Wednesday, December 17, 2008

You can't take it with you. Or can you?

Sorry this isn't more of a Christmas theme...but I just couldn't pass it up.

Apparently there is a recent new trend among funeral homes and cemeteries. A lot of people are requesting that lost loved ones be buried with cell phones, blackberries, ipods, etc.. Some families seek comfort in being able to call a loved one for a time after they've been buried - obviously knowing no one will answer - but in hearing their voice mail message.

This reminds me of so called "safety coffins" that were a brief trend in the 1800s. Some people were so worried about being buried alive that they requested coffins with a mechanism that would permit them to signal their vitality from the grave, should it exist.

It seems a lot of 19th century designers missed the part that a buried coffin might quickly run out of air - rendering any signaling bell or flag pretty moot in short order. Nonetheless a lot of these coffins were put into use - though there is no recorded instance where one worked to save the living from the grave.

The recent trends with cell phones does not seem to have much to do with protecting folks from being buried alive. But if one happened to find themselves in such a situation - wouldn't that be a great time to have signal?!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Octagon

A place that many people haven't heard about in Washington, DC is the Octagon.

Nobody is sure how this building got its name, since it doesn't actually have eight sides. But the structure was built between 1799 and 1801 about a block away from the White House. It was the first residential building in the neighborhood and was designed to instill confidence in the future development of what was then called "Federal City" as the new nation's capitol.

When the British burned the White House in 1814 (during the War of 1812) - James and Dolley Madison used the Octagon as a temporary residence. In February of the following year, the Treaty of Ghent was signed in the second floor of the Octagon, ending the War of 1812 with Great Britain.

Since then the building has various uses and tenants, it is now maintained as a museum by the American Architectural Foundation. It's a little known place that has taken part in a whole bunch of history.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hand Over Fist

Not very many people are making money "hand over fist" these days. But do you know where that expression comes from?

It turns out that once upon a time, all money was made that way. Coins where stamped out of metal with dies. Mint workers would grip the stamp with one hand and press down with the other: hand over fist.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Who Let the Dogs Out?

This week members of the new 110th Congress had their orientation on Capitol Hill. During the orientation, Freshman Congressman and Congresswomen, and Senators went through the two houses' respective processes for finding a new office.

Whichever office each new member gets, they will be able to bring a dog to work with them if they choose to. One of the little known secrets of Capitol Hill is that all the Capitol buildings are wide open to dogs.

The logic goes something like this: if a Member of Congress wants to bring their dog to work - nobody is really in a position to tell them they can't. But then, as they represent the people - no Member of Congress should have a special privilege that a member of the general public does not. Therefore, though it might not be advertised, if you try to walk into any of the House or Senate office buildings with a dog, nobody will stop you.

The pup may have to walk though a metal detector - but that's about the biggest hurdle he'll face.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reflecting Pool

Continuing with the India turns out there is another connection when it comes to the National Mall.

Congress commissioned the construction of the Lincoln Memorial shortly after the President's death in 1867. However the memorial was not designed and fully completed until May 30, 1922 when it was commissioned by then Chief Supreme Court Justice and former President William Howard Taft.

The long pool placed in front of the memorial reflects both the Washington monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It measures 2000 feet by 160 feet and contains 7 million gallons of water. The pool was modeled after the one that sits before the Taj Mahal.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rocket's Red Glare

It turns out that one famous phrase from America's National Anthem has its roots in India.

After the American Revolution, the British turned their attention toward expanding their influence in India. In 1780 British troops invaded Mysore, an area then ruled by Hyder Ali. What the British did not know was that Hyder had been working on a new rocket.

Whereas previous rockets had been small and less effective. Hyder's new rockets had metal tubes, were 12 lbs each, and had 10 foot bamboo poles for stability. This gave them much more range - they could fly at least half a mile. Moreover, Hyder had the manpower to produce and launch hundreds of them at at time. Using his barrage of rockets, Hyder was able to repulse the British invasion of his territory.

In the wake of their defeat, the British redoubled their research into rocket technology such that by the time of the War of 1812 - they were a widely used part of the British Arsenal. Some of those rockets were the ones that Francis Scott Key saw outside Fort McHenry when he saw "the rocket's red glare" and that "our flag was still there."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Benajmin Franklin: Don't worry about your career.

Worried about your job? Fretting about what step to take next in your career? Benjamin Franklin's advice: don't be.

