrating political power. King Canute is said to have wanted to turn back the tide. That was impossible, but surely there is no better way for a leader to leave his imprint on the world by altering what is such a fundamental aspect of our daily lives. This is controlling time itself.

The French revolution upended many ideas and it certainly had a significant impact on time: the years, the months and the days of the week were all reformed. Year I, written in Roman numerals began on 22 September 1792, the beginning of the “Republican Era”. The twelve months were each divided into three ten-day weeks called Décades, with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest. That makes 360 days, so five or six extra days, known as complimentary days had to be added at the end of each year. The Republican calendar had the following twelve months, whose names were based on nature, especially the typical weather in and around Paris.

Vendémiaire in French (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”)
Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”)
Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”)

Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”)
Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”)
Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”)

Germinal (from French germination)
Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”)
Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”)

Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”)
Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”)

The title of Émile Zola’s novel Germinal comes from the revolutionary calendar and the seafood dish lobster thermidor may well have been named after the 1891 play Thermidor, set during the Revolution.

The ten days had more prosaic names:

primidi (first day)
duodi (second day)
tridi (third day)
quartidi (fourth day)
quintidi (fifth day)
sextidi (sixth day)
septidi (seventh day)
octidi (eighth day)
nonidi (ninth day)
décadi (tenth day)

The Décades were abandoned in Floréal 1802.

The Soviet reform of the Gregorian calendar was very different from the French Revolution’s reforms. They did not do away with the Gregorian calendar. This was probably a good thing as the Gregorian calendar had only been introduced after the revolution. This is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. A lag of 13 days had now accumulated in the Julian calendar. On 24 January 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars issued a Decree that Wednesday, 31 January 1918, was to be followed by Thursday, 14 February 1918. I don’t know if there were any riots, but I suppose they had more important things to worry about. Although if there had been any protests, I am sure Trotsky would have had them all shot.

In May of 1929, Yuri M. Larin proposed a radical change to the week. He eventually got Stalin’s support. On August 26, 1929, the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) decreed that all productive enterprises were to transition from the traditional work week interrupted by a weekend, to a continuous production week. The idea was simple divide all workers into shifts. The uninterrupted week, the nepreryvka, would apply not only to factory workers, but to retail and government employees too. With factories and stores open and producing 24 hours a day, every day of the week, productivity was bound to soar. Alas with so much in this planned economy, it didn’t turn out that way, and On June 26, 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet restored the seven-day week.

On 16 March 1940 World War Two was in the phoney war stage. In Spain General Franco had been in charge of the whole country for less than a year. On this day at 23:00 Spain changed from Greenwich Mean Time to 00:00 Central European Time. Two years later the change of time zone was made permanent so as to be in line with what had become Nazi-occupied Europe. So thanks to the Generalissimo’s affinity with Nazi Germany Spain has been in the wrong time zone for seven decades. It is the farthest West of all countries on CET, a time which they share with countries as far east as Poland and Hungary. This has created the Galicia problem. For example one day in mid-December the official sunrise time is 8.56am, which means that children begin their school day in complete darkness. Curiously, Spain’s Iberian neighbour Portugal adopted CET under the Cavaco Silva government in 1992. It was a fiasco with negative effects on academic performance, sleep habits and insurance companies reported a rise in the number of accidents. To add insult to injury, there were not even any savings on energy. In 1996 the experiment was abandoned.

India and China have something unusual in common. Despite their size, the each has a single time zone. In comparison, the United States, a country of similar geographical area to China, has four major time zones, each separated by an hour. What I understand is that people just have different schedules. After independence in 1947, the Indian government established IST (India Standard Time), which is five and a half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT is now considered another time zone, whereas UTC is not a time zone, but a time standard that is the basis for time zones worldwide. No country or territory officially uses UTC as a local time.

For nine years Venezuela enjoyed Chavez time. In 2007 the darling of the left, Hugo Chavez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone. According to the Economist it was to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensured that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with its great foe, the United States. Like North Korea, Iran Afghanistan and Burma have their own time zones.

And then we have Turkmenistan. On August 10, 2002, the government of the central Asian country passed a law to rename all the months and most of the days of week. The names come from a number of Turkmen national symbols. These are described in the Ruhnama, the Book of the Soul, a bizarre mixture of autobiography, self-help and dodgy history. The names were chosen according to, as described, a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president for life.  Wikipedia has a handy summary: The months include

Türkmenbaşy (January) Meaning: “The Leader of Turkmen”, the adopted name of Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan

Baýdak (February) Flag – the Turkmenistan flag day is celebrated in February on Niyazov’s birthday

Gurbansoltan  (April)– The name of Niyazov’s mother.

Ruhnama (September) Niyazov’s book, defined as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation.

Niyazov also changed the days of the week, but he  died in 2006. and two years later the cabinet of Turkmenistan restored the old names of the months and days of week.

This is the end of my brief tour of how autocrats have sought to leave their mark on time. I hope you enjoyed it and I will be back on 18 Floréal CCXXV or Dynçgün the 7th of Magtymguly if you prefer.

