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international watch firefly day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by flickr user ravenu (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ravenu/317130750/) [cc by 2.0], via wikimedia commonsif you’re a fan of the tv series firefly and its sequel movie serenity, today is an excellent day to rewatch them—april 24 is international watch firefly day! (and if you’re not a fan, you’ve obviously never seen it, and you should remedy that moral defect immediately.) firefly—basically a western set in space (complete with cattle!)—is among my favorite shows of all time, and though it was tragically short-lived, its spirit endures. keep flying.





the questionnaires of james lipton, bernard pivot, and marcel proust

image credit: by otto wegener (1849-1924) - détail [public domain], via wikimedia commonsviewers of inside the actors studio are familiar with host james lipton’s list of questions, which he poses to each of his guests at the end of an interview. these questions are supposed to reveal deep inner truths about one’s personality, but their effectiveness depends entirely on who’s answering them.lipton always gives credit for this list to french talk show host bernard pivot, who hosted apostrophes from 1975–1990 and bouillon de culture from 1990–2001; he often mentions that the list originally came from french novelist marcel proust (1871–1922). proust did not actually create the questionnaire that frequently has his name attached, though he did famously answer two versions of it (once at age 13, and a second time at age 20), and thereby gave the lists a certain notoriety. the lists started as a parlor game, and their original author is unknown.as it turns out, lipton’s list differs in three questions from pivot’s, and neither lipton’s list nor pivot’s has a single question in common with either of proust’s! but here are all four lists (the last three being approximate french translations).james lipton’s questionnairewhat is your favorite word?what is your least favorite word?what turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?what turns you off?what is your favorite curse word?what sound or noise do you love?what sound or noise do you hate?what profe...





talk like shakespeare day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: john taylor [public domain], via wikimedia commonsapril 23, 2018 is william shakespeare’s 454th birthday! that makes it talk like shakespeare day, when we can all say things like, “hi, my name is bill, and i’m really irritated that for centuries people have been claiming that somebody else wrote my stuff. you have no idea how that hurts my feelings!” i kid. what most people seem to mean is switching into 16th-century english, which i suppose is cool if that’s your thing. but for heaven’s sake, get it right; i can’t tell you how many times i’ve heard bad “shakespearean” english, and it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard.quick tips:thou is second-person singular nominative pronoun; thee is second person singular accusative. so, you could say “thou art a scoundrel” or “she hast smitten thee,” but not “thee art a scoundrel” or “she hast smitten thou.” the possessive second-person singular pronoun can be either thy or thine.ye is the second-person plural nominative pronoun; you is second person singular accusative, same as today.some forms of “to be” and “to have” are different. for example, second-person singular of “are” is art (“thou art cursed”); second-person singular of “have” is hast (“thou hast a grave countenance”), while third-person singular (as well as first- and third-person plural) is hath (“he hath half a brain”).mirroring the hath/hast endings, present-tense verbs often end with -eth...





the globe theatre | interesting thing of the day

most modern theaters—whether designed for movies, plays, or musical performances—consist of a dark, roughly rectangular room, with seats in neat rows and an elevated stage in front with a curtain, lighting, sound system, and other accoutrements. i’ve seen a number of shakespeare’s plays in such theaters, but what i experienced when i did was quite a bit different from what london audiences at the beginning of the 17th century saw when they went to see shakespeare’s just-written plays at their first venue: the globe theatre. although it was absent for centuries, the theater is now back, and it gives theatergoers an experience closer to that of shakespeare’s time.building and rebuildingthe original globe theatre was built in 1599 on the south bank of the thames in london’s southwark district. the 1599 globe was not an entirely new building, however. shakespeare’s troupe had been performing in another theater across the river (called simply the theatre), but because of the high cost of leasing the land on which the theatre was located, it was dismantled; the pieces were moved across the river and reassembled, then dubbed the globe theatre. not only was the globe the primary venue for many of shakespeare’s plays, he specifically wrote many of them for that theater. the original globe burned to the ground in 1613, after a cannon went off during a production of henry viii and a spark ignited the thatched roof. the globe was rebuilt within a year, however, and cont...





earth day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by nasa/gsfc/reto stöckli, nazmi el saleous, and marit jentoft-nilsen [public domain], via wikimedia commonsyou are allowed—and, indeed, encouraged—to recycle, clean up litter, avoid pollution, plant trees, and otherwise care for the environment every day of the year. but if you want to make a party out of it, with a billion or so of your closest friends, earth day is the day to do so. pro-environment marches, rallies, and other gatherings have taken place on april 22 since 1970, and 2018’s focus is on ending plastic pollution. if you’d like to participate, head on out to your nearest large park, where you almost certainly won’t be alone.





