Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Learning Today: How Do They Get Those Little Shapes On Oreos?

The practice of stamping shapes on biscuits is actually practical--it helps the crackers achieve even puffiness in the baking process. It's called 'docking'. Bakers have used a wide variety of tools for this task--before factories, bakers used “a dangerous-looking utensil consisting of sharp heavy spikes driven into a bun-shaped piece of wood.” Find out more at this fascinating story on the blog Edible Geography. via The Browser.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Learning Today: How Long Was A Dinosaur Day?

A day didn't used to be 24 hours. In fact, the rotation of the earth is slowing down. So back in the time of the dinosaurs, a day was only 22 and 1/4 hours.

So if you ever complain about there not being enough hours in a day, your solution is simple: travel back in time.

Found on the ever-enlightening, Dr Karl podcast (MP3 link).

Monday, June 6, 2011

Learning Today: Paris Syndrome

Paris. If all you ever knew about Paris came from watching Hollywood films, you'd assume that as soon as you alighted from your plane at Charles De Gaulle your journey would consist of nothing but falling in love, eating scrumptious food, and marveling at the wealth of beauty and culture that Paris affords.

People who've been to the City of Love can tell you that despite the city's charms, the streets smell like piss. It's a great city--but it's still a city, inhabited by humans in all their sweaty variety.

Travelers need to inure themselves against disappointment. Those who don't might have some problems.

One of those problems is Paris Syndrome. Sometimes, when Japanese tourists visit Paris, they are so disappointed by the tawdry reality of the city that they can suffer from a mental breakdown. The problems with the language barrier, the informality of the French, and the horror of international travel all compound to make the victim of Paris Syndrome so disappointed that they crack. The Japanese Embassy in Paris reportedly sends home about 20 people suffering from Paris Syndrome each year.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Dan Carlin On Reddit

The incredible podcaster Dan Carlin (creator of one of my favorite podcasts Hardcore History) is now on Reddit doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything.) Check it out.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Learning Today: Captain Kidd Was Framed!

Captain Kidd's name occupies the highest strata of pirate fame--the strata that's festooned with eye patches, peg legs and parrots, the strata that's immortalized in millions of seven year olds' Halloween costumes. But recent research has shown that Captain Kidd might not have actually been a pirate after all. The poor man was probably framed.

There's an important distinction to make between piracy and privateering. Being a pirate is relatively easy. You outfit a ship (with lots of cannons and stuff), go out on the ocean, and every other ship you see--you try to steal their stuff. Privateering is another matter entirely. To be a privateer you get a fancy piece of paper from your government called a letter of marque and then you prey on other country's ships and it's all legal.

This was the distinction which Captain Kidd hoped would save his life. See, Captain Kidd was hanged for being a pirate. But he claimed that he had a letter of marque. He was a privateer.

The only problem was that Kidd's letter of marque had been issued in pretty dubious circumstances by a cabal of powerful men who wanted to personally profit from Kidd's privateering. The cabal which gave Kidd his letter of marque were all high-ranking members of the current government, and when Kidd was captured and tried, none of them would jump to the poor man's defense for fear of, you know, being disgraced for outfitting a pirate.

When Kidd was hanged the noose broke, leaving Kidd squirming, in pain, hanging from the scaffold--but not dead. At the time this kind of thing was considered a gentle divine suggestion that a miscarriage of justice was being committed, but people wanted Kidd eliminated, and so he was strung up again and sent to Pirate Heaven. Or Privateer Heaven, if you prefer.

I learned about Captain Kidd from Angus "Pirate Expert" Konstam's story on BBC History Magazine's June 2011 podcast.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?

In the Second World War, the Soviets suffered more casualties in Stalingrad than the total combined causalities suffered by the Americans and the British for the entire war.

Over the course of the war the Soviet Union lost about 15% of its population.

When we think about the Second World War we think of the battle in France, of troops marching through Berlin, of the atom bomb exploding in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the real story of the Second World War happened along the Eastern Front--a brutal destructive stalemate where two dictators threw countless human lives against each other without regard for the death or carnage that ensued.

Statistics from the BBC History Magazine Podcast's story on the Eastern Front in their June 2011 edition. I also encourage everyone to listen to Dan Carlin's wonderful podcast on the Eastern Front, Ghosts Of The Ostfront. It will give you nightmares. Historically accurate nightmares.