Saturday, March 30, 2013

Useless Information—Part 2 of 3

This is the second week of my three weeks of trivia blogs featuring bits and pieces from The Book Of Useless Information, an official publication of The Useless Information Society with a copyright of 2006.  I can't personally vouch for any of these facts as I have not verified them. :)

So…I'll pick up here where I left off last week with the next few categories.

AROUND THE HOUSE:  A deck of cards should be shuffled seven times to properly play with them. Playing cards in India are round. On the new U.S. $100 bill, the time on the clock tower of Independence Hall is 4:10. The Australian $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 notes are made of plastic. More people use blue toothbrushes than red ones. Alaska has more outhouses than any other state. There are more Barbie dolls in Italy than there are Canadians in Canada. Rubber bands last longer when refrigerated.

HISTORY'S MYSTERIES:  A Virginia law requires all bathtubs to be kept in the yard, not inside the house. Persia had a pony express many years before Christ where riders delivered mail across Asia Minor. Ancient Egyptians shaved off their eyebrows to mourn the death of their cats. When some mummies were unwrapped the bandages were a total of 1.5 miles in length. In ancient Greece, women counted their age from the day they were married. The Roman goddess of sorcery, hounds, and the crossroads is named Trivia. The Chinese ideogram for trouble depicts two women living under one roof. On July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber airplane crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States in 1789. In 1890 New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote. You could buy insurance against going to hell in London in the 1700s.

ROAM IF YOU WANT TO:  The Frankford Avenue Bridge built in 1697 in Philadelphia crosses Pennypack Creek and is the oldest U.S. bridge in continuous use. In Washington, D.C., no building can be built taller than the Washington Monument. There are more than six hundred rooms in Buckingham Palace. The full name of Los Angeles is El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula. Harvard uses Yale brand locks on their buildings and Yale uses Best brand locks. It is forbidden to fly aircraft over the Taj Mahal. Central Park opened in 1876 and is nearly twice the size of the country of Monaco. The San Diego Zoo has the largest collection of animals in the world.

HOLY MATTERS:  The color of mourning in Turkey is violet, while in most Muslim countries and China it's white. In the early eighteenth century 2/3 of Portugal was owned by the Church. The youngest pope was eleven years old. Snow angels originated from medieval Jewish mystics who practiced rolling in the snow to purge themselves of evil urges.

BUSINESS RELATIONS:  Japan's currency is the most difficult to counterfeit. The largest employer in the world is the Indian railway system, employing more than a million people. The sale of vodka makes up ten percent of Russian government income. In most advertisements, including newspapers, the time displayed on a watch is 10:10.

THE SPORTING GOODS:  A baseball has exactly 108 stitches. Bank robber John Dillinger played professional baseball. In 1936 American track star Jesse Owens beat a racehorse over a one hundred yard course, and the horse was given a head start. It takes three thousand cows to supply the NFL with enough leather for a year's supply of footballs. Before 1850 golf balls were made of leather and stuffed with feathers. Boxing is considered the easiest sport for gamblers to fix. Tug-of-war was an Olympic event between 1900 and 1920. Professional hockey players skate at an average speed of 20 to 25 miles per hour. Karate originated in India.

Next week is the third and final week of my trivia blogs.  Make sure to stop by and see what other bits of useless information I have for you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Useless Information—Part 1 of 3

While looking for something else, I came cross a book I had forgotten about…a book I purchased a few years ago—The Book Of Useless Information, an official publication of The Useless Information Society.  It has a 2006 copyright date.

I'm a long time (as well as big time) trivia fan, so I stopped what I was doing and started randomly flipping through the book.  Half an hour later I was still standing in front of the bookcase thumbing through the pages.

Since I hadn't written today's blog yet, I decided to share some of this useless information with you.  The contents of the book are broken down into thirteen categories which I'm going to break up into three blogs, continuing over the next two weeks.  I'll share a few items from each category.