13 ways to find north if you’re lost in the woods

to the best of my recollection, i’ve never been lost in the woods (or elsewhere away from civilization)—or at least not sufficiently lost that i didn’t have a general sense of which direction i needed to go. but if i were, i’d have many options for getting my bearings. i recall learning, as a kid, that moss always grows on the north side of a tree, and then learning later on that under the right conditions, moss can grow on any side of a tree. when there’s no moss, or when the moss steers you wrong, you can use any of numerous other tricks to find north. some of these don’t work especially well in dense foliage, in all weather conditions, or in all parts of the globe, but in almost any situation one of these ideas should do the trick. this is by no means an exhaustive list, of course, but it should put you on the right track, both literally and metaphorically. (several of these suggestions were adapted and condensed from how to find true north without a compass at wikihow.)look for moss; it usually grows on the north (i.e., least sunny) side of trees and rocks—or at least, grows most plentifully there. (if you’re south of the tropic of capricorn, the south side of a tree should be least sunny, but since well over 95% of the world’s population lives north of that latitude, i felt it relatively safe to generalize.)look for spider webs, which tend to appear on the south sides of trees. (again, note the qualification about your latitude.)put a stick in the groun...





national tea day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by nicubunu [cc by-sa 3.0], from wikimedia commonsmost of the “national” days we mention here refer to the united states, since that’s where we live (and since americans seem to have an obsession with special days to observe anything and everything). however, let’s be clear: national tea day is (unsurprisingly) a british thing. i’m sure our friends in the u.k. are happy for us to celebrate it too, as long as we use boiling water and, preferably, a proper teapot to prepare the tea. and, you know, don’t dump it in the harbor. in case you’re trying to decide what kind of tea to have today, a little birdie tells me white tea is especially nice.





national tea day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by nicubunu [cc by-sa 3.0], from wikimedia commonsmost of the “national” days we mention here refer to the united states, since that’s where we live (and since americans seem to have an obsession with special days to observe anything and everything). however, let’s be clear: national tea day is (unsurprisingly) a british thing. i’m sure our friends in the u.k. are happy for us to celebrate it too, as long as we use boiling water and, preferably, a proper teapot to prepare it. and, you know, don’t dump it in the harbor. in case you’re trying to decide what kind of tea to have today, a little birdie tells me white tea is especially nice.





white tea | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by selena n. b. h. from fayetteville, usa (china fancy white peony, uploaded by johnnymrninja) [cc by 2.0], via wikimedia commonsi remember what a revelation it was to discover, many years ago, that green olives and black olives come from the same plant; the difference is that green olives are harvested (and cured) before they ripen, whereas black olives are left on the tree longer. later, i learned that black pepper comes from the same plant as white pepper; in the latter case, the dark outer hull of the peppercorn is removed. still later, and even more surprising, was the discovery that black tea, green tea, and even oolong tea (in all their many varieties) come from a single plant, a shrub known as camellia sinensis. these teas vary not only in color but in chemical composition—everything from the taste to the nutritional properties is extremely different from one type to another. white tea once again comes from the same plant. but it’s still full of surprises.how dry i amthe differences in teas are not primarily a matter of ripeness, but of oxidation (sometimes known, rather inaccurately in the case of tea, as fermentation). after tea leaves are harvested, they immediately begin to dry, and in the process, chemical changes occur that greatly affect the tea’s flavor. in addition, the longer the leaves are left to dry on their own, the darker they become. the leaves are usually rolled to break them down somewhat and release juices that contribute to thei...





the inventions of thomas jefferson

image credit: by ingfbruno [cc by-sa 3.0], from wikimedia commonsmany years ago, on my old site senselist, i dashed off a throwaway post called “12 things thomas jefferson invented” after all of five minutes of casual web searching. i’d stumbled across some page mentioning that the third president of the united states was also an inventor, and i thought that was nifty, so hey, let’s make a quick list! it was not meant as a great work of scholarly historical research, just an amusing nugget, and i didn’t give it a second’s thought afterward. that list sat there for many years, and unbeknownst to me, it climbed way up in web search rankings to become one of the top hits for “thomas jefferson inventions.” it appears that list had become a favorite among students writing about jefferson for school—even after more than a decade, that list got thousands of views per month. and that is unfortunate, because:the list contained some (um, a lot of) mistakes.even though i said, in the text of the post, that some of these “inventions” were in fact merely improvements to other people’s inventions (and provided links to sources about several of them), that information was generally ignored.no one should ever use a single random website (including this one, try as we might to get our facts straight) as an authoritative reference. indeed, i’ve found quite a few other websites that either copy or refer to my list, as though it was a reliable source in the first place,...