During his 84 years, Franklin had a whole bunch of jobs.

He was a scientist, inventor statesmen, printer, philosopher, musician, economist, soldier, environmental activist, fire company organizer, library founder, postmaster, cartographer, author - and a whole bunch of other things.

Franklin believed that wealth should be rightly be attained by hard work - the idea behind the "American Dream"

So if you take Franklin as an example, don't worry about your job - just work hard and you can do a lot!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Goose Bumps

The stock market is a little crazy right now - enough to give a person goose bumps.

Have you ever wondered where goose bumps come from?

Goose bumps are caused by the contractions of small muscles at the base of hair follicles - often caused in response to cold, or fear.

Back when humans were a little more furry than we are now, goose bumps caused hair to stand on end. This was advantageous in the cold because extending one's fur helps maintain warmth.

Goose bumps also were good to have when times are scary, because extending one's fur makes you seem bigger...and perhaps a more imposing figure to anybody that is trying to eat you!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Talk Like a Pirate!

Yar Har! Avast Ye Matees!

Did you know that today is the official talk like a pirate day? I don't know about you, but I love talking like a pirate. YARG!

Check it out here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


It is generally agreed that the word "sabotage" is French in origin - coming from the French word for shoes: sabot.
There are two theories.

The first is that during the railway strike of 1910, French workers disabled the wooden shoes, or sabots, that secured the rails - thereby rendering the railway inoperable.

The other theory describes how during the industrial revolution, disgruntled workers threw their shoes into the works of the looms they were working on - as a way of protesting working conditions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Mayflower Sails

September 6, 1620 - a date that will live in bonnets, if not infamy.

It was September 6, 1620 that the Mayflower left Portsmouth, England bound for Plymouth. The ship left Portsmouth with 102 passengers and around 30 crew. After a grueling 66 day voyage it reached Cape Cod on November 11.

Interestingly, the pilgrims were using the old style Julian calendar - so the actual dates on the calendar we use now are September 16, 1620 and November 21, 1620.

Which means today is the 388th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Somber Day at the Pentagon

It's a somber day at the Pentagon today as on this, the 7th anniversary of 9/11/01, officials are unveiling the memorial dedicated to the 184 victims who lost their lives there.

The memorial consists of 184 bench like structures, one dedicated to each of the victims. The names are inscribed on each bench pointing either toward the Pentagon or toward the western sky, depending on whether the person died in the Pentagon or was aboard the plane as is crashed.

The height of the benches ranges from 3 inches to 71 inches, the height of each bench corresponds to the age of the person it honors.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Diet Coke Floats

If you place both a can of regular Coke and a can of Diet Coke in water, the Coke will tend to sink while the Diet Coke will tend to float. Do you know why?

It turns out that the sugar in the regular Coke adds just enough to the density of a regular Coke to make the can sink. The artificial sweetener in the Diet Coke is less dense, just enough to allow the Diet Coke to float.

Try it!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Don't Throw Out the Baby with the Bath Water

"Don't throw out the baby with the bath water!"

Ever wonder where that expression comes from?

In medieval England, it was customary for most people to bathe no more than once a year - usually in May. Too much exposure to water was considered unhealthy.

When bath time came, a family would usually bathe in a pecking order: first the dad, then the mom, then the children with the youngest children and the baby going last.

By the time baby got to bathe, the water was pretty when it was time to drain the bath it was right to caution: "don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Space

So you probably know about Facebook and My Space, but have you heard about A-Space?

It turns out that folks in the intelligence community are building a social networking site especially meant for spies. The hope is that connecting people in different branches of intelligence through A-Space, intelligence analysts might better be able to connect the dots when it comes to gathering intelligence.

Of course, the site is by invitation only - and invitations only go out to people with very high level clearance. So nothing personal, but unless you work in intelligence - you might never get a friend request from A-Space.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Cat is Out of the Bag

The "cat is out of the bag" is slang for saying a secret has been revealed...

Turns out that the phrase comes from the days of sail in the Royal British Navy. To say "the cat was out of the bag" referred to the moment when a cat o' nine tails (a whip used to deal out punishment) was taken from the red bag it was kept in.

Customarily the whip was kept in the bag till the offender at hand was securely tied down and prepared for a lashing. The cat o' nine tails was kept in the bag until there was absolutely no possibility of reprieve.