My favourite films about scams

April 3, 2016

Here is an alphabetical list of ten of my favourite films about scams:

  1. A Fish Called Wanda
  2. Catch Me If You Can
  3. The Adversary (France – El Adversaire)
  4. House of Games
  5. Nine Queens (Argentina – Nueve Reinas)
  6. Paper Mask
  7. Paper Moon
  8. The Boiler Room
  9. The Sting
  10. Trading Places



Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about stationery

December 13, 2015

For some people (myself included) buying new stationery is a joy. Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person. Buying this set of index cards and these page markers means I’ll finally become the organized person I always wanted to be. Buying this notebook and this pen means I’ll finally write that novel. James Ward

For me, going into Ryman’s [stationery shop] is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. Morrissey


Writing a book about stationery has its downsides. James Ward, author of Adventures in Stationery, aka The Perfection of the Paper Clip in the USA, knows this. I recognise the feeling too. Whenever I try to explain the rules of cricket or the appeal of trainspotting to my Spanish students I can see a glazed look coming over their eyes. Ward refers to one kind of interviewer he would come across on the promotional tour for the book. Basically, they were out to take the piss. One interviewer was particularly obnoxious:

What? And you’ve got a girlfriend? Seriously?”

 Ward is the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Topics under discussion have included toast, discontinued IBM tills, domestic inkjet printers of 1999, car park roofs, the sounds made by vending machines, the carriage numbering system on the London Underground, the Shipping Forecast, barcodes, yellow lines and the history of dust. The talks tend to sell out very quickly, so maybe they are not so tedious after all. You can see a video of Mr. Ward below:

Ward’s particular fixation with stationery began as a child and has continued into adulthood. He even has a “Stationery Club”, which is modelled on those reading groups that have become quite popular in the last couple of decades. Before each meeting, one member nominates a piece of stationery, and then all the other members use it for a week and then discuss it in groups.

Adventures in Stationery begins with a long disquisition on the evolution of paper clips. Other topics include paper, pencils, pens, glue, business cards, correction fluid, staples, post cards and filing cabinets

I loved the story of Bette Nesmith who was according to Ward, not a very good typist. These mistakes would help this divorcee from Dallas to come up with a brilliant idea. Doing overtime one Christmas she noticed a man in the bank, painting a sign, and she realized that every time he made a mistake, he just painted over it with the background colour. She thought why not do the same thing with paper? You will just need to create a solution which is paper-colour. Then, whenever you make a mistake, you can paint over it and type it again. Nesmith would gradually perfect her typewriter correction fluid, which later became known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years she turned the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company. In 1979 she sold the business to Gillette for $48 million. Her 13-year old son Michael, who had helped her to fill hundreds of bottles each month using squeezy ketchup bottles on the miniature production line in their garage, would later go on to become one of The Monkees, a band created for a TV show. A few months after selling her company, his mother died in 1980 at the age of 56. Michael Nesmith inherited half the fortune from Liquid Paper, much of which he ploughed into PopClips, a precursor to MTV. In the words of Ward, if video killed the radio star, then it was funded by correction fluid. In Europe the most familiar brand of correction fluid is Tipp-Ex, which like Liquid Paper, was developed to help correct typing errors.

Then we have Dr. Wolfgang Dierichs. A researcher for German manufacturing company Henkel, Dierichs was sitting on a plane when he had an idea that would go on to revolutionize the world of glue. He saw a woman carefully applying her lipstick and then he realised that you could apply glue with a similar mechanism. Using a thin twistable tube would be cleaner and more convenient. There would be no more pots, and brushes; all you would need to do is remove the lid and apply as much adhesive as you needed. I have to say that this idea would have occurred to me but Dierichs spent his working day surrounded by adhesives and it just came naturally.

The chapter on business card features a couple of internet sensations. He refers to a 2008 video featuring “infotainer” Joel Bauer called Your business card is CRAP!, which has had nearly 2.4 million hits.  After dissing every other business card in the world he shows the only card which cuts the mustard, which just happens to be his:

You see that card? This is the most impressive business card I’ve ever seen. It’s mine. It took me twenty-five years to design this.

Another similarly modest man is Chen Guangbiao, the Chinese recycling entrepreneur, whose business card proclaims:

Most Influential Person of China

Most Prominent Philanthropist of China

China Moral Leader

China Earthquake Rescue Hero

Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model

China Top Ten Most Honourable Volunteer

Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China

China Low Carbon Emission Environmental Protection Top Advocate

China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert

The story of the accidental discovery of the Post-it note is quite well known. Spence Silver of the adhesives department was trying to produce a really strong glue. He ended up with exactly the opposite. Luckily for him a colleague, Art Fry, found an alternative use. Fry was in a choir and would get frustrated when the little bits of paper would fall out of his hymn book. What he needed was a weak glue to stick these bits of paper in the book. And so the Post-it note was born.

There are many more fascinating stories in the book. Pencil cases are apparently less popular in the USA because everyone has lockers. We discover that Day-Glo paints and dyes that allowed U.S. planes to fly night missions from aircraft carriers during World War played a fundamental role in the development of highlighter pens. And did you know that Norwegians wore paper clips as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis, or that the British tape manufacturer Sellotape makes half its annual sales during the three-month run-up to Christmas?

The name Sellotape’ came from Cellophane. As this was at that time a trademarked name, its inventors, Colin Kinninmonth and George Gray, changed the “C” to an “S” so that the new name could be trademarked. In America they say Scotch Tape. This product, another one from 3M, was being tested in car bodyshop. According to 3M legend, one car painter complained about how tight the company was being by applying glue only to the edges and asked “Why be so Scotch with the adhesive?” As well as perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes about the supposed stinginess of our friends from north of the border, they were also using scotch instead of Scottish to refer to the nationality. Be that as it may, the name stuck and Scotch Tape has become another money-spinner for 3M.

