Weekly Wrap Volume 90

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Long before the bonsai art form of creating miniature trees came to Japan, the wealthy in China were perfecting their craft known as “penzai” and “penjing.” The former means “tray plant” and the latter “tray scenery.” It is from the Japanese pronunciation of “penzai” that the word “bonzai” ultimately derives- “bon” meaning “tray-like” and “sai” meaning “planting.”  (The Japanese equivalent of penjing is bonkei, meaning “tray landscape.”) In the earliest form of penjing, first emerging as a developed art form around 600-700 AD in China, people would collect native trees and grow them in small containers as a part of elaborate miniaturized landscapes. Those tiny landscapes were often given as gifts among China’s elite. While Buddhist monks and delegations sent from Japan to China had been bringing back to Japan miniaturized crafted landscapes as souvenirs starting not that long after the art of penjing had been established in China… (more)

horse-racingThe Origin of the Expression “Piss Like a Racehorse”

When most horses take a leak, it is a dramatic sight, with the stream typically about one-third to one-half an inch in diameter, creating a veritable “river” of urine that seems to have impressed some wordsmith sufficiently to coin the phrase, “piss like a (race)horse” – today denoting a full human bladder that needs emptied yesterday. Although authoritative sources for the expression’s origins are non-existent, luckily, the tools of the modern world are at our fingertips to try to track down the origin and progression of this rather uncouth phrase. To begin with, a version of the expression was born sometime just after the mid-20th century. At this point, the combustion engine had long since supplanted horse power for transportation and other work… (more)

coffee2The Truth About the Infamous McDonald’s / Hot Coffee Incident

The infamous McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” legal battle is considered by many to be a premier example of a frivolous lawsuit. The general story is often told that a woman named Stella Liebeck visited a McDonald’s drive-thru and purchased a cup of coffee. She then drove away with the coffee sitting between her legs while also removing the lid. That combination caused coffee to spill all over her lap. The resulting burns allowed her to file suit and win almost $3 million from McDonald’s. While that oft’ repeated version makes for an entertaining story, it is a bit removed from what really happened and why Liebeck managed to win the case. Stella Liebeck was seventy-nine years old in February of 1992 when she and her grandson went through the drive-thru at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The retired store clerk sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she bought a coffee, and he… (more)

M0012507 Caricature: Faraday giving his card to Father Thames.The Great Stink of 1858

According to the only book I currently have on my desk, everyone poops and that’s okay. What’s less okay though is when there’s nowhere for that poop to go- something people in Victorian era London found out first hand when all of the sewage they’d pumped into the Thames dried up and caused a stench that spurred London’s City Press to note- “Gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” To begin with, let’s talk a little about the Thames, or more specifically, all of the stuff Victorian Londoners dumped into it. While the tons of raw, unfiltered sewage was probably the most noticeable thing being pumped into the river, the Thames… (more)

circumcisionWhen Did Men Start Getting Circumcised?

Having served variously as a mark of virility, servility and gentility, circumcision has throughout the centuries worn many symbolic hats. While anthropologists disagree as to the definitive origins of circumcision, the earliest hard evidence comes from the first ancient Egyptian mummies of considerable vintage, around 2300 BC. That being said, Egyptian paintings date circumcision to centuries prior, depicting ritual circumcision as prerequisite to entering the priesthood. Contention remains as to whether circumcision was a sign of pride rather than prejudice among the ancient Egyptian world. While popular among the elite… (more)

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Quick Facts:

  • The Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974 by a Hungarian professor of architecture, Erno Rubik. He was toying around one day and attached several blocks together with a rubber band. In this original system, after several twists, the rubber band broke.  He then became interested in the structural problem of how to move the blocks independently for an arbitrary number of turns without the cube falling apart.  He was eventually successful at solving the structural problem and, shortly after its invention in 1975, he applied for and was granted Hungarian patent HU170062. The puzzle was licensed by Rubik to be sold by Ideal Toy Corp, in 1980. However, because Rubik had not met the requirements to be able to file an international patent in the time span required, it allowed anyone to manufacture and sell one of these “magic cubes” outside of Hungary.  To help get around this problem somewhat, Ideal Toy Corp changed the name from “Magic Cube” to the more memorable and trademarkable “Rubik’s Cube.” Rubik was eventually granted patents for the Rubik’s Cube in a variety of countries, such as the United States in 1983.
  • The Rubik’s cube was also independently invented by a self-taught engineer, Terutoshi Ishigi, in Japan in 1976.  His cube was almost exactly like Rubik’s cube inside and out, though he knew nothing of that, having invented his cube around the same time as Rubik.  Rubik is credited as the inventor though, because Ishigi didn’t receive his patent (in Japan) until about a year after Rubik in Hungary.
  • Microwave ovens convert Vitamin B12 to an inactive form unusable by humans. From a practical standpoint, this means typically around 30-40% of the Vitamin B12 in microwaved foods gets converted during the time it spends being heated or re-heated in a microwave oven. On the flip-side, spinach loses about 77% of its Vitamin B9 when cooked in a normal stove, but retains nearly all of it when cooked in a microwave.  In the same way, steamed vegetables, as a rule, tend to retain more of their nutrients in a microwave than when cooked in a traditional oven.
  • The famous recruiting image of Uncle Sam during WWI that depicted a stern Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying “I want you” was drawn by artist James Montgomery Flagg in 1917.  This was based on a famous series of British war recruitment posters featuring Lord Kitchener and is now the standard image used to depict Uncle Sam.
  • The Tootsie Roll was invented by Leo Hirschfeld in 1896. He named the candy after his daughter’s nickname, Clara “Tootsie” Hirschfeld. During World War II, the Tootsie Roll candy was added to every soldier’s field rations, because the candy could hold up in a variety of weather conditions. The Tootsie roll was also the first one cent candy to be individually wrapped and was hugely popular during the Depression, due to its low cost.
  • The primary reason cockroaches and many types of insects are so resistant to ionizing radiation is that their cells don’t divide that much between molting cycles.  Cells are most susceptible to damage by ionizing radiation when they are dividing.  Given that a typical cockroach only molts about once a week and its cells only divide around a 48 hour period during that week, about 3/4 of the cockroaches exposed at a given time would not be particularly susceptible to damage by ionizing radiation, at least, relative to those whose cells were currently dividing.

