The First Book of Factoids First Published on the Links and Factoids Study List

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Puccini, Giacomo
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is known and loved today as one of the greatest opera composers ever. Suffice it to mention "Manon Lescaut" and "La Boheme". Yet, his early career was quite disheartening.


The first performance of his "Madame Butterfly" on February 17, 1904 in La Scala was an unmitigated fiasco. It was booed because the audience found it too much like his earlier work.

The crowd also recalled his elopement with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani, and the birth of his son, Antonio, out of wedlock in the late 1880s. This was, at the time, the cause of an enormous scandal. They married only in 1904, after her husband died.
Nor was "Madame Butterfly" Puccini's only failure. His second opera, "Edgar", also flopped badly in 1889. His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, was so desperate that he sent him to Bayreuth in Germany to listen to the works of Richard Wagner.


His marriage to the madly envious Elvira was tumultuous.


In 1908 the Puccinis returned from Cairo, Egypt to Torre del Lago. Elvira suspected Doria Manfredi, a young servant from the village and veteran employee of the Puccinis, of having an affair with her husband. She threatened to kill Doria, who then ran away and poisoned herself. An examination of the body, commissioned by the incensed parents, found her virginity intact.


The Manfredis charged Elvira Puccini with persecution and calumny and she was found guilty but used her husband's connections to avoid sentencing. Puccini paid an undisclosed amount to the grieving family and they withdrew their accusations. Elvira, blackmailed by her husband, agreed to grant him full freedom - presumably, also romantically.


Around 2800-2500 BC, Lagash and Umma were two Sumerian city-states located 25 kilometers apart in today's territory of Iraq. Clay cylinders and albast, copper and gold tablets found at the site recount the story of the first revolution in human history: the people rose and deposed officials who kept raising taxes but pocketed the proceeds. The earliest-known written appearance of the word "freedom" (amagi), or "liberty" is in a clay cuneiform document written about 2300 B.C. in Lagash.
Rigor Mortis
The stiff is poised theatrically at the scene of the crime, hand extended to heaven, eyes wide open in unspeakable terror. This is the onset of rigor mortis. Ten hours after death, as the muscles' energy stores - adenosine triphosphate (ATP) - are depleted, the small muscles of the body and muscles that were most vigorously exercised prior to death stiffen. In most cadavers, rigor mortis progresses from the upper parts of the body downward (Nysten law). Three to four days after the event the body's muscles begin to decompose. Some studies suggest that rigor mortis progresses faster in red muscles and in higher room temperatures.


Rigor mortis implies that the natural state of muscles is rigid and contracted. Muscles invest energy in ... relaxing!
Roman Family

The father in the Roman family (paterfamilias) exercised absolute and lifelong power over all other family members (patria potestas): his wife, children, and slaves. If the father's father was alive - then he was the supreme authority in the household. Fathers were even allowed to execute their grown sons for serious offenses like treason.

Each house maintained a cult of ancestors and hearth gods and the paterfamilias was its priest. The family was thought to posses a "genius" (gens) - an inner spirit - passed down the generations. The living and the dead members of the family shared the gens and were bound by it.

Legitimate offspring belonged to the father's family. The father retained custody if the couple (rarely) divorced exclusively at the husband's initiative. The father had the right to disown a newborn - usually deformed boys or girls. This led to a severe shortage of women in Rome.

The father of the bride had to pay a sizable dowry to the family of the groom, thus impoverishing the other members of the family. Moreover, daughters shared equally in the estate of a father who died without a will - thus transferring assets from their family of origin to their husband's family. No wonder females were decried as an economic liability.

At the beginning, slaves were considered to be part of the family and were well-treated. They were allowed to save money (peculium) and to purchase their freedom. Freed slaves became full-fledged Roman citizens and usually stayed on with the family as hired help or paid laborers. Only much later, in the vast plantations amassed by wealthy Romans, were slaves abused and regarded as inanimate property.


It was the British chemist, Joseph Priestley, who gave rubber its name in 1770, when he discovered that it can rub away - erase - pencil marks.


Sahara Desert

The Sahara desert covers 8.6 million square kilometers (or 3.2 million square miles) – the size of the USA. Only 2.5-3 million people live in it – one hundredth the population of the United States. Contrary to its popular image, only 25% of this surface is covered by sand. The rest of the Sahara is made or rocks and desert varnish (weathered rock). The word "Sahara" in Arabic means "deserts", in the plural.


The Pacific Salmon, when sexually mature, return from the ocean to the freshwater stream of their birth to lay eggs and die. The trip is hundreds to thousands of miles long. The Atlantic Salmon make it a few times in a lifetime - the Pacific varieties (there are five) only once.


The Salmon do not eat until they reach their destination and built a nest. The US Fish and Wildlife Service describe the few survivors as "often gaunt, with grotesquely humped backs, hooked jaws, and battle-torn fins. The females are swollen with a pound or more of eggs. Both have large white patches of bruised skin on their backs and sides."


The ordeal continues in the spawning grounds - males fight over females, females over nesting sites.


Why do the Salmon die after spawning?


Probably because of stress. Their cortisol level surges as they struggle upstream. This potent hormone facilitates the provision of energy but also eliminates the appetite, destroys the immune system and adversely affects the digestive tract. The Salmon die of exhaustion, starvation, and infection - not because they are "programmed" to die.

Scientifically speaking, onions, apples and potatoes share the same taste molecules but emit different smell molecules. Their differing "tastes" are, therefore, actually, the way we experience their smells. 
In humans, the senses of taste and smell are connected. That is why we fail to taste well when we have a cold. But in snails the functions are separate. One pair of antennas is to smell with and another pair to taste with.

