Category Archives: Trivia

What is the Gruen Effect?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesEver find yourself completely lost at an Ikea store wishing you had brought a bag of breadcrumbs so you could retrace your steps to find a way out of the retail labyrinth? It’s enough to drive you to madness (just like those novel-length, wordless furniture assembly guides they produce, where you end up with extra hardware and you wonder: did I build this correctly?). It is not uncommon to see people of every age wandering aimlessly among the aisles with a glazed look in their eyes. Where’s the freaking exit?

This abomination of retail design, that exasperates millions of consumers each year, has a name. It is known at the Gruen effect of Gruen transfer. The Gruen effect is defined as the feeling of confusion and distraction experienced by a consumer when placed in a shopping center or store that is confusing and maze-like, forcing the consumer to be exposed to more products (displayed in an enticing manner or in large quantities) and thus be more susceptible to make impulse buys. This form of psychological manipulation is named after the Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who designed the very first open-air shopping mall (Northland Mall in Southfield, Michigan in 1954) and the first enclosed shopping mall (Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota in 1956). Ironically, Gruen was very much opposed to this type of behavior manipulation. Gruen designed some of the first window shops filled with beautiful, dazzling displays designed to lure customers into the store. But Gruen stopped there. Retailers like Ikea, department stores, and grocery chains took the Gruen effect to an entirely different level. He believed that his ideas were “bastardized.”

According to research, 50% of purchases are unplanned. Journalist Carlos Waters investigated how Ikea mastered the Gruen effect for Vox. He writes: “Ikea has mastered the Gruen effect using story layout to influence customer behavior. From the moment you enter an Ikea, layout designers nudge you onto a specific path through a maze of products. That path is the least direct route to the register. By the time you’ve finally picked up a shopping cart and selected your first item, you’ve considered the possibilities of purchasing many of the items on display. Researchers have found that increased exposure leads to impulse buys.” Vox presents a video developed by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to show the path of a typical consumer in an Ikea store. When you see the path, you cannot help of thinking of a hungry lab rat desperately finding its way through a maze to find the desired piece of cheese.

So the next time you find yourself in a retail maze and feel exasperated you can focus your anger and curse “that damned Gruen effect!”

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Read related posts: What is the Barnum Effect?
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For further reading:

Are You a Hypochondriac?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIt’s tough enough muddling through the sustained sheltering in place necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic — but imagine what hypochondriacs are going through. So what is hypochondria? Hypochondria is the chronic and abnormal concern for one’s health. For a hypochondriac some physical symptoms are imagined, while others are real but are exaggerated. Fun fact: about 5% of the human population are severe hypochondriacs. You probably know one. Famous hypochondriacs include: Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, and Marcel Proust.

The word hypochondria was introduced in the 4th century BC by the famous Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos, known as the “Father of Medicine” (he is attributed with the Hippocratic Oath, although it is very likely that it was written after his death). The word is derived from the Greek word hypo (meaning “under”) and chords (meaning cartilage); so literally it means “under the rib cage.” Initially the term referred to digestive disorders of the liver, gallbladder, and spleen. Two centuries later, the Roman physician Galen of Pergamon linked digestive illness to melancholy. The term “hypochondriacal melancholy” was popularized by Robert Burton in his seminal work The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621. However it was Marcel Proust, in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time (published in seven parts between 1913 to 1927), who assigned hypochondria with the meaning that we recognize today. The term was finally formalized in 1980, in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd Edition (DSM-III). In the DSM-III hypochondria is listed under somatoform disorders.

The writers of Knock Knock, an independent maker of clever books and gifts, published the tongue-in-cheek but very insightful book The Complete Manual of Things that Might Kill You: A Guide to Self-Diagnosis for Hypochondriacs in 2007. In a fascinating introduction to the “noble hypochondriac” they break down the identifying behaviors of a hypochondriac:
Constant fear of illness
Preoccupation with the body
Interest in self-diagnosis
Either seek out medical treatment or avoid it
Distrust or disbelief in diagnosis
Continuously shopping for new doctors
Need for reassurance

Right now during the coronavirus everyone is exhibiting some of these previously mentioned concerns. But I know what you are asking: “Am I a hypochondriac?” Let’s find out. Let us turn to one of the simplest and earliest test, developed by Dr. Issy Pilowsky, known as the Whiteley Index. Answer the 14 questions below. Score according to the following:

1 = Not at all
2 = A little bit
3 = Moderately
4 = Quite a bit
5 = A great deal.

Total the numbers. A score of 14-28 indicates a healthy person without health anxiety. A score of 32-55 indicate high probability of a health-anxiety disorder and you should consult a healthcare professional. Caveat: as with all simple tests, the scores should be interpreted cautiously.

The Whiteley Index

1: Do you worry a lot about your health?
2: Do you think there is something seriously wrong with your body?
3: Is it hard for you to forget about yourself and think about all sorts of other things?
4: If you feel ill and someone tells you that you are looking better, do you become annoyed?
5: Do you find that you are often aware of various things happening in your body?
6: Are you bothered by many aches and pains?
7: Are you afraid of illness?
8: Do you worry about your health more than most people?
9: Do you get the feeling that people are not taking your illnesses seriously enough?
10: Is it hard for you to believe the doctor when he/she tells you there is nothing for you to worry about?
11: Do you often worry about the possibility that you have a serious illness?
12: If a disease is brought to your attention (through the radio, TV, newspaper, website, or someone you know), do you worry about getting it yourself?
13: Do you find that you are bothered by many different symptoms?
14: Do you often have the symptoms of a very serious disease?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Words for Superior Persons
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Words Oddities: Fun with Vowels
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For further reading: DSM by the APA
The Complete Manual of Things that Might Kill You by Knock Knock

Test Your Creativity with This Clever Thinking Puzzle

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAfter weeks of sheltering in place you may have exhausted all the ways of killing time — binge eating, binge watching Netflix shows, binge watching silly pet videos on Youtube, scrolling through mind-numbing social media posts, and so on. You can practically count the cells in your brain dying by the hour. Would you like to kick-start your brain and test your creative thinking? Let me introduce you a really fun brain-building word game you can play and share with your friends. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the obscure and overlooked ditloid. A ditloid is a curious and clever puzzle — something that would have greatly amused Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. Specifically, a ditloid is a word game in which a phrase, term, title, quotation, proverb, or fact must be deduced from numbers and abbreviations in the clue. Here are some examples (answers in parenthesis):
60 = S. in a M. (60 seconds in a minute)
99 = B. of B. on the W. (99 bottles of beer on the wall)
7 = A. of M. (7 Ages of Man).
You get the idea. 
The word game was named after the following puzzle: 1=D. it L. o I. D. (1 Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), by the Daily Express, a London newspaper. This word game is also referred to as a “linguistic equation” or “numerical phrase.” 

The most famous ditloids — indeed, the ditloids that launched a thousand ditloids — were created by puzzle master extraordinaire Will Shortz, former editor of Games magazine and current crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, puzzle master on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, and author of more than 100 books on puzzles. (Incidentally, he is an avid puzzle book collector, owning more than  20,000 puzzle books and magazines). Shortz introduced the word game, which he initially called an “Equation Analysis Test” , in the May-June 1981 issue of Game magazine. Since this was the time before the birth of the Internet, the puzzle was circulated the old fashioned way; Shortz elaborates: “Some anonymous person had retyped the puzzle from Games (word for word, except for my byline), photocopied it, and passed it along. This page was then rephotocopied ad infinitum, like a chain letter, and circulated around the country. Games readers who hadn’t seen the original even started sending it back to Games as something the magazine ought to consider publishing!” Interestingly, this “photocopied” list still gets forwarded, albeit as an image file in chain emails.

Shortz’s inspiration for the word puzzle came from Morgan Worthy’s AHA! A Puzzle Approach to Creative Thinking, published in 1975. Worthy introduced the Formula Analysis Test that had a slightly different construction: M. + M. + N.H. + V. + C. + R.I. = N.E. (Maine + Massachusetts + New Hampshire + Vermont + Connecticut + Rhode Island = New England) and 1 B. in the H. = 2 in the B. (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush). Worthy, in turn, was inspired by obscene graffiti in a college bathroom; Worthy explains in his book, “I first became interested in aha! thinking ten years ago while a graduate student at the University of Florida. Part of the graffiti in the men’s room of the psychology building was a cryptic formula someone had written in large letters on the wall. I was intrigued by this little puzzle and, of course, had occasion to be reminded of it from time to time. Finally, one day, the answer (yes, obscene) suddenly came to me. It happened that I was studying creativity at the time and I realized that my response to solving the graffiti puzzle was very like the ‘aha! effect’ about which I had been reading… I constructed a test of times similar in principle to the one I found on the rest room wall.” In order to develop his Formula Analysis Test, Worthy followed this criteria: the puzzles do not require special information or a large vocabulary, the puzzles cannot be solved by step-by-step process, and each puzzle is relatively easy in that it is short and contains few items. Based on research by Worth, scores on solving these type of tests are not correlated significantly with I.Q. scores, but rather validated tests that measure creative thinking.

