30 July 2013

Triviality XIV: The Askesian Society

Rob's Note: Shortest Triviality column you'll probably get all year, because I say so. >:D Actually, the subject is interesting but there really isn't a lot about it to discuss. So I'll just lay down the bare facts and you can extrapolate from there, how does that sound? :)

I've also updated some more pages to make them more interesting and comprehensive, so take a look!

Also remember to check out the first Country Facts column on Friday!

So, what was this society? Certainly not like last time's Round Table. They were vicious. These people? They were more insane.

The Askesian Society was a scientific club in London that was around for about 10 years or so, back in the early 1800s. Very short lived. But I'll get to that more later.

That word, "askesian"? It comes from the Greek word askesis which means "training".

This club was officially for "debating" and talking about scientific theories. One member even wrote a book about clouds. Because, you know, people liked talking about clouds back then and thought themselves mighty smart for doing so. (We sort of do that today. Just not about clouds. Unless you're a meteorologist. Or whatever. No offense.)

The founder was a William Allen, a scientist, of course, who let his laboratory be used for the club's benefit, so its members could be used to perform scientific experiments.

However, if Mr. Bill Bryson is to be trusted (and he generally is), the most interesting thing about this little club were their "laughing gas evenings". Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like.

Several evenings the club would get together. Some people would take nitrous oxide (aka N2O, aka laughing gas, aka anesthesia) and stagger around the theatre where the club met. It was hilarious (apparently) and lots of fun, and many members would do it just to get intoxicated by the N2O. They were the original drug takers. *shrugs*

As Bill Bryson puts it in his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything, a book you really should read if you like science,

In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use 'was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling.' For the next half century it would be the drug of choice for young people. One learned body, the Askesian Society, was for a time devoted to little else. Theaters put on 'laughing gas evenings' where volunteers could refresh themselves with a robust inhalation and then entertain the audience with their comical staggerings.

The club was disbanded in 1807 after being around for 11 years. But good news! In 2007 the club was restarted in honor of the 200th anniversary. They still meet in London, and you can pay a fine of seven pounds to talk about science and philosophy. No word yet on laughing gas evenings, though. We can't have everything in life. *shrugs*


Click here to go to the last Triviality.

Sources: Wikipedia, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. The above quote belongs to Bill Bryson from the above named book.

28 July 2013

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

I don't often do reviews, but I had to do this one. It was such an amazing book and I'd like to share my thoughts on it.

Some mild spoilers and plot devices, nothing serious.

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas, pere
5/5 stars

"All of human wisdom is summed up in these two words: wait and hope."

Photo Credit: Goodreads

So says the final line of the more-than-1000-page book that I finished reading for a week. But don't let that throw you off. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a boring book at all. It is long. I will say that. If you want a book that you can finish in an hour and call it a day, this book is not for you.

If, however, you want a book that you can take your time on, a book that will keep you wondering about the plot and characters even when you're not reading it, a book that has so many twists and turns to make it exciting and dramatic, then this is the book for you.

For a book revolving around several families, at least 50 different characters, and in a character chart that looks like this, the plot is astonishingly simple. A young sailor, Edmond Dantes, returns home successful from a voyage. Everyone's impressed with him: he's young, handsome, soon to be married to a beautiful girl, and to be promoted captain on his next voyage. Everyone, that is, except two people: his first mate and his fiancee's cousin. They're jealous of him. They're evil. The former wants his position and glory. The latter wants his girl. So they write a letter framing him for siding with Napoleon (this was in 1815) and Edmond is taken away by an unjust procurer and sent to prison for life.

While in prison, Edmond never loses hope. He stays there years and years, and finally, when he plans to starve himself, another prisoner breaks into his cell with some tools. (The original dig-through-your-cell-with-spoons trick.) With the help of this very interesting prisoner, Edmond learns the ways of the world and learns to be a cold, sauve, calculating person who has the power to inflict revenge on those three who made him suffer. This prisoner tells Edmond of a secret treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. Eventually Edmond escapes from prison after fourteen years, and finds the treasure on Monte Cristo. He becomes The Count of Monte Cristo (along with a handful of aliases, the best part) and begins the slow, revengeful plot to wreak havoc.

All of that is just in the first 200 pages. Wow. The rest of the novel does not disappoint, unless you're really sure that you want something to happen and it doesn't. But if you look at the novel through the tragedies Edmond suffered, there really is a lot going for him. And it does turn out satisfying in the end. But be careful. Telling someone you really like this book will say a lot about you. It does for me. It's wickedly evil, delightfully dramatic (they have so many altercations in the Paris Opera it's amazing) and has a lot of allusions. That's another thing.

(I'd recommend you know The Arabian Nights, just the backdrop. Monte Cristo likes his Arabian Nights, and frequently references them without explaining. You might want to look into that. Also into several factors from Roman times. I can't give any names without giving away major plot details, but just try to look up the references as they come to not be confused. And, of course, know Napoleon's time. They do have a lot of hatred, those Royalists and Bonapartists...)

In a book of over 1000 pages, sometimes you might despair. I did twice. "It isn't gonna finish! Oh no! He hasn't done anything!" Yes, it can seem that way many times. But unlike certain books (War and Peace, Les Miserables) the prose is fluid and you can really understand it. But even I read it in degrees. I read roughly 100-300 pages per day, and I took breaks. Unless you're really hooked, read it in pieces. I read maybe 20 pages at a time, then stopped to eat or whatever. Or just stopped to take it in. You WILL be thinking about it often. So yeah. Take it easy and enjoy the ride.

Another thing: Don't get the abridged version. How do you know if it's abridged? It has about 600 pages, and COMPLETELY skips a scandalous affair that is super important, some illegitimate children, attempted killing of a newborn, a drug trip, a lesbian relationship (don't worry, nothing's explicit out of any of these) and a lot more. You could read the abridged version but you'd miss so much and you'll be confused. But for a truly rewarding journey about betrayal, revenge, love, hope, and treachery, read this book in its thousand-page-plus entirety. You'll never be bored.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon. Click here to read it for free on Project Gutenberg (but some people don't like that version. I really don't know about such things, though.)


