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2018-01-23T17:43:37.269Z
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An iconic sight in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the Kimjongilia. This hybrid begonia was bred by a Japanese botanist and presented to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il in 1988. It soon became part of the diplomatic toolkit. The North Korean government has sent the flower to a number of countries as a sign of friendship, and the Kimjongilia won the gold medal at the 1991 International Flower Show in Czechoslovakia.

The Kimjongiliia is displayed domestically as well. Like the Kimsungilia, an orchid clone presented in 1965 by Indonesian president Sukarno, the Kimjongilia forms part of an “international friendship botanic garden” in Pyongyang’s Central Botanic Garden. This garden also includes greenhouses dedicated to the Kimjongilia and Kimsungilia. And, as presided over by a 232-member Funeral Committee, Kimjongilia flowers were prominently displayed around the corpse of Kim Jong-il during his 11-day mourning period.

The North Korean state takes this flower seriously. As reported by the state news agency KCNA, the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Research Centre created a chemical concoction to extend the blooming period of the Kimjongilia by up to 20 days. And the DPRK State Administration for Quality Management notes that the Kimjongilia “is a rare bright and crimson flower that represents the personality of the energetic great man as dozens of corrugated evenly-arranged petals form a big, clear and lovely flower supported by heart-shaped leaves”. It’s not all flowery talk, however. The State Administration for...

According to a 1957 US government study entitled The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, canned and bottled sodas and beers “could be used as potable water sources for immediate emergency purposes as soon as the storage area is safe to enter after a nuclear explosion.”

This information was provided by the Atomic Energy Commission, which placed caches of consumer beverages around the Nevada Proving Grounds then exploded one 20 kiloton and one 30 kiloton device there. The surviving beverages within a quarter mile of the blast were slightly radioactive, but “well within the permissible limits for emergency use.” As for the flavor, taste testers described the beers and sodas as “still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1,270 feet from Ground Zero.”

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By the 1840s the British Empire was at full tilt, operating colonies on every continent apart from Antarctica. Key for Britain’s domination of world trade was India, which provided cotton, lumber, and one of the most formidable foes the Empire had yet faced. For all of its mercantile successes, the British Empire was nearly brought to its knees by the humble, irritating mosquito.

Malaria was rampant in the tropical colonies. Its initial onset was marked by high fevers, chills, and vomiting. In extreme cases it lead to seizures, coma, and death. Left untreated the disease resurged in prior victims, incapacitating those who had battled through a first encounter. The causal link between malaria and insects had been observed as far back as the Roman occupation of Northern Africa. Despite this, the parasitic protozoans that the mosquitoes carried–and that ultimately caused the disease–were not discovered until the turn of the 20th century. What was known was an effective, if gustatorially unpleasant, treatment.

Quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree native to South America, was known to be an effective treatment for malaria as early as the late 16th century. The dried and powdered bark was shipped around the Empire to battle malaria and maintain British presence in the colonies. The unpalatable taste of the bitter alkaloid was a common complaint, and as a remedy, colonists began mixing the substance with water and sugar. This crude ‘tonic...

Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562) was a German knight and warrior for hire in the first half of the 16th century. In 1504, at age 24, he lost the lower portion of his right arm to cannon fire during the siege of Landshut. Upon his recovery, rather than retiring or taking up a less violent profession, Berlichingen commissioned an Austrian blacksmith to construct an iron prosthetic hand.

The result was no mere hook; rather it was a sophisticated apparatus with articulated fingers that could be clamped tightly upon a sword or delicately upon a feather quill. With this prosthesis he continued to fight in wars and feuds for another 20 years or so, and ultimately participated in at least 15 armed conflicts. He lived to 82 years old, an unusually long lifespan for the period, and he wrote an autobiography in has later years.

Berlichingen’s story has been embellished by legend, and he is often portrayed as a brave hero in later retellings. In reality, he was an unscrupulous mercenary who fought for the highest bidder and engaged in kidnapping and sea piracy to make ends meet when no convenient wars were afoot. The modern vulgarity “he can lick/kiss my arse” is also thought to have been coined by Berlichingen; it was attributed to him in a 1773 play based on his life.

Today, Berlichingen’s prosthetic arm is housed in the Götzenburg castle museum in the German town of...

The introduction of non-native species can be a tricky business. The feral camels of Australia are a case in point. They were brought to the country in 1840 to ease exploration of the Outback, and the hardy animals soon proved useful in the construction of railway and telegraph lines.