What about the future of stationery? It will surely play a less central role in our digital world. However, it will not disappear altogether. The paperless office is just a pipe dream for the time being. But even in the world of computers, the internet, e-mail, smartphones, and tablets, we will have skeuomorphic design. In computing Skeuomorph is an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object. The word comes from the Greek skeuos (meaning container or tool), and morphê (meaning shape). Steve Jobs was a big fan. The digital world is full of these visual metaphors: magnifying glasses, envelopes, scissors, pencils and rubbers all feature on the Microsoft Word interface.

Ward is convinced that stationery is not on the verge of disappearing. He concludes with an impassioned defence:

And so people who rush to announce the death of handwriting or those tech-evangelists looking forward to the singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence outsmarts human intelligence, should not get too excited. Stationery is not about to die. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization and it’s not going to let some plucky upstart like the Internet kill it off without a fight. And besides, a pen doesn’t suddenly stop working just because you’ve gone into a tunnel; no one has ever needed to borrow a charger because the battery on their pencil has died; and if you’re writing in a Moleskine, you never need to worry about having a bad signal or it crashing before you’ve had a chance to save your work.

The pen is not dead. Long live the pen.

I don’t fetishize stationery in the same way that Ward does. I don’t believe in its miraculous powers. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I am sure that I will never look at paper clip in quite the same way again.

Death trivia

May 31, 2015

Here is a selection of trivia from Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory:

In the first century CE, the Romans built tall cremation pyres from pine logs. The uncoffined corpse was laid atop the pyre and set ablaze. After the cremation ended, the mourners collected the bones, hand-washed them in milk, and placed them in urns.

During kotsuage (“the gathering of the bones”) the mourners gather around the cremation machine when the bones are pulled out of the chamber. The bones are laid on a table and the family members come forward with long chopsticks to pick them up and transfer them into the urn. The family first plucks the bones of the feet, working their way up toward the head, so that the deceased person can walk into eternity upright.

In the late 1800s, the citizens of Paris would come to the morgue by the thousands each day to view the bodies of the unidentified dead. Spectators lined up for hours to get in as vendors sold them fruit, pastries, and toys. When they reached the front of the line, they would be ushered into an exhibit room, where the corpses were laid out on slabs behind a large glass window. Vanessa Schwartz, scholar of fin-de-siècle Paris, called the Paris morgue “a spectacle of the real.”

High in the mountains of Tibet, where the ground is too rocky for burial and trees too scarce to provide wood for cremation pyres, Tibetans have developed another method of dealing with their dead. A professional rogyapa, or body breaker, slices the flesh off the corpse and grinds the remaining bones with barley flour and yak butter. The body is laid out on a high, flat rock to be eaten by vultures. The birds swoop in, carrying the body in all different directions, up into the sky. It is a generous way to be disposed of, the leftover flesh nourishing other animals.

The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the centre of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

In Muslim communities, it is considered a “meritorious deed” to wash and shroud the dead in a ritual washing known as Ghusl. The person who performs the Ghusl is chosen by the dying man or woman themselves. Men are washed by men and women are washed by women. Selection is an honour and a sacred obligation to fulfil.

In 1961, a paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology laid out the seven reasons humans fear dying:

  1. My death would cause grief to my relatives and friends.
  2. All my plans and projects would come to an end.
  3. The process of dying might be painful.
  4. I could no longer have any experiences.
  5. I would no longer be able to care for my dependents.
  6. I am afraid of what might happen to me if there is a life after death.
  7. I am afraid of what might happen to my body after death.

Wikipedia’s List of common misconceptions

June 15, 2014

Here is a brief selection:

Searing meat does not “seal in” moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, the value in searing meat is that it creates a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.

Older elephants that are near death do not leave their herd and instinctively direct themselves toward a specific location known as an elephants’ graveyard to die.

The expression “rule of thumb” did not originate from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and there is no evidence that such a law ever existed.

The forbidden fruit mentioned in the Book of Genesis is commonly assumed to be an apple, and is widely depicted as such in Western art. However, the Bible does not identify what type of fruit it is. The original Hebrew texts mention only tree and fruit. Early Latin translations use the word mali, which can be taken to mean both “evil” and “apple”. German and French artists commonly depict the fruit as an apple from the 12th century onwards, and John Milton’s Areopagitica from 1644 explicitly mentions the fruit as an apple. Jewish scholars have suggested that the fruit could have been a grape, a fig, wheat, an apricot or an etrog.

Eating less than an hour before swimming does not increase the risk of experiencing muscle cramps or drowning. One study shows a correlation between alcohol consumption and drowning, but there is no evidence cited regarding stomach cramps or the consumption of food,

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was not composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he was 5 years old; he only composed variations on the tune, which originated from a French folk song, and only at the age of 25 or 26.

It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from the Moon. This is false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any specific human-made object from the Moon, and even Earth-orbiting astronauts can barely see it. City lights, however, are easily visible on the night side of Earth from orbit. Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt has been quoted as saying that “the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles (290 km) up.”

It is true that life expectancy in the Middle Ages and earlier was low; however, one should not infer that people usually died around the age of 30. In fact, the low life expectancy is an average very strongly influenced by high infant mortality, and the life expectancy of people who lived to adulthood was much higher. A 21-year-old man in medieval England, for example, could by one estimate expect to live to the age of 64.

The redhead gene is not becoming extinct. In August 2007, many news organizations reported that redheads would become extinct, possibly as early as 2060, due to the gene for red hair being recessive. Although redheads may become more rare (for example, mixed marriages where one parent is from a group without the redhead gene will result in no children, but some grandchildren, with red hair), they will not die out unless everyone who carries the gene dies or fails to reproduce. This misconception has been around since at least 1865, and often resurfaces in American newspapers.