27 July 2013

The North: An Epistolary

[Copied from Robert Miranda's Journal, Sunday]

The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System requires that one mile in every five must be straight, to be usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.

I was thinking about this over and over again while looking out at the pristine Californian coast on the way to Santa Barbara this morning, wondering if there would be any truth to it. I'd known about this little gem for a while already, but, like most everything else that's found on the Internet, there's no way of proving if it was truth. Didn't seem to be true, though. We have a tendency to have very weird freeways. But that's part of the state's charm. [Edit on Tuesday 23rd: Just drove through the PCH. Yeah, it's not true.]

As someone who rarely leaves the Southern California enclave made up of my hometown and the bordering cities I've grown up in and patronized the last 15 years, not 10 minutes from LA's downtown, the fact of seeing towns with less than 10,000 people was disturbing. I have been to Hawai'i twice: it was overpopulated but they were islands. To see towns devoid of people, to see paths empty of cars and any pollution that is a hallmark of Los Angeles - was interesting, and a little disturbing, as I've mentioned. Once one passes Santa Barbara, there is nothing but empty fields, the beginning of wine country.

Welcome to Central California. Population? Looks to be zero.

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Phonograph Diary, Monday]

Solvang was extremely interesting. Unfortunately it's really hot and that's a bit annoying. I liked the town, we've been here for, like, about fifteen hours.

There is no nightlife. At all. Not that that's a bad thing, but it's kind of depressing to walk through the streets at dusk and yet there's no one in the streets besides the entourage. There was light still, it's summer, of course, but to see everything closed? Thank goodness we found a restaurant.

It's really quaint. Really. I wouldn't live here, though. I do wish we had gone to a bakery, there's one across the street! But it doesn't look like we're going...Well most everyone's had enough. To the north!

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Journal, Monday]

The drive up to Cambria San Simeon was really cool. Enjoyed the view. We didn't get as much sea in the view as we did yesterday. But apparently going up to Monterey we'll get a better view.

There's golf here. We're in a lodge kind of place. Nothing much going on the rest of the day. Everyone's relaxing...I'm going to sit in the patio on the back of our room and read Monte Cristo. There's six chapters left.

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Journal, Tuesday]

It's really hard to write in the Hummer, but since I can't talk into my recording device to make a voice journal I'm using this. Hearst Castle was awesome. Alex Trebek was the tour guide! Well he was the voice on the tour bus. AWESOME. But the house was awesome. Very Gothic. I need to look into studying architecture when I get home. Going up to Monterey, should be there in 3 hours.

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Phonograph Diary, Wednesday]

It's me again. Where to begin? I was on Cannery Row just now. I can't find my journal anywhere. If I lost it, oh well. I'm going to record my terrible voice for the entire remainder of the journey. It's easier that way. [Edit on Friday: Found in my suitcase.]

Monterey highway...oh, I'm not even going to describe it. It was fun but terrifying at the same time. I don't scare easily but some of those drops...it took an hour to drive eight miles. And I thought that only happened in LA. Then again they were curves.

We drove past Carmel. Bohemian town! Ah, La Boheme...but we're in Pacific Grove so that's slightly depressing. But Monterey's not ten minutes away so we went to the Bay Aquarium (the Aquarium of the Pacific is better, in my opinion.) We went out to Cannery Row where I bought the Steinbeck book, Cannery Row. I bought Cannery Row at Cannery Row! That's awesome! We saw a Steinbeck wax museum which was interesting. And then there was more but I won't go into that.

[Excerpt from a hotel notepad. Thursday]

So far this journey has been great. I wanted to go to Frisco, though, today when we went to San Jose but could not because we have to head home because Sunday my uncle works. Went to the Winchester Mansion and had a weird tour guide. He reminded me of someone...

We toured Seaside and the rest of Monterey, namely the wharf and the marina. We saw seals. To be honest I'm not a fan of nature, one of the reasons I didn't like the beach at San Simeon. Everyone else did. I like the stuff no one else likes. No one liked the Winchester Mansion but me. That shows I'm clearly an eccentric. The Hearst Castle was another perfect example. The Roman pool. But I won't get into that.

[Transcribed from both sides of a business card. Friday]

Going home. Travelled total: 900 miles. Wish it was longer. Can't have everything. -RM
Licence Plates seen: California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Illinois, Wyoming, and Quebec. No Hawaii.


19 July 2013

News Of A Sort

My dear readers, I am dreadfully sorry for being sort of distant. Besides the usual triviality every week, I haven't really discussed much this past month. For that, I am sorry.

To begin, I've been reading. I've read Frankenstein (for the third time, I'm reading it for my Inglishe class now, and yes, Inglishe is spelled that way for me, because Sir Walter Raleigh spelled it that way in a death confession, or something or other.). I've also read Dracula, because I'd never read it before. Very disturbing and very good. An excellent work. And now, I am reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, pere (basically a French title which means "dad" which distinguishes him from his son, another well-known writer.) It's 1055 pages long! And so far, two days and 506 pages in, it does not disappoint, apart from a small boring sojourn entitled "Pyramus and Thisbe", a little chapter that is just too flowery.

So why am I saying all this? Why am I rambling awkwardly about life? Well, readers - I'm going on vacation for the next week, and I am considering writing an epistolary story on the experience. I know I'm bad at posting stories online aside from the odd excerpt every few months or so, but maybe I'll be better at revealing this time.

There may or may not be a Triviality next week - for sure Country Facts will be reserved for its revealing in two weeks, on August 3rd. I'm sorry about that, but the countries I want to start the column off are rather obscure for the Internet and my encyclopedias, sorry. :( As to Triviality, I may write a column tomorrow before leaving, and post it on Tuesday if my laptop gets Internet access.

This is just a heads up. Before I sign off for a week, I put forward this challenge to my readers: a game of sorts. I may continue it, sort of as a points game, we'll see. I will post some song lyrics. The first person to comment with the correct song is the winner of the round, with some 10 points. Anyone else who posts (maybe with a semi-correct answer or something) will get 5 points. Let's see how this goes!

