Category Archives: Trivia

The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2017

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 2017 BLFC was Kat Russo of Loveland, Colorado:
The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.

The runner up was submitted by Tony Buccella of Allegany, New York:
Although in the rusty tackle-box of his mind he yearned to be a #3 buck-tail spinner, Bob knew deep down he must accept his cruel fate as a bottom bouncer rig, forever destined to scrape the muddy bottom of the river of life.

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Doug Self of Brunswick, Maine:
Detective Sam Steel stood at the crime scene staring puzzled at the chalk outline of Ms. Mulgrave’s body which was really just a stick figure with a dress, curly hair, boobs, and a smiley face because the police chalk guy had the day off.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California:
Pablo wrapped his arms around his dying hermano—the drone strike intended for cartel kingpin Miguel “El Jefe” Guzman had landed off-course, disintegrating Pablo’s casa—and as his fraternal soulmate’s life ebbed in his clutches, Pablo wailed heavenward, “He ain’t Jefe . . . he’s my brother!”

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


Would a Million Monkeys on a Million Typewriters Produce the Works of Shakespeare?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIn 1928, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington presented a classical illustration of chance in his book, The Nature of the Physical World: “If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum. The chance of their doing so is decidedly more favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.” In the 1939 essay, “The Total Library,” Jorge Luis Borges relates a variant of this concept: “a half-dozen monkeys provide with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.” Over time, the quotation morphed into a more alliterative, memorable phrase invoking the Bard: “a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.” Huzzah! It is now known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. The probability, however, is very small: mathematicians have calculated to be one in 15 billion.

Such a theoretical discussion of probability begs the discussion of a real-world experiment. What would happen if you gave a half-dozen monkeys their own typewriters? Would they type anything of literary value? Glad you asked. In 2003, researchers at the University of Plymouth received a grant from the Arts Council to study that very question. The researchers placed specially modified computer keyboards in the enclosure of six monkeys, specifically Celebes crested macaques, at the Paignton Zoo (Devon, England) for a month. Vicky Melfi, a biologist at Paignton zoo, explained that the macaques (named Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan) were ideal animals to test the Infinite Monkey Theorem. “They are very intentional, deliberate and very dexterous, so they do want to interact with stuff you give them. They would sit on the computer and some of the younger ones would press the keys.” The researchers did not reward the monkeys for typing because they did not want them to become fixated on typing to the exclusion of other natural behavior. So what literary work did these budding writers produce?

The six monkeys produced only five pages of text between them. Alas, there was no iambic pentameter prose here; the pages were very monotonous, filled with the letter S. Near the end, they added some variation, adding the letters A, J, L, and M. There was nothing in the text that came close to being an English word. Perhaps they were writing the story of a hissing snake. Nevertheless, when they got bored of typing, they simply sat on the keyboards and defecated on them. This is, of course, nothing new — a mercurial author who is displeased with his manuscript and trashes it — in this case, literally shits on it! S’wounds!

We end this discussion of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, with computer scientist Robert Wilensky’ observation: “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Touché!

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Poets Ranked by Beard Weight

alex atkins bookshelf booksPoets Ranked by Beard Weight, a leaflet privately published in England in 1913 by Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881-1937), is a classic of Edwardian esoterica. Like his other works focused on pogonology (the study of beards), The Language of the Beard and Whiskers of the World, Poets Ranked by Bear Weight is extremely rare and consequently prized by bibliophiles — whether bearded or clean-shaven. Underwood, who wore a hideous variation of the Hulihee (think of the Wolverine’s beard, with long extensions at the base of the jaw that look like tusks made of hair), developed the Underwood Pogonometric Index (UPI) that ranges from 6 (very, very weak beard) to 60 (a perfect beard). Underwood believed that the beard made the bard, that is to say, there was a direct correlation between personal appearance and artistic proficiency. The higher the score, the more “poetic gravity” that the particular poet possessed. 

Underwood believed that a beard possessed an “odylic” (or “od”) force that was conveyed through a human by means of a nervous fluid, which in turn imbues the poet’s beard with “noetic emanations” and an “ectoplasmic aura.” Further, Underwood believed that the od force generated magnetic waves that could be measured by special laboratory equipment. Undoubtedly, if Underwood were alive today, he would be a perfect candidate for Scientology. The readings gave rise to his UPI scale; the average bearded individual had a score of 10-24. 

