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, Gary Kremen, lost his girlfriend to a man she met on

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.

Who said that first # 1

June 30, 2013

I am currently reading Who Said That First by Max Cryer, a New Zealand television producer, broadcaster, entertainment producer, singer, cabaret performer and author. It deals with the origins of common expressions, divided alphabetically from “A-1” to “your country needs you”. Here is my selection from the first half of the book:

Arm candy  The attractive woman, escorted by a man with whom she need not have any relationship, who creates an impression that arouses envy towards the man among those who see them together. The origin of this term is attributed to journalist Marcia Froelke Coburn in the Chicago Tribune (21 August 1992) when commenting on Marilyn Monroe’s brief appearance (as George Sanders’ party partner) in the 1950 film All About Eve. Later the term achieved gender-equity and may refer to a good-looking man partnering a woman.

Axis of evil  Axis is a mathematical term describing ‘a straight line about which a body or geometric figure rotates’. The first known use of the word axis to describe an alignment of nations was by Gyula Gombos, the Premier of Hungary, in the early 1930s, referring to an axis that connected Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany with Hungary. The term went into wider use when Italian premier Benito Mussolini made a public address on 1 November 1936 saying that the Berlin-Rome line was not an obstacle but an axis (asse in Italian) around which European states with a will to collaborate could revolve. The axis of nations was mentioned in English in newspaper reports the following day, and in time became a familiar term during WW II as a collective description of Germany, Italy and Japan- the Axis Powers, as opposed to the Allied Powers: Britain, United States and Russia. In 2002 David Frum was a speechwriter for President George W Bush. He teamed the already familiar term axis with ‘hatred’, changing it to ‘evil’ for the President’s State of the Union address on 29 January that year. Referring to countries believed to sponsor terrorism and harbour weapons of mass destruction, the President’s speech declared: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. President Bush’s speech was widely reported and put the term axis of evil into common English usage.

Be afraid – be very afraid  The statement, ‘Be afraid’ goes back to antiquity- to the King James Bible, Romans 13:4: ‘If thou do that which is evil, be afraid.’ Expanding this into ‘Be very afraid’ was already occurring in the vernacular prior to its gaining major attention in the 1986 horror movie The Fly, in which teleportation goes wrong and a man becomes half-insect. At a key moment during the horrific transformation, the character of Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) says, ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid: The line – written by David Cronenberg, George Langelaan and Charles Edward Pogue – became part of the trailer advertising the movie internationally and quickly moved into common use.

Because it was thereBritain’s famous mountaineer (and colourful character) Sir George Leigh Mallory had a passionate desire to climb to the top of Mt Everest. After a failed endeavour in 1923, he gave lectures about the Himalayas and started to plan another attempt. Asked why he’d wanted to conquer it the first time, he replied, ‘Because it was there.’ During his 1924 attempt to reach the summit, Mallory died on the mountain. Twenty-nine years later the Everest summit was finally reached by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. On returning, Hillary was asked virtually the same question, ‘Why did you want to do it?’ and replied by quoting Mallory: ‘Because it was there.’ The mountaineering fraternity knew he was quoting Mallory, but journalists did not, and Hillary was sometimes erroneously credited with inventing the phrase. In 1986 Mallory’s niece Mrs Newton Dunn wrote to the Daily Telegraph and explained that Mallory’s sister (Mrs Dunn’s mother) had questioned his response. Mallory’s impatient comment was, ‘Because a silly question deserves a silly answer.’

Been there, done that This term of sardonic world-weariness was already in use in Australia before it reached a wider audience in 1982 when an Australian actress in America was credited with its use. Lauren Tewes (who played cruise director Julie McCoy in The Love Boa~ was quoted in the Gettysburg Times (22 February 1982) saying that after her divorce she had no plans to re-marry: Using an Australian expression, she says, ‘Been there, done that.’ A year later the expression appeared in Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary of New Words and has been in common use internationally ever since.

(The) customer is always right The expression started out the other way around, and in French. In 1908 the Swiss hotel proprietor Cesar Ritz coined the phrase, ‘Le client n’ a jamais tort’ -‘The customer is never wrong.’ The wording underwent a change in English, possibly with the help of H. Gordon Selfridge, whose London store opened in 1909 and used the Ritz slogan in English- and back to front.

