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Apr. 13th, 2011



Languages in danger

Today I learned of the language of Ayapaneco - indigenous to a remote area of Mexico and in danger of becoming extinct. There are only 2 fluent speakers of the language still living, and they refuse to talk to each other. Anthropologists are striving to compile a dictionary of the language, which is also known as Nuumte Oote, which means "True Voice".

You can find more details about Ayapenco, as well as a list of other endangered languages, in this article.

Feb. 17th, 2011



Oh the irony...

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of long words

Jan. 31st, 2011




OK, firstly I apologise for not updating this thing in ages (have been very busy with final year of degree, moving house, weddings etc.). I shall attempt to post more regularly from now on (and please, feel free to post your own interesting discoveries, that would be awesome).

Now I'll get on with it.

Quite recently I went to visit a falconry, where (unsurprisingly) I learned lots of random trivia about birds. This included the Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, the world's highest flying bird, which has been known to reach heights of 37,000 feet. And to put that into some sort of context, most civilian airplanes typically fly between 30,000 – 39,000 feet. In fact, that's how they know the vulture can fly that high, after an incident over the Ivory Coast back in 1973 when a vulture collided with a plane's engine in mid-air, forcing it to land. Needless to say, the plane did more damage to the poor vulture than the vulture did to it (sourced from this journal article).

Vultures can also safely consume biological materials that a human digestive system could not hope to cope with, such as anthrax, cholera or salmonella, owing to the very high concentration of acid in its stomach (known to approach pH 0). As a comparison, the pH level of a human stomach is usually about 2-3 overall). Vultures also have a habit of projectile vomiting whenever they feel threatened, so it's probably best not to upset one. Even more bizarrely, bald eagles have been known to induce vomiting in vultures so they can eat the sick (mmm, nutritious!). For more interesting facts about vultures, try this website.

Also on display at the falconry was a beautiful peregrine falcon, known to be the fastest creatures on earth. When diving through the air after prey, they have been clocked at over 240 mph (386 km). Watch a video of a diving falcon here.

Sep. 17th, 2009




Yesterday I was asked what the technical term is for the art of divining the future by reading tea leaves, which turns out to be tasseomancy or tasseography (and for a brief explanation of how the process works and how to interpret the more basic symbols, click here).

This got me thinking about all the different types of divination, so I decided to do some more investigating. It seems you can divine the future by pretty much everything. Follow this link for what I assume to be a fairly comprehensive list of all the different methods you can use, which ranges from the well known, such as astrology and carromancy (melted wax), to the downright bizarre. Some of my personal favourites include dririmancy (dripping blood), hyomancy (wild hogs) and plastromancy (the cracks caused by heat on the underside of a turtle's shell).

I also stumbled across this guide to podomancy - the art of divining a person's character by studying their toes. It covers all sorts of details, such as the significance of the size, shape and arrangment of your toes, and also the colour of one's toenails. (Beware people with black toenails, for they are ruled by Saturn and untrustworthy!)

Sep. 9th, 2009



Trees, love and honey

Today I learned a couple of things:

Firstly, a new word: dendrophilia, which is a term for being sexually attracted to or aroused by trees. I have no idea how that came up in conversation...

I also learned why the period after a couple get married is called a honeymoon. Traditionally newly-wed couples would be supplied with a month's worth of mead (a honey-based alcoholic drink which is absolutely delicious) because it was believed to act as an aphrodisiac and aid fertility.

Sep. 7th, 2009



Night of the Long Knives

Today's entry started out as a snarky comment by a tennis journalist which set me on an unlikely path to learning about British political back-stabbing and purges of Nazi Germany. The journalist was comparing the recent dramatic exodus of several of Russia's top female players from the US Open to the "Night of the Long Knives" and, having not a clue what that was, I decided to investigate:

In 1962 the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sacked several members of his Cabinet, together with a sprinkling of junior ministers, all in one night. It seems that economic troubles were making the government increasingly unpopular and he thought dramatic action might save his position, leading a member of an opposition party to comment "greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life." Miaow. The press mockingly referred to it as the Night of the Long Knives in reference to the original event, a series of political executions which occurred in Nazi Germany in 1934. The purge lasted 3 days (in the German language Night of the Long Knives is actually an established phrase which refers to acts of revenge in general, so this might explain why it was used for such a lengthy event). Most of the victims were members of the SA (a paramilitary group which helped the Nazi party ascend to power before Hitler came to consider them too independent and too much of a threat) but Hitler and his supporters used the opportunity to strike out against other opponents as well. Evidence of a plot by the SA to overthrow the government was fabricated and used as justification for the killings.

If you'd like to know more, the 1962 source is here and 1934 here.

Aug. 27th, 2009



World War One

Recently I’ve been reading Tommy's War, a genuine diary written by Thomas Cairns Livingstone, who lived in Glasgow during World War One. From the foreward (written by Andrew Marr), I’ve learned that Glasgow was at that time a city renowned worldwide for its engineering successes, a reputation which apparently led to the engineer on the Starship Enterprise being known as ‘Scotty’.

I’ve also discovered (or possibly rediscovered, since it’s quite likely this came up in history lessons) that a system of armbands and badges was developed to identify key workers who were serving “King and Country” by other means than joining the army. Those men who had volunteered to fight but had yet to be called up also received a special khaki armband. This was to stop them being harassed by women bearing white feathers of cowardice, which they distributed to men in order to shame them into volunteering for army service. (And a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that white feathers are associated with cowardice because in cock-fighting, cockerels with white tail feathers are believed to be poor fighters as they are more likely to be "inferior cross-breeds").

Finally, I learned that in 1917, Britain came within weeks of having to sue for peace because Germany’s U-boat campaigns of the Atlantic had been quite successfully cutting off Britain’s supplies of food and oil. Disaster was averted by a late directive to try the convoy system.

Aug. 23rd, 2009



Zombie apocalypse?

Yesterday I learned that a research group in Canada have carried out a mathematical experiment to divine humanity's chances of survival in the event of a zombie outbreak. And the answer is none too good - counter-attacks would need to be swift, frequent and employ increasing force in order to prevent the collapse of society.

The research is supposed to have a practical purpose since a plague of zombies could resemble the spread of infectious diseases, although the researchers acknowledge that there is a key difference between the spread of zombies and real infections. Namely that "zombies can come back to life." Quoted from this article.

Aug. 21st, 2009



Disguising cyanide

Yesterday one of my house mates quipped that we might secretly be trying to poison him with the almonds that topped my birthday cake, since apparently cyanide tastes of almonds. Today I decided to investigate whether this was true (the cyanide tasting of almonds, not our trying to poison him - I know the answer to that already). Anyway, it appears to be both true and false.

Hydrogen cyanide smells of bitter almonds, and indeed this compound (also known as prussic acid) occurs naturally in bitter almonds. A handful of the raw fruit (apparently almonds are technically a type of fruit and not a nut) can be lethal, so the acid needs to be leached out before they can be deemed fit for human consumption. So yes, technically almonds could be used to disguise the presence of cyanide, but probably not the kind you'd top your cakes with.

Sources here and here.

Aug. 14th, 2009



Awkward questions

The sky (by which I'm guessing they mean the atmosphere) weighs the equivalent of 570,000,000,000,000 adult Indian elephants. (This information would mean a little more if I could find the weight of the average adult Indian elephant, but all the sources I've looked at disagree, with the figure ranging from 7,000 - 12,000 pounds)

Anyway, this is the answer to one of the awkward questions children have apparently been known to torment their parents with. You can find 9 more of these, including why water is wet and why fish don't die when lightening strikes the sea, in this article.

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