Without further ado, here are the original 24 word puzzles, the Equation Analysis Test, created by Shortz. Give it a shot, and see how many you can solve. The answers are presented below. And no cheating (i.e., using Google to solve the equations). Remember, solving the puzzles is not about being smart — it is about being creative. So clear your mind, put some music on, chill, and let the letters and numbers speak to you… and be sure to share this with your friends, to see how they do.

1 = W. on a U.
3 = B.M. (S.H.T.R.!)
4 = Q. in a G.
5 = D. in a Z.C.
7 = W. of the A.W.
8 = S. on a S.S.
9 = P. in the S.S.
11 = P. on a F.T.
12 = S. of the Z.
13 = S. on the A.F.
18 = H. on a G.C.
24 = H. in a D.
26 = L. of the A.
29 = D. in F. in a L.Y.
32 = D.F. at which W.F.
40 = D. and N. of the G.F.
54 = C. in a D. (with the J.)
57 = H.V.
64 = S. on a C.
88 = P.K.
90 = D. in a R.A.
200 = D. for P.G. in M.
1,000 = W. that a P. is W.
1,001 = A.N.

Let me know if you enjoyed these word puzzles and if you would like to see more of them.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Words for Superior Persons
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Words Oddities: Fun with Vowels
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For further reading: Aha! A Puzzle Approach to Creative Thinking by Morgan Worthy
Will Shortz’s Best Brain Busters by Will Shortz

Answers here.

When Was William Shakespeare Born?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureFor Shakespeare scholars, Shakespeare’s actual birthdate is still a bit of a mystery. To paraphrase King Lear’s famous lament, “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools — especially when they forget to record the date of your actual birth.” Coincidentally, his birth is tied to a deadly pandemic, very similar to what we are experiencing now with coronavirus.

So when was Shakespeare born? The short answer is — no one really knows. Shakespearean scholars and biographers have simply settled on a date, a best guess, on which to honor the world’s most famous and gifted poet and playwright: April 23, 1564. What is known for certain is when he was baptized — April 26, 1564 — and when he died — April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. For all we know, Shakespeare’s birthday jumped around the calendar, much like modern-day Easter, frustrating poor little Will: “When do I get to blow out my birthday candles this year, Mum?”

So why did biographers settle on April 23? Bill Bryson, drawing on the work of many respected Shakespearean biographers explains: “Much ingenuity has been expended on deducing from one or two certainties and some slender probabilities on the date on which he came into the world. By tradition, it is agreed to be 23 April, St. George’s Day. This is the national day of England, and coincidentally also the date on which Shakespeare died 52 years later, giving it a certain irresistible symmetry.”

Similar to the coronavirus pandemic of the present day, Shakespeare was also born during a frightening, deadly pandemic. The bubonic plague (known as the Black Death) was sweeping through Europe. The Black Death was painful and lethal: people who were infected suffered headaches, vomiting, fever, delirium, coughing up blood, and painful enlarged lymph nodes (known as buboes). The mortality rate was 50%; and 65% for infants. Thus, given the high rates of mortality during the 16th century (about 20% of the entire population), it was customary to baptise an infant soon after birth — but exactly how many days later is simply conjecture. As S. Schoenbaum notes in his landmark biography, Shakespeare’s Lives, “It would be frequently be assumed that [Shakespeare] was born on  the 23rd on the unwarranted assumption that baptism customarily took place three days after birth. The Prayer Book of 1559 merely prescribed baptism not later than the next Sunday or other holy day following birth. In 1564, 23 April fell on Sunday; if Shakespeare was born then, he should have been baptized by the 25th, St. Mark’s Day.” Bryson adds: “Some people thought St. Mark’s Day was unlucky and so, it is argued — perhaps just a touch hopefully — that the christening was postponed an additional day, to 26 April.”

Understanding the impact of the bubonic plague when William Shakespeare was born leads to the realization of one of the most remarkable strokes of good fortune in the world of literature — it was a miracle that Shakespeare escaped the lethal clutches of the bubonic plague. Realize that just a few houses over, a neighbor of the Shakespeares lost four children to the plague that year. Bryson summarizes it this way: “In a sense William Shakespeare ‘s greatest achievement in life wasn’t writing Hamlet or the sonnets but just surviving his first year.” Evidently, where there’s a Will, there’s a way…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please LIKE and FOLLOW (via email or WordPress Reader) or share with a friend. The coronavirus quarantine is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading: Shakespeare’s Lives by S. Schoenbaum
Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition by Bill Bryson
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro–james-shapiro

Places You Shouldn’t Visit: North Sentinel Island

alex atkins bookshelf trivia

If you value your life you will stay far away from North Sentinel Island inhabited by the Sentinelese, a pre-Neolithic people, that have inhabited the island for more than 55,000 years without any contact with the outside world. There is no way to sugar coat it: if you dare approach and land on their island there is a 100% chance that they will kill you with their primitive weapons: spears, arrows, and stones. And get this — because they are a protected Aboriginal tribe, they will not be prosecuted for killing you. Since the Sentinelese have rejected all contact with the outside world, and have killed anyone who has tried to land there, the Indian Navy patrols the area and keeps all vessels and people away. Individuals who wander into the exclusion zone, which extends five nautical miles from the island’s perimeter, will be arrested.

The tiny island, covering roughly 23 square miles (about the size of Manhattan), may look inviting because it is completely forested and surrounded by pristine narrow white-sand beaches; however it is not easy to land there because it is surrounded by coral reef; moreover it lacks any natural harbors. North Sentinel Island is a part of the Andaman Islands that neighbors Nicobar Islands, an archipelagic island chain, located about 415 miles west from the Myanmar coast and more than 800 miles southeast of the Indian subcontinent. North Sentinel Island is not as remote as it should be — it lies just 31 miles west of Port Blair, the largest city on South Andaman Island. Using aerial photography taken in 2012, the population of North Sentinel Island is estimated between 50 and 400 natives. In contrast, the neighboring Nicobar Islands has a population of 36,844 according to a 2011 census. Both of these islands located in the Bay of Bengal (the northern part of the Indian Ocean) are territories of India. The Indian government considers North Sentinel Island completely autonomous and independent, allowing the inhabitants to eschew the impact of modern civilization, including any diseases to which they have no immunity. For example, the current coronavirus that is spreading all around the globe would wipe them out in a matter of weeks.

North Sentinel island and its inhabitants were first noted by British surveyor John Ritchie in 1771. Despite the natives’ aggression over the past century, there was a time when individuals did land on the island and survived to tell the tale. Most notable, was British naval officer Maurice Portman who led a small group of intrepid explorers to land on the island in 1880 to study the natives and their culture. They found a network of pathways that led to a few small abandoned villages. Eventually they encountered and captured six natives, an old couple and their four children. They were taken to Port Blair (talk about invasive and unethical research tactics!) where the couple quickly succumbed to illness and died. Soon after, the children were returned back to their island along with consolation gifts (“So sorry we killed your parents, but here is a food basket with our compliments — good luck with everything!). Despite the disastrous results of his research, Portman returned to the island several times between 1883 and 1887 and survived.

One fellow who was not so fortunate was American John Chau, a 26-year-old missionary that traveled to North Sentinel Island, on behalf of All Nations, to bring Christianity to the tribespeople and translate the Bible into Sentinelese. Based in Kansas City, the vision of All Nations is “to see Jesus worshipped by all the peoples of the earth. Our mission is to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples on earth.” According to one of their executive leaders, Chau was uniquely suited for this mission: “A seasoned traveler, John had previously taken part in mission projects in Iraq, Kurdistan and South Africa. He joined All Nations in 2017 and trained at our North American Hub in Kansas City. John was one of the most well-equipped young missionaries we’ve ever seen. He read books on cultural anthropology and missiology at the rate of one every three days. He was also trained in linguistics so he could learn the language of the Sentinelese people. He was a certified wilderness EMT, so that he could serve the Sentinelese in practical ways. He was also delightful, kind, and funny. Small children felt at ease with him, and everyone who met him felt his warmth.” Fellow missionary, Mat Stavers, shares that introducing Jesus to the Sentinelese was one of Chau’s lifelong dreams: “John loved people, and he loved Jesus. He was willing to give his life to share Jesus with the people on North Sentinel island. Ever since high school, John wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Jesus with this indigenous people.”

Chau made an initial try on the evening of November 15, 2018 and was greeted with an onslaught of arrows, one which hit the Bible he was carrying. In his journal he wrote, “Why did a little kid have to shoot me today.” He returned the following night, but the natives got a hold of canoe and destroyed it, forcing Chau to swim back to the boat. Those incidents did not deter the well-intentioned missionary. In his journal he wrote to his parents: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. God, I don’t want to die. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed — rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has called you to and I will see you again when you pass through the veil.” On November 17, Chau finally succeeded in landing on the island. Apparently, the Sentinelese were perfectly happy with their religion and therefore not very receptive to the story of Jesus. Tragically, the hostile natives proceeded to kill Chau; the natives dragged his along the beach and buried his body there. Subsequently, the Indian police arrested seven individuals who used a wooden boat with motors to get Chau on the restricted island (Chau used a canoe to reach the shore from the boat. In the canoe he carried gifts, including fish and a football.) Days later, the police marine unit attempted to retrieve the body, but faced a very fierce and heavily armed group of tribesmen that were protecting their beach. Faced with insurmountable obstacles, Chau’s family made the difficult decision to leave their son’s body on the island; they stated that they forgave the tribe for their actions and were not insisting for his remains to be returned to the U.S.