We can detect four tastes (sweet, salty, bitter and sour) - and, maybe, a fifth one (MSG or monosodium glutamate). 

But we can distinguish more than 10,000 separate smell molecules by their shape. Still, there appear to be seven primary odors—camphorlike, musky, floral, peppermintlike, ethereal (like dry-cleaning fluid), pungent (vinegarlike), and putrid. They correspond to the seven types of smell receptors in the olfactory-cell hairs

When the food is high energy, we taste it as sweet. When the food contains certain chemicals it tastes salty. 

Heated food releases more molecules to the air and to the saliva and thus is easier to smell and taste.
Children have more taste buds than adults. Women have more taste buds than men. They experience tastes much more intensely. Adults have c. 9000 taste buds on and around the tongue.

S/he (Etymology)
The widespread use of the word "she" as the female singular pronoun is astoundingly new.

The word "she" existed in both Middle English, where it was written as "scae", or "sche" and in Old English where it was "sio", or (as in Norsk-Viking languages) "seo", or, in the accusative, sie.

But women simply did not deserve a pronoun all their own.

Prior to the 12 century - when the English language was already 400 years old - the female pronoun was "heo" ("hye", or "hie" in Middle English). "Heo" was also was the plural of all genders. "She" as a noun (she-cousin) was not in acceptable use prior to the 14th century.

Even today, the plurals of all genders in English have no feminine forms, as opposed, for instance, to Semitic languages. "We" and "they" in english are unisex. In Hebrew, for example, "hem" is the male plural and "hen" the female plural.

"He" derives from the Indo-European word for "this (here)". Hence here, her, and ... hence.

Shooting Stars

The average meteor - a piece of a steroid or planet, or dust left by passing comets - is the size of a baseball and is moving through space at 50,000 kilometers per hours. Hence the myth that meteors burn upon entry due to friction with the Earth's atmosphere. The truth is that meteors do not burn - they vaporize due to "ram pressure".

Meteors do heat - to more than 3000 degrees Fahrenheit or 1649 Celsius - and, as a result, they glow. But this is not due to friction. The meteor's advancing front compresses the air and raises its temperature. It is this seething air that, in turn, vaporizes most meteors, transforming them into shooting stars, 100 kilometers above. Larger meteors splatter into exploding fireballs. But they all finally become meteorites - cold shreds of meteors found on the ground.

Sistine Chapel

Ross King published a book titled "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" debunking many of the myths attending to this masterpiece.


Michelangelo (1475-1564) collaborated with assistants on painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel . He did not paint his bits on his back, suspended inches from the ceiling. Aged 71 and already a wealthy artist, he got well paid for the job - though he had practically no experience with wet plaster (or, for that matter, painting). It took three and a half years to complete. It was unveiled, unfinished, in November 1509. It was restored 1979-1999.


Smog - airborne smoke particles combined with solid and liquid fog - could be lethal. Among numerous other substances, smog also contains cyanide and sulfuric acid. During the autumn of 1909, there were more than 1,000 “smoke-fog” deaths in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1952 smog killed more than 4000 people in Greater London within the three weeks. Los Angeles and Tokyo also suffer from smog pollution.

Photochemical smog has nothing to do with either smoke or fog. It originates from nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions mainly from cars. These then undergo photochemical reactions in the lower atmosphere and yield the highly toxic gas ozone in the presence of sunlight.


Smog was so severe in London well into the end of the 1970s that winter sunshine hours were reduced by one third.

Soccer War
Wars were fought for strange reasons - but none as bizarre as the one that led to the 4 days long skirmish between El Salvador and Honduras in July 14, 1969. 


The former lost to the latter in a playoff game for the 1970 World Cup. El Salvador fans then proceeded to beat up their Honduran counterparts.  Soon, the two countries were engaged in a full-blown war, known ever since as the Soccer War. It left 3000 dead, 6000 wounded and more than $50 million in damages. It led to the election of Colonel Sanchez Hernandez as president of El Salvador a year later.


But this was merely the latest manifestation of constant friction between the two neighboring polities. Their international border was never undisputedly demarcated. Honduras was the destination country for 300,000 impoverished El Salvadoran immigrants. Hondurans long campaigned to have them expelled. In 1968, thousands of them were. Honduran and Salvadoran businesses bitterly competed in the same markets. The Soccer War merely epitomized this deep-set rivalry.

Spam is a slang word. The official term is Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (UCE) - defined by the US Federal Trade Commission as "any commercial electronic mail message sent, often in bulk, to a consumer without the consumer's prior request or consent." Unsolicited non-commercial e-mail is also spam.


SPAM (in capital letters) has been a trademark of the Hormel Foods Corporation since 1937 (acronym of "Shoulder Pork and hAM"/"SPiced hAM"). It is a kind of fluffy canned luncheon meat and it gained fame (or notoriety) during the second world war when it was served to American soldiers throughout the world. The Hormel Foods Corporation failed in its legal battle to block the use of the word "spam".

No one knows how the term originated. suggests that it is derived from a Monty Python skit in their Flying Circus television show in 1970. In it a group of Vikings harass two patrons in a restaurant with incessant chants of "spam, spam, spam..."

Spam may be an acronym of Simultaneously Posted Advertising Message. It was the derogatory phrase used to describe the April 1994 marketing campaign of the Canter and Siegel law firm. They posted an offer to every news group thus provoking an outcry and giving rise to - spam.

Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is notorious for its prosecution and bestial torture of the Jews in Spain and its territories. Yet, contrary to common "knowledge", the Inquisition had no jurisdiction over the Jews. It did not detain or torture a single Jew.

Its remit was, as the Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us:

"The Spanish Inquisition, however, properly begins with the reign of Ferdinand the Catholic and Isabella (at the end of the 15th century). The Catholic faith was then endangered by pseudo converts from Judaism (Marranos) and Mohammedanism (Moriscos).

On 1 November, 1478, Sixtus IV empowered the Catholic sovereigns to set up the Inquisition."

The Inquisition persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, and prosecuted only Jews and Moslems who converted to Christianity. Since the property of the "pseudo" converts was impounded, both the crown and ecclesia were happy to pursue this profitable vocation.

Spider Silk

Spiders are not the only insects to produce "webs" of silk. Centipedes, millipedes, and mites, among others, do it too. Spider silk is made of a protein called fibroin and is secreted from up to 7 glands in the spider's abdomen. The spider exerts abdominal pressure to force the silk out and varies the rate of flow by using muscles in the ducts and spigots at the extremities of the glands. Each gland produces a different type of silk intended for distinct purposes - wrapping prey, constructing the web, issuing sperm drops, and manufacturing the egg sac. 


Spider silk strands are more uniform in diameter that most man-made artifacts. Per same diameter and weight, spider silk is 5 times stronger than steel and one of the most elastic substances on earth. It does not break even if stretched to 4 times the original length.

It is water resistant. It does not become brittle even at minus 40 degrees Celsius.
Squid, Giant
On the morning of 25 March 1941, the 8799 ton passenger ship Britannia of the Anchor Line, carrying 500 passengers, was sunk by a German marine raider, Thor, off the west coast of Africa. The few survivors insisted that one of them was gobbled up by a giant squid.


Giant squids (Architeuthis dux) - up to 20 meters long and one ton (1000 kilograms) heavy - are not fabulous sea monsters. They exist. There have been more than 250 sightings of these behemoths, mostly stranded or dead. In 1874, Rev. Moses Harvey of Newfoundland displayed a dead giant squid caught by fishermen in his tub. The specimen was described in a scientific monograph written by Professor Addison Verrill of Yale University six years later.


Undigested pieces of giant squids have been found in the stomachs of sperm whales. Whale skins are often scarred by the tentacled suckers of their foes. The marks are between 2 and 5 centimeters in diameter.


The eyes of this beast - which stalks the darkness of the deepest seas, up to 1000 meters below the surface - are as big as human heads. The squid grows fast and attains full size in 3-4 years.


Giant squids eat deep sea fishes - as well as smaller squids. They use their very long feeding tentacles, equipped with "clubs" (suckers, or suction cups) to capture their prey. The hapless victim is then held by eight smaller arms ("arm crown"). The squid proceeds to bite chunks off the game, using its sharp and powerful beaks (the parrot-like equivalents of jaws).


On May 1, 1840, Great Britain was the first county to issue a postage stamp - the Penny Black, a one penny, adhesive, paper quadrangle. The government saw no need to print the country of origin on the stamps - as no other polity produced such. But it did carry the image of Queen Victoria.

All British stamps since bear the simile of the reigning royal and do not name the country of origin - the United Kingdom.

The stamp was good for use from May 6. Thus the first letter bearing the Black Penny is dated May 6 - and not May 1. On May 8, 1840 another stamp - a two pence blue Victoria - was disseminated. Both the Black Penny and the Blue Victoria enjoyed print runs of millions and so - contrary to urban legend - are not rare, though highly valued by philatelists. The two immediately became collectors' items. Perforation was introduced only in 1848-54.

Stamps were first proposed by a schoolmaster and civil servant, Rowland Hill, in 1837, in his manifest "Post Office Reform". He was knighted for the idea - but it wasn't his. Some countries in Europe printed stamps as early as a century before. They were used to pay a tax on newspaper delivery. At first he proposed pre-paid envelopes - but they were largely ignored by the public, partly due to their flawed design.

Star of David
The "Magen David" ("Shield of King David") - two interpenetrating triangles that form a six-pointed star - has been the symbol of the Zionist movement since 1897. It is an important part of the flag of the State of Israel. It has been a Jewish symbol for a mere 400 years, though. It appears, for instance, on medieval cathedrals.


The symbol in known in India as the Sri-Yantra ("the complete interpenetration of the sexes"). The pupils of the Christian mystic and alchemist Jacob Bohme, who lived in the early part of the 17th century, believed that it symbolized Christ who, as a second Adam, restored the first Adam's androgyny (bisexuality).
The United States boasts a few statue-related records. The Statue of Liberty is the largest copper sculpture in the world. Mount Rushmore - in the Black Hills near Keystone - is both the largest monument and the most sizable figure carved in a rock. Each of the four heads of the U.S. Presidents measure 18 meters tall. Compare it to the Zizkov Monument in Prague, the biggest equestrian memorial. It stands a mere 9 meters tall.

There are rules regulating the appearance of horse-mounted military men. If the person died in battle, the two front legs of the horse must be extended in the air. If only one of the horse's front legs is lifted, the person was merely wounded in battle, though he died later of his wounds. All four legs firmly on the ground - the person died of natural causes.
According to British law, there were two types of suicide: an act committed by a person of unsound mind and "felo de se" ("felon upon himself") - an act of self-destruction committed knowingly and willingly by a person of sound mind:


A felo-de-se, therefore, is he that deliberately puts an end to his own existence.”—Blackstone: Commentaries, book iv. chap. xiv. p. 189.


