Some random things I learned recently
We’re so lucky today with how ridiculously easy it is to access information. Sometimes it can all feel a bit overwhelming and one loses track of the interesting things one comes across.
I thought about how many small things you learn from reading Twitter, books and websites, and from visiting places and talking to people. Not massive, life changing things, just interesting things that help to give some texture to the world. Age being what it is, these intetesting fragments flit off into the ether and are lost.
So, I thought about writing down a few of the things I learned recently. You can probably reverse engineer the books I’ve read, places I’ve been, films I’ve seen and Wikipedia holes I’ve fallen into from this rather random assortment of facts.
You need ATP to live
I knew that ATP was the fuel that muscles run off (forgive the approximation), mainly because of geeking out about endurance exercise, but I did not know that if we were deprived of it for even one minute, we’d die. Nor did I know that cyanide is fatal when ingested by humans because it interferes with the production of ATP.
James Jesus Angleton corresponded with e e cummings
James Jesus Angleton was the founder of counterintelligence at the CIA and was associated with several spy hunts, including that of Kim Philby. That much I knew (and his story is fascinating). But I didn’t know that he studied poetry at Yale and corresponded with ee cummings, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound for years.
Nikita Khruschev’s “Secret Speech” was delivered at midnight
Khruschev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin and the cult of personality at the 20th congress of the CPSU is famous. But I didn’t know that it followed the main congress and was delivered starting at midnight or that it lasted for four hours. Several delegates reportedly suffered heart attacks in the course of its delivery.
Medellín cartel’s rubber band bill
The Medellín Cartel made so much money that at one point they were spending $1,000 a week on rubber bands to wrap the cash.
There is a gender neutral pronoun in Swedish
In July 2014, a gender neutral pronoun, “hen”, was included in the official glossary of the Swedish Academy. I think I knew this before, but was reminded of it recently.
London black cab drivers have an enlarged hippocampus
The hippocampus is the part of the brain used for place memory. That I knew, but I didn’t know that London cabbies who have done The Knowledge have a larger hippocampus than in other people of comparable age and education.
The head of the Stasi had the same breakfast every day
Erich Mielke was the head of the Stasi for 32 years. For at least some of that time, he ate the same breakfast every day. His aides had a piece of card on which the exact layout that Mielke preferred was drawn. Evidently, he didn’t like a soft-boiled egg; the card specifies two eggs to be cooked for 4 and a half minutes.
Apple made a games console
Apple made several ill-advised products before Steve Jobs returned in 1997. I’ve heard of most of them I think, but I didn’t know that they made a games console, called the Bandai Pippin. (Pippin is a type of apple, which I guess is behind the name.)
The modern Olympic Games originally included arts
From 1912 to 1948 (in London), the modern Olympic Games included architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. Tell that to anyone who complains about a niche sport being included at Rio.
The Western Diet has ruined our microbiome
I’ve recently become aware of some very interesting science linking our gut bacteria (our microbiome) to mood disorders. Here’s a fascinating article that contends that we have ruined our ancestral microbiome, and there’s no obvious way to correct it. On the back of that, I ordered a book called The Good Gut.
The star of The Lives of Others was spied upon by his wife for years
Ulrich Mühe, the star of the problematic movie about the Stasi, The Lives of Others, died shortly after the film was released. That I knew. But I didn’t know that he had served as a border guard on the Berlin Wall, or that his wife had allegedly informed on him for years.
New York is full of beaches, expressways, parks and bridges because of Robert Moses
I recently started reading an enormous book by Robert A. Caro, Lyndon Johnson’s biographer, about Robert Moses, called The Power Broker. It was published in the 1970s and has only recently been rereleased (in the UK at least). Moses held almost absolute power over planning in New York (both the state and the city) for decades. I’ve not got very far with the book yet, but the scope of Moses’s work is absolutely astonishing. I’m amazed I’d never heard of him given the sheer number of roads, dams, bridges, parks and buildings that he was responsible for over such a huge time span. It looks like being a fascinating read.