A penny dropped from the Empire State Building will not kill a person or crack the sidewalk. The terminal velocity of a falling penny is about 30–50 miles per hour (48–80 km/h), and the penny will not exceed that speed regardless of the height from which it is dropped. At that speed, its energy is not enough to penetrate a human skull or crack concrete, as demonstrated on an episode of MythBusters. As MythBusters noted, the Empire State Building is a particularly poor setting for this misconception, since its tapered shape would make it impossible to drop anything directly from the top to street level.

The notion that goldfish have a memory span of just a few seconds is false. It is much longer, counted in months.

QI: A selection #14

May 18, 2014

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

Dolphins’ genitals are internal, in both sexes. The females have a built-in system of contraception: their organs contain two chambers – one for fun, the other for reproduction (the name “dolphin” comes from the Greek delphos meaning “womb”). Sex (including same-sex sex) is an important part of dolphin life, used for socialising and recreation, and they don’t form lasting pair-bonds. It’s not always cuddly. For all the foreplay and nuzzling, females are frequently coerced into sex by groups of males. Schools of dolphins batter porpoises to death for no obvious reason, and occasionally practise infanticide. In a comprehensive study of wild dolphins that seek out human company, three-quarters showed aggression, which sometimes lead to serious injury, and half indulged in “misdirected sexual behaviour” with buoys and boats, as well as humans. Given that an average male bottlenose weighs 40 stone and has a foot-long, solid-muscle organ that ends in a prehensile hook agile enough to catch an eel, you wouldn’t want to give off the wrong signals.

In the early 19th century, two Irishmen based in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare, killed 16 victims and sold their bodies to an anatomist named Dr Knox. Eventually, Hare turned Burke in, and the latter was executed. Dr Knox escaped but ended his days performing with a troop of Ojibwa Indians in a travelling circus.

“Painting the Forth bridge” entered popular lexicon to mean a never-ending job, but the development of new paint and the end of a 10-year painting and maintenance project in 2011 means it won’t need to be painted again for another 20 years.

The most plausible etymology for the Pope’s Latin title “Pontifex Maximus” is “chief bridge-builder” (whence also “pontificate”). This was the title given to the second highest-ranking priest in ancient Rome. As with the papacy, this was a political office as well as a spiritual one: Julius Caesar was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 BC.

People who are lactose intolerant don’t produce lactase – but it is lactose tolerance, rather than intolerance, which is a genetic mutation. All Neanderthals were lactose intolerant; but 7,500 years ago a mutation among the European human population, who were already keeping cattle for meat, enabled them to digest cow’s milk more easily. As a result, there is great variation around the world – only 1 in 50 of those of Swedish descent are lactose intolerant compared to nearly everyone of Chinese descent.

Elephants aren’t afraid of mice, but, as Roman legionaries discovered, the squealing of pigs upsets them. They are also wary of bees. In 2010, a researcher named Lucy King worked out that East African elephants make an “alarm” noise when in an area filled with bees. To protect crops from marauding bands of elephants she attached beehives to fences on 34 Kenyan farms. As the elephants shook the fences, the bees emerged and the elephants fled.

Guerrilla knitting is not to be confused with extreme knitting. Extreme knitters knit while doing other things like running or riding a tandem. The world record for knitting a scarf while running a marathon is held by 55-year-old Susie Hewer; she also has the crotchet marathon record, and the one for knitting on the back of a tandem. She does it to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

For many centuries, there were just four key components of scent. Musk is a red jelly found in deer-guts: it produces hormonal changes in any woman who smells it. Ambergris is a glutinous fluid found in the stomachs of sperm whales that protects them from the sharp beaks of the squid they swallow. It has a sweet, woody smell. Castoreum, a yellow secretion from the anal glands of mature beavers, has a whiff of leather. Civet is a honey-like goo exuded from the genitals of a nocturnal, fox-like, carnivorous relative of the mongoose. Nowadays, these are reproduced in the laboratory but there remains an enduring connection between bottoms and perfume. The organic chemical indole is widely used in the perfume industry. It smells floral in low doses, but at high concentrations it is what gives our faeces their characteristic smell

Plenty of Old Norse words permeated Anglo-Saxon, and so survived into the English that we speak today. Without the Vikings we wouldn’t have words such as anger, birth, cake, dirt, freckles, hell, ugly, weak, husband, wife, skill, skull or slaughter. The Tyn, the parliament of the Isle of Man, is named after the þing (pronounced “thing”), which was the public assembly of Norse culture. And the medical term for a hangover is “veisalgia”, an untidy tacking on to the Greek word for pain of the Old Norse kveis: “unease after debauchery”.

The American opossum (Didelphis virginianus), will try hissing, growling, baring its teeth and biting; but if all else fails it feigns death, known as letisimulation. It collapses to the ground, foams at the mouth and then remains motionless, with its teeth bared. It even produces a rank smell. It doesn’t choose to do this: it’s an involuntary response to stress. A letisimulant possum can stay comatose for hours, regaining consciousness only when the predator has gone.

Jelly gives the same reading on an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, used to measure brain activity, as a human brain. Jellies show the same rhythms that human brains display when the person is awake but has their eyes closed. Going by the EEG results, a jelly would qualify as alive enough to not have its life support machine turned off. The jelly appears to absorb electro-magnetic signals from the machinery in the room which gives it these “alive” readings.