From the beginning, however, camels and Australia made for a precarious pairing. During one of the first Australian expeditions to use the beasts–John Horrocks’ 1846 journey into the Outback–a camel was responsible for the expedition leader’s death. Horrocks was unloading a rifle while standing alongside a prone pack camel when the camel suddenly lurched, hooking part of its pack into the rifle’s action. The gun discharged, and the slug severed Horrocks’ middle finger, then entered through his left cheek and knocked out a row of upper teeth. Horrocks died within the month, but not before ordering the camel executed.

On a large scale, Australian camels started to create trouble in the 1930s, when automobiles rendered them increasingly obsolete. The thousands of no-longer-needed animals multiplied rapidly, given plenty of space and camels’ suitability for the dry climate. Their population approximately doubled every eight years, and by 2008 they numbered an estimated 600,000. Australia is now the only country with a substantial feral camel population.

The huge numbers of wild camels have become a major ecological and financial liability. They deplete vegetation and water sources, creating scarcity for other animals. The...

On 29 March 1951, shortly after 5 p.m., a hand-grenade-sized pipe bomb exploded in the landmark Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Ordinarily, the detonation of a pipe bomb in a busy commuter terminal at rush hour would be cause for grave public concern, yet the local news media barely acknowledged the event.

It had been a hectic news day. In one of the shrillest moments in America’s infamous anti-communism “red scare,” husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. News from the ongoing war in Korea dominated the space below the fold. By comparison, the small explosion from the homemade pipe bomb at Grand Central didn’t hurt anyone; it merely startled passers-by and damaged a cigarette urn outside the Oyster Bar. Police dismissed the event as the work of “boys or pranksters.” The New York Times reported the event in the following day’s issue, though only with a three-paragraph brief at the bottom of page 24.

About four weeks later, another small bomb exploded inside a phone booth in the basement of the New York Public Library. Again, no one was injured, though the explosion damaged the booth–as well as the composure of a security guard leaning against the booth at the time. The NYPD bomb squad found fragments very similar to the Grand Central device; both were lengths of well-machined pipe with a cap on each...

In April of 1873, an unhappy man walked along Clark Street in downtown Chicago. His name was Aymar de Belloy. There was a gun in his pocket, and a nickel – enough for one final glass of beer.

He entered Kirchoff’s tavern and sat at a table, then changed his mind about the beer. He drew his gun, pointed it at his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet careened along the inside of his skull like a speed skater on a banked turn. It stopped at the left temple, sparing his brain. Belloy rose and staggered to the bar, shaking hands with the horrified men he passed along the way. Upon reaching the bartender, he apologized in all sincerity for the inconvenience he had just caused. Then he collapsed.

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One way of determining a person’s likely ethnicity is looking inside their ears. Simply put, there are two kinds of earwax: dry and white, or wet and brownish. Genetic research shows that Caucasians tend to have the sticky type, while East Asians generally have the dry kind. This is due to a variant of the ABCC11 gene, which also affects the chemical that produces body odor. Koreans, Japanese, and others of East Asian descent typically have un-sticky earwax and un-smelly bodies due to the same gene.

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Inside America’s Mount Rushmore National Monument there is a “secret” chamber known as the Hidden Hall of Records. Therein, under a 1,200 pound granite capstone, which is atop a titanium vault, which encloses a teakwood box, lie sixteen porcelain enamel panels with the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights etched upon them. It also houses a biography of Gutzon Borglum–the supervising sculptor of Mount Rushmore–and the story of the presidents. The builders’ intent was to preserve copies of these documents for the far future. Just outside the vault is an inscription reading:

“…let we place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

–Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor

The Hidden Hall of Records is tucked amidst the cliffs on the backside of the mountain, and is not accessible to the public.

Relatedly, the carved heads are 80 times larger than an average human head. Originally Thomas Jefferson’s face was carved on Washington’s right, but the sculptors decided the rock there was too weak, so they blasted the face away and started again on Washington’s left. The original design of Mt. Rushmore included torsos, but funds ran short and builders stopped while they were a head.

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The year was 1721. The ship was called the Prince Royal, its destination the American colonies. And the cake–the cake was gingerbread.

The British crew shouldn’t have been surprised to find the metal file in the cake. Its stasher, James Dalton–a notorious thief and escape artist–had been shuttled involuntarily between Britain and America more times than a trans-Atlantic diplomat. Unluckily for Dalton, this particular mutiny fell apart as soon as the cake did. Luckily for Dalton, there would always be a next time. After all, as a convict who’d been sentenced to the punishment of “transportation” multiple times, Dalton had mutinied before.