Here are the poets, ranked by beard weight (poet’s name, type of beard, followed by beard weight according to the UPI scale):

Walt Whitman (Hibernator): 22

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Dutch elongated): 24

Sir Walter Raleigh (Van Dyck): 27

Henry David Thoreau (Wandering Jim): 29

Lord Alfred Tennyson (Maltese): 33

James Russell Lowell (Queen’s Brigade): 34

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Italian False Goatee): 38

John Greenleaf Whittier (Full Velutinous): 38

Edwin Markham (Box): 39

Sidney Lanier (Spade): 41

John Burroughs (Claus-esque): 43

William Cullen Bryant (Van Winkle): 43

William Ernest Henley (Spatulate Imperial): 47

Joaquin Miller (Forked Elongated): 51

Samuel Morse (Garibaldi Elongated): 58

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For further reading: Poets Ranked by Beard Weight (The Commemorative Edition) by Upton Uxbridge Underwood

How Filthy is Your Money?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaHow often do you handle money, specifically paper currency? Do you typically wash your hands after you handle it? Read on and you just might be reaching for a bottle of hand sanitizer at the very sight of money. And you will certainly feel pity for the bank teller that has to handle cash all day long. Consider that paper currency, made of 75% cotton and 25% linen, stays in circulation for 5 to 15 years. Imagine wearing a pair of jeans or shirt that long and never washing it. Gross! Let’s take a look at just how filthy money is…

Biologist Julia Maritz and her intrepid colleagues from the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology at New York University wanted to find out just how filthy paper currency is. Their study, “Filthy lucre: A metagenomic pilot study of microbes found on circulating currency in New York City” was published on PLOS One on April 6, 2017. The researchers swapped circulating $1 bills (since they have the highest volume and shortest lifespan of all currencies) from New York City bank in the winter and summer of 2013. They utilized metagenomic sequencing to profile the microbes found on the paper currency’s surface. “So what did they find?” you ask. You may not want to know. The researchers identified more than 397 bacterial species, including the following:

Bacteria from the skin
Propionibacterium acnes
Staphylococcus epidermis

Bacteria from the mouth
Micrococcus luteus
Streptococcus oralis
Rothia (R. mucilaginosa, dentocariosa)

Bacteria from the mouth or stomach
Veillonella parvula

Bacteria from the vagina
Corynebacterium aurimucosum
Gardnerella vaginalis
Xanthomonas campestris

Opportunistic pathogen
Acinetobacter baumannii

Bacteria associated with dairy production and fermentation
Lactococcus lactis
Streptococcus thermopiles

If that isn’t enough to make you heave, Jonathan Oyler and his colleagues at the National Institute of Health published a study in 1996 that found traces of cocaine in 79% of $1 bills from cities across the United States. Other studies have identified the presence of Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. Are you completely disgusted by now?

One thing is for sure — you’ll think twice the next time someone asks: “what’s in your wallet?”

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For further reading:

What Does the Moon Symbolize?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureToday, August 21, 2017, millions of Americans traveled near and far to witness a spectacular total solar eclipse that cast the moon’s shadow as a wide swath of darkness, the path of totality, (about 100 miles wide) that swiftly swept across the nation (about 10,000 miles long), traveling at a speed of 1,243 miles per hour — more than twice the speed of sound (for comparison, the fastest jet fighter travels 1,550 mph). While we wait for the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States in April 2024, it is worth pondering the rich symbolism of the moon as it appears in literature, cinema, and art. In the context of the humanities, what does the moon symbolize?

One of the most comprehensive reference books on symbolism is A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant originally published in French in 1969 and translated into English in 1994. At over 1,100 pages, it dwarfs the well-known seminal work, A Dictionary of Symbols by Spanish poet and mythologist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, published in 1958. The entry for moon in Chevalier and Gheerbrant’s book continues for seven pages. Here are some of the key concepts that the moon symbolizes:

bad luck
death and resurrection
female deity
good fortune

the passing of time
periodic change and renewal

For further reading: The Symbolism of Storms in Literature
Do Authors Plant Symbolism in Their Work?