Soon after come the crocuses, which are members of the iris family, Iridaceae. This makes it a member of the newly reclassified order Asparagales, which also includes snowdrops, daffodils, hyacinths, asparagus, onions, garlic and agave cactus, and all 26,000 species of orchid. As plant groupings go, it is second in economic importance to the cereals. One species, Crocus sativa, is the source of all the saffron in the world – it can take between 85,000 and 140,000 crocuses to make a single kilo of saffron. It is the world’s most expensive spice (the name is originally Persian: zaferân). The town of Saffron Walden in Essex was the centre of the English saffron trade from the 16th century onwards. Until than it had been called Chipping Walden. The industry supposedly owes its origin to a pilgrim from the Middle East who smuggled back a single stolen bulb, sometime in the 14th century.

Tattoo trivia

April 19, 2014

Here is some more trivia I found on the web while he was researching this week’s post:

Tattoo enthusiasts may refer to tattoos as “ink”, “pieces”, “skin art”, “tattoo art”, “tats”, or “work”; to the creators as “tattoo artists”, “tattooers”, or “tattooists”; and to places where they work as “tattoo shops”, “tattoo studios”, or “tattoo parlors”.

First-time receivers of a tattoo are known to tattooers as “Freshcuts.”

The Japanese word irezumi means “insertion of ink” and can mean tattoos using tebori, the traditional Japanese hand method, a Western-style machine, or for that matter, any method of tattooing using insertion of ink. The most common word used for traditional Japanese tattoo designs is Horimono. Japanese may use the word “tattoo” to mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing.

Anthropologist Ling Roth in 1900 described four methods of skin marking and suggested they be differentiated under the names “tatu”, “moko”, “cicatrix”, and “keloid”.

Early Christians often had the sign of the cross tattooed on their bodies, particularly their face or arms. Such tattoos were seen as a permanent mark of the believer’s faith. However, around AD 325 the Emperor Constantine outlawed tattooing of the face because he believed that the face was in God’s image and should not be disfigured. In AD 787, a council of churches renounced all forms of tattooing and sealed the fate of the practice in the eyes of the Christian church once and for all.

The severity of pain experienced when being tattooed depends on the location of the tattoo. The most painful areas are those where the skin is very close to the bone, such as the ankles, elbows and knees. It is less painful to be tattooed on more fleshy areas such as the chest or upper arms. Pain was an important part of tattooing for Polynesian societies. In Tahiti, the chief’s son was watched closely as he was tattooed for signs of pain. In Samoa, it was often said that tattooing was the equivalent for men of the great pain a woman endured when giving birth.

In the late-18th and early-19th centuries collecting tattooed Maori heads became so popular in Europe that many Maoris were murdered to supply the trade. The Maori people in New Zealand tattooed their heads (moko) and buttocks by chiselling a design into the skin and rubbing ink into it. If one of their chiefs died, they would remove and preserve the tattooed head, keeping it as a treasured possession. Europeans considered these heads to be curiosities and before long a trade sprang up, with the Maori exchanging heads for firearms. Soon the Maori began to trade the heads of their enemies killed in battle, but when demand started to exceed supply, men began to be murdered in cold blood for their tattoos. In some cases, slaves were tattooed so that their heads could be cut off and sold. In 1831 Governor Darling of New South Wales took steps to outlaw the practice.

Lucky Diamond Rich of New Zealand is the most tattooed person in the world, and after running out of space, has started putting lighter tattoos on top of the darker ones, and vice versa.

The longest tattoo session lasted for 50 hours and 10 minutes was achieved by Dave Fleet who tattooed James Llewellyn (both UK) at the Grosvenor Casino, Cardiff Bay, UK, on 27-29 October 2011.

Dave runs Abracadabra parlour in Blackwood. James had tattoos of of scenes from the Bible and classic works of literature, including designs on both legs based on The Fall of Man, described in John Milton’s poem ‘Paradise Lost.’ They raised £2,300 for Cancer Research Wales.

The world’s most tattooed person is Tom Leppard from the Isle of Skye, Scotland, who has 99.9 per cent of his body covered with a leopard-skin design. Guinness World Records states that the only parts of Tom’s body that remain untattooed are the skin between his toes and the insides of his ears.

73 year old Isobel Valley, the world’s most tattooed women, has every square inch of her body tattooed, except her face, and also has fifty piercings, 15 of which are visible. The majority of the piercings are below the belt because she wants to jingle when she walks, she says.

A pig tattooed on one foot and a rooster on the other were said to protect a seaman from drowning. Neither animal can swim and it was thought they would help get the sailor swiftly to shore if he fell into the water.

Other popular tattoos amongst sailors are also attributed with particular meanings:

A full-rigged ship shows the seaman has sailed round Cape Horn

An anchor indicates he has sailed the Atlantic Ocean

A dragon denotes that the bearer has served on a China station

A shellback turtle shows the sailor has crossed the Equator

‘Hold’ tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and ‘fast’ on the other were said to allow the bearer to grip the rigging better.

Urine was sometimes used to mix the colouring matter of early tattoos. Early colouring materials for tattoos included soot or ink for blue-black and brick dust for reds. To work, these needed to be bound together by a mixing agent. Often the tattooist used his own spittle to mix the colour but occasionally urine was used instead. Until 1891, when the first electric tattooing machine was patented by Tom Riley, all colours were applied by hand. Early tattooing tools were rather like pen holders with a number of needles set into them. The tattooing machine is based on the design of the doorbell. The quick poking action of a tattooing machine, which injects the ink into the skin, is driven by an electric circuit very similar to that which operates the household doorbell. Modern tattoo artists work with a number of tattooing machines, each reserved to inject a different colour. The number of needles set in the machine and their fineness depends on what the machine is being used for. Finer needles are used for outlines, while coarser needles are used for filling in or for shading.