Sing with me, sing for the year, sing for the laughter, sing for my tears...

To the next!

16 July 2013

Triviality XIII: The Algonquin Round Table

Greetings from a sunny summer's day! I have finally updated all of the pages on the tab above, so why not click on them and peruse them in peace? I have a new page, too: The Trivia page! It contains links to all of my previous trivialities, and will have a random fact of the day (changed about every midday). -Rob

When looking up witty people, a mention of the Algonquin Round Table is usually quite inevitable. You hear about it usually in conjunction with the 1920s, sometimes on Jeopardy and in books. So what was it?

The Algonquin Round Table (or Vicious Circle, as some of the members called it) was a group of extremely witty intellectuals and writers who got together every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. For about 10 years, this group of amazing people would get together and just discuss goings on, play games, and do what they did best - be witty and sophisticated.

Caricature of the Round Table.
Photo Credit: PBS

There were about 20 or so people in this circle, but they often left and joined at will so there's really just a rough list. Members include the well-known columnist Dorothy Parker, critic Alexander Woolcott, writer Edna Ferber, actress Tallulah Bankhead, writer Margaret Pulitzer, Marx brother Harpo, New Yorker founder Harold Ross, playwright George Kaufman, columnist Heywood Broun and his wife, Ruth Hale, and writer Robert Benchley. Rarely in history have such amazing and brilliant people come together in a show of brilliance.

So, how did this interesting group of people get together? Ironically - it was all part of a practical joke to welcome back war correspondent Alexander Woolcott, who was away in Europe during World War I. The idea was to welcome him back in a sort of "roast", to make fun at the war and at him in a lighthearted way. All of his writer and journalist friends were invited to the event, which would take place at the Algonquin Hotel.

The event was a success - so successful that those in attendance agreed it should be a "thing" - and thus the Vicious Circle was born, or as Edna Ferber called it, "The Poison Squad". Every day for lunch they would get together and just discuss things that were going on - in society, their jobs, life, anything! Originally they would sit at a long dining table in the middle of the lunch room of the hotel, "the Board", as they called it. (They once had a waiter called Luigi, prompting someone to call them "the Luigi (Ouija) Board."

Dorothy Parker.
Photo Credit: Flickr
But it was hotel manager Frank Cage who got the "Round Table" name for them. He eventually moved them to a private corner with a round table. The "Round Table" was born. And they enjoyed it. The members would each quote each other in their columns. They'd insult and make merciless fun at each other freely. With friends like them, who'd need enemies? They had high standards, high amounts of wit and sarcasm, and high friends. (They were eventually the talk of America during the late '20s.) They'd create word games and have fun at them, including Dorothy Parker's famous line, spoken when asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence,
"You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
At one point, in 1923, the Round Table created a revue (a sort of play) called No Sirree! The actors and actresses in the group acted, the writers and critics wrote and sang lyrics, and even famous violinist Jascha Heifetz played the violin for the show. Unfortunately it was a failure, but it would represent the only time the group got together to work for a project. It did, however, help launch a Hollywood career for 'Tabler" Robert Benchley.

Harold Ross, EIC.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
In 1925, Harold Ross, one of the "Circle", decided to open his own magazine, The New Yorker. Today it is one of the most well-known magazines in all of America. The members would enjoy writing for it and quoting it. Today the Algonquin hands out free copies to its guests, in honor of Ross.

By 1927, the group seemed to start falling apart. America's eye was on these brilliant individuals - people would crowd the lunch room of the Algonquin to stare at them, making them uncomfortable and hard-pressed to talk - and some members started leaving. Others found new jobs in other cities, making them leave New York. The Sacco and Vanzetti court case - a very famous murder case that was headlines for a very long time - made Dorothy Parker and others depressed. Eventually, with nothing to discuss and write about, the group disbanded around 1929.

The most ironic thing is that many years after, many members would criticize the group, disparaging it later in life. Many felt that while "serious writers" such as Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway and Lardner were writing, they were just wasting time and doing nothing. However, their contributions to literature and wit are considerable. They were truly some of history's best and brightest people, no matter how cutthroat they were.

Click here to see last week's Triviality.


Source Material: Flickr article, Algonquin Hotel, PBS, Wikipedia, Round Table

13 July 2013

The Golden Age Belief

I have something to confess, loyal friends and blog-readers. I suffer from a terrible psychological disease. It has haunted me since I discovered the delights and horrors of history, and seldom goes away. In fact, there are some Romantic benefits to this disease, and yet some Realist punishments for having it. (See here for a refresher on those two.) So, what do I have?

Golden Age Belief. (Syndrome)

"Rob, what is that?"
It is the belief that a different era in time is better than your own. In addition, you believe the era was perfect, with no wrongs, fallacies, or corruption. Every kid imagines this in some way - the Medieval Age was better because they could be knights and kings, or the Ancient Romans/Greeks were awesome warriors.

Unfortunately I've taken this a bit too much to heart. That's an understatement.

For the longest time (at least 2 years) I was obsessed with the Victorian age. At the time of creating this blog I was obsessed with Victorians.

A street in the centre of the empire where the
sun never set.
I thought they were the best age of all. Their conservatism and pride was something that could never be matched again. The fact that they ruled an empire that the sun never set on was just amazing, and enthralling to my mind. The last 3 Halloween costumes I've had were all related to Victorian England/British Empire in some way. (Mad Hatter, Maharajah, Victorian Doctor). I researched everything related to the Victorians, ignoring the fallacies and glorifying the good things. I wanted to be Oscar Wilde or Rudyard Kipling, high-society British gentleman who had traveled the world extensively and would write enthralling adventures. This, of course, is never good. To my mind it was.

But not all things can last. My Anglomanie (obsession with all things British) changed in December, though, with the Moleskine. I didn't realise it till too late. (Not for good, though - I still love a good cup of tea and trying my admittedly horrible British accent!)

