Category Archives: Education

Weird Wikipedia Articles

alex atkins bookshelf triviaWikipedia is no ordinary encyclopedia. Each month, more than 500 million unique visitors visit Wikipedia to read its more than 40 million articles written in more than 250 languages. The English version grows at a rate of 800 new articles each day. Compared to any written reference work, Wikipedia’s breadth is simply astonishing. But if you spend enough time browsing through this massive encyclopedia, you will come across some rather unusual or weird articles. Wikipedia even has a page that lists all of their “unusual articles” with this note: “There are over five million articles in the English Wikipedia. These are the ones that Wikipedians have identified as being a bit unusual. These articles are verifiable, valuable contributions to the encyclopedia, but are a bit odd, whimsical, or something you would not expect to find in Encyclopedia Britannica. We should take special care to meet the highest standards of an encyclopedia with these articles lest they make Wikipedia appear idiosyncratic.” Here are some of the weirdest articles on Wikipedia:

Algoe, New York (a fictional town)

Antiqua-Fraktur dispute (a typographical dispute in Germany in late 1800s)

Argelico “Argel” Fucks  (real name of a retired Brazilian soccer player)

Death by coconut (falling coconuts that kill people)

Dord (a ghost word; i.e., a meaningless word included in a dictionary by mistake)

Euthanasia coaster (a steel roller coaster designed to kill its passengers)

David Charles Hahm (radioactive Boy Scout)

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (a theological and philosophical debate) 

Hubert Blaine Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, Sr. (longest surname in the world)

Hypoalgesic effect of swearing (swearing helps reduce sensation of pain)

People who have lived in airports (six people who have lived in airports for more than a month)

Project Steve (a list of over 1,300 scientists named “Steve” that support evolution)

Robert Shields (left a diary that recorded his life, written in five minute intervals)

Sex in space (the challenges of humans having sex in space)

Spite house (similar to a spite fence, a house built to annoy neighbors)

Toilet paper orientation (over vs. under)

Toilet-related injuries and death (people have died while using the Valsalva maneuver, the forceful attempt to expel feces from the rectum during a bowel movement)

Vladimir Demikhov (surgically created the first two-headed dog)

Waffle House Index (an informal metric used by FEMA to determine effect of a storm and scale of assistance required for disaster recovery)

Read related posts: Wikipedia by the Numbers
How Many Pages Would it Take to Print Wikipedia?
How Many Articles on Wikipedia?

Serendipitous Knowledge
Best English Dictionary
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?

For further reading:

Feeling Down? How to Cure the Blues

alex atkins bookshelf cultureEver have one of those days when you are feeling down, feeling blue — and you want to snap out of it, but you don’t know what to do? Before you reach for age-old, but risky quick remedies like alcohol or drugs, you should turn to the most powerful and effective pharmaceutical — your brain. According to Alex Korb, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, thinking the right thoughts is the best medicine for curing the blues. Here are five things you can do to harness the healing and uplifting power of the miraculous human brain — and unlike alcohol and drugs, they are absolutely free:

1. Ask yourself one important questions: who or what are you grateful for? Korb notes that feelings of pride and its opposite — shame and guilt — actually activate the same neural circuits in the brain (specifically, the amygdala, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insula, and nucleus accumbent if you want to get technical). The antidote is to shift your thinking from shame or guilt to gratitude. Korb states that gratitude and thinking positively activates the parts of the brain that produce the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Korb adds: “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

2. It is important not to suppress your emotions, but rather actively identify and label your emotions. Simply labeling an emotion in a word or two helps us to reduce that emotion. Leadership coach David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, elaborates: “To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system”

3. Make a decision about something in your life — a goal, an event, a personal or work-related situation. The decision does not have to be a perfect solution, it just has to be “good enough.” In short, making a decision boosts levels of dopamine, producing pleasure. “Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety,” states Korb. “Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”

4. Don’t hesitate to ask for a hug. Studies show that emotional pain is experienced just as if it were physical pain in your brain; that is to say, when a couple breaks up, for example, that emotional pain is equivalent to the pain of a broken arm. The antidote to that pain is oxytocin — obtained through touching and hugs. Korb explains: “One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people [in a workplace context], but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay… In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations… A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.” The ultimate touching experience is a massage, which boasts serotonin and dopamine, as well as decreasing stress hormones.