Photography trivia

April 6, 2014

To avoid being caught on film by a speed camera, you would have to be travelling at

28,000 miles per hour.

The first aerial photograph was taken from a balloon during the Civil War.

The Loch Ness Monster – Then, in 1934, a photograph allegedly taken by a British surgeon named Robert Wilson presented the image of a huge animal with a long neck This supposed “evidence” fueled the argument for Nessie’s existence, but a relative of Wilson’s, Marmaduke Wetherell, confessed on his deathbed that the photograph was a fake, admitting that it was a photograph of clay mounted on top of a toy submarine and that Wilson didn’t even take it

The most expensive camera ever sold was a rare 1923 Leica camera, which went for $2.8 million at auction in Vienna.

The largest photographs in the world are made by stitching smaller images together. The largest seamless photograph in the world is of a control tower and runways at the US Marin Corps Air Station in El Toro, Orange County, California. It measure 32 feet high and 11 feet wide. It was taken in a decommissioned jet hanger, which was turned into a giant pinhole camera. The ‘film’ was a 32 feet x 111 feet piece of white fabric covered in 20 gallons of light-sensitive emulsion. The fabric was exposed to the outside image for 35 minutes. Print washing the image was done with hire hoses connected to two fire hydrants.

The first photo to be uploaded on the World Wide Web was of an all-girl parody pop group called Les Horribles Cernettes (“The Horrible CERN Girls”)). It was uploaded on the web in 1992. The initials of their name, LHC, are the same as those of the Large Hadron Collider which was later built at CERN.

Cameras and guns share a common history – in the early days of cameras being manufactured, some dry plate cameras were explicitly modelled on Colt revolver mechanisms, and the design of cinema cameras was modelled on machine guns. Closer still, when William Walker and George Eastman of Kodak developed a new paper negative, it used guncotton. This was expanded upon by a French inventor who created a gelatinised guncotton that could be cut into trips, which in turn permitted the first modern smokeless fun powder. Later on, amyl acetate was added to this, as well as nitroglycerine and acetone. So essentially, at the time, cameras and guns both contained the same sort of chemicals in their cartridge.

There are 12 Hasselblad cameras on the surface of the moon. They were left there after the moon landings to allow for the extra weight of the lunar rock samples to be brought back.

Amusing photographs of cats with captions quickly became (and remained) viral on the internet. Apparently this is nothing new. One of the first photographers of cats in amusing poses was English photographer Harry Pointer during the 1870s. He began his career taking natural pictures of cats, but soon realised that his photography had more success when the cats were in ridiculous poses. He even added captions to the images, such as ‘Happy New Year’, ‘Five o clock Tea’ and ‘Bring up the dinner Betsy’ as he found this made the images more successful still.

The largest collection of cameras in the world is held by Dilish Parekh of Mumbai, India. He has a collection of 4,425 antique cameras which he has been collecting since 1977.

Also in 1839, the term “photography” was coined by Sir John Frederick William Herschel, a British mathematician and astronomer (side note: his father, Sir Frederick William Herschel, also a famous astronomer, discovered the planet Uranus!)

Finally in the UK it’s “Say cheese”, but this is what they say in other countries to get people to smile:

In Bulgaria, “Zele”, meaning “Cabbage”

In Brazil the phrase is “Olha o passarinho” (“Look at the little bird”) or “Digam ‘X'” (“Say ‘X'”) (the name of the letter “X” in Portuguese sounds a lot like the word “cheese”).

In China, the word used is 茄子, meaning “eggplant”. The pronunciation of this word is notably similar to that of the English word “cheese”.

In Croatia, the word used is “ptičica”, meaning “little bird”

In Czech Republic, the word used is “sýr”, meaning cheese in Czech.”

In Denmark, “Sig ‘appelsin'”, meaning “Say ‘orange'” is often used.

In Finland, “Muikku” is the word often used by photographers to make people smile.

In France and other French-speaking countries, the word “ouistiti,” meaning marmoset, is often used.

In Germany, food-related words like “Spaghetti”, “Käsekuchen” (cheesecake), Wurst are used, mainly to make children laugh for the picture.

In Hungary, the photographer says Itt repül a kis madár [here flies the little bird], but also the English “cheese” is used mostly by younger people.

In India, they say “paneer” (Hindi: पनीर).

In Iran, the word used is سیب (saib), meaning “Apple.”

In Israel, the word used is תגיד גבינה (Tagid Gvina), meaning “say cheese”.

In Japan, “Sei, No…” meaning “Ready, Set!” is often used. Also チーズ (chïzu), meaning cheese, is used.

In Vietnam, they often say “2…3…Cười lên nào!!!”.

In Korea, one says “kimchi”.

In most Latin American countries, the phrase used is “Diga ‘whiskey'” (“Say ‘whiskey'”).

In Nigeria many photographers prompt the subjects of their photographs to say “Ode” which can be translated to mean “dumb person”

In Russia, they say “сыр”, pronounced seer, which means “cheese” in Russian. The pronunciation is extended, to lengthen the time the “smile” is on the face.

In Serbia, the word used is “птичица” meaning “Little bird”.

In Slovakia, the word used is “syr”, meaning cheese in Slovak. The pronunciation is extended, to lengthen the time the “smile” is on the face.”

In Spain, the equivalent form is “di/decid patata” (“say potato”). An alternative command when taking a picture is “mirar al pajarito” (“look at the birdie”), intended to make people look directly at the camera.

In Sweden, “Säg ‘omelett'”, meaning “Say ‘omelette'” is often used.

In Turkey, “Peynir”, which means cheese, is often used.