Renoir painted this, originally
a Bohemian meant a person
from Bohemia (Czech Rep.)
I was officially obsessed with the Bohemians of Paris in the 1900s. I've discussed that somewhat in my third Triviality, and a bit after that. Living in an age when a bunch of poverty-stricken writers did their best work, now worth millions? Imagine living among these brilliant creators and being inspired by the merest shadow of Imagination, as they were? Since at this point I was seriously considering becoming a writer (I still am) the idea was epic and enthralling. I didn't care about the obvious fallacies (many of them died before 50 by tuberculosis, more often than not) or that many of them were never respected, or that they often OD'd on alcohol and illicit drugs and also died that way, I was captivated by the dramatic lifestyle. Moulin Rouge didn't help (Bohemian wannabes, do NOT watch the movie, lest you be sucked into a portal of never wanting to leave the phase! :D)

But that, too, changed, with the arrival with The Great Gatsby soundtrack in April.

I was listening to the soundtrack, which I downloaded, and while most of the songs are admittedly not even close to sounding like something a big band in the 1920s would sound like, I was obsessed. Who cared about depressing writers dying in a Paris gutter when there were writers in Europe, living the dramatic lifestyle? Admittedly, I had read The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises but I had overlooked those benefits (because I was still goggling at British photographs at the same time.) Immediately, I looked up everything from that day and age.

Times Square has changed quite a bit from 1929, hasn't it?
I wanted to be in the moment. I wanted to go to the giant Gatsby parties with Jordan Baker and sit in a Hammett speakeasy, waiting for Nick and Nora Charles. Upon leaving the place, I'd end in Hemingway Paris and go dancing with Georgette and Lady Ashley Brett. I'd even go to the Faulknerian Deep South with the Compsons and somehow talk with Benjy, and Quentin, and even the scandalous Caddy. Of course, the feeling didn't last, when the Great Gatsby finished I ended up watching silent films. Some were very good (recommend Phantom of the Opera and Safety Last.) But the age had stopped captivating me. The Gatsby parties had stopped, I had seen the 20's for what they really were, corruption and loss of dreams. I didn't want to live then.

This week I have entered the newest phase of this. (Hopefully I'll continue moving forward till I reach my own age, right?) So, where I am "living in"?

The 1950s, of course! Rock'n'roll, quintessential, quiet American suburbs with a typical nuclear family, and science-fiction! (Not to mention the cool old-fashioned adverts.)

But now, I'd like to talk about why I don't like my own day and age.

"Why don't you like 2013?"
I find it very dull. Of course that's because I live in my own bubble. But it's quite true. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, to define our time. Unless it's stuff like Twerking, and Facebook, and boring stuff like that. (Then again, we are some of the first people to not suffer from polio, or TB, or smallpox, or no air-conditioning as the 4 previous eras did.) If the 2100s era people remember us for Dubstep then this was a failed age.

But wait a minute. Weren't the 1920s like that? Isn't the only thing most people care about are the parties, booze, and the Charleston? Hmmm... Maybe this age will be the golden age for someone living in 2085, or 2113. They won't realise the boring parts of it all. Could it be this is all ironic and full-circle?

Make of that what you will. Do you think that this is a "serious problem"? Any advice for helping me live in 2013?


10 July 2013

American Humor: Who Was Nikola Tesla?

In honour of today being July 10th I'm gonna talk about Nikola Tesla, one of the cooler scientists out there (besides Newton, Feynman and Faraday) It's a Triviality but I'm not labelling it as such. (See: Triviality III.) I know there was one Tuesday, consider this a bonus. That's always good...right?

So: who was Tesla? You usually hear about him in conjunction with Thomas Edison, with whom I have a longstanding hatred with rivaled only by Aristotle. (Why? They were both so wrong on many accounts. I will elaborate on them one day in full.) So why is Tesla so cool? Why do I hate Edison? Why is he so important? Why haven't more people talked about Tesla?

There are many answers to these questions. My main goal here today is to explain most of them without being a diffident jerk to Edison. Let's begin.

Nikola Tesla (variants include Nicola and Nikolai) was born in Croatia, the land of ties. (It's also where Marco Polo was born.) Today we consider him Serbian because of where he lived but Croatia and Serbia are pretty dang close and he was born in the boundaries of modern-day Croatia. Here's a map to show you, those borders get pretty complicated. They do to me, at least. Europe can be so small...

Tesla was originally going to become a poet but changed his mind when he saw a lightning storm one night, which shattered a tree. He resolved to find out everything he could about electricity and studied at an Austrian school. In 1884 Tesla moved to the United States. He ended up at the company of the inveterate opportunist Thomas Edison, which would lead to the most dramatic rivalry of all time, worse than Union/Confederate, Frost/Nixon, Vader/Obi-Wan, Rob/MysteriousRob, etc. 

The most depressing aspect of it all was when Edison offered Tesla 25,000 dollars to fix his machines. That was a lot of money back then. It still is. When Tesla finished fixing the machines, he asked Edison for his money. Edison just clapped the Croatian on the back and said, laughing, 

Tesla, you don't understand our American humor.

I don't mean to vilify Edison - he was quite the entrepreneur, and besides, The Oatmeal did a pretty damn good job of that already - but that's EVIL! Really evil. More evil than making a handless person clap, or a mute person talk, or a deaf person to hear. It just isn't RIGHT! In fairness (but was it?)  he did offer Tesla a ten dollar raise. Tesla, understandably, left.

Tesla was obsessive-compulsive and rather insane. (That's a good thing.) He was obsessed with the number four (he would walk around a building four times before entering) and he had a fierce hatred of round objects. He could speak 8 languages, memorize entire books in his head, do calculus in his bloody mind, and much else. (I've got the second one down, but why must you make me feel so inadequate, Tesla?)

Lots of die-hard geeks (cough cough) know him for the Tesla coil, which is basically an electric curcuit that produces alternating current, or AC electricity. Today it powers pretty much everything we have. (Side note: Edison hated Tesla for having used AC, so he used his influence to electrocute people with AC to show the dangers of it. Hypocrisy. Edison was in favor of the far more vastly inferior DC, direct current, which is much weaker. In the end AC won, huzzah.) Tesla coils operate at extremely vast amounts of energy, so one must be careful.

