When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1990s

Vexed Question

1998: Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s leading rabbis, pronounced on the vexed theological issue of whether Jews should be allowed to pick their noses on the Sabbath. Nose-picking risks dislodging nasal hairs and is therefore similar to shaving or cutting hair – activities forbidden on the Sabbath – but the rabbi ruled that the habit was harmless and permissible.

Source: The Guardian, 12 January 1998

Criminal Genius

1995: Justin Kruger and David Dunning illustrated their article “Unskilled and Unaware of It” with the example of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight with no obvious attempt at disguise. When arrested shortly afterwards, Wheeler expressed surprise that the lemon juice he had rubbed on his face had failed to make him invisible to surveillance cameras. Why lemon juice? Because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, so, as any fool knows, rubbing it on the skin obviously makes one’s features invisible. In their article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kruger and Dunning argued that, not only are the McArthur Wheelers of this world incompetent, but their incompetence means that they don’t realize they are incompetent.

Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 1999

Nobel Hotspot

Derek Walcott, photographed by Bert Nienhuis in 2008

1992: If braininess were measured in terms of number of Nobel Prize winners relative to size of population, Saint Lucia would have a strong claim to be the world’s brainiest country. The Caribbean island, with a population of less than 150,000, celebrated its first Nobel Prize winner, Arthur Lewis, for economics, in 1979, and its second, Derek Walcott, for literature, in 1992.

Source: Guy Ellis, St Lucia: Helen of the West Indies (2006), pp. 1, 2, 8

Disorientated

NASA photo of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev

1991: The Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome for the Mir space station on 18 May. During the 312 days he spent in orbit, communist hardliners staged a short-lived coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist. When Krikalev returned to Earth on 25 March 1992, he landed in the newly independent state of Kazakhstan.

Source: Brian Harvey, Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier? (2001), pp. 29–32

Shorter Queues

1990: “I don’t believe all our propaganda about you starving in the West.” The quote, near the end of Robert Carver’s travel book The Accursed Mountains, came from “an intellectual in Leningrad”. “I think you have queues at your shops, like us,” the man said, but “not as long as ours.”

Source: Robert Carver, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania (1998), p. 330

Jittery In Manila

1999: For weeks, the Philippines was rife with rumours of a military plot to unseat the country’s unpopular president, Joseph “Erap” Estrada. When the lights went out in Manila and across much of Luzon on the evening of 10 December, jittery Filipinos thought a coup was under way, until Estrada popped up to show he was still in charge. The electrical blackout had in fact been caused by jellyfish: tons of jellyfish had clogged the cooling water intake of a power plant in Pangasinan.

Source: Lisa-ann Gershwin, Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean (2013), pp. 13–14

Name Change

1998: After 70 years of getting by on first-name terms, Mongolians resorted to using three names – given name, patronym and clan name. The communist government had banned clan names in the 1920s; Mongolians owed their allegiance to the state, the authorities had said, not to their clan. All change in the post-communist 1990s: Mongolians were instructed to resume using their old clan names or, if they couldn’t remember them, to adopt new names. Many chose Borjigin, the clan name of Genghis Khan.

Source: Ian Jeffries, Mongolia: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments (2007), pp. 19–20

Height Advantage

1996: An intriguing but ultimately meaningless statistic: “practically every president elected in the United States since 1900 was the taller of the two candidates”. Eighteen of the 25 presidential elections in the 20th century were won by the taller of the two main candidates and five by the shorter. In the other two elections, the main opponents were the same height.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Heights_of_presidents_and_presidential_
candidates_of_the_United_States

Laws Of Physics

1995: In “Tumbling toast, Murphy’s Law and the fundamental constants”, Robert A.J. Matthews demonstrated mathematically that “toast does indeed have an inherent tendency to land butter-side down”. At the end of his article, Matthews suggested ways to avoid this messy outcome: by swiping at the falling toast, to give it a horizontal as well as a vertical velocity; by reducing toast size to 2.5-centimetre squares; or by breakfasting at 3-metre-high tables.

Source: European Journal of Physics, 1995

Scaredy Cats

1994: Why the sudden appearance, in Japanese backstreets and alleys, of clusters of plastic bottles filled with water?

To ward off unwanted cats. Householders believed the cats would be frightened by their distorted reflections as they walked past. A sort of feline hall of mirrors.