But killing oneself inadvertently, while trying to kill another, is also considered felo-de-se:


If one commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death, as if attempting to kill another he runs upon his antagonist’s sword, or shooting at another the gun bursts and kills himself.” 

Prior to 1870, the estate of a feb-de-se - except his land - reverted to the crown. The relatives could redeem the chattels and goods for a fee. The body was subjected to an “ignominious burial on the highway, with a stake driven through the body.” The Burial Act of 1823 forbade such practices and ordered to bury the feb-de-se within 24 hours after the coroner's inquest, between 9 PM and midnight, and without Christian last rites.


The Interments act of 1882 permitted to inter the culprit in a churchyard or parish burial grounds, again without rites - though a special kind of rite was allowed.


British law did not cross the ocean. Thus, William Penn included this clause in the charter of privileges he granted to the inhabitants of Pennsylvania:


"If any person, through temptation or melancholy, shall destroy himself, his estate, real and personal, shall notwithstanding, descend to his wife and children, or relations, as if he had died a natural death."
The "winter blues" are supposed to cause suicidal ideation. There is even a mental health syndrome called Seasonal Affective Disorder, supposedly alleviated by bright light therapy (therapy using artificial sources emulating daylight).

But suicide rates are highest in the spring and summer months. They are lowest in winter. The propensity to commit suicide INCREASES with increasing hours of daylight. It is not correlated with any other meteorological variable, such as rainfall or temperature.

Suicide rates appeared to increase with increasing hours of daylight, and showed no connection to other meteorological factors such as changing temperature or rainfall.

Surprisingly , sunlight is known to indirectly induce heightened brain levels of serotonin, a biochemical inversely linked to depression. The lower the levels - the deeper the depressive episode. Serotonin drops during winter months.

SOURCE: American Journal of Psychiatry 2003;160:793-795.




Tapeworms affect not only the digestive tract - but also the liver. They range in size from 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) to a whopping 15 meters (50 feet!).


They are found in almost all vertebrates, including fish. Many of them have distinct heads and bodies. None of them has a mouth or any trace of a digestive tract. They absorb their food rather than digest it.


Tapeworms are hermaphrodite - i.e., each individual is both male and female. They fertilize themselves. When "pregnant" each tapeworm contains hundreds of thousands of embryos. Such embryos, when lodged in the intestinal wall can bore through it into a blood vessel and be carried to their final destination in a muscle.


Tapeworms are only one of a few kinds of human worm-parasites.

Teapot Dome

With the exception of Watergate, there has never been a scandal more egregious and with wider implications than the Teapot Dome affair during the presidency of Warren G. Harding. It involved the secret leasing to private companies of oil-containing tracts owned by the Navy, mainly in Wyoming and California.

"Domes" are natural reservoirs of crude oil. The "Teapot Dome" - named after a rock resembling the kitchen implement - was near Casper, Wyoming. It was "reserved" in 1920 for the future energy needs of American Navy vessels.

Senator Albert B. Fall of New Mexico - Harding's secretary of the Interior - opposed this "conservation" policy. Hence his furtive attempt - in collusion with Secretary of the Navy, Edward Denby and others - to lease the domes to private extractors. Teapot Dome was leased to Harry F. Sinclair's Mammoth Oil Company. The Elk Hills reserve in California was rented to Edward L. Doheny's Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company. The two gave Fall and others gifts and "loans" amounting to $400,000 - an enormous fortune at the time.

The scandal was made public in 1922 in a long investigation by the U.S. Senate's Committee on Public Lands led by Senator Thomas J. Walsh from Montana and Senator Robert M. Lafollette.

After much prevarication by Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, Fall was brought to justice. He sentenced to one year in prison and $100,000 fine in 1929 and many officials were implicated. Daugherty himself resigned in 1924. When Harding died in 1923, he was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge and public outrage subsided. Coolidge acted resolutely and appointed special prosecutors under his personal supervision to protect the interests of the government.

The Supreme Court annulled both the Elk Hills and the Teapot Dome leases in 1927. But, though government officials were convicted of corruption and conspiracy - no oilman was found guilty of bribing (still, they paid damages). Sinclair refused to collaborate with a second Senate investigation and hired gumshoes to shadow members of the jury in his case. He served a short sentence for tampering with a jury and for criminal contempt.

The Democrats failed to capitalize on the affair and lost the presidential elections in both 1924 and 1928.

The transmission of images obsessed inventors as early as 1875 when George Carey of Boston proposed his cumbersome system. Only five years later, the principle of scanning a picture, line by line and frame by frame - still used in modern television sets - was proposed simultaneously in the USA (by W.E. Sawyer) and in France (by Maurice Leblanc). The first complete television system - using the newly discovered properties of selenium - was patented in Germany in 1884, by Paul Nipkow. Boris Rosing of Russia actually transmitted images in 1907. The idea to incorporated cathode -ray tubes was proposed in 1911 by a Scottish engineer, Campbell Swinton.


Another Scot, John Logie Baird, beat American inventor C.F. Jenkins to the mark by giving the first public demonstration of - a dim and badly flickering - television in 1926 in Soho, London. Britain commenced experimental broadcasting almost immediately thereafter. Irish actress Peggy O'Neil was the first to be interviewed on TV in April 1930. The Japanese televised an elementary school baseball match in September 1931. Nazi Germany started its own broadcasting service in 1935 and offered coverage of the 1936 Olympics. By November 1936, the BBC was broadcasting daily from Alexandra Palace in London to all of 100 TV sets in the kingdom.