Deep Throat The term was coined by an experienced writer/director of pornographic movies, Gerard Damiano. His 1972 movie Deep Throat about a young woman with an unusual appetite was an underground sensation as well as being an above-ground headline story when 22 American States banned showings within their jurisdictions. Two years later the phrase moved into an entirely different area of publicity with the release of the book All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. This backgrounder to what was known as the Watergate scandal was a major sensation. It told of the informant within official circles who gave secret information about the level of involvement of the President. This person was identified only by a code name borrowed from the blue movie -‘Deep Throat’. (In 2005, the former Associate Director of the FBI, W Mark Felt, revealed that he had been the Deep Throat who gave information to Woodward and Bernstein.) The 1972 movie had certainly given the expression a certain (somewhat clandestine) public awareness. Their use of the term implies that Woodward and Bernstein recognised this. But the ructions about Watergate propelled the term deep throat into wide – even international – usage. Boosted by its intriguing connection with a secret whistle-blower inside US government circles, the term came to be used to describe any anonymous informant. But none of this would have happened without Gerard Damiano.

Elementary my dear Watson Sherlock Holmes never said it in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. Doyle died in 1930, and nine years later a movie was released called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which contained the line, ‘Elementary my dear Watson.’ The scriptwriters were Garrett Fort and Basil Dean.

Elvis has left the building In 1954, when Elvis Presley was just starting out, he sang on the Louisiana radio programme. He came over as an appealing singer, minus the wriggling and sneering that had yet to develop. Teenage girls began to take notice, and Presley’s continuing performances on the show rapidly acquired an audience. Over the next couple of years, the Presley phenomenon far outgrew the 28 states to which the Hayride programme was broadcast. Aiming to conquer audiences nationwide, Elvis gave his last performance for the show on 15 December 1956. His broadcast had a fairground audience of 10,000 excited teenagers, who screamed all the way through, and continued screaming for more when he left the stage. Attempting to dampen the hysteria and get on with the rest of the show, announcer Horace Logan said: ‘Elvis has left the building; little knowing his spontaneous remark would go into show-business history. The term was subsequently widely used to signal that Elvis had left a concert venue when he’d finished performing but, curiously, its meaning reversed. That first time in Louisiana, Horace Logan wanted the audience to stay so the show could go on. But over the years, when Elvis had finished performing solo concerts, it was said to encourage audiences to leave … Elvis would not be returning to the stage. In time, the term became a catchphrase which no longer referred to Elvis personally. It came to mean that the excitement is over; the proceedings (of whatever kind) have come to an end.

Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it An abbreviated form of the original statement in the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1897: ‘A well-known American writer said once that while everybody talked about the weather nobody seemed to do anything about it.’ It has been assumed that the American writer referred to was Mark Twain, but there is no evidence that Twain ever said it or wrote it. The favoured candidate is Charles Dudley Warner, the then editor of the Hartford Courant and a friend of Mark Twain’s, who may have been reporting something Twain said. Whatever its ancestry, a version of the expression emerged as the name of a song (‘Everyone complains about the weather’) in the 1953 movie (and 1961 theatre musical) Calamity Jane.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it  Variously described as an old saying from Sweden, or an old saying from Texas, the expression was seen in the Wall Street journal in October 1976 in the form: ‘If it ain’t broke let’s don’t fix it.’ The expression sprang into greater prominence during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The President’s Director of Office Management and Budget was Bert Lance, who in May 1977 was quoted in Nation~ Business as saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The words have become a favourite warning of the cautious against anything new and untried.

Keeping up with the Joneses This expression could have had us keeping up with the Smiths but was changed by its creator at the last minute. In 1913 American cartoonist Arthur Momand realised that in his neighbourhood people seemed over-conscious of conspicuous prosperity, and a certain sense of competition prevailed. He devised a comic-strip that showed characters living up to – or beyond – their means, in order to keep pace with a community that appeared to be more wealthy than it actually was. He planned to name the cartoon strip ‘Keeping Up with the Smiths’, but after consideration changed the family’s name to Jones because it flowed better. The cartoon strip ran for 28 years across the US.