un chinese language day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by li ung bing [public domain], via wikimedia commonswhen i heard about un chinese language day, my very first thought was, which chinese language? there are, according to the ethnologue, 299 living languages spoken today in china. and sure, the vast majority of people in mainland china—and over a billion people altogether—speak one or more dialects of mandarin chinese, but there are also more than 80 million speakers of wu chinese languages, 73 million speakers of yue chinese languages (one of which is cantonese), and many others. pffft. anyway, unesco wanted to recognize each of the united nations’ six official languages with its own day, and they chose april 20 for chinese because it roughly correlates to the beginning of a period called guyu (“rain of millet”), which honors cangjie, the (probably apocryphal) man credited with inventing written chinese characters. (legend has it that cangjie had four eyes, and that after he invented the chinese characters the sky rained millet; hence the name guyu.)





the inventions of thomas jefferson

image credit: by ingfbruno [cc by-sa 3.0], from wikimedia commonsmany years ago, on my old site senselist, i dashed off a throwaway post called “12 things thomas jefferson invented” after all of five minutes of casual web searching. i’d stumbled across some page mentioning that the third president of the united states was also an inventor, and i thought that was nifty, so hey, let’s make a quick list! it was not meant as a great work of scholarly historical research, just an amusing nugget, and i didn’t give it a second’s thought afterward. that list sat there for many years, and unbeknownst to me, it climbed way up in web search rankings to become one of the top hits for “thomas jefferson inventions.” it appears that list had become a favorite among students writing about jefferson for school—even after more than a decade, that list got thousands of views per month. and that is unfortunate, because:the list contained some (um, a lot of) mistakes.even though i said, in the text of the post, that some of these “inventions” were in fact merely improvements to other people’s inventions (and provided links to sources about several of them), that information was generally ignored.no one should ever use a single random website (including this one, try as we might to get our facts straight) as an authoritative reference. indeed, i’ve found quite a few other websites that either copy or refer to my list, as though it was a reliable source in the first place,...





national garlic day | interesting thing of the day

although i detest and reject every other edible plant in the allium genus (such as onions, leeks, shallots, scallions, and chives), i have nothing but warm feelings for garlic (allium sativum). i’ll cheerfully eat garlic in pretty much any form, any day of the year—bring on the bagna cauda, garlic fries, and even garlic ice cream. april 19 is national garlic day (for no readily apparent reason), a day to remember that garlic is effective at keeping away not just vampires and loved ones but also bacteria, high blood pressure, and possibly even cancer.





houtong cat village | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by cotaro70s (flickr: houtong cat village) [cc by-nd 2.0], via flickra friend who recently returned from a trip to taiwan told us about a delightful village she’d visited called houtong, where cats outnumber the human population by about two to one—and are responsible for sustaining the local economy.decades ago, houtong was a small but prosperous coal mining town, with a population of around 6,000. but when the coal industry began to decline in the late 20th century, the population plummeted and houtong threatened to become a ghost town. for some reason, the village had attracted dozens of stray cats, and in 2008, a woman named peggy chien decided to do both the cats and the other residents a favor. she put together a group of volunteers to feed and care for the cats (including administering vaccinations, and spaying or neutering in some cases) and began posting their pictures online.this was a savvy move, since social media depends on an endless influx of cat photos for its success. (i kid, but only a little.) the attention began to draw both tourists and more cats—which now number in the hundreds—to the village. and with nearly a million visitors a year came enough money to sustain the economy through tourism. there are now plenty of eateries and an endless array of souvenir shops selling cat-themed tchotchkes of every description.this village reminds me a bit of the torre argentina cat sanctuary i visited several years ago in the ruins of a temple in...





banana day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by n734lq [public domain], from wikimedia commonsdepending on who you ask, april 18 may be banana day or national banana day (in the united states)—not to be confused with world banana day (february 21), banana bread day (february 23), banana cream pie day (march 2), banana split day (august 25), banana lovers day (august 27), or banana festival day (september 29).in any case, there certainly are a lot of days about bananas, and i always wonder why a particular date is chosen to celebrate something. in this case, i have an answer, and i never ever ever would have guessed. april 18, 1980 is the date on which the southern african country formerly known as rhodesia became zimbabwe. the new country’s ceremonial president, who took office that day was…wait for it…canaan banana. i am not making this up. that’s not what i thought i was celebrating today, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.