Tesla wasn't careful, many times though. Once while working in his New York lab he turned on a device that generated lots of electricity. The room began shaking and the street was basically collapsing. The fire department was in uproar and Tesla immediately shut off his device. He'd nearly started an earthquake that could have destroyed the block.

So, what else did the inveterate genius create? Forerunner of radio, X-rays, and a lot more. He eventually had over 800 patents, which isn't bad.

He died at age 86, the end of a rather charging life (lame pun). One thing to note is that he remained celibate his entire life, citing "his work" as more important. That's true devotion to your job.

It goes without saying that Tesla was the most insane, weird, quirky, brilliant, awesome scientist ever. Edison's not even close to him.


Sources: The Oatmeal (fact-checked everything, though)
Badass of the Week
My own library of books (namely: Schott's Miscellany and New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge)

09 July 2013

Triviality XI: The Hat and Window Taxes

I've been meaning to do this topic for the column for awhile, but only got to it today. I've gotten it from Schott's Original Miscellany, a book that any obscure-trivia lover will need to have as a matter of course. I did some research and I got some more info for today's trivia column. It's short, I know, but there's a bigger one coming on Thursday that I've been working on for a while.

Looks like I'm gonna have to pay a fine...
poor Mysterious Rob.
What was the Hat Tax? It was what it's titled, a tax on hats in Great Britain. It was around for almost 30 years, from 1784 to 1811. It was designed as a get-rich-quick scheme for Parliament (because who doesn't wanna make money off the people?) Back then, everyone wore hats, all the way up to the '50s, which is sad, because modern Society doesn't like hats even though hats represent class. Moving on...

Since the different social classes each wore different hats, it was a way to tax people based on their wealth and class, since different money amounts were different were each hat. If you wanted to sell a hat, it'd cost you 2 pounds for a licence, and you had to wear a little sticker/stamp on the lining of each hat. To wear a hat without the stamp would cost you a fine, and if you forged licences (gasp) you were sentenced to death.

This only applied to men's hats, by the way, you know, it wasn't proper etiquette to ask women to pay up for their headwear.

This wasn't the only crazy tax that Britain came up with. There was also the Window Tax, which came before the Hat Tax.  It was first started in 1697, nearly 100 years before, to gain losses from coin clipping (replacing the precious, valuable metals in coins with cheaper metal). Again, like the hat tax, it was designed to be relative to the class and money you had.

Initially every house was charged 2 shillings but as time went on and people but more windows in their houses the tax went up, about 4-8 shillings per window in the house. To avoid paying the tax lots of people simply bricked up their windows, and if you go to Britain and see some old houses it's actually really apparent (couldn't get a good enough picture to show). The tax was abolished almost 150 years later, in 1851. And people say those crazy laws in America are crazy...

Click here to see last week's Triviality. And click here to buy Schott's Original Miscellany.


08 July 2013

On Writers and Writing

Writers. Who needs them? Aren't they just a bunch of disillusioned, alcoholic maniacs who spend their whole lives writing about social issues and stuff that I have to actually write about in English class? Meh, so boring. I hate writers. I'm glad they mostly die before the age of 50. Thank God. Imagine what else they could write.

Why, indeed? People read today - it may be erotica or dystopia or trashy young adult romance, but it's still reading! Wrong. People need to read classic styles, not just what's popular today. There are some good books, but it's best to read stuff that people wrote before 1960, in point of fact. I'll get back to this.

I know a lot of people who hate writing. That's their opinion, they're entitled to it. But reading can be fun. In fact, I know a lot of people who love writing (and reading, by extension). I've always loved reading and writing. I learned to read when I was 3. Not many people can do that. But I digress.

Doesn't he just look dramatic?
My favorite writers are those who could speak eloquently and yet tell a story. I'm a Romantic view, remember, with a slight touch of Realism. (See here for my previous article on those two). People who could write a story, encapsulate it with wit and all this quotable stuff, and yet be original. Edgar Allan Poe, a great example. Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, also great examples. And of course F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finally, the best one of them all: Oscar Wilde.

(Get to the point, random blogger! You're losing my attention!)

Fine. My point is this: you don't have to hate on writing because you think it's hard. I know lots of people who find it hard to read or write. Not because they can't - but because they don't understand the importance.

The importance is this. Love it or hate it, the world needs writers. They may be modern-day hipsters who sit at Starbucks all day with their laptops and Moleskine notebooks (hides) or they can be really successful people who sit behind a desk. Like JK Rowling. But why?

People need to tell their emotions and thoughts. People express this in different ways. Some like to deal it out on the football field. Some people need to write a song and perform it. Some people need to just blurt it out to strangers. And some write it.

We write because we want others to know our emotions, thoughts and to tell a story. At least, that's what I write for. There may be another reason, but generally most writers seem to do that.

Our schooling system knows the importance of writing in society. But we go about it entirely wrong. Lots of kids could love writing if only the state made it that way. Instead we're forced to write "expository essays on the economic principles of Europe" or "text-to-self generalizations" and whatnot. That will get you nowhere. Really. It'll help in future - with college, definitely - and maybe with a job. But it's BORING. And the sad part is that what kids really want to write about - fantasy, their own made-up stories - isn't covered. We need more creative writing classes.

That's how I started out. I loved reading, but never really writing - it was usually expository what I was subjected to. But two years ago I was required to make up my own story. I hadn't before. I tried it - it was fun! Since then I have loved writing, written two novels, and a bunch of short stories and poems. That's what sparked my interest.

So if you want to know what writing's all about, then just take a topic - anything random and from your mind - and just write about it. You can write off the top of your head (stream of consciousness) or write a full, flowing narrative. It won't hurt, and maybe it'll change your attitude.

(But wait, random internet kid, why do we have to read other people's books that are boring and full of ****?)

It kind of has to do with above. It helps you gain perspective into the world. What people think, at different times, and et cetera. I kind of dealt with this with Shakespeare a couple weeks ago - and it applies here. I know, I know, I hate when books mean one thing and today we don't get it (look at the Bronte sisters, they wrote "comedies of manners" which aren't really comedies today.) But reading helps you see different styles, how to think differently, etc. You become smarter, and it's fun.