HALL OF FAME:  Thomas Jefferson anonymously submitted design plans for the White House, they were rejected.  Andrew Jackson was the only president to believe that the world is flat.  James Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other—simultaneously.  Gerald Ford was once a male model.  Al Capone's business card said he was a used furniture dealer.  Adolph Hitler was Time magazine's Man Of The Year in 1938.  The shortest British monarch was Charles I, who was four-feet nine-inches tall.  When young and impoverished, Pablo Picasso kept warm by burning his own paintings.  Christopher Columbus had blond hair.

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT:  Tom Hanks is related to Abraham Lincoln.  Tommy Lee Jones and Vice President Al Gore were freshmen roommates at Harvard.  Elizabeth Taylor appeared on the cover of Life magazine more than anyone else.  Charlie Chaplin once won third prize in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.  In high school, Robin Williams was voted the least likely to succeed.  Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics for two years.  Parker Brothers prints about $50 billion worth of Monopoly money in a year, more than issued annually by the U.S. Government.  Kermit the Frog is left-handed.  Peanuts is the world's most read comic strip.  Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, was allergic to carrots.  Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for directing.

THE LITERARY WORLD:  During his entire lifetime, Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick only sold fifty copies.  Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the age of nineteen.  Tom Sawyer was the first novel written on a typewriter.  Arthur Conan Doyle never had Sherlock Holmes say "Elementary, my dear Watson."  The word cop came from the English term Constable on Patrol.  The most used letter in the English language is E with Q being the least used.  The oldest word in the English language is town.  The only fifteen letter word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is uncopyrightable.  Bookkeeper is the only word in the English language with three consecutive double letters.  In England in the 1880s, pants was considered a dirty word.  Polish is the only word in the English language that, when capitalized, is changed from a noun or a verb to a nationality.

ON THE MENU:  On average, there are 178 sesame seeds on each McDonald's Big Mac bun.  Coca-Cola was originally green.  A full seven percent of the Irish barley crop goes to the production of Guinness beer.  The first man to distill bourbon whiskey was a Baptist preacher in 1789.  Almonds are a member of the peach family.  You use more calories eating celery than there are in celery itself.  The oldest known vegetable is the pea.  Tomatoes and cucumbers are fruits.  There is no such thing as blue food, even blueberries are purple.  The only food that does not spoil is honey.

This is only a small sampling of the first four sections of the book.  Anyone have any interesting trivia bits that fall within these four categories?

Next week I'll continue with some samples from the second group of four sections.  And the week after that I'll do the final five sections.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Vernal Equinox—It's Officially Spring

Equinox translates literally to "equal night."

On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at precisely 7:02AM Eastern Daylight Time U.S., the sun crosses directly over the Earth's equator.  That moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere announcing the arrival of spring and the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere announcing the arrival of fall.  A second equinox in 2013, the fall equinox, will occur on Sunday, September 22, at precisely 10:49AM Eastern Daylight Time U.S.

The fact that the Earth has distinctive seasons is due to the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth's axis.  The Earth receives more sunlight (longer daylight hours) in the summer and less sunlight (fewer daylight hours) in the winter.  The tilt of the axis makes the seasons opposite in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere.  At the north pole summer gives six months of daylight while at the same time the south pole is experiencing six months of darkness.  The closer you are to the equator, the daily hours of daylight and darkness become more equal.

The spring and fall equinoxes are the only two times during the year when the sun rises due east and sets due west.  Modern astronomy aside, people have recognized the astronomical connection to the season changes for thousands of years.  The ancients of various civilizations all over the world built structures that illustrate this—temples dedicated to their various gods that modern man recognize as observatories.  Not only the spring and fall equinox days, but also the summer and winter solstice days.

I think it's also interesting to note a connection between the spring equinox and Groundhog Day (another holiday derived from the practices and celebrations of the ancients).  If the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, we have six more weeks of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere.  And by coincidence that six weeks takes us to within a few days of the spring equinox.

The spring and fall equinoxes are the only two times during the year when the sun rises due east and sets due west.  They are also the only days of the year when a person standing on the Equator can see the sun passing directly overhead.

Another equinox oddity: A rule of the calendar keeps spring arriving on March 20 or 21—but sometimes on the 19th.  In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world now observes, to account for an equinox inconvenience.