The Sentinelese are not the only isolated tribes in the world  — there are about 100 others around the globe, with most found in the Amazon and New Guinea rainforests. Many of them are hostile to outsiders, explains Jonathan Mazower of Survival International, that protects these isolated tribes: “Often, they are very fearful of outsiders — with very good reason. Sometimes they will have in their collective memory a massacre, a violent incident, or a disease or epidemic — so very often, there are well-founded reasons for these tribes to not want to have anything to do with the outside world.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Deadliest Pandemics in History
The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair

What are the Most Common Words Used in Songs?
What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?
Why is it Called the Golden Gate? 
Jefferson and Adams Die on Same Day
How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

Famous People Who Died on the Same Day

For further information: Contemporary Society Tribal Studies by Georg Preffer and Deepak Behera


The Deadliest Pandemics in History

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAs of this writing, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has claimed 7,100 lives around the globe (80 of those have been in the U.S.). There is an estimated 181,000 people who have contracted the virus (4,300 of those are Americans). Unfortunately, COVID-19 is just getting started. As many experts have stated, it is going to get worse before it gets better. So that invites the question, how does COVID-19 stack up against some of the deadliest pandemics in human history?

Before we get to that, let’s clarify the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. An epidemic is the rapid spread of a disease across a specific region or regions. Once that disease spreads from country to country around the globe, it is classified as a pandemic. Thus, all pandemics begin as epidemics; however — and fortunately — not all epidemics become pandemics. In general, pandemics result in more fatalities than epidemics. One notable exception is the Cocoliztli epidemic (also known as “The Great Pestilence”) that occurred in 1545 resulting in 12-15 million deaths in Mexico. The native Aztecs succumbed to the lethal disease brought by the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes. The Aztecs were particularly vulnerable due to a variety of factors: weakened immunity, exacerbated by years of disease after a long drought, on top of a deadly outbreak of smallpox in 1520, also introduced by the Spanish, that resulted in more than 8 million deaths. 

When you review the list of the deadliest pandemics in human history, you realize that the mortality rate of the COVID-19 is relatively low so far — but that can change as quickly as a virus can mutate. Here are the deadliest pandemics in human history, in descending order:

The Black Death (Bubonic Plague; in the Middle Ages it was referred to as “The Great Mortality”) pandemic: 1346-1353
Origin: Central or East Asia
Death toll: 75-200 million

Plague of Justinian: 541-542
Origin: Byzantine Empire (the capital was Constantinople, what is now Istanbul, Turkey) and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea
Death toll: 25-50 million

HIV/AIDS pandemic: 2005-2012
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Death toll: 36 million

Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen): 165-180
Origin: Aisa Minor
Death Toll: 5 million

Asian flu pandemic: 1956-58
Origin: Guizhou, China
Death toll: 2 million

Russian or Asiatic flu pandemic: 1889-1890
Origin: Bukhara, Turkestan (what is now Uzbekistan)
Death toll: 1 million

Hong Kong flu pandemic: 1968
Origin: Hong Kong
Death toll: 1 million

Third cholera pandemic: 1852-1860
Origin: India
Death toll: 1 million

Sixth cholera pandemic: 1910-11
Origin: India
Death toll: 800,000

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Euphemisms for Death
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?
Famous People Who Died on the Same Day

For further reading: The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 by John Aberth
Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla


Places You Shouldn’t Visit: Runit Dome

alex atkins bookshelf triviaScattered like pebbles in a massive pond, the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,500 east of Hawaii, consists of 29 atolls (for those who slept through Geography 101, an atoll is a ring-shaped chain of islands formed of coral), containing 1,156 small islands and islets. (The official name of this island country, with a population of 59,000 people, is the Republic of the Marshall Islands; it was never formally adopted as a state, and is therefore considered a “United States associated state.”) One of these coral atolls, is the Enewetak Atoll, consisting of 40 tiny islands and a population of 664 people (known as the Marshallese). As you fly above the atoll, one witnesses some of the bluest seas, punctuated with tiny islands outlined by beautiful white sand beaches; and as you head toward the northern part of the atoll, one comes across something incredibly surreal — what appears to be a massive perfectly round beached alien space ship straight out of some apocalyptic sci-fi movie. WTF is this thing and why is it there? To answer these questions, let us go back in time 70 years to learn about the island that time has largely forgotten.

The Enewetak Atoll has to be one of the most unfortunate places on the planet. First, between 1948 to 1958, the United States conducted 43 nuclear tests on the atoll. In one of the tests, the bomb did not explode properly, scattering small chunks of radioactive plutonium all over the islands. Second, the Enewetak Atoll is located just 215 miles east from the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 at seven test sites — underwater, on the reef, inside the atoll, and in the air — the combined release of energy equivalent of 30 million tons of TNT! Holy crap! (For comparison, the blast from Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, released energy equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Fat Man produced an explosion equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT.) You can imagine what happened to the island. It is extremely radioactive and is uninhabitable for more than 24,000 years — it makes the Chernobyl nuclear disaster looks like a small grassfire. And guess what else happened? During some of the tests, weather forecasts that predicted that the winds would be blowing away from Enewetak were wrong. Surprise! — all that nuclear fallout blew right into those inhabited islands causing an epidemic of radiation sickness.

So what did the U.S. government do? In typical government fashion, military leaders decided to spend $100 million to do a half-assed job. Of course, the military leaders vastly underestimated the costs of the clean-up: in the end, it cost taxpayers more than $239 million! Over a three year period (1977-1979), the government sent thousands of unsuspecting military members (they were told that they were serving on “an island paradise”) to scrape off top soil and debris from nearby islands and bury all of this material in one of the blast craters on Runit Island. In addition, the soldiers had to bag over 400 radioactive chunks of plutonium without wearing any protective or safety gear. (Recall the horrifying scene in HBO’s Chernobyl when the military sends those unsuspecting cleanup workers to the reactor site where radiation exposure was equivalent to 80,000 to 160,000 chest x-rays.) It is estimated that the crater contains up to 95,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris. The crater was then capped with a massive dome of concrete, known as the Runit Dome (locals call it “The Tomb”) — the alien space ship mentioned earlier in this post. Visually, it is spectacular. Imagine this large, round concrete structure, 377 feet in diameter, made up of 358 concrete panels of slightly different shades of gray, each 18 inches thick. People are forbidden to visit Runit Island, but surprisingly, there are no warning signs or barriers of any kind to discourage trespassing.

The geniuses who designed the contamination container in a “cost-saving” move, did not line the bottom of the crater, which is made of porous coral and sand. So even though the crater was capped with a massive dome of concrete, it has been leaking radioactive debris for decades. Studies have shown that the sediments in the lagoon are more radioactive that the debris contained in the dome. If that isn’t bad enough, the dome has been deteriorating as rising sea levels, due to climate change, are causing radioactive elements to seep into the ocean. Furthermore, experts are concerned that the dome can no longer withstand a typhoon. A typhoon would completely destroy the concrete dome, releasing tons of radioactive elements that will contaminate the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years.

Sadly, many of the soldiers who worked on the Runit Dome have come down with illnesses (cancer, tumors, brittle bones, skin lesions, birth defects, etc.) related to their exposure to radioactive contamination, and consequently facing crippling medical bills. Moreover, many of these soldiers have died at a young age, suffering terrible pain, as a result of radiation poisoning. A declassified cable (1972) from the U.S. government states: “Radiological conditions Runit island… the number of nuclear devices exploded on Runit and subsequent earth and debris moving activities have resulted in a complex radiological situation in which each unit division of island is unique from adjacent islands… Actual surveys have been superficial but have identified the presence of a plutonium bearing sand layer outcropping on the ocean side of the midisland area and the existence of apparently solid plutonium bearing chunks, grains and other particulate on the island surface.”  The government’s response has been to deny the problem by denying that the soldiers’ illnesses are not linked to the work on the island (they deny that it was a nuclear clean up project) and refusing them healthcare and refusing them the medical help they need. Decades later, the soldiers continue to battle for justice.