One last point: you may hate how some writers write. I know I do. I hate stream-of-consciousness (except, oddly enough, for Catcher in the Rye) and Hemingway's modernist style. That's my opinion. You might like it. But it's still worth reading. At least one book. You can gain some perspective, and if you want to write, you learn HOW NOT TO WRITE THAT WAY! *smiles* But if your teacher makes you spend a whole year reading a type of book you don't like, you might wanna suggest a different style to her/him. Say you want to be more well-rounded with books.

I hope that helps anyone who's confused with writing and reading and why they're so important.


06 July 2013

On Photographs and People

I like photographs. I'm not much of a photographer (or a filmmaker, either, I tried once. go see Screenriffs if you want an epic blog about filming) but I like just seeing them. I'm not like my grandmother who has to take at least 5 pictures every time we see her, but it's great to at least keep some pictures of what you're doing. Examples include the Renaissance Faire, and that's it. *sighs* I live a very boring life...

Last night I was looking at several pictures from 2009. That's four years ago. I was a child four years ago. I still am, if you want to get technical, but I'm 15, so that's beside the point. I was way younger, and fatter, and a lot more weird-looking. (Actually I'm more weird looking now.)

But besides from time elapsing, there's one thing about pictures that really makes me wonder. Random people.

There is a picture of me and my parents and godparents shortly after my baptism. I was one, I believe. The picture would have been normal, everyone was smiling, it was in the church which made it official looking - except for the fact that completely randomly, not three feet away from my mom, the leftmost of the people in the picture, there's a little girl, probably around four or five, turning to walk.

It wasn't like the girl wanted to be in the picture and was posing. She likely was trying to get out of the way but the picture caught her in its timeless embrace of color and endless solidarity. In any case, it makes for a rather bizarre picture, namely because whoever took the pictures on June 26th, 1999 didn't feel like taking one without the girl. Or they just didn't notice till it was too late. We'll never know. And my parents can't identify her, she was probably part of some other family.

So I hope you see what I'm trying to get at here. Random people in photographs make me wonder, and get me very interested in them. Not like in a creepy way, but just who they are, and how they happened to drop into my life and photographs, for the briefest of moments, and then leave, never to be seen again.

The most common place for random outsiders to show up in photos are in theme parks. County fair, Disneyland, Six Flags. All are good examples, but usually a lot of people show up, dispelling the mystery. It's more mysterious if it's just one person, preferably walking close by, with their face distinguishable from shadow. You're probably like, "who is this nutjob trying to look at random people?" I promise I'm not, it's just mystery. I like mystery.

I'd show examples right now but I can't find any. Go figure. Coincidence? I think not.


05 July 2013

Country Facts - A New Column!

So up to now I've only had my weekly Trivia column where I talk about obscure stuff you didn't want to know anyways. Link here.

But inspired by yesterday (happy Independence day, 'Merica!) I will have a new column, every Thursday (or Friday - not sure) where I will take 10 or so countries, out of the 197 that there are, and give random facts for each of them!

Extra, extra, read all about it!
Of course there are lots of different ways to classify a country, and there are lots of countries out there that other countries don't recognize and vice versa. So what does a nation have to do to be a considered a country by me? Not much. I just follow the Sporcle method.

In case you don't wanna read that, it's simple. The 195 nations of the United Nations, plus Vatican City, because it's a nation and everyone respects it as such, and Palestine. Because Palestine has the exact same status that Vatican has, namely non-member overseer. So it's kind of like a junior state that watches the grown-up states? No, that sounds too awkward - oh well.

So, 197 facts, for each of the 197 nations. (But you did Switzerland already, Rob!) Oh, yeah, then, um, I'll skip Switzerland. They're neutral, so they won't fight. But then I'll feel guilty. They begin with an 'S'...when I get to them in alphabetical order I'll deal with them.

For my foreign visitors - if you want to submit facts for your country, please do! (But I want really obscure stuff that I don't know. Not like, "______ is the largest country in the Southern Hemisphere". Give me stuff about culture, languages, some weird odd law in your constitution, misconceptions, OBSCURE STUFF(a big one here at InfiniteMind) and more. Post them in comments to here or any country column I make.

I was gonna do it in alphabetical order but that's boring. I have a box where I'll put all 197 nations inside (I wish I could say this literally but I don't think they'd all fit inside). Their names. I will select 9 or 10 or 11 countries every week for the column and give you a random fact or two (likely just one, it's rather difficult to find wholly obscure trivia, which is what I'm aiming for). Thus this column should last about 15-18 weeks, likely more due to school starting in less than 15-18 weeks. I'll try to get the last column in by InfiniteMind's birthday on November 22nd.

If you know something really obscure about a country, and you want to help out and give me material, go right ahead! I love to learn as much stuff as I can about anything and that would be awesome.

(In addition I can't really decide on a date for when to regularly do this column. Thursday or Friday? You are the readers - you decide.) Sound off in the comments, I'm eager to hear your thoughts.


02 July 2013

Triviality X

Today I was going to talk about binary and hexadecimal code, among other things, but I ran out of inspiration and index cards. And also I just am not in the mood.

So today I'm gonna talk about 10 different random things and somehow connect them. Have fun!

1. Switzerland became an independent country in 1291 after something called the Swiss Confederation, which united all these small states that today make up Switzerland. (It also explains why there are 4 languages spoken there today: Romansch, French, German and Italian.) It became, you know, a modern country with a constitution in 1848. It's been neutral since 1515 after a devastating battle which, if won, could have expanded Switzerland and made it more powerful. Well, it did leave the Swiss with a venerable, untarnished reputation for being neutral, which is why the Swiss have so many peace summits there. It didn't join the UN until 2002 and isn't in the European Union.

