Calamities, fiascoes, debacles: a roundup of things disastrous.

1. Occasionally I am moved to ponder the many ways nature can kill you. But I am a connoisseur of the instruments of natural catastrophe. Earthquakes are mundane and wildfires are banal; bathtub gin compared to the 47 Cheval Blanc of natural perfidy: exploding lakes.

In Cameroon, there is a lake that sits directly on top of a pool of magma, which on its own is a good reminder that we’re all just living on a 5 billion year old rock the center of which is a 1,500 mile diameter 5000-degree ball of spinning iron. Anyway, the magma pool leaks carbon dioxide into the water, causing it to be supersaturated with CO2. Normally this is not a problem, but if the lake is disturbed — say by a volcanic eruption or earthquake — it can experience “limnic eruption” or “lake overturn,” which are highly technical terms meaning “the lake done exploded.” …


Minnesota’s contributions to American culture include Zubaz, hotdish, and a cheeseburger where you put the cheese inside the burger. Equally deranged but less well-known is Ignatius Donnelly: crank, crackpot, charlatan, peripatetic land speculator turned politician turned PT Barnum of apocalyptic cosmology and revivalist tent preacher of pseudohistory, known as “the greatest failure who ever lived,” which is accurate, but only if you’ve never seen Ishtar.

Donnelly was born in Philadelphia in 1831 to a middle-class but otherwise nondescript family, and had an otherwise nondescript upbringing. He dabbled in various professions but ultimately decided to become a lawyer, where he came into the full flower of a lifelong love affair with his own intellect. Operating on levels of self-regard lethal to most functioning adults, Donnelly annihilated his interpersonal and business connections to such an extent that by his mid-20s he’d effectively been exiled (he was perhaps taking his Napoleon complex too literally). …


I read once that shoulder-deep ruts were gouged into the ground at points along the Oregon trail. I doubt that’s true, but riding in a wood-wheeled wagon over bare rock was probably a good way to grind vertebrae into powder. Thank god for rubber…good old shock-absorbing rubber. Nothing beats rubber.

A proper rubber tire requires vulcanized rubber, which has been heated and suffused with sulfur. Non-vulcanized rubber will either melt into a sticky good or crumble to bits, depending on the temperature; vulcanized rubber holds its shape. Charles Goodyear cracked that code in the 1840s, then spent the rest of his life embroiled in patent disputes before dying a pauper. The Goodyear tire company is named for him, but was not founded until four decades after his death. …


Did you know mini-golf was hugely, monstrously popular in 1930? Neither did I. A report from August 1930 listed 25,000 miniature golf courses in the US. By 2001, there were 7500. On a per capita basis, that’s eight times as many mini golf courses in 1930 as now. Mini golf was huge.

Let’s start our investigation of this phenomenon with regular (maxi?) golf. Hilariously, the first known mention of modern golf was a 1457 decree by James II banning the game–because it distracted people from archery. …


“We started out some time ago with a machine for selling prophylactic goods. Maybe we ought to have been shot for that.” I. W. Schulman

Scoring a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora in 1815 was a global disaster. On the plus side, the ejecta suffused throughout the stratosphere, making sunsets and twilights particularly brilliant and sparkly for months. On the other hand: tsunamis, global cooling, extreme weather events, and worldwide famine. …


A roundup of calendars, clocks, dating conventions, missing time, and lesser-known batman villains.

1. The AD/BC convention (now BCE/CE) dates back to 525 AD. Dionysius Exiguus, a Christian monk, was responsible for the computus, or the calculation of the date of Easter (which is based on the calendar year rather than the astronomical year and is so complicated it requires a 10,000 word wikipedia entry). As Exiguus performed his calculations, he was in the “Era of Martyrs”, in which the counting of years was based on the start of the rule of Diocletius.

In 303 AD, Diocletius was responsible for Rome’s last, and most deadly, Christian persecution. Dionysius, understandably displeased at having to date things to a person notorious for murdering Christians, proposed the alternative AD/BC split, basing year zero on his calculation of the “incarnation” of Jesus Christ — which, rather interestingly, he gave no explanation for. Though put forward in 525, the “AD” descriptor and system was not truly popularized until about the 8th century, when it was endorsed by Charlemagne (remember that name, it’ll be important later). …


Heads, ancient cities, ideas, and ill-considered TV shows: a roundup of things found…

1. Here’s a thing that happened: after his death in 1809, composer Joseph Haydn’s head was stolen. CRANIOKLEPTY: a national scourge. Why steal his head? Well, it was 1809, and the pair who paid the gravedigger to decapitate the corpse and abscond with Haydn’s noggin were big fans of phrenology. Just coming into intellectual fashion at the time and all the rage at your average ether frolic, the central underpinning of phrenology was a syllogism:

A) Behavioral tendencies and mental abilities owe to differences in brain anatomy;

B) Those brain differences produce noticeable differences in the size, shape, and geography of the…


Pigeons of war, Ruth Buzzi, hat people, castaway depots, a gold-mining flim-flam man: a roundup of things obliquely lost…

1. The Lost Battalion was a group of 554 American soldiers who, through miscommunication, ended up entirely surrounded by German soldiers in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. They were entrenched, but cut off from food, water, ammunition, and other supplies (some supply drops were thought to be successful, but never reached the lost battalion because the ever-crafty Huns had made up their trenches to resemble the Americans, and the supplies had landed there).

Their only way to communicate was with carrier pigeons. Unfortunately, the first two pigeons they sent out were shot down when leaving the trench, leaving just one behind: Cher Ami. Cher Ami was donated by British pigeon fanciers for training by American military pigeoneers. When the battalion came under accidental air assault from their own side, the unit’s commander Charles Whittlesey (played by Rick Schroder in the 2001 TV movie) attached the following message to Cher Ami and turned her loose: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. …


A roundup of trivial things, obliquely, tangentially, and tenuously linked to butterflies…

1. Let’s talk about Maria Sibylla Merian, born in 1647 in Frankfurt. I’m wary of the biographer’s fallacy, tying someone’s adult interests to childhood events, because (to paraphrase Patton Oswalt), you hear about Paul McCartney seeing a bass guitar in a shop window when he was six, not about the guy who liked drawing bears as a kid and ended up mauled by one. …


A roundup of frauds, flimflams, cheats, sandbags, dupes, bamboozles, deceptions, and corruption…

1. Gerrymandering is a portmanteau of Jerry Mathers, TV’s “Beaver.” After leaving acting in his teens, Mathers, a math prodigy, studied computer science at Cal Tech, where he developed a computer program, written on punch-cards, to read census and geographic data. Through a complicated equation involving both the golden ratio and Euler’s number, the program could redraw congressional districts to mathematically maximize party advantage.

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the dark face of american political corruption

Actually, no, gerrymandering is much older. No one is quite sure who actually coined the term, but the name comes from Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1812; the “mander” part comes because the redrawn district resembled a salamander. …

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i heart literati

An erstwhile brain scientist. www.iheartliterati.wordpress.com

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