In the documentary, “This Concrete Dome Holds A Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” Enewetak veteran Ken Kasik, now restricted to a hospital bed due to declining health, makes a powerful statement that evokes the same lessons of the Chernobyl disaster: “There’s nobody trained [for] the [removal of] atomic waste. There’s people trained in the actual making of bombs, testing the bombs, and all like that, but not [for] picking [up the waste from the bomb.] You cannot get rid of this. The island should just be destroyed… America dumped all of their worst rubbish to the Marshallese and abandoned them with it — and we don’t want to hear about it. It’s a disgusting shame and it it makes us look bad.” In many ways, it seems that Runit Dome is America’s Chernobyl, a cold, concrete tomb that continues to haunt its victims psychologically and physically.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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For further information: “This Concrete Dome Holds a Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” on YouTube

The Person Behind the Word: Maverick

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBeing branded (pun intended) a maverick can either be a compliment or denigration, depending upon your perspective. The primary definition of a maverick is an independently-minded person; one who bucks the status quo, as it were (sorry, could’t resist). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable uses the term “masterless man” — leave to the Brits to be so dramatic. The secondary meaning of a maverick is an unbranded calf or yearling. Because of this, some people mistakenly believe that the word is derived from the horse; however, the word is actually an eponym, based on a real American — you certainly wouldn’t recognize him if you saw his photo in a history book, but you certainly know his surname: Samuel Maverick.

Maverick was well-known in Texas during the mid 1800s (he was born in 1803 and died 1870), where he was a respected Yale-educated attorney, politician, landowner, and rancher. Maverick, was of course, the original maverick because he refused to brand his cattle, much to the consternation of nearby ranchers. Language maven, William Safire shares one explanation provided by J. David Stern who wrote Maverick Publisher: “Old man Maverick… refused to brand his cattle because it was cruelty to animals. His neighbors said he was a hypocrite, liar, and thief, because Maverick’s policy allowed him to claim all unbranded cattle on the range. Lawsuits were followed by bloody battles, and brought a new word to our language.” As early at 1867, ranchers called any unbranded cattle “mavericks.”

The term eventually drifted into the realm of politics. Safire continues: “Maverick drifted into the political vocabulary around the turn of the century; McClure’s magazine mentioned the occasional appearance of a ‘maverick legislator.” The simplicity and aptness of the metaphor made it both durable and universally understood.” In this context, it means a person who is unorthodox in his or her political views and is disdainful of party loyalty. The maverick is truly a man without a brand. Safire notes that being a maverick in the world of politics can either be a virtue or a vice — and many notable politicians have been mavericks at some point during their notable careers.

Reviewing the troubling state of partisan politics in America today, one would hope that there were more mavericks serving in Congress today.

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Read related post: The Person Behind the Word: Chauvinism
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For further reading: Safire’s New Political Dictionary by William Safire

The Literary Magic 8-Ball that Provides Sound Advice

alex atkins bookshelf booksWho or what do you turn to when you need helpful advice for life’s most important questions? If you grew up in the  mid-1900s or if you are President Trump or work in his administration, you turn to the Magic 8-Ball. The Magic 8-Ball, initially called the Syco-Slate, was invented by Albert Carter and Abe Bookman back in 1950, inspired by a device used by Albert’s mother, who was a clairvoyant. The plastic ball, resembling an 8-ball from billiards, contains an icosahedron (20 sided die) floating in alcohol that is dyed dark blue. A user asks a yes-no question, shakes the ball, and turns the ball to reveal the window and read the answer. The 20-faced die contains 20 answers, 10 of which are affirmative, 5 are non-committal, and 5 are negative. Sometimes consulting the Magic 8-Ball can be exasperating when it tries to be coy: “better not tell you now” or is recovering from a bad acid trip: “reply hazy, try again.” Below are the 20 possible answers revealed by the Magic 8-Ball:

Affirmative answers:
As I see it, yes.
It is certain.
It is decidedly so.
Most likely.
Outlook good.
Signs point to yes.
Yes — definitely.
You may rely on it.
Without a doubt.

Negative answers:
Don’t count on it.
My reply is no.
My sources say no.
Outlook not so good.
Very doubtful.

Non-committal answers:
Ask again later.
Better not tell you now.
Cannot predict now.
Concentrate and ask again.
Reply hazy, try again.

Not content to receive answers from an indifferent, sometimes sassy icosahedron inebriated by alcohol, Carol Bolt, a multi-disciplinary artist who incorporates words, drawings, and interactive elements into her work, believed there was a better source for sound advice: literary classics. So in 2000, she published an antidote to the Magic 8-Ball, The Literary Book of Answers, to allow sentences drawn from famous works of literature to provide the answers. You could say that it is a literary version of the Magic 8-Ball. Should I quit my job this year? Should I ask for a raise? Should I move to New York? Should I begin my novel this year? Shall I part my hair behind. Do I dare eat a peach? Whatever the question, the user simply opens the book and lands on one of the 704 pages that contains a sentence from a famous literary work. Doing this randomly, I received the following five answers:

“Change something from the way it was before.” (from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

“Quick, ain’t no time for fooling around and moaning.” (from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)

“Let everything rip.” (from Ulysses by James Joyce)

“Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it.” (from Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“Adopt that course if you like.” (from Symposium by Plato)

The book has been very successful, and was recently published as a 20th-anniversary edition. Bolt also published six other editions, some of which are still in print: The Book of Answers, The Movie Book of Answers, Love’s Book of Answers, The Soul’s Book of Answers, Mom’s Book of Answers, and Dad’s Book of Answers. 

Of course having two very different sources of advice for life’s important question begs the question: which is the better source of advice? So, naturally, I asked The Literary Book of Answers: “Are you the better source of advice, over the Magic 8-Ball?” Then I turned to a random page that revealed this definitive answer: “Depend on it, my dear” (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Case closed.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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Trivia About the Number 20

alex atkins bookshelf trivia“Our lives our governed by numbers,” writes Herb Reich in the introduction to Numberpedia, “Not the evanescent assumptions of the numerologist, but the widely applied codified numerical systems underlying our very existence… Numbers serve two functions: they may denote measurements or designations. Thus, they both quantify and identify.” So what does that really mean? It means that to our own circle of family and friends, we are known by our names — but we are just numbers to everyone else. For example, each person is identified with a social security number, a customer number, a student number, a driver’s license number, an account number, an IP address, a physical address, and so on. Furthermore, each person is described by numbers unique to them; for example, a credit score, a test score (SAT, GRE, PSAT), GPA, IQ, weight, height, blood pressure, heart beat rate, and so forth. Since Reich is fascinated by numbers, he decided to write a book that examines the various meaning and associations of numbers, from 0 to 100. Since we have just ushered in the year 2020, let’s see what associations the number 20 has (listed in no particular order):

The base of the Mayan number system

Number of days in each of the 18 months in the Mayan calendar

The sum of the first seven Fibonacci numbers

The atomic number of calcium

Value of Roman numeral XX

Fluid ounces in a pint (British measure)

The age of majority (hatachi) in Japanese society

Number comprising a score (recall Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “Four score and seven years ago…” meaning 87 years)

Number of first moves possible for each player in the game of chess

Number of human baby teeth

Number of pennyweights in an ounce troy

The number of quires in a ream of paper

Measure of visual acuity (normal vision at 20 feet for left eye and right eye is 20/20)

A dart board is divided into 20 sectors

An icosahedron is a 20-sided die, each side containing an equilateral triangle (one is found floating inside the Magic 8-Ball)

A dodecahedron is a solid with 20 corners

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For further reading: Numberpedia by Herb Reich

What Were the Most Popular Wikipedia Articles of 2019?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureThe measure of a culture is what its people read or watch, which provides some insight into what they actually think about. As the year 2019 comes to a close it invites the question: what did people think about in 2019? What were they curious about? We can, of course, ask that another way that is perhaps more practical: what topics did people look up the most in Wikipedia in 2019? In mid-December, a researcher analyzed the Wikipedia metrics to ascertain the most popular articles of 2019. If you expect to see a number of profound, philosophical topics, you will be greatly disappointed — the list reveals an intellectual shallowness, characterized by an obsession with fictional heroes, movies, and celebrities. Given all the critical issues that nations — and the entire planet — are struggling with, is this really what people are pondering? There is no way to sugarcoat this — we are in deep trouble. Perhaps a superhero can materialize and help us! Here are the 25 most searched topics in Wikipedia for 2019 (number of pageviews in parenthesis):

Avengers: Endgame – 43,847,319
Deaths in 2019 – 36,916,847
Ted Bundy – 29,062,988
Freddie Mercury – 26,858,123
Chernobyl disaster – 25,195,814
List of highest-grossing films – 24,547,640
Joker (2019 film) – 22,062,357
List of Marvel Cinematic Universe films – 21,467,603
Billie Eilish – 19,638,478
Keanu Reeves – 16,622,576
Jeffrey Epstein – 15,905,486
Game of Thrones (season 8) – 15,643,215
Captain Marvel (film) – 15,631,936
Game of Thrones – 15,252,675
Elizabeth II – 14,808,717
List of Bollywood films of 2019 – 14,213,919
United States – 13,981,783
Donald Trump – 13,961,113
Spider-Man: Far From Home – 13,468,700
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 12,958,871
YouTube – 12,537,494
2019 in film – 11,338,657
Nipsey Hussle – 11,308,502
Jason Momoa – 11,304,629
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – 11,000,322

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

E-Commerce Product Returns by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf triviaFor retailers, the holiday season (November 1 to December 31) is the most wonderful time of the year. For many businesses, that period generates the most sales and profits. In 2018, for example, holiday sales amounted to $707.5 billion — bah, humbug! However, those record sales are a double-edged sword. High sales, unfortunately, also mean high rate of returns — usually around 10% of all holiday sales. In general, 25-40% of products purchased online are returned, compared to 8.9% at brick-and-mortar stores. The amount of products returned to retailers last year was $260 billion dollars! It is one of the greatest challenges to e-commerce retailers. For Amazon alone, for example, consumers return more than $100 million in North America alone.