2. Guess which country is in the EU? Austria. Austria's pretty well known for its art and music. For example, Mozart was born in Salzburg, a small mountain town. At the age of 17, Mozart was appointed "court musician" which is rather damn good for a 17-year-old. His sister was a musical genius however in those days females were severely limited and so her talent was suppressed. Everyone thinks Mozart's middle name was Amadeus. That's the Latinized version (remember Mercator?). He was born with his middle name "Theophilus". In his native German that's "Gottlieb". And what exactly does Gottlieb/Amadeus/Theophilus mean? God's love. Mozart also died poor and forgotten at 35 and was buried in an unmarked grave, which is kind of depressing.

3. Guess who else died poor and nearly forgotten? Edgar Allan Poe. Poe lived from 1809-49 and lived in relative poverty his entire life. His greatest masterpiece, "The Raven", got him only 10 bucks. I'm deadly serious. Back then it was worth about 250 bucks today. That's STILL too little! Poe loved his neighbor, wealthy Elmira Royster, when they were teenagers, but in true romantic fashion, they couldn't marry because Elmira's father forbade it because he was poor. Poe found her a year before his death and she consented to marry him because her rich husband died, but Poe died before they could marry. In 1949, 100 years after his death, a mysterious figure known as the "Poe Toaster" would bring cognac and flowers to Poe's grave and toast to him. This continued until a mere 4 years ago, and he/she/it? has never come back. Some things are meant to be mysteries.

4. Guess what else is a mystery? The Belmez Faces, in Spain. There's this town in Spain called Belmez. In 1971 a woman, Maria Gomez Pereira, discovered haunting faces etched in the floor of her home. Her husband and sons got rid of them with a pickax, but they returned. The mayor was informed and some were cut out for investigation. Two investigators came to investigate and they suggested that perhaps the house's previous owner controlled poltergeists and that is why. But in the midst of all this, the floor was dug up, and 2 headless human skeletons were found. If that isn't creepy enough for you, various audio recordings have recorded unidentified voices saying "Justice!" "This hurts", and "I want to go back home". Since the '70s until 2003 the house has been visited by many visitors, who call it La Casa de las Caras, or the House with the Faces. The faces regularly disappear and reappear, however since 2003 the house has been bought by a private owner. The present state of the faces remain unknown. Many people believe that the lack of color and other certain elements rule out them being man-made.

5. Guess what else had a lack of color? Silent movies during the 1920s. The first full-length movie was Birth of a Nation in 1915, which had quotes from 28th President Woodrow Wilson sprinkled in it. But the first sound film was produced in 1927. The genre quickly declined, as you know if you've ever watched The ArtistBut the 1920s were known for all that glitz and jazz, and prohibition. The Great Gatsby made this vision of the "Roaring Twenties". Modernist authors were writing: Stein, Hemingway, Dos Passos...It was a time of prosperity: more people were moving to cities, Wall Street kept creeping higher and higher to greatness (or at least to Black Tuesday), fittingly 3 months before the end of the decade. That sounded the end for all the glitz and glamour of the '20s. We wouldn't reach such a resounding crash and loss of power and money and economy until 2008, when the current Great Recession hit. Nonetheless, the '30s were pretty bad.

6. Guess who was active during the 1930s? Cole Porter. He was one of the best composers and lyricists of all time in American History. He won the first ever Tony Award for Best Musical, which was Kiss Me, Kate. However, Porter, in a time when there were still some reserved values and morals were being kept, stunned listeners with his songs that could have naughty double-entendres, such as "Let's Do It", "I'm A Gigolo", "Anything Goes", and "Let's Misbehave." In 1934 Porter produced what he called his "masterpiece" (apart from the abovementioned Kiss Me, Kate), Anything Goes. It takes place on a ship, and involves gangsters (Porter liked including gangsters in his plays.) It has mistaken identity, and much else. However Porter suffered a horseback riding incident at the pinnacle of his career and left him in pain until his death some 20 years later. He even worked in some films, always composing until a couple of years before his death. He was even the subject of a film, however because he was bisexual, which wouldn't do in the aforementioned moral times mentioned above, his life was altered and changed to be appropriate for movie goers.

7. Guess who else composes for movies? Randy Newman. Namely for Pixar's 14 films. If you know anything about Pixar, you know that someone else likes to be in Pixar - John Ratzenberger, the "good luck charm"! He's appeared in every single one of Pixar's films - from Mack the truck to Hamm the Evil Dr. Pork Chop to the Abominable Snowman. But Ratzenberger was also in Cheers, a '90s show set in a bar. He played Cliff Clavin, a trivia buff who was a mailman (correct me if I'm wrong). In one episode, he made it onto Jeopardy and got really lucky - the board had all the categories he was familiar with. Unfortunately he lost while betting all of his money on Final Jeopardy, which he didn't know the answer to. To this day Jeopardy fans call that "Clavin's Rule" - or if you're my best friend, "a Cliff Clavin."

From left: Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings, WATSON, Brad Rutter
8. Guess who else was on Jeopardy and won the most money ever? No, not Ken Jennings - but Brad Rutter, who has won over 3 and a half million dollars on the show. (Ken Jennings has only won a "measly" 2.5 million over 74 games and then some.) Why has Rutter won so much? In the early days of Jeopardy (until 2001 or so) a person could only play 5 games at most. Rutter did, setting some records. Then Jeopardy decided to have a contest where the winner would win 1 million dollars, with Rutter played, and won. Then Jeopardy had another contest that lasted several months, soon after Ken Jennings and his 74 games. The winner would win 2 million dollars, going up against Jennings and another contestant. Guess who won that? Yep, Brad Rutter. More recently, about 2 years ago, in 2011, Rutter and Jennings were both invited to participate against WATSON, a supercomputer from IBM. The winner would receive 1 million to go to Jeopardy. (Jeopardy sure is rich, aren't they?) But Watson won. Shocker.

9. Guess who else tried to build a computer? Charles Babbage, a British scientist (who did a bunch of other stuff, because scientists of his type like to be good at different branches of science.) He got the idea to build something he'd call "the difference engine". It was the precursor to the computer. If it had been built, that is...Babbage died before he could build it. However he also built several steam-powered engines (you know, this WAS the 1800s). He really only cared about his reputation, early on. After leaving Cambridge University he would lecture all over the place and quickly became a Fellow of the Royal Society, which is a really big deal and quite an honor. In addition Babbage was also the "Lucasian Professor of Mathematics" at Cambridge. Guess who has that title today? Stephen Hawking. Guess who was the second person to have it? Isaac Newton. Clearly we're dealing with giants, all ahead of their time. But guess who was also ahead of their time? For that, we go to number 10...

