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December 2006 Archives

December 31, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 31

edison-patent-light-bulb.jpgOn this last day of the year in 1879, Thomas Edison gave the first public demonstration of his incandescent light in Menlo Park, NJ.

Also celebrating milestones of their own today are a surprising number of well-known actors (Anthony Hopkins, b. 1937; Ben Kingsley, b. 1943; Bebe Neuwirth, b. 1958; Val Kilmer, b. 1959) and musicians (Donna Summer, b. 1948; Patti Smith, b. 1946; and Odetta, b. 1930).

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 31" »

December 30, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 30

monkees-cover.jpg An interesting collection of birthdays for this date in history, including the Roman emperor Titus (39 BCE, Rome, Italy; died 81 BCE); the Monkees' Davy Jones (1945, Manchester, England); and superstar golfer Tiger Woods (1975, Long Beach, CA).

Also on this date in 1862, the Union ironclad USS Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, NC.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 30" »

December 29, 2006

...And For Good Measure, One Last List

As a nice break from all the looking-back lists, here's one that looks forward to the 70 "products, services, and trends that will help to define 2007," according to advertising agency JWT Worldwide:
As globalization continues to make our world seem smaller, localization will come to a head in 2007. We'll put great emphasis on sourcing everything from food to textiles. Decadent and excessive consumption will fall to the wayside as we stress quality, minimal environmental impact and support of local producers.

I'd agree with many of these picks, and I expect some of them--VoIP, trans-fat fallout, nanotechnology, Barack Obama--will get a significant amount of news or statistical coverage in the next edition of the World Almanac. Others, I confess, leave me a bit bewildered: will 2007 really be the year of higher-waisted pants, party planning for teens, reunions of donor insemination siblings, and "binge chilling"? It's a brave new world...

What products and people do you think will define the coming year? Let us know in the comments... and bonus points for the first person to explain "kidults" and "Chindia" to me.

JWT's 70 Things to Watch in 2007

1. Skype/VoIP
2. Wii and the next-generation gaming systems
3. The business of social networking
4. Pop-up stores, restaurants and bars ... installation style
5. Shrinky Dink technology (TVs are flat and hidden, iPods are down to half an ounce, speakers are smaller and less visible, and so on)
6. The rise of nanotechnology
7. Sustainable construction/green buildings
8. Hydrogen fuel cell technology
9. Veggie-bus: school buses running on biodiesel fuel
10. Trans-fat fallout

Continue reading "...And For Good Measure, One Last List" »

Another List of Lists

With the end of the year approaching, everybody’s hard at work churning out their best-of lists, and we're no exception. The World Almanac’s top 10 news stories of the year can be found on p. 4 of the 2007 edition. Here are some other best-of lists I’ve enjoyed:

Darfur-1.jpgThe United Nations 10 Stories the World Should Hear More About: These include stories that have not gotten much media attention, such as the status of millions of refugees worldwide who have been in exile for over five years. Stories that present a different side of familiar news are also on the list. For example, political instability in Somalia has magnified the effects of the country’s worst drought in a decade.

Top 10 Stories of 2006, as chosen by U.S. editors and news directors in a vote conducted by The Associated Press: Top stories (in descending order) were Iraq, U.S. elections, nuclear standoffs, illegal immigration, Congressional scandals, Saddam Hussein on trial, the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, Defense Sec. Rumsfeld’s resignation, British thwarting of plot to bomb trans-Atlantic flights, and Darfur.

2006 Year-End Google Zeitgeist: Top search of the year? Bebo. (A social networking site—I had to Google that because I had no idea what it was.) Google’s top news search of the year was Paris Hilton.

IMDb.com’s Top 25 for 2006: Based on IMDb user searches, Johnny Depp, star of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, topped the list for the third year in a row. Star couple Brad Pitt (#4) and Angelina Jolie (#2) made the list, as did Pitt’s ex Jennifer Aniston (#11). Tom Cruise was #8 (wife Katie Holmes, however, was not among the 25).

Top photo from Candace's Flickr stream (CC) : August 26, 2006—A young girl stands in front of new makeshift shelters for people just arriving at Abu Shook IDP camp in El Fasher, North Darfur Sudan on Saturday August 26, 2006. The crisis in Darfur continues to worsen.

This Day in History: Dec. 29

Rasputin-PD_cr.jpgOn this day (actually, this night) in 1916, Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, a Russian mystic who had acquired great powers over the imperial family and the government, was assassinated by a group of aristocrats.

On this date in 1972, actor Jude Law was born (London, England); he shares a birthday with both Andrew Johnson, the 17th U.S. president (b. 1808, Raleigh, NC; died 1875) and British prime minister William Gladstone (b. 1809, Liverpool, England; died 1898).