the truth about bananas | interesting thing of the day

when i was in college, i had a professor who was known for being a bit odd. although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. for one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. a friend and i, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. the professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much i adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). and he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. the brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. we assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. he replied, solemnly, “oh. yeah. well, whenever i have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, i put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in latin america, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. i wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a si...





malbec world day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by justin otto (flickr: tapiz malbec) [cc by 2.0], via wikimedia commonsthe malbec grape was first cultivated in france, but after it was introduced in argentina by french agronomist michel a. pouget in the mid-1800s, and after the original french malbec vines were severely affected by blight in the 1860s, it became synonymous with the argentinean wine industry. argentina is now the largest producer of malbec in the world, and malbec world day was created to celebrate this wine success story. april 17, 1853 was the day a bill was introduced to create an agricultural school that became the starting point for the development of the malbec variety in argentina.





palacio barolo | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by mgropius [cc by-sa 3.0], from wikimedia commonsat the end of 2004, morgen and i went to argentina for a two-week vacation. when we got to the airport, we discovered that the first leg of our flight, to dallas, had been delayed—meaning we would miss our connecting flight to buenos aires. the ticket agent worked valiantly to find us an alternative route, but for a long time had no success. then she started laughing. she said the computer had suggested the following itinerary: san francisco to los angeles; los angeles to santiago, chile; santiago to paris, france; and paris to buenos aires. we had to admit, that was funny—we could have driven from santiago to buenos aires in 15 hours, half the time required to fly via paris. fortunately, another, less circuitous option turned up. but perhaps we should not have been surprised; argentineans sometimes think of themselves as living in a european satellite nation of sorts, and buenos aires does resemble paris in many respects.rise and shineeuropean influences are especially evident in the architecture. take, for example, the palacio barolo (or barolo palace). this 22-story office building may not strike modern visitors as the most flamboyant structure in the city, but in its time, it was—excuse the expression—one hell of a monument.italian architect mario palanti was educated in milan and moved to buenos aires in 1909. he belonged to a fraternal order called la fede santa (the sacred faith), as had poet dante...





national eggs benedict day | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by jon mountjoy [cc by 2.0], via wikimedia commonslet’s start with what we know for sure about eggs benedict. well, it’s delicious, its taste exceeded only by its caloric content. traditionally, this dish consists of, from bottom to top: half a toasted english muffin, a slice of canadian bacon, a poached egg, and hollandaise sauce. there are countless variations (different kinds of bread, other proteins, etc.), but you can’t go wrong with the classic recipe, unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or can’t eat gluten, or keep kosher, or are on a diet. (gluten-free, vegan eggs benedict is known as “lemon juice on a plate.”)what i can’t say with certainty is where this dish, or its name, originated; there are severalcompetingstories. we can say with certainty that the dish was invented no later than 1894, as that is the year charles ranhofer—a chef at delmonico’s in new york—published a recipe for “eggs a la benedick,” in almost exactly its modern form. i also have no idea why april 16 is the day someone chose to celebrate eggs benedict, but on the other hand, if it’s on your list of acceptable foods, this is as good a day as any to enjoy it!





pope benedict ix | interesting thing of the day

image credit: by sibeaster [public domain], from wikimedia commonsstop me if you’ve heard this story before. there was this guy who attained, through suspect means, a position of enormous power over many millions of people, purged officials he felt were unfriendly to him, engaged in an ongoing series of highly immoral activities (including adultery, rape, orgies, and maybe even murder), used illegitimate and unprecedented methods to enrich himself at the expense of those he led, and eventually left his office in disgrace.i am speaking, obviously, of theophylactus of tusculum, who was born in approximately 1012 and became pope benedict ix in 1032. (what, who did you think i was talking about?) and his story is in fact far stranger than that description may imply. the full account is long and sordid, but allow me to hit the highlights.“all in the family” meets “the godfather”benedict ix assumed the papacy in 1032 at the age of 20, and he essentially inherited the role. two of his uncles had been pope (benedict viii and john xix), and the family connections enabled his father to secure him the same position. (this was long before papal conclaves were a thing, and benedict ix wasn’t the only pope to achieve his position via nepotism.) he excommunicated church leaders who opposed him, and reportedly spent a lot of time engaged in sexual debauchery of various kinds. he apparently embraced controversy and chaos.eventually, however, both the public and other clergy had ha...