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Is the Vatican City really the world’s smallest country?

12 Apr

When I first visited Europe in my early twenties, I did so as part of an 18-35 consignment that crammed approximately 712 countries into two days.

Now I may be exaggerating slightly here, but it really was like a Cliffs Notes tour of the continent. Get in and out of each country fast, buy a tacky souvenir and don’t learn much about the culture, history and people. Of course this lack of insight could also have been because we were inhaling our own body weight in schnapps every day! But I digress.

On this tour – where our trip song was the Friends theme – we did get to visit a few places that had long been on my bucket list. And one of them was the Vatican. Not because I’m overly religious, but because I thought there would be something awe-inspiring about the heart of Catholicism. Even if the Sistine Chapel was smaller than I expected and the gypsies outside more sly.

Anyway, I got to thinking about that trip went I was sorting through travel memorabilia and found a bottle of holy water I’d bought from the Vatican, along with rosary beads. And it reminded me I’d always been curious about whether it actually is the world’s smallest country. The answer is – yes. All 0.2sqm of it!

As the Vatican City State’s official website explains …

“Vatican City State was founded following the signing of the Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and Italy on February 11, 1929. These were ratified on June 7th 1929. Its nature as a sovereign State distinct from the Holy See is universally recognized under international law.”

Here’s some other cool facts I discovered:

  • The population of Vatican City is about 800 people, more than 450 of whom have Vatican citizenship.
  • About half of the Vatican’s citizens do not live inside Vatican City. Because of their occupations (mostly as diplomatic personnel), they live in different countries around the world.
  • Vatican City has its own flag and anthem.
  • Its official hymn – chosen on October 16, 1949 by Pope Pius XII – is  Charles Gounod’s Pontifical March.
  • Cars registered in the Vatican Automobile Register have one of two sets of initials – SCV, for vehicles belonging to the Vatican City State and Departments of the Holy See; CV for vehicles that are the property of Vatican citizens and individuals. The international abbreviation is V.
  • Vatican City mints its own coins and issues its own stamps.
  • It has a full complement of services – from a pharmacy and television centre to a telephone service and philatelic and numismatic office.

You can read more about Vatican City here.

BTW, for the record, the top three list of the world’s smallest countries is rounded out by Monaco in Europe (0.7sqm) and Nauru in the Pacific (8.5sqm)

Where does the phrase ‘sick as a dog’ come from?

11 Apr

I cope with being sick the way Paris Hilton ‘acts’. So poorly you almost have to see it to believe it.

I’m just not meant to come down with ailments that confine me to bed for the best part of a week. I’d much rather be hit with a mild sporting injury instead – as long as it’s somewhere G-rated I can show off in public to get sympathy.

Anyway, as is often the case, today’s health and wellbeing inspired today’s post. So I decided to discover why we say we are ‘sick as a dog’. And if you’ve just eaten brunch you might want to check back later for the answer as it’s pretty gross.

Basically the description dates back to at least the 17th Century and refers to the tendency of dogs to eat almost anything they can get their paws on, even stuff they shouldn’t. Which of course often results in them vomiting the material right back up again.

And since vomiting is so closely aligned with human illnesses, the obvious parallels gave birth to the phrase.

Charming, no?

What is an albatross in golf?

9 Apr

There was big news in the golfing world this week when a player called Louis Oosthuizen pulled off something called an albatross in the US Masters.

Now this would have impressed me far more if 1) I knew what it was 2) I knew who he was and 3) I was even remotely interested in golf.

But since this blog project is all about expanding my knowledge base this year I decided to rectify at least the first question.

And the answer is – an albatross is a three under par score on an individual hole, with par being the number of shots a player is expected/allowed to sink the ball in the hole. Other golfing measures include birdie for one under par, eagle for two under par and bogey for one over par.

You can read more about the history and naming of golfing conventions at the USGA Museum, but here’s a starting point from the site’s FAQ

How did the terms birdie and eagle come into golf?
The term birdie originated in the United States in 1899. HB Martin’s Fifty Years of American Golf contains an account of a foursomes match played at the Atlantic City (N.J.) CC. One of the players, Ab Smith relates, “My ball… came to rest within six inches of the cup. I said ’That was a bird of a shot… I suggest that when one of us plays a hole in one under par he receives double compensation.’ The other two agreed and we began right away, just as soon as the next one came, to call it a birdie.” In 19th-century American slang, ’bird’ referred to anyone or anything excellent or wonderful. By analogy with birdie, the term eagle soon thereafter became common to refer to a score one better than a bird. Also by analogy, the term albatross stands for double eagle — an even bigger eagle!