1,227 QI facts to blow your socks off

December 8, 2013

Here is a selection of trivia culled from the most recent QI book:

One in ten European babies is conceived in an IKEA bed.

10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months.

The words written on Twitter every day would fill a 10-million-page book.

In 2008, a man in Ohio was arrested for having sex with a picnic table.

The world’s population spends 500,000 hours a day typing Internet security codes.

More than 50% of NASA employees are dyslexic, hired for their superior problem-solving and spatial-awareness skills.

The designer of Saddam’s bunker was the grandson of the woman who built Hitler’s bunker.

The US tax code is four times as long as the complete works of Shakespeare.

Psychologists cannot agree on what ‘personality’ means. Anthropologists cannot agree on the meaning of the word ‘culture’ or on the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.

In 1894, The Times estimated that by 1950 London would be nine feet deep in horse manure.

The same man invented heroin and aspirin in the same year: Felix Hoffman, 1897.

There are more than three times as many PR people in America as there are journalists.

British spies stopped using semen as invisible ink because it began to smell if it wasn’t fresh.

The United States of America maintains a military presence in 148 of the 192 United Nations countries.

Aerosmith have made more money from Guitar Hero than from any of their albums.

A typical microwave oven uses more electricity keeping its digital clock on standby than it does heating food.

Each year, drug baron Pablo Escobar had to write off 10% of his cash holdings because of rats nibbling away at his huge stash of bank notes.

Arabic words are written right to left, but Arabic numbers left to right. Arabic speakers reading anything with a lot of numbers in have to read in both directions at once.

Trombone is French for ‘paperclip’.

Margaret Thatcher was part of the team that invented Mr Whippy ice cream.

When Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity, the New York Times sent their golfing correspondent to interview him.

A full Kindle weighs a billionth of a billionth of a gram more than a brand-new one.

The word ‘unfriend’ first appeared in print in 1659.

Durham University offers a Harry Potter module. It includes the topic ‘Gryffindor and Slytherin: prejudice and intolerance in the classroom’.

85% of the clicking on web ads is done by 8% of the people. Since 2008, the number of clicks has halved.

Sending a man to the Moon and finding Osama Bin Laden cost the US government about the same amount of time and money: ten years and $100 billion.

The American TV sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer trained as an Israeli sniper.

Russian has no word for ‘bigot’.

Chemotherapy is a by-product of the mustard gas used in the First World War.

Google earns $20 billion a year from advertising, more than the primetime revenues of CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX combined.

20% of people in the UK believe they have a food allergy, but only 2% actually do.

The American secret service tried to spike Hitler’s carrots with female hormones to change him into a woman.

40% of all bottled water sold in the world is bottled tap water.

More than twice as many people are killed by vending machines as by sharks.

The inventor of ‘Best before’ dates, originally for milk, was Al Capone.

‘Influenza’ is Italian for ‘influence’: heavenly bodies were once thought to affect our own.

Henry VIII had a Groom of the Stool whose duty was to see that ‘the house of easement be sweet and clear’: in other words, to wipe the king’s bottom.

In the last 60 years, more than 23,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea. Only two Koreans have gone in the opposite direction.

Gatwick, the name of the UK’s 2nd-largest airport, means ‘the farm where goats are kept’.

There is at least ten times as much crime on TV as there is in the real world.

The first Olympian disqualified for banned substances was Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall of Sweden. In the 1968 Mexico Games, he had two beers to calm his nerves before the pistol shooting.

The first recorded incidence of air rage involved a passenger in First Class who shat on the food trolley after being refused another drink.

In 2003, six monkeys were funded by the Arts Council of England to see how long it would take them to type the works of Shakespeare. After six months, they had failed to produce a single word of English, broken the computer and used the keyboard as a lavatory.

Leo Tolstoy’s wife wrote out the drafts of War and Peace for him, in longhand, six times.

Within 200 yards of the flat in Islington where George Orwell had the idea for 1984,there are now 32 CCTV cameras.

In 2008, an MI6 officer appeared on The One Show. Halfway through, his moustache fell off.

The Bible is the most shoplifted book in the USA.

Sir Charles Isham, a vegetarian spiritualist, introduced garden gnomes to England in 1847. He hoped that they would attract real gnomes to his garden.

The use of the English word ‘gay’ to mean homosexual is older than the use of the term ‘homosexual’ to mean gay.

All Bran is only 87% bran.

When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, he ordered all Monopoly sets to be destroyed.

Nelson Mandela was not removed from the US terror watch list until 2008.

11 of the 12 men to have walked on the Moon were in the Boy Scouts.

The National Health Service is the world’s 4th-largest employer after the US Defence Department, the Chinese Red Army and Walmart.

In online dating sites you are more likely to come across a teacher or lecturer than someone from any other profession.

The founder of match.com, Gary Kremen, lost his girlfriend to a man she met on match.com.

More than one in five Americans believes that the world will end in their lifetime.

QI: A selection #13

October 13, 2013

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

The study of flags is called vexillology. The Latin word for flag is vexillum – a vexillarius came to mean a standard-bearer.

Woodrow Wilson had his golf balls painted black so he could still play when it snowed.

Napoleon’s most humiliating defeat came at the hands of rabbits. In 1807, he was in high spirits having signed the Peace of Tilsit, a landmark treaty between France, Russia and Prussia. To celebrate, he suggested that the imperial court should enjoy an afternoon’s rabbit shooting. The party arrived, the shoot commenced, and the gamekeepers released the quarry. But the rabbits were tame, not wild, and thought they were about to be fed rather than killed. Rather than fleeing for their life, they mistook Napoleon for the keeper bringing them food. Napoleon was left with no other option but to run, beating the starving animals off with his bare hands. According to contemporary accounts of the fiasco, the emperor of France sped off in his coach, comprehensively beaten and covered in shame.