Source: James M. Vardaman, Jr., and Michiko Sasaki Vardaman, Japan from A to Z: Mysteries of Everyday Life Explained (1995), pp. 19–20

Exhausting The Inexhaustible

1992: The catastrophic collapse of the cod population off the eastern seaboard of Canada forced the government to impose a moratorium on catches.

European sailors who reached Newfoundland at the end of the 15th century found the seas “full of fish which are taken not only with the net but also with a basket”. In 1851, Newfoundland’s display at the Great Exhibition in London dealt solely with the history and manufacture of cod liver oil. Cod sustained the Newfoundland economy, and cod numbers seemed inexhaustible.

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Nothin’ To It

1991: Louisiana’s executioner expressed nonchalance about operating the state’s electric chair: “It’s no different to me executing somebody and goin’ to the refrigerator and getting a beer out of it.”

Source: Wilbert Rideau, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance (2011), p. 220

Dahl Finds Solace

Roald Dahl, photographed in 1982 by Hans van Dijk

1990: In 1962, Roald Dahl’s 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, caught measles. The virus can lead in rare cases to measles encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that is sometimes fatal. Olivia was one of those rare cases, and the disease was fatal.

Thirty years later, as his own life drew to a close, the children’s author tenderly remembered his dead daughter and drew inspiration from her. “I am not frightened of falling off my perch,” he said. “If Olivia can do it, so can I.”

Source: Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (2010), pp. 383–8, 560

Deadly Charcoal

1998: In Hong Kong, a city where the majority of people live in high-rise flats, it was perhaps unsurprising that the most common method of suicide should have been by jumping from a tall building; intentional carbon monoxide poisoning was relatively uncommon. In November, however, a middle-aged woman took her life by sealing herself in a room and burning barbecue charcoal to produce a fug of the deadly gas. The novelty and simplicity of this method attracted widespread media coverage and inspired copycats. Within two months, charcoal-burning had become the third most prevalent means of suicide in Hong Kong.

Source: Psychiatric Services, June 2001

Turned Out Nice

1997: No one wants it to rain on their parade. To make sure that wet weather didn’t spoil Moscow’s 850th anniversary pageant, the city’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, sent up aircraft to seed approaching clouds with silver iodide as a way of encouraging them to shed their rain before they reached the celebrations.

Source: Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006), p. 270

Pedal Power

1995: At the beginning of the century, the world land speed record, set by the Belgian racer Camille Jenatzy in 1899 in an electric-powered car, stood at 105.88 km/h. By the end of the century, bicycles were travelling faster than that. Much faster. On 3 October 1995, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, the Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, pedalling in the slipstream of a dragster, set a world bicycle speed record of 268.831 km/h.

Source: www.lepetitbraquet.fr/chron38_
fred_rompelberg.html

Vaccines Save Lives

1993: Deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States: diphtheria, 156 in 1953 and none in 1993; whooping cough, 270 in 1953 and one in 1993; tetanus, 337 in 1953 and 11 in 1993; paralytic polio, 1,450 in 1953 and none in 1993.

Source: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/
pinkbook/downloads/appendices/e/
reported-cases.pdf

Corrigendum

1992: The Times of India report on 29 April 1966 that Balasaheb Patloji Thorat, from Maharashtra, had won a lawsuit that had dragged on for centuries was incorrect. The dispute had a long history, but a civil suit had only been filed on 8 April 1964. The lawsuit had lasted just over two years, not 761 years.

Source: The Times of India, 18 February 1992

Alphabet Soup

1991: In the space of 70 years, Azerbaijanis had to cope with three major changes to their alphabet, plus a handful of minor alterations. From 1923, the centuries-old Arabic script was replaced by a Latin script; in 1939, Stalin imposed a Cyrillic script; and in 1991, the newly independent state reverted to a Latin script. Azerbaijanis barely had time to become literate in one before they had to learn another.

Source: Azerbaijan International, Spring 2000

Population Boom

1990: Between the end of the Second World War and 1990 the world’s population soared by almost 3 billion. The medical journal The Lancet illustrated the scale of this increase with an analogy: if an atomic bomb with the killing capacity of the one that obliterated Hiroshima had been dropped every day since 6 August 1945, it would have failed to keep pace with the runaway growth in human numbers.

Source: The Lancet, 15 September 1990