So what happens to when you return a product to an online retailer, like Amazon? While some brick-and-mortar stores simply retag the item and place it back on the shelf, most online retailers sell their products to a network of liquidators and wholesalers who pay pennies to the dollar. The savings is passed onto the secondary market, where consumers purchase “as is” or “salvage grade” products in boxes, pallets, or truckloads from the liquidators’ listings and auctions. However, if a retailer cannot sell returned products, they are simply discarded. Sadly, each year more than four billion tons of new merchandise finds its way into landfills.

So how do you purchase products for liquidators? You simply log onto the website of any of the liquidators and wholesalers. Three of the largest liquidators are Optoro based in Mount Juliet, Tennessee; Direct Liquidation, based in Miami, Florida; and Inmar, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It operates similar to Ebay. A consumer can review the many auctions that are listed under various categories (eg, clothing, jewelry, consumer electronics, computers, housewares, etc.). When you bid on a box or pallet on a liquidator’s website, you are provided with a manifest (a list of items that are included), that may be very specific or simply list the category of items. A pallet can have all of the same items, or a pallet can contain extremely random products (think of Storage Wars — you never know what’s in that storage locker!). A savvy consumer can save a ton of money; for example, a pallet with a total suggested retail value of $3,000 can be bought for a mere $100.

If you wonder what happens to used books — yes, there are liquidators and wholesalers that specialize in returned or remaindered books. Some of the largest book commercial wholesalers in the U.S. include: Book Depot (Buffalo, New York), Books Liquidation (Sacramento, California); Book Country Clearing House (McKeesport, Pennsylvania), and American Book Company (Knoxville, Tennessee). While these companies sell mainly to commercial accounts, consumers can purchased returned and remaindered books through e-commerce sites like Book Outlet (Buffalo, New York), Daedalus Books & Music (Hudson, Ohio), and Hamilton Books (Falls Village, Connecticut).

Let’s take a quick look at e-commerce/retail product returns by the numbers:

Rate of returns at brick-and-mortar stores: 8-10%
Rate of product returns at online stores: 25-40%

Amount of products returned by consumers in 2018: $707.5 billion

Online retailers that offer free return shipping: 49%
Percentage of shoppers that review the returns page before making a purchase: 67%

Top reasons of why consumers return products:
Product damaged in shipping: 20%
Product looks different than picture: 22%
Received wrong item: 23%
Other reasons: 35%

Percentage of shoppers that will buy something if returns are easy: 92%
Percentage of shoppers that want free return shipping: 79%
Percentage of shoppers that will shop online if they can return to a physical store: 62%
Percentage of shoppers that would purchase an item that costs more than $1,000 if returns are free: 27%
Percentage of shoppers that would purchase an item that costs more than $1,000 if returns are not free: 10%

Percentage of returns due to retailer’s fault: 65%

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2019

alex atkins bookshelf books

Back in 1984, the PNC Bank (a bank based in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania) developed the Christmas Price Index that totals the cost of all the gifts mentioned in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a flippant economic indicator. In 1984, the Christmas Price Index was $12,623.10; more than three decades later, in 2019, it has reached $38,993.59.

Despite their symbolism, the twelve gifts of Christmas are not only extremely random, they are more of a nuisance than carefully-selected gifts that you would actually cherish. As if the holidays are not stressful enough, imagine all those animals running and flying about helter-skelter, defecating all over your clean carpets — not to mention the nonstop, grating sound of drummers drumming and pipers piping pushing you toward the brink of a mental breakdown. Truly, no book lover would be happy with these gifts. Bah humbug! Therefore, Bookshelf introduced the Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index in 2014 that would be far more interesting to appreciated by bibliophiles. The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index replaces all those unwanted mess-making animals and clamorous performers with first editions of cherished classic Christmas books. The cost of current first editions are determined by the latest data available from Abe Books, the leading online antiquarian bookseller.

For 2019, the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index is $88,263 (shipping and tax are not included), an increase of about 12% from last year ($78,924) — something that would surely bring a smile to that old greedy curmudgeon Scrooge. The biggest hit to your wallet remains — by a very large margin — Charles Dickens’ very coveted and valuable first edition of one of the most well-known literary classics — A Christmas Carol ($45,000, an increase of $10,000 from last year). The second most expensive Christmas book, coming in at $15,000, is Clement C. Moore’s classic poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (more commonly known at “The Night Before Christmas”) that has largely influenced how Santa Claus is depicted. The poem was included in a collection of Moore’s poems in 1844, a year after the publication of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The biggest change in values were L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (decreased from $11,385 to $5,338) and O. Henry’s The Four Million that contains the cherished short story The Gift of the Magi (increased from $14 to $600). Below are the individual costs of the books that make up the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index.

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens: $45,000
A Visit from St. Nicholas (included in Poems, 1844) by Clement C. Moore: $15,000
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) by Dr. Seuss: $5,500
A Christmas Memory (1966) by Truman Capote: $3,500
The Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsburg: $2,100
The Nutcracker (1984 edition) by E. T. A. Hoffman: $1,250
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) by Valentine Davies: $900
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) by L. Frank Baum: $5,338
The Greatest Gift (1944) by Philip Van Doren Stern: $8,800
Christmas at Thompson Hall (included in Novellas, 1883) by Anthony Trollope: $150
Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving (1886) by Washington Irving: $125
The Gift of the Magi (included in The Four Million, 1905) by O. Henry: $600

Total $88,263

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Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2018

For further reading:

What is the Most Asked Question on Google?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaEver wonder what is the most pressing question on people’s minds? Since almost everyone turns to the same expert — Google (or its handmaiden, Siri) — we can simply look at the search data to find the answer. The curious folks at Mondovo (an SEO marketing company based in Bangalore, India) distilled the data and broke it down into different categories of questions: why, can, who, when, where, what, and which. But the most revealing list is composed of the most frequently asked question in each of these lists. One thing is clear: most people were not paying attention during math class and didn’t retain volume conversions (remember those? How many ounces in a pound? How many ounces in a gallon?, etc.) Back in elementary school you thought you would never need them again. Surprise — you did; and thanks to Google, the answers to those pesky volume conversions are now at your fingertips! Interestingly, those math questions are in 7-way tie with the timing of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. The question that raises an eyebrow is: how to get pregnant? Really? We’re people also sleeping through health/sex education class? So without further ado, here are the top 20 most frequently asked questions on Google within the last few months of 2019 (followed by monthly global search volume):

What is my ip? (3.35 million)

What time is it? (1.83 million)

How to register to vote? (1.22 million)

How to tie a tie? (673,000)

Can you run it? (550,000)

What song is this? (550,000)

How to lose weight? (550,000)

How many ounces in a cup? (450,000)

When is Mother’s day? (450,000)

How many ounces in a pound (450,000)

How many ounces in a gallon? (450,000)

How many weeks in a year? (450,000)

When is Father’s day? (450,000)

What is my ip address? (450,000)

Can I run it? (368,000)

How to get pregnant? (368,000)

How to download Youtube videos? (368,000)

How to screenshot on a Mac? (301,000)

How old is Donald Trump? (301,000)

How to lose weight fast? (301,000)

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

The Most Asked Questions on Google



How Bands Got Their Names: 5

atkins-bookshelf-musicSome band names are very clever, and some are just plain odd. Regardless of how they sound, all were inspired by some random or carefully-considered connection. For this set of band names the inspiration came from a magazine article or ad, toy, nickname, or book title. Below are a few interesting band names and their origins:

Dishwalla: The name comes from a word they saw in a Wired magazine article. Dishwalla is an Indian term for a cable satellite pirate.

Goo Goo Dolls: Originally named the Sex Maggots. Because a newspaper would not print that name, the band had to change their name for a gig one night. While looking through an issue of True Detective magazine, they came across an ad for a toy called the “Goo Goo Doll” and they ran with it. Guitarist Johnny Rzeznik said in an interview: “We were young and we were a garage band not trying to get a deal. We had a gig that night and needed a name. It’s the best we came up with, and for some reason it stuck. If I had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name.”

Hoobastank: The brother of the singer lives in Germany, close to a street Hooba Street. Hoobastank is simply a phonetic variation of that name, that has no particular meaning. In an interview, Chris Hesse elaborated, “When we were looking for band names it’s almost impossible to find a band name that hasn’t been taken. Anything remotely normal has been taken already. I don’t remember how it came up but someone said it and we were like yeah.”