If he hadn't established the new calendar, every 128 years the equinox would have come a full calendar day earlier—eventually putting Easter in chilly midwinter.  Before the pope's intervention, the Romans and much of the European world marked time on the Julian calendar.

Instituted by Julius Caesar, the old calendar counted exactly 365.25 days per year, averaged over a four-year cycle. Every four years a leap day helped keep things on track.

It turns out, however, that there are 365.24219 days in an astronomical "tropical" year—defined as the time it takes the sun, as seen from Earth, to make one complete circuit of the sky.  Using the Julian calendar, the spring and fall equinoxes and the seasons were arriving 11 minutes earlier each year. By 1500 the vernal equinox had fallen back to March 11.

To fix the problem, the pope decreed that most century years (such as 1700, 1800, and 1900) would not be leap years. But century years divisible by 400, like 2000, would be leap years.

Are we confused yet?  :)

With an average duration of 365.2425 days, Gregorian years are now only 27 seconds longer than the length of the tropical year—an error which will allow the gain of one day over a period of about 3,200 years.  According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, equinoxes migrate through a period that occurs about six hours later from calendar year to calendar year, due to the leap year cycle.

The system resets every leap year, slipping a little bit backward until a non-leap century year leap nudges the equinoxes forward in time once again.

And now we are officially confused?  :)

I keep track of this by the tried and true method of checking my calendar and looking for the date where the calendar company has printed Spring Begins or Autumn Begins.  :) 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

St. Patrick's Day—More Than Green Beer and Irish Coffee

March 17—St. Patrick's religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century.  A date that falls during the Christian season of Lent.  The Irish have observed this date as a religious holiday for over a thousand years.  Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in the U.S., not in Ireland.  Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762, (when we were still a British colony).  In 1848, several New York Irish aid societies united their parades to form one New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.  Today, that parade is the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States with over 150,000 participants.

Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Australia.  Although North America is home to the largest celebrations, it has been celebrated in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.

In modern day Ireland, St. Patrick's Day has traditionally been a religious occasion.  Until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated pubs be closed on March 17.  In 1995, the Irish government began a national campaign to use St. Patrick's Day as an opportunity to promote tourism.

Symbols and Traditions

The shamrock was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland, symbolizing the rebirth of spring.  By the seventeenth century, it became a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism.

Music is often associated with St. Patrick's Day and Irish culture in general.  Since the ancient days of the Celts, music has always been an important part of Irish life.  The Celts had an oral culture where religion, legend, and history were passed from one generation to the next through stories and songs.

Banishing snakes from Ireland has been associated with St. Patrick.  A long held belief says St. Patrick once stood on a hilltop and with only a wooden staff managed to drive all the snakes from Ireland.  The fact is the island nation of Ireland has never had snakes.

Every year on St. Patrick's Day the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage is consumed.  Cabbage has long been an Irish food, but corned beef only began to be associated with St. Patrick's Day at the turn of the century (circa 1900).

Belief in leprechauns probably comes from Celtic belief in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil.  Leprechauns are only minor figures in Celtic folklore, cantankerous little men known for their trickery which they often used to protect their fabled treasure.  The cheerful, friendly image of the leprechaun is a purely American invention created by Walt Disney in his 1959 movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

There are over 36 million U.S. residents who claim Irish ancestry.  This number is almost nine times the population of Ireland.

Chicago is famous for a somewhat peculiar annual event: dyeing the Chicago River green.  The tradition started in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and realized that the green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday.  That year, they released one hundred pounds of green vegetable dye into the river—enough to keep it green for a week.  Today, in order to minimize environmental damage, they use only forty pounds of dye, making the river green for several hours rather than days.

Green beer, certainly associated with St. Patrick's Day here in the United States, is NOT an Irish creation.  Purists claim that Arthur Guinness would turn over in his grave if anyone attempted to add green food coloring to the traditional Irish brew.  Green beer is most likely of American origins.