10. Leonardo da Vinci was a true scholar. How much of a scholar? For that, I turn to Wikipedia: polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Wow. Imagine saying you were a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. But I digress. da Vinci designed many cool things, as we all know - people have even put together tanks from his sketches and notes. Bill Gates bought one of his notebooks in 2000 for over 31 million dollars, the Codex Leicester. (I can just imagine him going home and saying, 'Honey! Look what I bought for 31 million dollars!) But according to EH Gombrich, whom I will now quote:
There is a note in Leonardo's handwriting which reads: "I know how one can stay underwater and survive a long time without food. But I will not publish this or reveal it to anyone. For men are wicked and would use it to kill, even at the bottom of the sea. They would make holes in the hulls of ships and sink them with all the people in them."
Wow. I don't know if that's true - Interweb searchs turn up nothing. But what if it is true? We'll never know. In addition, da Vinci wrote in backwards mirror language, of Italian. Guess which country has Italian as an official language? Switzerland. 


Click here to see the previous Triviality.

(Fun Fact: Ken Jennings actually has a column over at mentalfloss.com where he connects 6 random topics together, like Six Degrees of Separation. I haven't found it yet but I assume he did better than I have done today.)

01 July 2013

What To Do When You're Bored (And Learn Something in the Process)

Summer vacation is astonishingly mundane. It's the only bad thing about having two months (and then some) off from the only time when one can do anything productive and time-consuming as a kid. (Most of my teachers assign homework and don't give it back or correct it. But it takes up time.)

So, what does one do to ease the boredom of these long summer days when there's nothing to do? I know, it's tough. Today I have only done six things:

Play Sudoku nonstop
Listen to Moody Blues over and over
Watch WheezyWaiter and Numberphile videos
Make ramen (and eat it)

Last week I tried watching movies, which somewhat worked until I got bored of watching. Then I did summer homework. I have three assignments. Finished 1...and maybe another...and maybe that third also...

The point is that today, in 2013, we've gotten so out of touch with reality that we've forgotten that our ancestors in the 1800s actually used to do stuff. No, seriously. Not just, you know, saying "Godspeed, my good sir! How hast thou fared thee on this great day?" (And not that nonsense with the stick and the hoop, either. But that's pretty much the sum of it. Which renders this paragraph contradictory.)

But no one ever said doing something had to be lifeless without education! So here you go: 12 things to do, and you might learn something in the process.

1. Go to Sporcle.com. Now. There's a load of awesome quizzes to play, anything from Countries of the World to US Presidents, to European Countries by Letter, to Oscar Winning Movies, to States.

2. Memorize a really complicated song. Like... *looks at playlist* Umm...none of these really work. *goes to YouTube* Here: Major General's SongIn that accent. If you like the tune but not the lyrics, then here: The Elements Song. Or Countries of the World! You'll become smarter and you'll amaze your friends. *shrugs* Or you can memorize a poem and join your school's Poetry Out Loud contest, if you have one.

3. Learn lists from Listverse. It'll cost you a couple hours of your life, searching for fun things to read, but, you know, it's worth it!

4. Read something. Anything. Well, not anything (looking at you, Fifty Shades of Gray!). If you want some recommendations:

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (time travel)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (horror)
The Importance of Being Earnest by above (high-class wit and dandies)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (original, masculine, intelligent, actually creepy vampire)
The Stranger by Alfred Camus (philosophical mediations)
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (hard-boiled crime noir)
1984 by George Orwell (dystopia at its best and creepiest)
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (best book ever)
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (high society affairs and drama)
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand (swashbuckling, dramatic play)
Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale (not the movie, but the movie's damn good, too)
Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (detective)
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (science popularizing)

So yeah. Those books won't hurt you (though you might want a dictionary nearby at hand), and they're actually pretty good. The hardest one of the above might be either Dorian Gray or Dracula, just because of the depth and complexity of the language. But they won't kill you.

5. Write a novel. Or at least try writing 2 pages of writing.
Yeah, just go and look at my Germanic article for some word choices, or go do number 4 to see how to do it. Or go here.

6. Make marmalade. No joke. And not the song "Lady Marmalade", either. I mean, just see the DH Lawrence quote at right. *shrugs* Even if you don't have the blues. Sometimes one must be creative.

7. Get a pad of paper and some markers and pencils, whatever you want. And sketch. A map, a face: whatever. Look up Latin words and use them in your map. You'll learn something you never learned before. Try it. It's fun.

8. Mix baking soda and vinegar together. *shrugs* It's fun...

9. Go out to your local movie supplier, and buy/rent/steal Fringe: Seasons 1-5. Watch in order (except for episode Unearthed, which is in S2 as a bonus episode. Recommended to watch right after episode Bad Dreams, in S1.)

10. Start your own country. There are a number of prudent ways to do this. I will enumerate three of them:

a) Go into your bedroom, and survey the land. Do number 7 on the list (above). Write a constitution. Create money, a militia, your own enemy, etc.
b) Basically number 5: write a story about a faraway land that you created.
c) Go to nationstates.net. Register and get started.

11. Try donning a new accent. Someday (but not today) I shall post videos of myself doing various (patently horrible) accents. But try it. Scottish, French, British, Russian, German, hell, even go for the awesomely hard to do Transatlantic one! It'll be fun. (If you succeed at doing the Translatlantic accent video respond in the comments.)

And finally, my last one:
12. Maybe you just need to go outside. Some sun will do one good, especially if you've been inside for the past ten days and not seen a breath of fresh air. (I am being really hypocritical.) But, you know, it can't do you any bad! Try to go outside for at least 30 minutes. (OK, 20 if you want.) And then go back inside. You might feel a little less bored.

Now that I'm done, it's your turn. What do you do in the summer to avoid boredom?