Hootie and the Blowfish: The name comes from nicknames of the singer’s two friends, who used to sing together in choir: “Hootie” had a round, owlish face; “Blowfish” had large, puffy cheeks.

Imagine Dragons: The band is an anagram from different words that all members of the band agreed on. Exactly which words may never be known, since the band decided to keep them a secret.

Limp Bizkit: The name came from a roadie who once observed that his brain felt like a “limp biscuit.”

Maroon 5: The band started out playing pop songs under the name Kara’s Flowers, after a high school girl that all the band members had a crush on. How adorable. The band even recorded a few albums under that name. Naturally, when they switched labels and genres, management asked them to change their name. For whatever reason, the band has not been forthcoming about how they came up with the name. Perhaps they have been hanging out with members of Imagine Dragons. One likely explanation is that the band is named for an alma mater and its official color. Two band members, Levine and Carmichael, both briefly attended Five Towns College, a private college focused on the creative arts located in Long Island, New York. The “five” also ties in nicely to the number of members in the band. And guess what is the college’s official color? You guessed it — maroon. So until one of them writes a biography, or gets drunk and inadvertently address this, we’ll have to go with the “academic” theory.

Mott the Hoople: Named after the title of a book, Mott the Hoople by Willard Manus about a man who works in a circus freak show.

Porno for Pyros: The band was named after an ad for fireworks in a porn magazine.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.




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For further reading: Rock Names: From Abba to ZZ Top by Adam Dolgins, Citadel Press (1998)

The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair

alex atkins bookshelf triviaFew know that one of the Founding Fathers was a museum vandal. Say what!? Historical sacrilege! First let’s identify the Founding Father. Here’s a hint — he wrote the introduction to one of the most important documents in American history: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” That, of course, is the opening sentence to the Declaration of Independence. Its author? Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson, who served as the third President of the United States, was a polymath driven by an insatiable curiosity and had a tremendous capacity for wonder. He was a voracious reader and over the years, Jefferson built a private library of about 6,500 books in the six languages that he read: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. When the British burned down the Capitol in 1814, he sold his entire collection to the library of Congress for $23,950 (imagine the great deal that the library received: priceless books for only $3.70 each!). As a student of classical literature, grammar, and rhetoric, Jefferson was a passionate admirer of the work of William Shakespeare, also a student of classical education, and of course, acknowledged as the greatest writer in the English language. “Shakespeare,” he wrote to a friend, “must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.” When asked by a friend, what books he should read, Jefferson advocated that “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that were ever written.” Jefferson not only read and studied Shakespeare, he often attended the Bard’s plays that were performed in the playhouses of Williamsburg, Virginia. He also had the opportunity to see several plays performed in the theaters of London.

A biographer reports that in 1786, John Adams and Jefferson made a trip to England to visit Shakespeare’s childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon. Unlike the heavily guarded and monitored tours of today, museum docents and staff took a rather cavalier attitude toward protecting Shakespeare’s valuable possessions. During the late 1700s, museum visitors would surreptitiously cut a souvenir piece of wood from one of Shakespeare’s chairs. Jefferson, being such an aficionado of the Bard, could not resist. With Adams as his lookout, he cut off a small piece of wood and hid it to take it back to his home in Monticello, where it would be cherished. Who knew Jefferson could be such a rascal? Curators of Jefferon’s estate found the piece of wood and placed it on exhibit in 2006 with a note from Jefferson: “A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true, like the relics of the saints, it must miraculously reproduce itself.”

We can now add one additional item to Jefferson’s long list of accomplishments: lawyer, statesman, diplomat, architect, inventor, Founding Father, third President of the United States — and vandal. 

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Read related posts: Jefferson and Adams Die on Same Day
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For further reading:

Alcatraz by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIf I asked you to name the most popular landmark in the United States, what would you say? The Statue of Liberty? The Lincoln Memorial? The Washington Monument? Nope. According to a survey by TripAdvisor, the number one tourist spot in the United States is Alcatraz, (affectionately known as “The Rock”) an abandoned federal penitentiary, located in the San Francisco Bay, just a few miles from the number two tourist spot: the Golden Gate Bridge. Each year, Alcatraz Island draws more than 1.7 visitors.

Alcatraz Island was originally named La Isla de los Alcatraces (Spanish for “The Island of the Pelicans”) by Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer who was the first to sail a ship, the San Carlos, into the San Francisco Bay in 1775. In 1846, Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, gave the island to his friend, Julian Workman, so that he would build a lighthouse on the island. Workman did not build the lighthouse, but conveyed the tile to Francis Temple, his son-in-law. Later that year, John Fremont, Military Governor of California, bought the island from Workman for $5,000 in the name of the U.S. government. Fremont recognized that the island was an ideal location for a lighthouse and a fort to protect harbor. The U.S. government did agree that Alcatraz, along with Fort Mason and Fort Lime (which was never built due to a land dispute) would form a formidable triangular defense. However the government did not believe that Fremont had the right to purchase the island. Many legal proceedings later, the U.S. government did take over title to the island without any compensation to Fremont or his heirs.

Beginning in 1853, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, now called Fort Alcatraz, mounting 105 cannons around the island and building quarters for 200 soldiers. In 1954, the first operational lighthouse on America’s West Coast was built on the southern end of the island. (It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in 1909.) As early as 1859, the fort, due to its remote location, began housing prisoners in the basement of the guardhouses. The first prisoners were 11 soldiers who committed crimes; then two years later, the fort was established as a military prison for prisoners of war, Union deserters, and Confederate sympathizers during the American Civil War. In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built to house military prisoners. By 1898, the prisoner population had grown from 26 to 450 inmates.

By 1915, Fort Alcatraz was officially designated as the Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. The iconic concrete cell block on the center of the island was built between 1909 and 1912 to house up to 320 prisoners. One of the unique features was that each inmate lived in his own cell, containing a sleeping cot, toilet, sink (cold water only) and small metal table (cell blocks B and C). Cell block D, known as “the hole” was used for solitary confinement; the space was larger than the typical cells but was completely dark and had not bed, table, sink, or toilet (just a hole in the floor). Two decades later, in 1933, the island officially became a federal prison, known as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, to house some of the most recalcitrant criminals, predominantly murderers and bank robbers, in America. The mantra at Alcatraz was: “Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” For the next 29 years, Alcatraz was home to about 250 men with a prison staff of about 155. About 300 civilians lived on the island. The guards and their families lived in nine apartment buildings located near the island’s harbor. The staff also had a recreation hall, post office, small convenience store, soda fountain shop, bowling alley, and beautiful gardens.

Due to the high cost of operation, saltwater’s deteriorating impact on buildings, and impact of the island residents’ sewage into the bay, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz to close in early 1963. Since 1972, the island is maintained and operated by the National Park Service.

Let’s take a look at this fascinating island and prison by the numbers:

Size of island: 1,675 feet by 590 feet; total area is 22 acres

Distance from closest shore: 1.25 miles

Temperature water around Alcatraz: less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit

Speed of currents around Alcatraz: 6 to 8 mph

Size of prison cells: 5 x 9 feet

Number of cells: 336

Bedtime for inmates: 9:30 pm “lights out”

Height of lighthouse: 84 feet

Range of lighthouse: 22 nautical miles

Number of lighthouse keepers (1853-1940): 14

Number of prisoners: average: 260; maximum: 320

Number or inmates over 29 years: 1,576

Number of staff: 155

Number of families living on Alcatraz: 60

Cost of rent for apartment for a prison guard: $25

Number of children that grew up on Alcatraz: 100 (they are now members of the Alcatraz Alumni Association)

Number of attempted escapes: 36 (23 of those were captures; six killed; two drowned; five went missing)

Successful escape attempts: of the 36, only 3 might have escaped successfully: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. The Anglin family provided cards and photos that show the prisoners many years after their escape; however, the FBI has ruled the evidence inconclusive. Thus the number of attempted escapes remains at 36, with the three aforementioned prisoners considered as part of the five missing.

Number of inmates who died at Alcatraz: 28 (15 from natural causes, 5 from suicide, 8 murdered by other inmates)

Number of books in prison library: 15,000

Number of magazine subscriptions: 75

Cost to house a prisoner at Alcatraz: $10 a day (the average at other prisons was $3)

Number of birds that the Birdman of Alcatraz kept there: 0 (the movie’s premise was a complete fiction; Rober Stroud was not allowed to keep any birds at Alcatraz)

Number of Native American activists that occupied Alcatraz (1969-71): approximately 100

Daily Activity Schedule at Alcatraz:
6:30 AM – Morning whistle. Prisoners wash and dress
7:00 AM – Prisoners enter mess hall to have breakfast
7:20 AM – Breakfast is over; prisoners report to recreation yard, work assignment, or cells
11:40 AM – Prisoners enter mess hall to have lunch
12:00 PM – Lunch is over; prisoner report to cells to be counted
12:30 PM – Prisoners assigned to work report to respective shops
4:15 PM – Workday is over
4:25 PM – Prisoners enter mass hall to have dinner
4:45 PM – Dinner is over, prisoners return to their cells
9:30 PM – Lights out

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For further reading:

The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2019

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), established in 1982 by English Professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst opening sentence (also known as an “incipit”) for a novel. The name of the quasi-literary contest honors Edward George Bulwer Lytton, author of a very obscure 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford, with a very famous opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Each year, contest receives more than 10,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

The winner of the 2018 BLFC was Maxwell Archer of Mt. Pleasant, Ontario:
Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago.