So there you have it, apparently golf is all about the birds. Insert Tiger Woods joke here.

Who invented Post-Its?

8 Apr

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion was on TV the other day. And while I didn’t see the whole movie, I did tune in just in time to catch my favourite bit.

It’s where Romy tries to take credit for inventing Post-Its, only to have her lie brutally undone by an acerbic Heather Mooney (Janeane Garofalo), who reveals they were really created by a guy called Art Fry from 3M.

It’s a cringe inducing catch-out, and the recriminations from the popular girls Romy is trying to impress are brutal. But it did inspire me to find out his story. The answers lay in MIT’s Inventor of the Week archives.

Turns out it all began with a colleague called Spencer Silver, a senior chemist in the company’s research labs, who had created a high-quality, low-tack adhesive that was strong enough to hold papers together but weak enough to let them pull apart without tearing. He freely shared his invention with colleagues but none could come up with a marketable way to sell the product. Until it came to Art’s attention. MIT takes up the story…

“Fry sang in his church choir and was frustrated by the fact that, when he stood and opened his hymnal to sing, the paper bookmarks he used to mark the songs on the program would slip out of sight or even on to the floor. In a moment of insight that has become legendary in the realm of contemporary invention, Fry, musing during a rather boring sermon, realised Silver’s reusable adhesive would provide his bookmarks with precisely the temporary anchoring he required.”

And thus the seed was sewn, resulting five years later in the official release of Post-its.

And for the record, the reason they were first created in yellow is because the original testing/playing around was done on some scrap paper, which just happened to be yellow, and the colour struck a chord.

And now, let’s watch the magic moment …

Did Isaac Newton really discover gravity when an apple fell on his head?

4 Apr

Every so often – usually when I’m recounting the alleged thievery of biscuits belonging to an understanding high school Physics teacher – my brain reluctantly turns its attention towards science.

So today I decided to put the focus to good use and look at the truth behind a popular scientific legend – that Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head. And, like all the best myths from history, it seems to have at least a little grounding in reality.

I found one intriguing backgrounder on the topic at the Culture Lab blog at New Scientist, which profiled a historical manuscript that went on to become a biography of the scientist by William Stukeley, who was apparently told the following anecdote firsthand by Newton. He remembers the telling as such..

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees…he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”

You can read the full manuscript here at the Newton Project, which is a non-profit group dedicated to making his unpublished and published works freely available online. If you have time, I do recommend it, as it offers some pretty interesting insights into the development of his theory on gravity and more.

Certainly he did more good with his apples than a certain snake ever did in the garden of Eden…

What inspired Don McLean’s song American Pie?

2 Apr

A road trip beckoned today as part of an all-too brief holiday through Australia’s southern states.

Fortunately, it wasn’t the kind of horrific trip most of us endured with our parents in childhood when all we wanted to know was ‘Are we there yet?’ Instead, this one was fun. The kind with roadies, stereotyping of small country towns and CD compilations featuring the best movie songs of all time (BTW does anyway know the film that featured Belinda Carlisle’s Mad About You?).

Anyway, one of the tracks that boomed through the speakers was Don McLean’s American Pie – all 300+ minutes of it (or so it seemed). And it took me back to my twenties, when it was considered a badge of honour to remember every word.

It’s a skill I still boast today. And as I sang of jesters and thorny crowns, I got to wondering about the inspiration behind the lyrics.

For half the song I decided they were about the JFK assassination. But my supposing wasn’t enough – I wanted to know the real story.  Yet no clear answers were forthcoming – and that’s exactly how the artist likes them.

In an interview here, McLean had this to say:

“The idea that I had, was that it was about American politics in music running in sort of a parallel trough, if you will. That was a concept in my head. Then I decided to make up a dream using rock and roll and other kinds of imagery to move forward from the death of Buddy Holly right up to the end, and that’s how it came out.”

Further clarification comes from his website

“American Pie is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealised 1950s and the bleaker 1960s. It was initially inspired by Don’s memories of being a paperboy in 1959 and learning of the death of Buddy Holly. American Pie presents an abstract story of McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time it represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s, but metaphorically the song continues to evolve to the present time. It is not a nostalgia song. American Pie changes as America itself is changing.”

