Category Archives: Trivia

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
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runit_Island
https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/a23306/nuclear-bombs-powerful-today/
https://www.livescience.com/65673-is-visiting-chernobyl-safe.html


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.
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

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

Read related posts: Fascinating Facts About Numbers: 15
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For further reading: Numberpedia by Herb Reich
https://badseypublications.co.uk/number/Num20.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20_(number)


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: https://medium.com/freely-sharing-the-sum-of-all-knowledge/wiki-most-popular-articles-of-2019-15b9257a0009?


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: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-retail-sales/u-s-2018-holiday-sales-numbers-surprise-nrf-fall-short-of-expectations-idUSKCN1Q32MB
https://fortune.com/2019/12/02/black-friday-shopping-cyber-monday-record-spending/
https://www.invespcro.com/blog/ecommerce-product-return-rate-statistics/
https://www.readycloud.com/info/ecommerce-returns-statistics-for-2018
http://www.liquidation.com
http://www.internetbookselling.com/book-wholesalers.html


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

SHARE THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: 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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Words invented by Dickens
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Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2018

For further reading: https://www.pnc.com/en/about-pnc/topics/pnc-christmas-price-index.html


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