The runner up was submitted by Robert Moore of North Falmouth, Massachusetts:
Emile Zola wondered the dank and soggy streets of a gloomy Parisian night, the injustice of the Dreyfus affair weighing on him like a thousand baguettes, dreaming of some massage or therapy to relieve the tension and pain in his aching shoulders and back, and then suddenly he thought of his Italian friends and their newly invented warm water bath with air jets and he rapturously exclaimed that oft misquoted declaration — “Jacuzzi!”

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Jeremy Das of Loughborough, England:
Realizing that his symptoms indicated a virtually undetectable, fast acting neurotoxin, CIA coroner Quinn Abner frantically wrote up the details, lay on the floor and, as a professional courtesy, did his best to draw a chalk outline of himself.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Bart King of Portland, Oregon:
After purchasing an oval Chinese frying pan at the diminutive British aristocrat’s yard sale, Nigel realized that he’d just taken a long wok off a short Peer.

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For futher reading:
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)

Nixon’s Eloquent Apollo 11 Speech that America Never Heard

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt is one of the most memorable days in American history — when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 on the Sea of Tranquility. The Apollo 11 mission, of course, was a complete success. Nixon became the first President to speak to two Americans on the moon. He spoke briefly to the astronauts, more than 240,000 miles away, via telephone patched to Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Nixon expressed tremendous national pride: “Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you’ve done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

But what if a disaster occurred and two or all three astronauts were left to perish in the cold, dark expanse of space? Although it was possible for Collins to have returned to the earth, NASA had a concern that Armstrong and Aldrin would not be able to lift off from the moon and rejoin Collins in the command module. That would mean that the two astronauts would be left stranded on the moon, eventually exhausting their oxygen. Therefore, William Safire, President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, had been asked to prepare a speech in the event of such a tragedy. Fortunately, it was a speech that Nixon never had to deliver. The speech, titled “In Event of Moon Disaster” was written by Safire on July 18, 1969. It was discovered in the late 1990s by journalist and author James Mann among the archives of the Nixon administration (then located in College Park, Maryland) while he was researching a book on America’s relationship with China. What the speech lacks in length (it is only 233 words on two typewritten pages), it makes up in stirring images and heartwarming eloquence. Mann writes: “The short text still brings tears to the eyes… What Safire wrote would have qualified as the most eloquent speech Nixon every gave — and one of the most poignant by any American president. Thankfully, it never had to be delivered.” The letter is now displayed at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

In Event of Moon Disaster

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

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For further reading:

The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity

alex atkins bookshelf cultureOn April 10, 2019, the world was mesmerized by the spectacular first-ever photo of a black hole, providing the first visual evidence that black holes actually exist. The black hole is located at the center of the galaxy named Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole has a mass equal to 6.5 billion times that of the sun. The photo was the result of a ten-year collaboration of more than 200 researchers using a global network of eight radio telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT), to combine all their observations and data (5,000 trillion bytes over two weeks) in a supercomputer to create the virtual image. Shepard Doeleman, director of the EHT, proudly proclaimed: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.” This is truly a remarkable, monumental photo. But there is another stunning photo that we should not forget…

Five years ago, Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist and a fellow member of the EHT, remarked that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as a photo known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” That photo, taken almost 30 years ago has slipped from the public’s collective memory. But it shouldn’t — because that photo is a truly remarkable technical and astronomical achievement. Let’s take a trip back into time, going back 42 years ago…

Way back on September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA aboard a Titan IIIE rocket. The space probe was designed to study the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and then flying through the heliosphere, and eventually into interstellar space. At a speed of about 38,027 mph, the intrepid Voyager 1 covered a distance of about 325 million miles per year. And remarkably — 37 years later — the spacecraft is still sending data to NASA (messages from more than 12 trillion miles away take about 17 hours to reach Earth). Back in 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager’s imaging team, persuaded NASA to send commands to turn the spacecraft’s camera around to take one last photo of the Earth from the edge of the solar system (at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles away). The final image shows the Earth as a mere speck (less than 1 pixel) suspended in a brownish band of light, surrounded by the blackness of space.

The spectacular photo inspired Sagan to reflect eloquently on the significance of life on this tiny planet, a pale blue dot, dwarfed by the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

These two photos — the first-ever black hole of M87 and the Pale Blue Dot — could not be more different, occurring at such amazingly different chapters in the history of the world, but they are a singular and profound reminder of just how insignificant our existence is in the context of an infinite, ever-expanding cosmos. And as we ponder these photos, signifying our place in the universe, one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of humility that they elicit.

Read related posts: How Fast is the Earth Moving?
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For further reading: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books (1997)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ballantine Books (2013)
Universe by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, David Hughes, and Iain Nicolson, DK (2012)


How Blindness Shaped a Famous Author’s Career

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHe was born into a prominent highly-educated British family. His father was a writer and schoolmaster; his mother, a founder of a school, was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold; his grandfather was a well-known biologist and passionate advocate of evolution. But this young man wanted to be a medical doctor. His life changed dramatically when he turned 17. He contracted keratitis punctata, a painful condition where the eye’s cornea becomes inflamed and leads to temporary or permanent blindness. In the case of this person, the condition left him completely blind for two to three years. His brother wrote: “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism, he was able to take all knowledge for his province.” As the author later explained in an interview: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it.” He did learn braille in order to read. Fortunately, over time by using a magnifying glass and eye exercises, he was able to regain most of his eyesight in the left eye. (He wrote about this process in his book, The Art of Seeing, published in 1942). He went on to study English literature in college, edit the poetry magazine, and graduate with honors.

So who is this remarkable young man? His name is Aldous Huxley, one of the most successful writers and social satirists of the 20th century. He wrote several novels, Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point, but it is his fifth novel that is the most recognized: Brave New World, published in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s to become a successful screenwriter, writing screenplays for Madame Curie, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 1952, Huxley spoke to a crowd at a Hollywood banquet. Editor Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, recounts the author’s ordeal: “[Huxley was] wearing no glasses and apparently reading his paper from the lectern without difficult. Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn’t reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn’t read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonizing moment.”

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For further reading:

How Reading Makes You Smarter

atkins-bookshelf-booksA few years ago, the Pew Research Center published a report on the reading habits of Americans. The study focused on how often adults (aged 18 and older) read print books, audiobooks, and e-books. Unfortunately the results were not promising: the number of people who are not reading any books has tripled in the past three decades. Specifically in 1978, 8% of American did not read a book within the past year. In 2002 that number jumped up to 18%; and in 2014 that number increased to 23%. What those individuals don’t know, and dedicated readers do know (at least intuitively), is that reading makes you smarter and has several beneficial effects on the brain. Here are seven ways that reading makes you smarter:

1. Reading encourages empathy. Studies indicate that reading literary fiction increases empathy and sympathy as readers respond to the struggles of a protagonist. Reading allows the reader to step into the life of the protagonist and imagine what it would be like to have those experiences.

2. Reading poetry encourages deep self-reflection. Studies show that reading poetry activates areas of the brain that are associated with introspection and autobiographical memory.

3. Reading improves memory. Reading activates the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In one study, readers read simple descriptive phrases (like “dark blue carpet”) while placed in an MRI machine. The MRI indicated that these simple phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus. Using fewer words encourages readers to use their imagination to “fill in the blanks” and create a virtual scene or world.

4. Reading improves decision-making and emotional processing. Researchers have found that reading activates key parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex, lateral temporal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobe. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved with decision-making and memory recall. The lateral temporal cortex is responsible for emotional association and visual memory. The posterior cingulate cortex is involved with episodic memory recall. And finally, the inferior parietal lobe is responsible for understanding emotions and interpreting sensory data.

5. Reading improves your verbal skills and vocabulary. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between verbal skills and reading. As most readers know, reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary by looking up new words you encounter. The more you read, the greater your working vocabulary will be. Reading also helps discover new ways of describing situations, feelings, and places as well as creating images in the mind’s eye.

6. Reading strengthens the mind. The brain is not a muscle, of course, but studies suggests that mind-building (mental exercise) is analogous to body-building. In another MRI study, researchers found that brain retains activity for as long as five days after reading a book. MRI of subjects revealed increased activity in the left angular and supra marginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri areas of the brain that are associated with comprehension.

7. Reading helps slow down mental aging. Studies show that reading improves memory and sentence processing in older adults. The steady exposure to literary ingredients that encourage imagination (eg, metaphors, imagery, abstract ideas, etc), the brain gets mental exercise, remaining active and healthy.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up a book and start getting smarter.