Musical aficionados who have studied the song pin meanings to certain lyrics. For example, the jester who sang for the king and queen is rumoured to be Bob Dylan. But this has never been confirmed.

In short, what McLean hopes is that fans find their own meaning and inspiration in the song. And he must be on to something since it remains a classic more than 30 years since its release in 1971.

Here’s a few other American Pie facts…

* It was named as one of the five greatest songs of the 20th century in a poll by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America. The other four songs were This Land is Your Land, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Respect and White Christmas.
* It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003.
* It has been played more than three million times on American radio alone.

And now let’s watch him sing it live.

James Cameron dived into the Challenger Deep. What is it?

1 Apr

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had this fantasy about the ocean.

It involves draining all the water away – naturally while freezing time so the animals don’t die – and then wandering around to see what’s really down there.

I suspect the result would be equally terrifying and fascinating. I mean we already know about Jaws, Godzilla, Orca and the creature from Cloverfield, but I bet there’s a beast or two that would make them look like fluffy kittens.

Yet I imagine there would also be pretty some pretty cool stuff. And in the same way people say our jungles are full of scientific and medical breakthroughs we’ve yet to discover, I bet the same goes for the deepest part of our planet.

Someone who shares my fascination is uber-director James Cameron, who this week became the first solo person to reach the 11km Challenger Deep, an undersea valley in the Mariana Trench that is Earth’s deepest realm.

It was only the second manned dive into the Deep, the first being in 1960 when Lt Don Walsh and late Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard made their journey in the bathyscaphe Trieste. Cameron completed his journey, which took just over two hours, in a one-man vessel that collected videos, photos and samples.

You can read more about his trip – and watch a video – at National Geographic, which is a partner in the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project. But I was inspired to learn more about his destination. So I set myself a challenge to learn a few facts about the trench. Here they are…

* The trench was created by ocean-to-ocean subduction, which basically means the Pacific Plate was forced underneath the Mariana plate.
* Measuring 11,033m deep, it lies in the Pacific Ocean.
* The trench stretches 2542km long and 69km wide.
* The pressure at its deepest part is more than 8 tonnes per square inch.
* Mt Everest – the highest point on Earth – would fit into the trench and still have almost 2200m of water above it.
* The deepest point, called Challenger Deep, is named after the British Royal Navy ship HMS Challenger II, whose crew made the first recordings of its depth in an expedition from 1872-1876.
* Four descents have been made to the bottom. As well as the two that were manned, the Kaiko reached the bottom in 1996 and Nereus in 2009.


Why is it considered unlucky to walk under a ladder?

28 Mar

Joan Rivers is sharp of tongue and mind. So it goes without saying I adore her.

Over the years – and along many red carpets – she has skewered fashion victims mercilessly and publicly, showing, dare I say it, a touch of the pot kettle blacks given her own obvious love of plastic surgery.

Her saving grace, in my eyes, is that she can always be counted on for a great one liner, many of them unrepeatable without the use of excessive asterisks. But here’s one of my g-rated favourites…

“I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.”

Now, I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment already. But today it held even more relevance as I managed to fall off a ladder in the pursuit of domestic goddesstry and then step on a length of staples. Yes there was cursing!

To explain, I was already in a bad mood as I was into day two of Project Spring Clean and I hate cleaning almost as much as I hate vegetables.

But since I am in a de-cluttering mind-set I decided to aim high and check out what might be hiding alongside my pet dust bunnies in the highest and furthest reaches of my bedroom cupboard. So I carefully erected the ladder and started climbing, only to have it collapse out from underneath me, gouging out a chunk of the cupboard as it did so. Did I mention there was swearing?

Anyway, after I used chocolate meditative breathing techniques to calm down, the thought did occur to me that ladders aren’t only bad luck when you walk underneath them. And suddenly today’s inspiration struck – to find out where this superstition began. I found some theories at America’s Today show. Here’s what they had to say …

Walking under a ladder

Why would walking under a ladder be considered such a bad thing? Author and psychology professor Stuart Vyse said the ladder superstition is one that may have perfectly understandable and logical origins.

“Obviously, people may have had bad experiences; maybe something had dropped on their heads,” Vyse said. “So that’s not totally irrational.”