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The most perfectly spherical object ever observed by mankind is the electron. In a series of experiments led by physicist Jony Hudson at Imperial College London, electrons were anchored to a molecule of ytterbium fluoride and measured 25 million times with a laser beam. These data showed that the negatively charged subatomic particles are a perfect sphere to within one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. To illustrate this fantastic sphericity, the research team said that if one were to scale up an electron to the size of our solar system–about 12 billion kilometers wide–any deviation from its roundness would be smaller than the width of a human hair.

The researchers were disappointed at this outcome–they were hoping to find some irregularity in the shape of the electron to help explain why our universe has more matter than antimatter.

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Jonas Hanway (1712–1786) may be the most contradictory character ever involved in the formation of British culture. On the one hand, he was likely the first man in London to carry a “brolly” (a.k.a. umbrella), establishing a trend that continues to this day. This, incidentally, was in the face of vocal opposition from coachmen, who were afraid that the new invention would cost them trade, as they were accustomed to being the only option on a rainy day.

On the other hand, Hanway was less pioneering in his long-standing feud with the famed author Dr. Samuel Johnson over the issue of tea. Dr. Johnson was for it, and Hanway very much against, as he explained in his 350-page An Essay on Tea, Considered As PERNICIOUS TO HEALTH, obstructing INDUSTRY, and impoverishing the NATION: also an Account of its GROWTH, and great CONSUMPTION in these KINGDOMS, with several POLITICAL REFLECTIONS; and THOUGHTS on PUBLIC LOVE, in Thirty-Two LETTERS to Two Ladies. Among other things, he argues therein at great length that drinking tea is an ‘offence against nature’, because humans are not meant to drink hot water, and that this ‘flatulent liquor’ causes scurvy, weak nerves, and ‘paralitic disorders’, ‘convulses the bowels’ (which he knows ‘from my own experience’), and leads to bad teeth, and a general lowering in the beauty quotient of English women.

Fortunately for tea devotees, the author/dictionary-writer prevailed. The brolly-bearing English tea...

Many people have experienced the odd psychological sensation that results from repeating a word until it no longer seems to have any meaning. This is a recognized phenomenon in psycholinguistics known as ‘semantic satiation’ or ‘semantic saturation.’ When the phenomenon occurs, the neurons that deal with the connection between the pronunciation (or spelling) of the given word and its meaning have become so overwhelmed by repeated, emphasized activation that they begin producing inhibitory signals in protest, sometimes called ‘reactive inhibition,’ thus briefly disabling the listener’s ability to connect the pronunciation (or spelling) to the meaning of the word.

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Downstairs in the casino, little remained of the MGM Grand Hotel’s former glory. In the early morning hours of 21 November 1980, a fire had broken out in the Las Vegas landmark, ripping through the lounge in an explosive wave that instantly killed everyone in the area. Bodies sat frozen in front of what had once been slot machines, now no more than blackened pillars jutting upward from a flow of melted slag along the floor. The room’s plastic and chrome-plated decor, it turned out, had been as much a facade as its promises of riches.

Fortunately, the Clark County Fire Department had responded immediately, and the blaze never spread beyond the first floor. From where David Demers and his fire investigation team stood on the 23rd floor, no one would have even felt the temperature rise. Why, then, were they surrounded by corpses?

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In the second half of the 19th century, few Americans were better known–and revered–than the man whose face looks out today from the $50 bill. Ulysses S. Grant led Union troops to victory in the American Civil War, then thwarted attempts by President Andrew Johnson to suppress fundamental civil rights of newly freed black Americans. Twice elected president himself, Grant stewarded a war-torn nation as it struggled to reunify. After leaving the White House, he invested his name and entire life savings to a Wall Street brokerage firm. It would make him rich, he was told, and afford him a comfortable retirement. Instead, it would leave him penniless.

Like any army commander, Grant had lost battles and had known the pain of defeat. But this loss hit personally. Never before had he found himself in straits so dire, literally destitute. Fortunately, the former president and retired general had one more fight in him–because his real troubles had just begun.

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In the 17th Century there was a shortage of giants in Europe, and only one man was to blame. The giant-greedy Frederick the First of Prussia.