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For further reading:

Profile of a Book Lover: Karl Lagerfeld

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhen you walk into Karl Lagerfeld’s spectacular library of 300,000 books you are in book heaven — unless, of course, you are Marie Kondo and the overwhelming quantity of books leaves her head spinning: “You have to put all the books in one big pile,” she says, “and choose only the ones that spark joy.” Nonsense! Take a hike sister — for a bibliophile like Lagerfeld every single one of those books sparked joy: finding them, buying them, holding them, reading them, and just looking at them organized neatly in their custom bookshelves. To give you a sense of the scale of that size of a personal library: if you purchased one book a day, it would take you more than 821 years to complete a library of that size! You would also have to have really deep pockets. Assuming that the average art book costs $40, you are looking at an expenditure of more than $12 million (excluding tax and shipping fees)!

As you may have read, Lagerfeld, the world-renowned fashion designer, artist, creative director, and photographer, passed away on February 19, 2019 at the age of 85. For more than five decades, he was creative director at the Italian fashion house Fendi; and spent four decades in the same capacity for Chanel, as well as his own fashion label, Lagerfeld. And like acclaimed American author and journalist Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with another famous American author, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward Angel), Lagerfeld subscribed to the code of eccentrics that asserts that if you are an artist, you must really look the part. For Lagerfeld that meant dark sunglasses (day or night), fingerless gloves, and high, starched while collars that wrapped around his neck like a neck brace. He wore his shocking white hair pulled back tightly in a pony tail. You might say he dressed like a quintessential James Bond villain. (Compare that to Tom Wolfe’s signature look, that of the Southern gentleman: a white suit accessorized by a white homburg hat, white tie, and traditional two-tone shoes.) If his wardrobe didn’t put you off, many of his controversial fashion shows and personal views would. But we digress…

At heart, Lagerfeld was a passionate and consummate book collector — the bibliophile’s bibliophile, as it were. The first thing you will notice when you walk into his spectacular library is that the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are incredibly unique. Rather than lining books vertically (spines perpendicular to the shelves) like most people, Lagerfeld had custom shelves made so that the books are arranged horizontally, lying flat, with the spines parallel to the shelf. In other words, as you look across a layer of bookshelves, you see a neat arrangement of stacks of books, each about 10 to 12 books high. The second thing you will notice is that he collects large format art, design, architecture, and photography books. And nestled in between these stacks of large books, as if to plug in the holes, are smaller books that are placed vertically. Lagerfeld was immensely proud of his library (as he should be). You can imagine how many times he had to answer the question: “Have you read all these books?”

Now I know what you are thinking… what if you want to view a book at the bottom or near the bottom of a stack. There’s the rub. You would have to either use brute force to pull the book out (and risk damaging the book) or lift a group of books and place them somewhere, recreating a stack there, until you got to the book you wanted. A supreme hassle, for sure. But apparently this was one huge concession Lagerfeld was willing to make to have books displayed “his way,” that is, to have the spines reading left to right so that you don’t have to tilt your head.

Regardless of the orientation of the books on the shelves, the library is stunning. The rooms are minimalist in design — white walls, with understated, modern chrome chairs (gray or black), and glass tables sitting on beautiful parquet floors. One room is a two stories, with an iron catwalk that wraps around the room, reached by a sleek, modern spiral staircase. The catwalk is about 12 feet high, which means that the stacks below the catwalk extend more than 10 feet. To access the upper stacks, one has to use a custom ladder, that slides along the bottom, that has a leather chair at the top. You can see some of the photos at My Modern Met.

Not surprisingly, Lagerfeld also owned a bookstore: The 7L Bookshop in Paris, located at 7 rue de Lille, in the 7th district of Paris, not far from two of the most famous museums: the Louvre and the Orsay. And just like his personal collection, the bookshop focuses on fashion, photography, design, architecture, interior design, landscape design, as well as cookbooks (this is Paris, after all). Moreover, the bookshop features books written by or edited by Lagerfeld.

So what will become of Lagerfeld’s incredible library? The usual scenario is that the executor will donate some portion to universities, art or fashion schools; the rest will be inventoried and broken up into smaller lots and sold at auction; perhaps some will end up at his bookshop.  Most mortals will never own a collection like this, but what an inspiration… There is an old adage that says: “you can’t take it with you.” But the bibliophile’s response is always the same: “it doesn’t really matter — the joy is in the building of the library, building it one book at time; feeling that tremendous sense of elation when you find a special book that you connect with; and that book inevitably leads you to another one, and so forth.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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What Is “Mrs.” Short For?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMost people know the “Mrs.” is the title (“honorific” or “form of address” in linguistics jargon) used for married women. But what most people don’t know is that “Mrs.” is not an abbreviation of anything. Surprising, but true! It is never spelled out in written form; however, it is spelled out phonetically as “missis,” “missus,” or “missess” when it appears as dialogue. “How can this be?” you ask incredulously. For the answer to this linguistic mystery we need to travel back into time more than six centuries. Hold on tight…

We have arrived in the mid-1400’s, when a married woman is addressed as “mistress,” the feminine form of “master.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the earliest recorded use in 1463. Over time, “mistress” is abbreviated as “Mrs.” Now let’s fast forward 300 years.

Arriving in late 1700s, we discover for reasons that are not entirely clear, that “Mrs.” is no longer pronounced as “mistress” but rather as “missus” — this change is perhaps analogous to the great Vowel Shift of the 14th century. Therefore, in the 18th century, a married woman is introduced as “Missis Jane Smith” rather than as “Mistress Jane Smith.”

Fast forward once again — more than a century later and we discover that the word “missus” becomes a noun. The OED records one of the earliest uses in 1833 by Charles Dickens in a private letter: “Hint this delicately to your Missus.”

Similarly, the title “Ms.” used to address a married or unmarried woman, that was introduced in 1901, does not stand for anything. It is essentially a blend of Mrs. and Miss and pronounced “mizz.” And like “Mrs.” it is never spelled out in written form. The word is used in an article in the Springfield Republican, a newspaper that was founded in 1824 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The relevant passage is: “The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz’, which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

So the next time you are out with a group of people, impress them with this fascinating bit of trivia — ask them “so what is Mrs. an abbreviation for?” However, googling the answer is not permitted. Let’s see how well they do, Missy.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Oxford English Dictionary
Critical Pronouncing Dictionary by John Walker

What is the Least Trusted Profession in America?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureSince 1976, Gallup has surveyed Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of the most common professions in America. et’s begin at the top of the list. For the past four decades, Americans have rated the following professions as the most honest and most ethical, and thus the most trusted: nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists, and high school teachers. In the most recent poll, conducted in early December 2018, respondents were asked: how would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields? The top five are:

Nurses: 84%
Medical Doctors: 67%
Pharmacists: 66%
High School Teachers: 60%
Police Officers: 54%

Now let’s direct our attention to the bottom of the list. Any guesses? Here’s a clue: recall the recent hearing of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s long-time personal attorney, before the Congressional House Oversight committee on February 27, 2019. Over several unbearable hours, the media presented viewers with a group of perfidious, sycophantic liars that interrogated a convicted liar about a pathological, narcissistic liar — a classic example of the kettle calling the pot calling um… another pot… black. The circus-like hearing (including obligatory animals, like elephants, donkeys, rats, as well as plenty of props and exhibits) was conducted against a backdrop of some rather silly posters (one read “liar, liar pants on fire”) punctuated by cringe-worthy behavior befitting unruly school-aged children: Pecksniffian fingerpointing, churlish name-calling, sanctimonious speeches, melodramatic tirades, mock indignation, shameless sniveling, and surly playground taunts. If you haven’t guessed it already, the least trusted profession in America are members of Congress. Americans consider members of Congress less ethical, and thus less trusted, than car salespeople and telemarketers. Ouch! Come to think of it, Holden Caulfield would have a field day with this gaggle of phonies.

Remember that age-old adage, “it takes one to know one”? That might explain why so many members of Congress aren’t troubled with the 8,158 verifiable false and misleading claims that President Trump has made since his inauguration (according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database). Or why so many of them acquiesce so willingly to a capricious, vain President with despotic tendencies rather than do the job they were elected to do — namely, uphold and protect the Constitution, serve as a check on abuses of power, and passing legislation that serves the common good. But of course, these important tasks require intelligence –not to mention, an actual spine… Getting back to the last Gallup survey, the bottom five of the least trusted professions are:

Stockbrokers: 14%
Advertising Practitioners: 13%
Telemarketers: 9%
Car Salespeople: 8%
Members of Congress: 8%

The Gallup report makes two interesting notes about the shift of journalists (ranked at 33%) and priests (37%) in the context of recent world news: “Although journalists’ 33% very high/high rating is not outstanding relative to many of the other professions, it marks a 10-percentage-point increase from two years ago and now matches their record high, last recorded in 1977… While journalists have experienced a surge in positive ratings, the opposite is true for the clergy. Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985.”

Lets turn back the clock to 1952, when Ed and Patsy Bruce released their hit single, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies to Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Almost two decades later, the song was covered by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and once again the song climbed up the charts. Perhaps it is time to update that song to reflect the sentiments of the country; the revised title should be “Moms Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Congressmen.” Music to our ears…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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