In his book The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Richard Webster notes additional reasons for the belief:

“Walking under a ladder is believed to cause bad luck. No one really knows why, but at least three theories have been proposed. The most likely theory is that a ladder forms a triangle when placed against a wall. The triangle symbolises the Holy Trinity. Consequently, when you walk through it, you effectively insult the Trinity and attract the devil. The second theory concerns the use of the ladder in hangings. The ladder would be propped against a beam to allow the person about to be hanged to climb high enough to reach the rope. A third theory dates back to ancient Egyptian times, when people believed you might see a god walking up or down the ladder while you walked under it.”

So there you have it. Three theories from which to take your pick. Personally I think I was the victim of the God of Sloth, who wanted to remind me there were far better things to do with my time than clean.

Here’s the link to the superstition and the origin of others including why it’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors and why the number 13 gives people the willies.

Who is responsible for flanno shirts?

26 Mar

I am a pretty keen student of the different empirical divides that make up our social hierarchy.

Now, in theory, this makes me sound like the Sir David Attenborough of the human world. But in reality it simply means I enjoy making fun of bogans.

Let me say upfront I know I am about to be an outright snob. But there’s just something very wrong about a group whose commitment to sophistication centres on wearing their good double plugger thongs to a formal occasion.

And don’t even get me started on the cringeworthiness that is rats tails, tramp stamps, stonewash jeans and Fruity Lexia drunk straight from the cask.

Then there are flannelette shirts.

If Winnie Blues are the bogan’s favourite accessory, the mighty flannelette shirt is their uniform of choice. Not because they’re paying tribute to the revolution that was grunge music or because it’s practical for work, but simply because they like them. Especially teamed with black jeans and a hotted up Commodore.

So who is responsible for popularising this fashion atrocity? I had to know. And would it surprise you to learn he was American?

His name was Hamilton Carhartt, which probably makes him sound like the Ed Hardy of his time. But that’s an unfair call to make since Hamilton did not own a bedazzler, did not seek to clothe the torso and buttocks of every B grade star who called the Jersey Shore home and actually designed them for practical purposes.

In fact his inspiration was about as unglamorous as you can get – creating clothes to meet the needs of the 1800s working class, such as those employed on the railway. If only it had *sigh* stayed that way.

You can read more about Hamilton here.

But in the meantime, courtesy of a fabulous book /website called Things Bogan Like, I present a list of other things bogans like…

* Perspective-based photos at famous landmarks
* Spurious allergies
* Slater & Gordon
* Misspelling their kids’ names
* Prefacing racist statements with ‘I’m not racist but…’
* Tribal tattoos
* Buddhist iconography as home furnishings
* Ill-informed analysis of the Qur’an
* Petrol consumption as recreation
* Political correctness gone mad



Why are there ravens at the Tower of London?

22 Mar

Today’s knowledge quest started off with a focus on Blackadder. Specifically I had it in my mind to find out who wrote Baldrick’s infamous line “I have a cunning plan My Lord”, which so often preceded disaster by mere seconds.

Yet in a strange twist of fate, I ended up veering well and truly off course. And it’s all Wikipedia’s fault.

You see I was reading up on Baldrick when I came upon a suggestion one of the Tower of London ravens was named for the character. And while the inspiration doesn’t seem to have ever been formally acknowledged, it’s held to be true.

So clearly, ravens are a serious business at this most English of historical/tourist attractions. And I wanted to know why.

The answer lies back in the hands of time, with a legend that says the kingdom will fall if the birds ever leave. So Charles II, who ruled in the 1600s, decreed there must always be at least six in residence.

Responsibility for maintaining the status quo falls to someone called the Raven Master, whose responsibilities range from trimming their feathers to feeding them 6oz of raw meat and blood soaked bird formula biscuits every an egg once a week and an occasional rabbit (apparently the fur is good for them).

You can read more about them here, but the current seven inhabitants – six and a spare – are as follows…

* Porsha (female)
* Hugine (female)
* Pearl (female)
* Erin (female)
* Merlin (female)
* Rocky (male)
* Munin (female)

 Here’s a few other raven facts..

  • The tower’s oldest ever raven resident was Jim Crow, who died at 44.
  • Escapes are rare but do happen. One bird, appropriately called Grog, was last seen outside a pub in 1981.
  • There are also occasional sackings such as George, who was let go in 1986 because he kept chewing on TV antennas. As you do.

And now for a moment of Baldrick.

“I’ve got a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel.”