So once the cat was out of the bag, somebody had it coming.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Black Squirrels in Washington, DC

If you have ever visited Washington, DC - you may have noticed that the squirrels running around the National Mall come in a whole bunch of different colors.

There are a few, particularly around the Vietnam Veterans memorial - that are stark white.

But the ones that most often catch tourists' attention are the solid black squirrels. They represent about 20% of the local squirrel population with normal gray squirrels making up most of the rest.

It turns out the the gray squirrels in Washington are all decendents of 18 Canadian squirrels, which were released from the National Zoo during the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. At the time, the Smithsonian was trying to replenish the local gray squirrel population which had been greatly reduced due to hunting. Back then, folks were actually worried that gray squirrels were going extinct.

The black Canadian squirrels tended to give them an advantage and the gene for a black coat has since spread through the local squirrel population so much that people can now see black squirrels in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of DC.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Show Me the Money

This past spring the American Council of the Blind brought a suit against the U.S. Treasury Department claiming that the design of U.S. currency discriminates against the blind and people with low sight. The Federal court ruled in favor of the Council, ordering the Treasury Department to redesign the currency.

The Treasury Department has commissioned a study to research ways U.S. currency might be better designed for the blind and has asked the courts for time to let that study play out.

The courts are having none of it however, saying recently that the Treasury must start redesigning currency now - either by varying the size of bills or incorporating raised print that would allow blind people to tell the difference between denominations.

So it seems the next version of the $1.00, $5.00, $10.00, and $20.00 are going to not only look, but will also feel different.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Too Many Storms

Gustav, Hannah, Ike..

There are too many storms bearing down on the US these days...

Did you know that the tradition of naming Hurricanes with women's name began just after World War II. They started using men's names in 1978.

Storm names have English, French, Dutch, and Spanish origins.

Stay safe out there!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stars In a Circle

Did you ever wonder why the first flag of the United States, the Colonial flag, has its stars in the shape of a circle?

You might be able to guess - it was designed that way so that no star (and thus, no colony) would be greater than another.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Why is the White House White?

Did you ever wonder: why is the White House White?

Well - it wasn't always least not until 1814. That was the year during the War of 1812 that the British sacked Washington. In the process they set fire to the Executive Mansion destroying much of its interior and charring its outer walls.

Once Washington had been recovered, to save money on the reconstruction - architects whitewashed the outer walls of the Presidential residence to cover up the scorch marks.

There are actually a few hidden places that White House curators have kept unpainted over the years where you can still see the black marks from 1814.

That is why the White House is white.

Monday, September 1, 2008

And the Great Ship Went Down...

It was 23 years ago today in 1985 that researchers discovered the location of the Titanic about 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland in about 12, 500 feet of water.

The ship was designed to hold 32 lifeboats, but the managers of the vessel were concerned that too many lifeboats would mar the beauty of the Titanic, so they only loaded 20 lifeboats.

For its maiden voyage, a first class ticket on the Titanic cost $4,350 (about $90,000 in today's dollars).

Since its discovery, underwater tourism has started to become a little bit of a problem on the Titanic. Submarines taking people down tend to land on the deck, and they are causing damage.

It is estimated that there are millions of shipwrecks on the ocean floor from generations of human activity. There currently is not a whole lot of international regulation about the preservation of underwater artifacts - as more and more of the ocean floor is mapped in the coming decade, it will likely become more and more of an issue.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Air Force One

Did you know that the term Air Force One does not refer to a specific plane, but rather, a military designation?

Air Force One is the call sign for whatever Air Force plane the President of the United States happens to be on at the time. There are actually two of the familiar customized Air Force Boeing 747s that most often transport the President and are thereby known as Air Force One. Often these planes will rotate duty as Air Force One.

Other branches of the military use the same terminology. The helicopter that carries the President is managed by the US Marine Corps. Hence when the President is aboard, it goes by the call sign Marine One.

When the President rides aboard a vehicle owned by the Army, Navy, or Coast Guard - those vehicles are identifed the same way: Army One, Navy One, Coast Guard One.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

How Rare Is It?

Wow - this really blew me away...did you know that all the platinum ever mined (as in human history) would only fill up the space of a regular sized living room (about 25 cubic feet)?

Most of the world's platinum comes from South Africa and only about 130 tons of platinum is mined in the world annually - about 6% by weight of worldwide annual gold production and less than 1% of annual worldwide silver production.