At the beginning there were many competing standards on both sides of the Atlantic. Baird's technological solutions were trounced by Isaac Shoenberg and his team, set up in 1931 by Electric and Musical Industries (EMI). RCA refined its own system, as did the Dutch Philips. Not until 1951 were the standards for public broadcasting set in the USA and in Europe.


But the Americans were the ones to grasp the commercial implications of television. Bulova Clock paid $9 to WNBT of New York for the first 20-seconds TV spot, broadcast during a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies in July 1941. Soap operas followed in February 1947 (DuMont TV's A Woman to Remember) and the first TV news helicopter was launched by KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles on 4 July 1958.

The first patent for color television was issued in Germany in 1904. Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, the Russia-born American innovator, came up with a complete color system in 1925. Baird himself demonstrated color TV transmission in 1928. Various researchers at Bell Laboratories perfected color television in the late 1920s. Georges Valenso of France patented a series of breakthrough technologies in 1938. But color TV became widespread only in the 1960s.

Domestic terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the United States.


On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican freedom fighters - or terrorists - led by Lolita Lebron, opened fire in the US House of Representatives (Congress). Five congressmen were wounded. They protested the United States' "military occupation" of their country. The attackers were apprehended, imprisoned and released in 1979. They are considered heroes by the island's independence movement to this very day.


Lightning strikes men about four times more often than it strikes women. Most men are under the age of 39. Men account for 84% of lightning-related fatalities and 82% of injuries, according to a study titled "Demographics of US Lightning Casualties and Damages from 1959 - 1994," by Ronald L. Holle and Raúl E. López of the National Severe Storms Laboratory and E. Brian Curran of the National Weather Service.

In the United States alone there were 3,239 deaths and 9,818 injuries from lightning strikes between 1959 and 1994, according to The National Weather Service publication Storm Data.

Lightning travels less than 20 kilometers from the cloud in which it was hatched. The air within the bolt is heated to many times the temperature on the surface of the sun (50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or c. 28,000 degrees Celsius).

The Titanic sank in less than 3 hours despite its 16 watertight compartments. Of 2220 passengers and crew aboard - 1513 died, including a few millionaires. Three survivors are still alive today. The Titanic carried passengers transferred to it from two other cruise liners due to a strike.

The radio operator of the "Californian" was asleep and did not hear the Titanic's distress signals.

The story of a huge gash inflicted on the 269 meters long ship is a myth. Sonar findings indicate that the damage was limited to 35 meters of the hull and had a surface area of merely 1 square meter. The ship seems to have broken in three pieces BEFORE it sank.


Tsunami - a seismic sea wave - means in Japanese "harbor-wave". It is also misleadingly called "tidal wave". It is an ocean wave caused by an earthquake of magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale (or greater) that occurs less than 50 kilometers beneath the seafloor. Tsunamis can also be caused by volcanic eruptions and by landslides.

Tsunami waves are followed by three to five oscillations of the continental shelf waters. These convulsions may last up to a week. If the initial wave reaches the shore at its trough phase, the water recede and expose the seafloor. This happened in Lisbon Port on November 1, 1755. A few minutes later, the displaced waters return with energetic vengeance.

In the ocean, tsunami waves are merely 0.5-2 meters high with a wavelength of up to 200 kilometers. Consequently, they are virtually impalpable though they move at speeds of up to 700 kilometers per hour. As the waves near the shoreline, friction with the shallow bottom reduces their velocity, shortens their wavelength, increases their amplitude and their height.

The tsunami wave that swept across the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Africa on December 26, 2004 was 10-12 meters high. It traveled almost 6000 kilometers. It killed almost 300,000 people. An earthquake in the fjord-like Lituya Bay, Alaska, on July 9, 1958, generated a tsunami wave 524 meters (1719 feet) high, moving at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour. Luckily, the area was largely uninhabited.

Other notable tsunamis:

In 1703 at Awa, Japan with more than 100,000 people dead.

On April 24, 1771, a tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake struck the Japanese island of Ishigaki (in the Ryuku chain). It was 85 meters high. It was so powerful that it hurled a 750 ton piece of coral to a distance of 2.5 kilometers inland.

Again in Japan, 27,000 people drowned in 1896, in a giant tsunami.

In the wake of the underwater volcanic eruptions that obliterated the island of Krakatau (Krakatoa) on August 26-27, 1883, a wave 35 meters high swept across the East Indies killing in excess of 36,000 people.

Triggered by a submarine landslide, a tsunami at least 375 meters high struck the island of Lanai in Hawaii about 105,000 years ago.

The 1960 earhquake in Chile created tsunami waves that traveled more than 10,000 kilometers to Hilo, Hawaii. The 12 meters high water wall killed 61 people and destroyed many buildings.

The Seismic Sea Wave Warning System (SSWWS), based in Honolulu, is an early warning system covering the entire, tsunami-prone, Pacific Ocean.

Tussaud, Madam Marie

Marie Tussaud (her real name was a less French sounding Grosholtz) must have been a remarkable woman. From truly humble origins - her mother worked as the housekeeper of one, Dr. Philippe Curtius - she

sprang to fame in less than 10 years. The good doctor owned and operated a small wax museum in Paris and, when he died in 1794, Marie - who was his trainee and maybe more - inherited his collection of death masks and a house or two in Paris.