For further reading: A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

Elvis Presley by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf booksToday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley (1935-1977). But Presley, known as the King of Rock ‘n Roll (or simply, the King), is much more than a music legend — he is a multi-generational cultural phenomenon. Although Elvis has permanently left the building, he is very much alive today — in music, in film, in art, pop culture, and tourism. Each year, more than half a million of the King’s faithful make the pilgrimage to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, which opened to the public in 1982. And each year, hundreds of babies are named either Elvis or Presley (for example, in 2012 183 babies were named Elvis; 1,659 babies were named Presley). Bookshelf looks at the enduring influence of Elvis Presley by the numbers.

Annual visitors to Graceland: 600,000

Price of admission: $25 (adult); $68 (VIP tour)

Amount Elvis paid for Graceland in 1957: $102,500

Size of Graceland: 10,266 square feet on 13.8 acres

Value of Graceland today: $78-100 million

Average annual earnings of Elvis Presley Enterprises: $40 million

Sales price of Elvis Presley Enterprises: 85% share of company sold for $100 million in 2005

Albums sold: 134.5 million

Best-performing album: Blue Hawaii, selling over 2 million units

Units sold: more than 1 billion

Hot 100 Hits: 108

Top 40 hits: 114 (18 climbed the charts to number 1)

Charted albums: 126

Gold albums from Recording Industry Association of America: 90

Platinum albums: 52

Multiplatinum albums: 25

Encores that Elvis performed at his concerts: 0

Feature films: 31 (and 2 concert documentaries) (His favorite film was King Creole, 1958)

Years on Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities: 7 (earning more than $565 million in past 12 years)

Official licenses for Elvis merchandise: 260

Grammy Awards: 3

Hall of Fame inductions: 3 (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Music Hall of Fame)

Amount paid for appearing on Ed Sullivan show in 1956: $50,000

People who watched the Ed Sullivan show: 54 million (almost a third of the entire U.S. population at that time)

People who attended Presley’s funeral in 1977: 80,000

Results for Elvis books on Amazon: 3,521

Book that Elvis was reading at the time of his death: The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams

Drugs found in Elvis’ body in autopsy: 10

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For further reading:

What Do Celebrities Collect?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaPsychologist Mark McKinley divides collectors into several camps: those that collect for pure enjoyment; those who collect for investment; those who collect to preserve the past, those who collect to expand their social circles; those who enjoy the quest (knowing that their collection will never be complete in their lifetime); those who collect for prestige or fame; those who are fulfilling a void in their self identity; and those who enjoy experimenting with arranging and re-arranging a microcosm of objects obtained from the larger world. For many collectors, it is a combination of several of these reasons. 

Given their extremely large disposable incomes, celebrities get to indulge their “inner child” with some rather conventional and rather bizarre collectibles:

Nicolas Cage: comic books
George Clooney: motorcycles
Billy Crystal: sports memorabilia
Jamie Lee Curtis: vintage photographs
Johnny Depp: rare books, insects, art deco furniture
Leonardo DiCaprio: vintage toys
Kelsey Grammer: first edition books
Tom Hanks: manual typewriters
Jay-Z: watches

Janet Jackson: pig figurines
Michael Jackson: egyptian harps, Elephant Man artifacts
Elton John: antique art and photography

Angelina Jolie: antique knives and first edition books
Nicole Kidman: rare coins
Jay Leno: cars and motorcycles
Rush Limbaugh: rare coins and Disney memorabilia
Rosie O’Donnell: McDonald toys
Penny Marshall: rare coins
Demi Moore: dolls
Brad Pitt: metal art
Elvis Presley: police badges
Debbie Reynolds: movie memorabilia
Jerry Seinfeld: Superman memorabilia
Frank Sinatra: model trains
Britney Spears: antique dolls
Rod Stewart: model trains
Kiefer Sutherland: Gibson guitars
Quentin Tarantino: pop culture board games
Alan Thicke: hockey memorabilia
John Travolta: aviation memorabilia
Andrew Lloyd Webber: pre-Raphaelite paintings

Robin Williams: toy soldiers
Reese Witherspoon: antique linen
Neil Young: model trains

Read related post: Why Do People Collect Things?
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Words for Collectors 2

For further reading: What Celebrities Collect by Michele Karl and Robin Leach, Pelican Publishing (2006);jsessionid=3B51CEF2C9C8333566B8D7FB6998D748.d04t04.
Time magazine, August 21, 2017 issue

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