It takes about 120 tons of platinum ore to produce 1 oz of pure platinum. Rare stuff indeed.

Friday, August 29, 2008

No Loo in the Bunker

During the battle of Britain in World War II, Londoners sought refuge from the relentless German air raids. To ensure continuity of government, Churchill ordered the construction of a secret bunker in the London suburbs that was able to sustain a direct bomb hit.

This bunker was codenamed "Paddock" and was the location of many of the British governments most important meetings during the midst of the attack on London. The facility was a tremendous success except for one important feature that the designers forgot to include...bathrooms.

Those in the bunker that needed to go during an air raid, including Churchill, had to get creative.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Wonderful Tomb

Can you name the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World? Ok - the pyramids...that's the easy one...know any of the others?

One of the ones that people never remember is the Tomb of Maussollos, built between 353 BC and 350 BC in the small kingdom of Halicarnassus in present day Turkey.

The word "mausoleum" actually comes from this famous Ancient World Wonder.

Maussollos, the king of Halicarnassus, decreed that his city needed many great public works. Among the great structures he ordered built was a gigantic tomb that was meant to be his final resting place, and that of his queen Artemisia. In the custom of the day, besides being Maussollos' wife, Aremisia also happened to be Maussollos' sister.

Maussollos never lived to see the completion of the great tomb, which was eventually finished some time after his death. Once built, the famous Tomb of Maussollos stood for over a thousand years. Accounts of the tomb describe it with different tiers each reflecting Persian, Greek, and Egyptian influences. The Wonder was also famous for its many statues.

Around 1500 AD crusading Hospilater knights wrote at length about the greatness of the tomb, shortly before they began dismantling it to get material needed to fortify a nearby castle.

Now only fragments of of the once great tomb exist, but descriptions of the tomb have influenced modern structures such as Grant's Tomb in New York City and Los Angeles City Hall.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The US Senate Gavel

Whenever the US Senate comes into session, the presiding officer uses the US Senate gavel to officiate.

The current gavel in use is made from ivory and was a gift to the United States from Inida in 1954.

The original Senate gavel was fashioned from wood with silver plates on each end and was is use as early as 1834. Some historians believe this first gavel was actually used by then Vice President John Adams to call the first Senate into session in New York in 1789.

This original gavel is kept in a small mahogany box along with the current gavel, and is brought out to the presiding officers desk before the Senate is called into session each day.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Captain, we don't have the power!

Downtown Washington had a major power outage this morning - it tied up the Metro subway system and traffic lights. The whole scene looked a little bit like Beirut in the summertime.

The area affected included the White House, but it didn't have a problem because it has a backup generator. A lot of other Federal buildings were out of action though.

Things seem to be getting back to normal now though.

Monday, March 17, 2008

John Adams

If you get the chance to see the new John Adams miniseries on HBO, you should.

The production is based on the David McCullough's book "John Adams" and I think it just does an excellent job of taking one back to the days before the Revolution of 1776.

Really really great work.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Liberal Leave

It snowed in Washington, DC today!

DC doesn't always get a ton of snow, so when it happens people get a little skittish. A lot of times the government will announce a "Liberal Leave" policy meaning...if you can't get to work, its ok to stay home.

I always think that term is pretty funny in a town so geared to politics....what about the conservatives...don't they get leave too?

Let it snow let it snow let it snow!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Historical Amnesia?

There are plenty of wild theories about the origin of the Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt - everything from Aliens to time travelers.

I heard one historian's take on it the other day though that I hadn't heard before. If one believes that people could not have achieved such a great technological feat as early as 2500 B.C. when mankind was practically just emerging from the stone age, then it may be that we have lost a piece of human history. That is, part of recorded history as we know it may have been lost.

It is possible that there was an entire epoch of the human experience, sometime before 2500 BC, that Mankind has forgotten about. Perhaps the pyramids are all that is left of this forgotten time. Its an interesting idea.

Friday, January 4, 2008

To the Republic, Four Which it Stands

Among the 50 states, only 4 have ever been independent you know which ones?

Texas is the easy one...the Alamo, Davy Crockett - you've heard it all before.

California was briefly independent in 1846 between the time it broke away from Mexico and was annexed by the United States.

Now for the tougher ones....

Hawaii was its own independent Kingdom for much of the 19th century.

And finally...between 1777 and 1791 Vermont established itself as an independent nation.