In 1780, nineteen years old Marie was appointed art tutor to the sister of King Louis XVI. For the next nine years her official residence was the sumptuous Palace of Versailles. When the French Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, she was commissioned to make death masks of the guillotined.

With 70 wax figures she embarked on a tour of England. The collection included replicas of the late Royal Family of France, a model of the guillotine, and an Egyptian mummy. It was a morbid hit.

In 1835 she settled in London and opened her establishment in Baker Street. The rest, as they say, is history.


Twins are born together or, at the most, a few minutes apart. Right? Wrong.


When one twin dies, the other can be born as much as 153 days later. When both survive, the second twin can be born even two months later. This is called "Delayed Interval Delivery".
Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon was a "healthy carrier" of an infectious disease, the first ever reported and observed in the New World.

But, since then, and throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, more than 100 people were added annually to the rolls of "healthy carriers" of typhoid in New-York alone.
Moreover, though she infected 47 people with typhoid fever (11 of which were members of one family and their hired help) - only 3 of her inadvertent victims died. Tony Labella, another carrier, caused the death of 5 people (of 122 he had infected).
But the nickname of this New York City, fiery Irish immigrant cook - Typhoid Mary - was widely dreaded in the early 1900s. Immune to the disease herself, she was the perfect carrier through her contaminated food.
Private investigators hired in 1906 to find the source of the epidemic failed. George Soper, a civil engineer, traced it back to 37-years old Mallon. When he confronted her with his suspicions and asked for samples of her blood and stool, she advanced on him with a carving knife. She similarly lunged with a "long kitchen knife" at policemen who accompanied visiting health officials. Having been found hiding in an areaway closet, under the staircase outside, on a neighbour's property, she was ultimately subdued.
Attempts to cure her with Hexamethylenamin, laxatives, Urotropin, and brewer's yeast failed. She was quarantined in 1907 for a period of three years by health officials. She was released in February 1910 when she pledged not to prepare food for others again, to observe some rules of hygiene, to provide periodic fecal samples, and to notify the health department on changes of her address.

She sued the Board of Health of the City of New York in 1909. Weekly stool samples she sent to a private lab came consistently clean - while the same stool, analyzed by the department's own labs, turned out to be mostly infected with typhoid bacilli!!!

She protested her innocence:
"This contention that I am a perpetual menace in the spread of typhoid germs is not true. My own doctors say I have no typhoid germs. I am an innocent human being. I have committed no crime and I am treated like an outcast - a criminal. It is unjust, outrageous, uncivilized. It seems incredible that in a Christian community a defenseless woman can be treated in this manner."

She lost the case though, in some respects, she was treated unfairly. Alphonse Cotils, another typhoid carrier, a restaurant and bakery owner who repeatedly violated his pledge not to prepare food for his clientele, got away with a mere reprimand.

In 1911, inoculation for typhoid became publicly available - but few bothered as the disease had only a 10% fatality rate.
Mallon reneged on her promises to the Health Board and in 1915 - using the pseudonym Ms. Brown - infected mothers and their newborns with typhoid at the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan where she worked as a cook. Twenty five people caught the fever and two of them died.
She spent the next 23 years - until her death in 1938 - with her dog in quarantine at Riverside Hospital in North Brother Island. She became a nurse, hospital help, and a kind of lab technician. After a massive stroke she suffered in 1932, she was transferred to the children's ward.


Uganda Scheme

Theodore Herzl, the visionary who founded Zionism, was an assimilated Jew, who did not consider Palestine the optimal choice for a resurgent Jewish nationalism.


When the British offered to him a homeland in East Africa (today's Uganda), he accepted and proposed it to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle in 1903. After bitter recriminations, the Congress decided (295 for, 178 against) to send an "investigatory commission" to the territory to inspect it and report back.


Herzl vowed that the Uganda scheme is not a substitute for the reclamation of Palestine as the historic homeland of the Jewish people. But his actions defied his speech. He pursued the British proposal to his death (in 1904) as did many other prominent Jewish leaders, organized in the Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO).


The plan was decisively abandoned only after the Balfour Declaration which granted the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine under the British mandate.


Yet, in the meantime, other territorial plans emerged: in Canada, Australia, Iraq, Libya, and Angola. Close to 10,000 Jews settled in Texas. Stalin created a "Jewish Homeland" in Birobidjan. Even the Nazis tried to revive some of these "solutions to the Jewish  question" - notably in Lublin, Poland and in the island of Madagascar.

Vegetarianism is associated with compassion. Yet, it pops up in the most unlikely historical contexts. Hitler is alleged to have been a non-smoker (which he was) and a vegetarian (which, strictly speaking, he was not). True, he he is known to have scathingly castigated meat eaters as cruel. He loved dogs and was surrounded by a few favourite canines even in his last days in the bunker in Berlin.
But he many sources document his passion for caviar, Bavarian sausages, liver dumplings, and ham, for instance. Moreover, the vegetarian movement in the Third Reich (Nazi Germany) was considered dangerously "cosmopolitan". It was (mildly) persecuted, was forced to abstain from participating in international activities and was forbidden to own offices or publish books. The state did allow individual vegetarians to convert their meat rations into dairy products, though.
Another curious affair involves the Japanese Shogun, Sunayoshi, who, on January 28, 1687, following the death of his only and beloved son, became a devout Buddhist. He criminalized the killing of all land animals, and the eating of fish, shellfish, and birds. When he died, in January 1709, his successor (and cousin) Ienobu, freed 9000 violators of the royal edict from jails across the country.
Verdi, Giuseppe
Like Puccini, the career of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) did not start auspiciously.