The king’s agents fanned out across Europe, on the lookout for tall men to press into the fabled Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam. Diplomats trying to get on Frederick’s good side quickly learned to send Freddy larger-than-normal men as human presents. Every year the Russian Tsar Peter the Great–who stood at six foot seven inches tall himself–made a gift of fifty giants. Once, when Peter took back an especially large specimen and replaced him with a shorter one, Frederick refused to speak to any Russian diplomat for months. “The wound,” the King explained, “is still too raw.” Fredrick even tried to ensure a race of giants by forcing all the tall men in Prussia to marry tall women.

Though King Frederick wouldn’t ever dare risk his giants in anything resembling an actual war, he didn’t let his giant army just gather dust in a cupboard. He trained with the regiment every day, and showed them off to foreign dignitaries. Whenever he was feeling gloomy, he would have the regiment march through his rooms, led by the regiment’s mascot, a live (though presumably normal-sized) bear.

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A single apartment sits at the top of an ancient tower in the middle of the Jordanian desert. The tower at Um er-Rasas stands 46-feet-tall with no door, no stairs, and no way to ever leave. The square base of the tower, one mile north of the Byzantine city of Kastron Mefa’a is completely solid and constructed so well it still stands after 1,000 years of desert wind and sun. The church and courtyard at its base have crumbled into dust.

Now home to only birds, the tower may be the only standing structure left from the Stylite movement. These ascetic, Christian monks, were so dedicated to self-discipline and depriving themselves of comfort they lived in isolation high above the rest of the world. The Jordanian tower likely housed one of these Stylite monks in the fifth-century.

The Stylites followed the footsteps of St. Simeon Stylite the Elder. Known for his unceasing prayer, Simeon became so popular to pilgrims he had no time for his own devotions. To guarantee he had quiet, Simeon climbed aboard a platform on the top of a tower in the town of Aleppo in modern-day Syria. Although he allowed visitors to climb a ladder to seek his counsel in the afternoons, he never left. Simeon ascended to his platform in 423 A.D. and remained until his death 37 years later.

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As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Thus, by a coincidence of his shopping schedule, Achleitner happened to rescue the Missa Salisburgensis, or Salzburg Mass, known today to be the largest surviving composition from the Baroque era. It would come to be recognized as one of the most important historical works of music, and it would certainly cement its composer’s place as a master at the forefront of the era…if experts could figure out who wrote it.

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When a caterpillar enters the chrysalis stage, it is not merely sprouting wings to become a moth or butterfly. Enzymes inside the chrysalis completely dissolve the entire caterpillar–brain, organs, and all–into a nutrient-rich slurry of protein. Only a few cells remain alive. Once the caterpillar has self-digested, an alternate section of DNA inside the few remaining living cells is expressed, and the cells use the nutrient soup to multiply and develop the new organism. In essence the animal is a chimera; the caterpillar lives and dies, and an entirely new organism emerges from its remains.

Astonishingly, in spite of the radical liquefication of the original organism and its entire nervous system, some memories survive the transition. Researchers at Georgetown University have found that they can train caterpillars to avoid particular odors by associating them with a mild electric shock. After these trained caterpillars metamorphosized into moths they continued to avoid the shock-associated odors, demonstrating some kind of as-yet-inexplicable memory retention from the larval stage.

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Consumption of tomato juice is unusually popular on commercial airline flights. For example, German airline Lufthansa estimates they serve about 53,000 gallons (about 200,000 liters) of the stuff a year, which is not too far off from the 59,000 gallons (223,000 liters) of beer they serve annually on their airplanes. Its popularity has something to do with the history of drink service on airplanes. When commercial flights began, alcohol was complimentary and therefore hugely popular. Because of the expense, airlines eventually began charging for booze, but the mixers remained available free of charge.

However, that’s not the whole story. Studies in chambers that mimic airplane cabins in flight indicate there’s a scientific reason for tomato juice’s airborne popularity. The modern airplane cabin’s combination of low pressure, loud engine noise, and desert-like humidity has an impact on a human’s sense of taste. These factors dull humans’ sensitivity to sweet and salty flavors by about 30%, but do not impact the umami flavors that are important to the taste of tomato juice. As a result, people consistently rate tomato juice as tasting better in conditions observed in an airplane than in conditions normally seen on the ground. These studies also found that sour, bitter, and spicy flavors are mostly unaffected.

The same effects that enhance the flavor of tomato juice seem to be partially to blame for airline food’s infamous lack of appeal. In an effort to circumvent the...