Other Interesting Stuff:

chingshihThe Female Prostitute That Rose to Become One of the Most Powerful Pirates in History and Whose Armada Took on the Chinese, British, and Portuguese Navies… and Won

While female pirates weren’t uncommon off the coast of Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, one woman stood above them all.  Her birth name isn’t known, but this Cantonese pirate went by the name Ching Shih (also, by Zhèng Yi Sao, “wife of Zhèng”, and Zhèng Shì, “widow of Zhèng”.  For the purpose of this article, I’ll just refer to her as Ching Shih to avoid any confusion.) Ching Shih was born sometime around 1775 (the exact date isn’t known).  At the age of 26, she found herself working as a prostitute in a floating brothel in Canton.  While there, she caught the eye of Zhèng Yi, already a successful pirate with a small fleet of ships at his command, known as the “Red Flag Fleet”.  Exactly how the two ended up together is disputed.  Some historians hold that Zhèng Yi sent a raid to plunder the brothel and asked his men to bring back his favorite prostitute, Ching Shih, for his portion of the loot, while others claim he simply went there himself and proposed that they wed, which she only agreed to after he consented… (more)

Turnspit_DogThe Curious Tale of Turnspit Dogs

Considering how most dogs in the Western world these days are treated as a member of the family, it’s often easy to forget that the vast majority of our furry friends up until very recently were bred for a specific purpose. Perhaps no dog was bred for a more specific purpose than the now extinct, turnspit. The turnspit was so named because it was literally bred just to run for hours on a tiny wheel that turned a spit. No, really, that was all it did. You see, a few hundred years ago the generally preferred method for cooking a large piece of meat evenly was to put it on a spit and rotate it until it was fully cooked. Cooking meat thoroughly on a spit takes anywhere between 40 and 80 minutes per kilo depending on which meat it is you’re cooking. Needless to say, roasting an adult hog on the fire for a party took an incredibly long time. Prior to the introduction of turnspits… (more)

Daniel-fahrenheitWho Invented the Fahrenheit and Celsius Temperature Scales and What Zero Degrees Fahrenheit Signifies

Firmly entrenched in American society, the seemingly capricious nature of the Fahrenheit temperature scale could lead one to think that its Dutch inventor, Daniel Fahrenheit, pulled the number for the freezing point (32°F) of water out of his hat. But, in fact, its designation, as well as that of 0°F were precisely (for the early 18th century) calculated based upon deliberate choices about how to establish fixed points of temperature. Engineer, physicist and glass blower, Fahrenheit (1686-1736) decided to create a temperature scale based upon three fixed temperature points – that of freezing water, human body temperature, and the coldest point that he could repeatably cool a solution of water, ice and a kind of salt, ammonium chloride. It is generally thought he chose these three points based on an older temperature scale… (more)

crowdHow Do the Media and Police Estimate Crowd Sizes?

Although the task of determining how many people attend something as large as say, a political rally or a protest may seem like a daunting, almost impossible undertaking to do with any accuracy, with some basic information, it’s actually not that difficult to get reasonably accurate results. The most well-known method of estimating the size of a given crowd is simply called “The Jacobs’ Method” as an ode to its inventor, Herbert Jacobs. Jacobs spent a few decades working for the Milwaukee Journal before retiring into teaching journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s.  He thought up his very simple crowd size estimate method after observing numerous Vietnam War protests outside of his office window. Jacobs noticed that the area the students stood on had a repeating grid-like pattern, meaning he could very easily count how many students occupied a certain amount of space by counting how many students on average seemed to be able to stand inside a section… (more)

kitty_BurkeThe Woman Who Batted During a Major League Baseball Game

It’s pretty obvious that no Major League Baseball player would be caught dead wearing a dress to the plate.  But one batter wore one, and turned the at-bat into an outrageous incident that left fans hooting and hollering. Nightclub singer Kitty Burke hit a ball thrown by St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Paul “Daffy” Dean, becoming the only woman to ever bat during an official Major League Baseball game. Her at-bat did nothing to advance MLB’s gender barrier that had recently risen up, but it did demonstrate baseball’s amazing tendency to constantly show you something you’ve never seen before, even for lifelong fans. Kitty’s infamous plate appearance occurred during a night game between the world champion Cardinals… (more)

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