Coming from a tiny hamlet and the son of an innkeeper and farmer, he was snootily rejected by the Milan Conservatory due to his "advanced age" and "poor playing of the piano". He, thus, had to take private lessons from the Milanese composer, Vincenzo Lavigna. His second opera, King for a Day, was a flop. When his wife and two children died, he gave up composing altogether.


Luckily, the director of La Scala, the Milanese opera house, succeeded to convince him to rescind his vow. The result was Nabucco (1842). The opera was so adored that it was still playing in Buenos Aires and St. Petersburg a decade later.


As opposed to nostalgic re-writing of history, not least by Verdi himself, the fact is that the opera's  subject matter - the Babylonian captivity of the Jews - was not meant to allude to the subjugation of the Italian people to Austrian rule. Only after Italy was unified in 1861, did Verdi propagate the apocryphal story of how he snapped out of his depression when the libretto fell and opened in the chorus "Va, pensiero", the song of the enslaved Hebrews. The new nation of Italy needed heroes and Verdi was "recruited", his earlier work deliberately recast as subversively anti-Austrian and nationalistic.


A series of successful operas - such as Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853) and La Traviata (1853) - brought him international acclaim. When the Suez canal was completed, the Khedive of Egypt commissioned Aida (1871) to celebrate the opening of the waterway.


Verdi's dream was to retire early as a "gentleman-farmer" to land he purchased in 1844. He reluctantly served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies after the unification of Italy in 1861 but soon resigned. He did finally settle down in 1873 and became a very wealthy landowner.


Like Puccini, Verdi lived, out of wedlock, with the common-law wife of a musical agent, the prima donna Giuseppina Strepponi. When she met Verdi, she already had three children, the oldest of whom was being reared by her former maid. Verdi refused to allow her to accompany him on official travels, due to the scandal that swirled around their relationship. Moreover, he had at least one documented affair with the fiancée of his best friend, Angelo Mariani. Her name was Teresa Stolz and she was a soprano opera singer. He loved her so much that she was even allowed to attend his deathbed.


Verdi was a very unpleasant and cantankerous person. He was known for his litigiousness, evasiveness, vindictiveness, reversals and constant bickering. He frequently clashed with censors due to the bold subject matter and librettos of his operas. But he gave rise to so much beauty that his personal foibles are all but forgotten by now.

Video Cassette Recorder
A Californian company, Ampex Corporation, invented the video cassette recorder in 1956. The Ampex VR1000 weighed 665 kilograms and stood 110 centimeters tall. It was not until 1972 that a home version was introduced by Philips of the Netherlands. Sony introduced the first affordable home video recorder and player in 1969 but it was JVC (Matshushita) from Japan which invented the VHS recording system in 1976 and competed with Sony's less successful Betamax standard.
Vinci, Leonardo da
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, cartographer, engineer, scientist and inventor in the 15th century. Yet, despite his genius, he referred to himself as "senza lettere" (the illiterate, the man without letters).  For good reason: until late in life, he was unable to read, or write, Latin, the language used by virtually all other Renaissance intellectuals, the lingua franca, akin to English today. Nor was he acquainted with mathematics until he was 30.


Leonardo was born out of wedlock but was raised by his real father, a wealthy Florentine notary. He served at least ten years (1466-1476) as Garzone (apprentice) to Andrea del Verrocchio and painted details in Verrocchio's canvasses. Only in 1478, when he was 26, did he become independent.


He was not off to an auspicious start. He never executed his first commission (an altarpiece in the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio della Signoria, Florence's town hall). His first large paintings were left unfinished ("The Adoration of the Magi" and "Saint Jerome", both 1481).


Most of the sketches and studies for Leonardo's works of art and engineering are found on his shopping lists, personal notes, and personal expenditure ledgers.


No one was allowed to enter Leonardo's den, where he kept, as Giorgio Vasari in "Lives of the Artists", describes: "a number of green and other kinds of lizards, crickets, serpents, butterflies, locusts, hats, and various strange creatures of this nature".


Leonardo's clients were often dissatisfied with his glacial pace, lack of professional discipline, and inability to conclude his assignments. He was frequently involved in litigation. The Cofraternity of the Immaculate Conception sued him when he failed to produce the Virgin on the Rocks, an altarpiece they commissioned from him in 1483. The court proceedings lasted 10 years. The head of Jesus in "The Last Supper" was left blank because Leonardo did not dare to paint a human model, nor did he trust his imagination sufficiently. Leonardo worked four years on the Mona Lisa but never completed it, either. He carried it with him wherever he went.


Leonardo's terra cota model for a colossal bronze sculpture of the father of his benefactor and employer, Ludovico Sforza, was used for target practice by invading French soldiers in 1499. The metal which was supposed to go into this work of art was molded into cannon balls.


Leonardo was a member of the commission which deliberated where to place Michelangelo's magnificent statue of David. His cartographic work was so ahead of its time, that the express highway from Florence to the sea - built in the 20th century - follows precisely the route of a canal he envisioned. His scientific investigations - in anatomy, hydraulics, mechanics, ornithology, botany - are considered valuable to this very day. Bill Gates owns some his notebooks containing scientific data and observations (known as the Codex Hammer).

But Leonardo's loyalties were fickle. He switched sides to the conquering French and in 1506 returned to Milan to work for its French governor, Charles D'Amboise. Later, he became court painter for King Louis XII of France who, at the time, resided in Milan. In 1516, he relocated to France, to serve King Francis I and there he died.