5. Reminisce and get nostalgic. The literal meaning of nostalgia is the suffering caused by the yearning to return to a person’s place of origin. In 2006, psychologist Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton), and Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri) conducted a fascinating study focused on nostalgia. Even though nostalgic events, that define the meaning of a person’s life, contain negative elements (emotional pain, disappointments, etc.), people tend to filter them out and focus on a narrative that reflects a positive or triumphant outcome. Wildschut and his colleagues found that nostalgia strengthens social bonds, increases positive self-regard, and generates good feelings.

Read related posts: How to Be Happy
15 Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy
Experiencing Happiness in Life
The Difference Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life

The Paradox of the American Dream
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

For further reading: The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long
by David Rock
Emotional Intelligence by Travis Bradberry
The Whole Brain Business Book: Unlocking the Power of Whole Brain Thinking in Organizations, Teams, and Individuals by Ned Herrmann
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

The Human Brain Book by Rita Carter
Brain: The Complete Mind: How it Develops, How it Works, and How to Keep it Sharp by Michael Sweeney


Is There Really a Life-size Replica of Noah’s Ark in the U.S.?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureSubscribing to the belief that “if you build it, they will come” Answers in Genesis, a Young Earth creationism group built a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, called the Ark Encounter, as a place where the faithful can gather to reaffirm their belief that the Bible is literally true, while unceremoniously tossing science (particularly, the theory evolution) overboard. And let’s not forget the business side of religion — where there is faith, there is profit.

The historically-themed attraction, located in the landlocked city of Williamstown, Kentucky, was built over five years (from 2011 to 2016); it officially opened on July 7, 2016. The ark contains three decks filled with 132 “teaching” exhibits, 8 passengers — Noah and his family (Genesis 7:13 indicates that “[into the ark] entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them”), animal models (dinosaurs co-exist with early man and animals), and colorful dioramas (including one that states that the world is only 6,000 years old). Docents will explain that the ark was built according to the dimensions and descriptions found in the Bible’s Genesis chapters. The interior, however, is another story. Since Genesis leaves out any specific description, the design of the ark’s interior is complete conjecture — it was built according to what the builders imagined it would look like. And yes, with more than 120,000 square feet of cargo space, they firly believe that there was room for two of every animal (or in creationist terms, “animal kinds”), and enough food for all the humans and animals.

Of course, no historically-accurate ark would be complete without a pricey gift shop, a restaurant (Emzara’s Kitchen), two movie theaters, and several areas for staged photo ops. Just outside the ark is a massive pond, the Ararat Ridge Zoo (petting zoo), a first-century Middle Eastern village, and a jaw-dropping zipline (the Eagle’s Nest Aerial Adventure), presumably a replica of the zipline that Noah and his family used for recreation while sailing around the world in a floating zoo. Conveniently located nearby is the Creation Museum, featuring 75,000 square feet of exhibits that “bring the pages of the Bible to life” and where pages of Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species are burned to provide warmth for visiting guests.

Whether you believe the story of Noah’s Ark and the worldwide flood described in Genesis 6 to be literally true or a profound allegory (or Mashal), one cannot deny that the replica of the ark, standing seven stories high and the length of 1.5 football fields, is a stunning marvel of craftsmanship (built, ironically, by a team of very talented Amish carpenters) and engineering to behold. After all, it has been Intelligently Designed! The stewards of the ark proudly proclaim that the ark is the largest timber-frame structure in the world. Each evening the ark glows against the night sky as it is illuminated by brilliant spotlights in the color of the rainbow, evoking of the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:12-17 — “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth”). For Christian fundamentalists, seeing truly is believing. However, for science advocate Bill Nye, the Ark Encounter is creating a generation of scientifically illiterate children and discouraging critical thinking. During his tour soon after the Ark Encounter opened, Nye observed, “On the third deck, every single science exhibit is absolutely wrong… It’s all very troubling. You have hundreds of school kids there who have already been indoctrinated and who have been brainwashed.”