And Irish coffee?  The forerunner of today's Irish coffee was said to have originated at Foynes' port (the precursor to Shannon International Airport on the west coast of Ireland near the town of Limerick) one miserable winter night in the 1940s.  Joseph Sheridan added some whiskey to the coffee to warm the arriving American passengers, proclaiming it to be Irish coffee.

A travel writer named Stanton Delaplane brought Irish coffee to the U.S. after drinking it at Shannon Airport.  He worked with the Buena Vista CafĂ© in San Francisco to develop the perfect drink.  The Buena Vista Cafe started serving Irish coffee on November 10, 1952, and continues to serve large quantities of it to this day starting from the time they open in the morning for breakfast until they close at night.  And any of you who have had your morning ham and eggs at the Buena Vista have seen the coffee cups lined up along the bar and the bartender at the ready, prepared to fill them with the beverage of choice for the breakfast crowd.

So, here's to everyone celebrating on March 17 whether Irish or not.  Enjoy your corned beef and cabbage, green beer, and Irish coffee.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Things I've Learned From Teaching A Fiction Writing Class

I teach an eight week beginning fiction writing class at the state university in the adult continuing education non-credit department.  It's two hours a night, one night a week, for eight weeks.  I teach this class twice a year and have been for fourteen years.

The eight weeks are broken up into the basics of fiction writing.  The first week is about plot, second week developing characters, and so on.  I cover things like point of view, pacing, dialogue, active vs. passive, show don't tell, and other basics of fiction writing.  I use examples from various genres without concentrating on a specific one.  The class culminates with information about publishing which includes synopsis, query letter, contests, critique groups, submitting to publishers, editing, and related areas.

I gave you that information as a prologue to what's on my mind about my fiction writing class.

I started teaching the class again next week.  It always amazes me each time I teach the class…I learn things, too.  Well, more accurately, I RE-learn them.  There are things I've forgotten that come to mind again when I'm going over the lesson for that week's class.  And then there's information I haven't thought about until someone asks me a question that requires me to pull the answer up from the back of my mind and convey it in a manner that will make sense to someone taking a beginning writing class…fiction writing technique information I hadn't considered for a while.

A technique I talk about as part of the first week covering plot is the Action-Reaction-Decision combination.  This is one of those things I use when I'm writing without consciously thinking about it.  Each time I teach this class and define this Action-Reaction-Decision combination, it seems to hit me as a surprise as if I had never heard of it before. :)   One character's action elicits a reaction from the other character, then one of the characters makes a decision concerning the situation.  It's that decision that propels the story forward and leads to the next situation.

As we know, each scene needs to do something to move the over all story forward whether it's an action scene, dialogue, or narrative internalization dealing with character development.  And this is one of those techniques that does just that.

An example:  Dressed in a scrap of slinky black, Mary strutted into the club (action).  Mark took one look and his blood pressure skyrocketed (reaction).  He had to get her out of there before she got arrested (decision).  It's that decision that moves the story forward and leads to the next action.  Mark grabbed her arm (action).  But Mary refused to budge (reaction).  She was going to have a drink and dance until dawn (decision).

This feeds directly into and helps support the basic structure of story movement which is cause and effect.  Something happens and that causes something else to happen which results in moving the story forward toward its conclusion—cause and effect.

Each week I have something (at least one thing, usually more) that teaching the class brings to mind, techniques that I had forgotten, things that I did without thinking about them.

The second week of the class is developing characters.  One exercise I give the class has them use secondary characters to maneuver the main characters in the direction the story needs. (see last week's blog, February 24, about using secondary characters)

Your hero/heroine still do the work and resolve the story's conflict, but those secondary characters make a valuable contribution to moving the story forward.  And secondary characters are fun to work with.  They don't have the restrictions that apply to your hero/heroine.  A secondary character doesn't need to be in any way honorable or heroic.  He can have lots of bad habits, be a compulsive liar, or any number of things the hero and heroine can't.

I enjoy teaching a class about the basics of beginning fiction writing.  And, of course, I enjoy getting paid for it. :)  But in addition to that, I like being reminded a couple of times a year about some of the specifics that tend to slip my mind…things I do, but don't consciously think about.

Do you have any special writing techniques you'd like to share?