The Nazis made a point of looking after their rabbits really well, in order to demotivate their prisoners. They kept angora rabbits in a programme which provided warm fur to line the jackets of Luftwaffe pilots. The rabbits lived a life of luxury in the same complexes as concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau – both as a showpiece to visiting dignitaries, and as a constant reminder to prisoners of how little their lives were valued. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings starved to death while living in terrible cramped conditions, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals and lived in their own luxurious hutches.

An astrologer once tried to sue Nasa for “upsetting the balance of the universe”. The Nasa Deep Impact probe impacted with comet Tempel 1 in 2005, creating a crater. As a result, a Russian astrologer filed a lawsuit claiming that Nasa’s landing had ruined the natural balance of forces in the universe and deformed her predictions.

The first mobile phone call took place on April 3 1973, when Motorola’s Martin Cooper called up their rival company to let them know he’d got there first. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first SMS (Short Message Service), or text message, was sent – it said “Merry Christmas”). The first mobiles had to be charged for 10 hours to give 30 minutes of battery life. A survey in 2007 found that 4.5 million mobiles are lost or damaged each year – 885,000 of them flushed down lavatories. Because gold is used as an efficient (i.e. non-tarnishable) electrical contact, a ton of mobile phones contains more gold than a ton of ore from a gold mine.

Many important things have happened in pubs down the years. Sir Thomas More was tried in a pub in Staines in 1535. Karl Marx drafted the Communist Manifesto and held lectures in a room above the Red Lion on Great Windmill Street, London. The George and Dragon in Yarm was the site of the 1820 meeting at which the decision was made to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Britain’s first railway. The Eagle in Cambridge was where Francis Crick stood up and announced that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” having finally cracked the structure of DNA in 1953. And in 2001, QI was founded over several pints of Hook Norton bitter in the Falkland Arms, Great Tew, Oxon.

The Hungarian word “goulash” actually means “cowboy”: the traditional dish is gulyásleves or “cowboy’s soup”. The Hungarian word for the stew that everybody outside Hungary refers to as goulash is pörkölt or paprikás.

Before Italy’s unification in 1861, Italian was primarily a written language based, due to authors like Aretino and Dante, on Tuscany’s dialect. Only after unification was it the national spoken language. It was not until the advent of broadcasting that standard Italian was heard in almost every home. To this day, in parts of Italy local dialect is spoken in preference to standard Italian (the famous Neapolitan songs ’O Sole Mio and Turna a Surriento are written in dialect).

Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) wrote 42 books, including works on the history of Poland, a translation of Homer’s “Iliad” into modern Italian and a five-volume science-fiction novel which predicted the motor car, the aeroplane, television and more. But his masterpiece is his 12-volume memoir, The Story of My Life. Running to 3,600 pages, the book is written in French, because Casanova thought it more sophisticated than his native Italian. Not published in full until 1960, it records each significant moment in Casanova’s life up until the summer of 1774 (when he was 49); at which point, the narrative stops in mid-sentence. The memoir was written when Casanova was in his sixties: a washed-up, impotent, pox-riddled librarian in an obscure Bohemian castle. Bored out of his mind, he began to write as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief”.

Part of the M6 toll road is built from copies of pulped Mills and Boon novels. 2.5 million books were shredded into a paste and then added to a mixture of asphalt and Tarmac to prevent it cracking. The British Library’s collection of Mills & Boon novels was once stored in “The Arched Room” at the British Museum, but when the library moved to its new site they were replaced with clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing that once formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal, a sixth-century King of Assyria.

In German, to have a hangover is einen kater haben, “to have a tom-cat” or katzenjammer, meaning “the wailing of cats”. To Norwegians, it’s jeg har tommermen, “I have carpenters” (in my head, presumably) and for the French it’s avoir la gueule de bois, “to have a wooden throat”. The Italians, who don’t like getting drunk, opt for the bland postumi di sbornia, “the effects after drinking” The idea of drinking again the next morning, called in full “a hair of the dog that bit you” (a reference to a supposed remedy for rabid dog bite), really just postpones the hangover.

The word “bankruptcy” comes from the Italian banca rotta which literally means “broken bench”, although there is little evidence that the wooden moneylenders’ benches were ever actually broken to graphically display their unfitness for business. Strictly speaking, under UK law only individuals can be declared bankrupt. Businesses become insolvent and go into administration. Today you are usually discharged from your bankruptcy after a year but it will cost a minimum of £525 to go bankrupt. Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney and Oscar Wilde all went bankrupt.

In 1979, a Danish comedian, Jacob Haugaard, started a party called the “Union of Consciously Work-Shy Elements”, promising good weather, the wind at your back on all cycle paths and better furniture in Ikea. The joke paled when he won a seat in the Folketing, Denmark’s parliament. In his four years in office he managed to issue Nutella in army rations, give out bread for ducks in parks and build a bathroom in a park in Århus, where he’d started the party.

Perhaps the most famous 300 of all were the Spartan soldiers under Leonidas, who held Xerxes’s 100,000-strong Persian army for three days at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, delaying their invasion of Greece. In fact, there were only 298. One of the men was sent off to deliver a message, and the other had to sit out the fight because he had an eye infection. He did manage to redeem himself later on by dying in another battle, but the messenger committed suicide from the shame of not fighting.