If climbing aboard Noah’s Ark in Williamstown doesn’t float your boat, you can visit two other full-size replicas on the other side of the globe. You can make a stop in Dordrecht, Netherlands to visit Johan’s Ark or travel all the way to Ma Wan Island, Hong Kong, China to visit Noah’s Ark Theme Park. Of the three replicas, the Ark Encounter is the largest.

Here is a view of the Noah’s ark, located in the U.S., by the numbers.

Cost: over $100 million dollars
Size: height – 51 feet; length – 510 feet; width – 85 feet
Decks: 3, each 18 feet high
Interior space: 120,000 square feet

Amount of wood used: 3.1 million feet
Mount of metal plates and bolts: 95 tons
Admission: Adults – $40; Senior – $31; Child (up to age 12) – $28
Size of parking lot: 4,000 spaces
Cost to park: $10-15

Size of site: 800 acres
Craftsmen employed: 1,000
Estimated visitors in first year: 2 million
Seasonal jobs: 300-400

Read related posts: What was the First Bible Printed in the United States?
What is a Thumb Bible?
How Many Books Exist in the World?

The Most Expensive American Book
Most Expensive Books Sold in 2012
Most Expensive Book in the World
Rarest Book in American Literature

For further reading: Searching for Adam: Genesis and the Truth About Man’s Origin by Terry Mortensen (2016)
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (2015)
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (2010)
Inherit the Wind: The Powerful Drama of the Greatest Courtroom Clash of the Century by Jerome Lawrence (2003)’s_Ark_replicas_and_derivatives

Literature as Divine Revelation

catkins-bookshelf-literature“[L]iterature was my first intellectual love. [At age] 12, I saw my equally aged inamorata reading Pickwick Papers, how I borrowed the book from her, and then ungratefully divided my affection between her and Dickens. I save fourteen cents, bought David Copperfield, read every word of its eight hundred pages, and ranked it, for a time, next to the Bible and the Imitation of Christ. Literature became an almost divine revelation, a miraculous multiplication of the world and life.”

From the preface to Interpretations of Life: A Survey of Contemporary Literature, by Will and Ariel Durant (1970). The two historians are best known for their 11-volume magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (published between 1935 and 1975), were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968. In their 80s, they turned their attention to literature, focusing not only on the authors’ works, but on their lives; Will writes: “In almost all these studies I have found the author himself more interesting than any character in his books, and his career more instructive than the imaginary world by which he revealed or cloaked himself.”

Read related posts: Why Study Literature?
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

Word and Ideas Can Change the World

atkins bookshelf quotations“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Spoken by English teacher John Keating (brilliantly played by Robin Williams) in the Academy-Award winning film Dead Poets Society (1989) written by Tom Schulman and directed by Peter Weir. Each day in class, Keating inspires his students to “make your lives extraordinary” underscored by the Latin phrase, carpe diem, meaning “seize the day.” One of Keating’s favorite poems is Walt Whitman’s beautiful elegy written to honor Abraham Lincoln, whom he greatly respected, titled “O Captain! My Captain!” (It became one of Whitman’s most famous poems.) At the end of the film, when Keating is forced to resign, he enters the classroom one last time to gather some books. One by one each of his students stand on their desk, defying the protests of the stern substitute teacher; they honor Keating by repeating the title of the poem. After Williams committed suicide in 2014, in many eulogies, the actor was honored with Whitman’s timeless poem. In the role as a teacher and an actor, his legacy lives on.