Lie back and think of England  The line and its various versions (‘close your eyes and or and think of the Empire’) have absolutely no verifiable provenance. The remark was purportedly advice given by Lady Hillingdon to young women apprehensive about sexual activity. The source is said to be her 1912 diary. But there is absolutely no proof (and even the name varies, from Hillingdon to Hillingham). There was a genuine baroness, Lady Hillingdon (1857-1940), but neither her diary nor any other statement of advice from her on sexual matters has ever been seen. Other sources claim that Mrs Stanley Baldwin thought ‘of the Empire’, but nobody knows exactly who first said what, or when, but it has become too popular an expression to be laid aside for lack of provenance.

(The) lunatics have taken over the asylum In the earliest days of cinema, neither the actors’ nor the director’s names were displayed or advertised. That anonymity gradually gave way to the star system, but there was still a feeling at the administration level that actors and directors were just staff. In 1918, three of the greatest stars- Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, together with director DW Griffith founded a movie studio of their own to be called United Artists. When this news reached the head of Metro Pictures Richard Rowland, his reaction was:’ The lunatics have taken over the asylum.’ (Metro Pictures later teamed with Samuel Goldwyn and Louis Mayer, became MGM, and eventually bought United Artists.)

Word Stories # 2 Nepotism

June 23, 2013

Nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. The word nepotism comes from the Italian nipote, which in turn derives from nepos, the Latin word for grandson or nephew). As you will have seen from my piece about the Borgias, the word originated from the practice of Renaissance popes of conferring important positions to their nephews and grandsons. I have even read that the word was used as a euphemism for an illegitimate son. The practice was finally ended in 1692 when Pope Innocent XII issued the bull Romanum decet Pontificem, prohibiting popes in all times from bestowing estates, offices, or revenues on any relative.

Nepotism can be found politics, entertainment and business, particularly small businesses. Even if you take larger companies you find that a third of the companies in the Fortune 500 are family-controlled firms. Peter Buffett, the son of Warren, the third-richest person in the world did not follow his father into the family business. He is a sceptic about family succession:

Well, you know, my dad talks about the ovarian lottery, this idea that you’re born into these circumstances that you can’t, at least as far as I’m concerned, you can’t control when you’re on the other side of being born. And so I think there’s a version of that that holds true in this. You know, the odds of having a son or daughter that are as passionate, and excited and driven as a founder of a business was, or even the person that took it over—whatever that might be, whatever passion and drive was there in that person—the odds of that being in the next generation, I think are incredibly small. You would know the details better than I, but I think that if the child is truly passionate about it and lives and breathes the same thing, absolutely. But again, what are the odds?

The BBC World Service did an excellent programme about nepotism at Italian Universities. In Italy there is a perception that it is not what you know, but who you know that counts. The programme feature Professor Roberto Perotti, who wrote a book on Italy’s nepotism culture, called The Rigged University. He has published revealing studies of university teachers, showing the extraordinary concentration of surnames in many departments. Here is a quote from a BBC article about the programme:

Luigi Frati, the Rector of La Sapienza University in Rome, has become one of the most notorious figures in the scandal, which local media have dubbed “Parentopoli” – or “Relative-gate”. A doctor by training, Professor Frati has, both as rector and formerly as head of the university’s medical faculty, overseen the promotion of his wife, a former local high school history teacher, to the post of Professor of Medical History. His daughter also gained a post as Professor of Legal Medicine – without any specific medical education. And his son was made an associate professor in cardiology aged just 31, one of the youngest Italians to gain such an appointment. He has denied claims of nepotism, insisting that all his loved-ones just happen to be the best qualified. Responding to the allegations, he told Italian television, “In Italy we are not used to being meritocratic through strictly objective criteria. We are used to doing it our own way.” It’s hard to disagree. The high court has made nepotistic appointments technically illegal in Italy’s public sector, though no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for them.

Top 10 Worst Infomercials from the 2000s

April 14, 2013

While I was researching this week’s blog post I came across this video.:

Sheer American genius.

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.