Leonardo summed up the lessons of his art in a series of missives to his students, probably in Milan. These were later (1542) collected by his close associate, Francesco Melzi, as "A Treatise on Painting" and published in print (1651, 1817).

In 1896 Zanzibar surrendered to British forces after 38-45 minutes. It was the shortest war in history.

On 25 August 1896, following Sultan Hamid bin Thuwain death, an usurper declared himself the new Sultan in the palace.

England ran a protectorate on the island of Zanzibar since 1890. On  August 27, three warships of the Royal Navy opened fire and, in less than an hour, leveled the palace and deposed the wannabe.

The 100-years war between Britain and France lasted 117 years (1337-1453). The Britons were expelled from Calais only in 1558. This is by far the longest war in history.

Warfare, Biological and Chemical

Chemical and biological warfare are not an invention of the 20th century.

Solon (638-559 BC) used a strong purgative, the herb hellebore, in the siege of Krissa. During the 6th century BC, the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot. In the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the Spartans flung sulfur and pitch at the Athenians and their allies. In the Middle Ages, besiegers used the bloated and dripping bodies of plague victims as readymade "dirty bombs".

In 1346, during its siege of Kaffa (present day Feodosia in Crimea), the Tartar army suffered an outbreak of the Plague. They hurled the corpses of their infected dead over the city walls and into the city's water wells. The resulting epidemic led to the city's surrender. It is widely believed that people afflicted with the horrendous disease fled the place and started the Black Death pandemic which consumed at least one third of Europe's population within a few years. Russian troops adopted the same tactic against Sweden in 1710.

Smallpox was another favorite. Francisco Pizarro (1476-1541) gave South American natives clothing items deliberately contaminated with the variola virus. During the French and Indian wars in North America (1689-1763), blankets used by smallpox victims were given to American Indians. General Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797) gifted Indians loyal to the French with smallpox-contaminated bedspreads during the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1767. An epidemic broke among the Native American defenders of Fort Carillon and they lost it to the English.

Washington DC

People who have resided in Washington DC for longer than 12 months were enfranchised - given the right to vote - only in 1961 with the passing of the 23rd amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Amendment was proposed in Congress on June 16, 1960 and ratified on March 29, 1961. It reads:

Amendment XXIII

Section 1. The District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the states, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a state; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The District of Columbia was formed in 1802 from bits of Maryland and Virginia.

Weimar Republic, Constitution of

The Weimar Republic was established in February 1919 in defeated Germany and lasted until March 1933, when it was replaced with Hitler's Third Reich. The Constitution of the Weimar Republic was adopted in August 1919. It created a bicameral house of representatives: the Reichstag, a national assembly, and the Reichsrat, comprised of the representative of the various Lander (states).

The Reichsrat could reject laws passed by the Reichstag. The Lander sported their own state parliaments, local police forces, and judiciary. During states of emergency, Lander assemblies and governments were suspended and they were ruled directly from the center.

Elections were supposed to be held every 4 years and anyone over 20 years of age could vote. A system of proportional representation gave voice and presence in the Reichstag to even the smallest political parties. One tenth of the population could force a referendum on draft legislation rejected by the Reichstag.

The President, elected by universal suffrage,  was the head of state and served a term in office of seven years. He appointed and dismissed the Chancellor (prime minister) and commanded the Republic's much-reduced armed forces. He had the right to veto laws passed by the Reichstag, dissolve it and call early elections and referenda. He could also rule by decree, having declared a state of emergency.

The Weimar Constitution guaranteed the right to local self-government, a "dignified existence", economic and religious freedoms, freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form trade unions.

The Weimar Constitution was never abrogated or replaced. it remained in force until 1949 - throughout the 12 years of the Third Reich.

But on February 28, 1933 - a day after the Reichstag building was set on fire, allegedly as part of a "Communist plot" - Hitler submitted to von Hindenburg, the ailing and octogenarian German president, an emergency decree titled "For the Protection of People and State; to guard against Communist acts of violence endangering the state".

Article 1 of the decree suspended all rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution. It read:

"Thus, restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, on the right of association and assembly, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications, and warrants for house-searches, orders for confiscations, as well as restrictions on property rights are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."

Article 2 of the decree allowed the Reich government to take over the power of the Lander governments in order to restore security and order.

The Weimar Constitution was a dead letter.

The 13,000 word Constitution, adopted in 1949, by West Germany, was patterned after its Weimar predecessor but contained safeguards against its own suspension by a wilful dictator and against the declaration of aggressive war.  The Land of Bavaria - an important constituent of West Germany - refused to ratify it because it deemed it too "centralistic" (not enough power was granted to the Lander).

The first elections under this revamped document took place in August 14, 1949.
Women’s Rights
The equality of the genders is a recent development. Switzerland granted women the right to vote in national polls only in 1971 - long after Muslim women in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Indonesia, for instance, were enfranchised. Britain allowed them to cast ballots only in 1928-9. Women in France were not allowed be sole signatories of cheques until 1962.
In the USA women were barred from jury duty and public office until the early 1930s. Women in both the Republican and Democratic parties were relegated to special "Divisions" until 1952. The Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1923 and passed both houses of Congress only in 1972. It expired in 1982, three states short of adoption.
The first woman governor – Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming - was elected in 1924, upon the death of the previous governor, her husband.


The second woman governor - Ella Grasso of Connecticut - was elected in 1974 and the first judge of the Supreme Court - Sandra Day O'Connor - was appointed in 1981.


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