What Was the Letter Read at the Trump Inauguration?

atkins bookshelf quotationsThe letter that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer read at Trump’s inauguration is a very eloquent, poignant letter that was featured on Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary, The Civil War (1990). The famous letter was written by Major Sullivan Ballou (1829-1861) to his wife, Sarah (nee Shumway), then 24 and the mother of his two young boys. Ballou, who studied at Brown University and National Law School in Ballston, New York, was an attorney who served as the clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives before joining the Union Army in 1861, soon after American Civil War began.

Ballou wrote the letter on July 14, 1861. A week after writing the letter, Ballou (32 years old at the time) fought courageously at the First Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, but was killed in battle (he was wounded by a six-pound shot and died a week later). Unfortunately, the letter was never mailed. It was discovered in a trunk of Ballou’s personal belongings and retrieved by Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island. Soon after, Sarah moved to New Jersey, with her sons, to live out her life as a widow; she never remarried. In 1917, Sarah died at the age of 80; she and Sullivan were buried next to one another at the Swan Point Cemetery, located in Providence Rhode Island. The original copy of the letter has been lost to time.

The letter, known as the “Sullivan Ballou Letter,” was discovered by historian Robert Johansson who contributed a first-person letter to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. It is often read at funerals and weddings. What makes this letter so special? Ken Burns elaborates: “[It’s] the words that every man wishes he could say to the person he loves most… It sums up everything… It is obviously about love; I think the greatest love letter that I have ever come across… It’s about love in a very complex way… It’s a love of government, love of cause, love of family, love of spouse, love of children… it’s about the larger sense of what love is.”

July the 14th, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington D.C.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more …

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness …

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again …

For further reading:

When Do Children Stop Believing in Santa?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you are under 9 years old stop reading this post — it is simply foolish, meandering fiddlefaddle brought on by a cup of really bad egg nog. Any suggestions about Santa’s existence do not reflect the views or opinions of the North Pole. Go back to following your friends on Facebook…

Santa is very real in a metaphorical sense. As Francis Church so eloquently addressed this issue to Virginia: “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world…  Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”

But sidestepping the poetry, or more precisely, the mythology of Santa, when do children stop believing in the iconic Santa that slips down the chimney to deliver Christmas presents? According to psychologists, most children stop believing in Santa by 8 or 9. The really clever children learn to pretend that they still believe in the hope of getting lots of presents. Carole Slotterback, author of The Psychology of Santa, explains that the realization of Santa (in the traditional sense, as described by Clement C. Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas”) is not real, comes gradually rather than in one defining moment. Charles Smith, a professor of child development at Kansas State University adds, “Kids are smart. They realize he’s not real even before parents think they understand that.” Children learn that they need to let go of a fun family ritual, but realize that they can enjoy Christmas on another level — enjoying the spirit of giving, appreciating family, helping the poor and needy, etc. “A child who sincerely believes at 10,11,12 of the reality of Santa,” notes Smith, “there’s something going on there. That’s the child not letting go. I’d be curious about that. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong. I’d want to know more about that child’s history and family.”

Psychologists also believe that believing in Santa is healthy for children. Matthew Lobber, a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital (New York), sees believing in Santa as a normal and healthy part of child development: “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for kids to believe in the myth of someone trying to make people happy if they’re behaving [well]. Imagination is a normal part of development, and helps develop creative minds.” The myth of Santa also reinforces family traditions, values, and can inspire empathy and philanthropy.

Many psychologist agree that the best way to handle the issue of Santa’s existence is not to shatter the mythology, but rather to let them figure it out on their own. If they happen to ask directly, Lorber advises that parents first assess if the child still believes in Santa. If so, then it might be too early to have the discussion about the reality of Santa. If they don’t believe, then parents can discuss the real St. Nicholas (the Bishop of Myra, born in Turkey in 270 AD, and helped the poor) and the spirit of Christmas. Until then, mum’s the word.

But let’s circle back to the initial statement that Santa is very real. Smith builds on what Church wrote centuries ago: “Santa Claus is not real, but what Santa Claus represents for kids, even for adults is true. It’s that sense of joyfulness during this time of the year — this idea that they’re so cared for and loved.”

For further reading: Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia
Mall Santas by the Numbers

For further reading:

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