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 29" »

December 28, 2006

The World at a Glance: Number Ones

1_3.jpgEven though The World Almanac is the best-selling American reference book of all time, there are still people out there who don't quite know what, exactly, you can find in it. So in the 2007 edition, we added a new feature page that summarizes some of the diverse, interesting facts you can find throughout the book, including some surprising facts, milestone birthdays for 2007, and important trends in the U.S. and around the world. For today, however, we'll keep the focus on our "Number Ones" — the biggest, the best, the worst, and the most popular in just a few of the dozens of different subject areas contained in the book.

Most popular car color in the U.S. .......... silver, more than 20% of new cars
Highest-rated U.S. television show, 2005-06 .......... American Idol, Tuesday night
Top-spending U.S. advertiser in 2005 .......... Procter & Gamble, $4.61 bil
Most prescribed class of drug in the U.S. .......... antidepressants, prescribed 81.2 mil times in 2004
Most popular dog breed in U.S. .......... Labrador retriever, 137,867 new dogs registered in 2005
Leading cause of death in U.S. .......... heart disease, 685,089 deaths (28%) in 2003
Nation with the most vacation days per year .......... Italy, average of 42 days per person
Largest world city .......... Tokyo, 2005 population 35.2 mil
Largest army, by active-duty troop strength .......... China, 2.3 million
Nation hosting the most refugees .......... Pakistan, with 1.1 mil in 2005
Most densely populated U.S. state .......... New Jersey, 1,135 persons per sq. mi.
Most sparsely populated nation .......... Mongolia, 4.7 persons per sq. mi.
Nation with most water per capita .......... Iceland, 582,191.8 cubic meters (U.S. has 10,333)
Developed nations with highest federal tax rate .......... Belgium and Germany, 42%
Nation with highest per capita GDP .......... Luxembourg, $55,600
Highest temperature recorded on Earth .......... 136° F in El Azizia, Libya, 9/13/22
Deadliest natural disaster in U.S. .......... Galveston Hurricane, Sept. 8, 1900; up to 12,000 killed
Most career saves (baseball) .......... Trevor Hoffman, 482 through 2006

[P.S.: Know a trivia buff who might love this list? Want to share it with the world? This would be a perfect time to try some of our sharing and social-networking tools. Click "Email this" to send this entry on to a friend, or "Add this" to bookmark or share it with dozens of different online services.]

Related: "Unbreakable" Sports Records

Photo from Leo Reynolds' Flickr stream (CC)

Hogmanay Time!

It seems that New Year’s Eve is bound to the tradition of watching a ball drop in New York’s Times Square. Boring! Perhaps we should consider returning to the holiday’s roots… in Scotland. After all, it used to be much more important than Christmas in the Highlands; they even gave us Auld Lang Syne. hogmanay.jpg

One especially enticing tradition seems to have fallen out of fashion in the past century or two: Calluinn: “The Night of Blows or Pelting.” The superstitious tradition was meant to ward off evil in the new year—and what better way to chase off evil than with a violent ritual involving men dressed as cows and lots of whiskey? Scottish FAQ has an excerpt from The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands (1976) by Ann Ross that sums it up well:

The boys who took part in these rites were known as gillean Callaig, 'Hogmanay Lads,' and the ceremony was performed at night. One of the boys was covered with the hide of a bull to which the horns and hooves were still attached. When they came to a house in some areas they climbed to the flat edge of the thatched roof and ran round it in a sunwise direction, the boy, or man, wearing the hide would shake the horns and hooves, and the others would strike at he bull-man with sticks. He was meant to be a frightening figure, and apparently the noise of the ritual beating and shaking of the hide was terrific. After this part of the ceremony was performed, the boys came down from the roof and recited their blatantly pagan chants; afterwards they were given hospitality of the house.
Keep reading for the song they sang, and what happened once they were invited into the house.

Continue reading "Hogmanay Time!" »

This Day In History: Dec. 28

wwilson_cr.jpgBorn this day in 1856: Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States (Staunton, VA; died 1924). Sharing his birthday is another world leader: Milton Obote, Ugandan independence leader, prime minister, and president (Akoroko, Uganda; died 2005).

On this day in 1846, Iowa became the 29th U.S. state; and in 1945, Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance.

Continue reading "This Day In History: Dec. 28" »

December 27, 2006

The Best Little-Known Blogs (Other Than Our Own)

As the end of 2006 approaches, the deluge of year-end "top ten" lists gets heavier and heavier. Check back on Friday for some favorite lists of editor M.L. Liu... but to tide you over until then, check out this fascinating list of "The Best Blogs of 2006 That You (Maybe) Aren't Reading" (courtesy of Fimoculous.com). There are some terrific sites that I had never heard of, including a handful of blogs that should be of particular interest to World Almanac fans:

5. Corpus Obscura
It's an inspired idea: track the obits of those whose accomplishments vastly exceeded their fame. So you get the last boxer to fight Muhammad Ali, the animator of Fred Flintstone, the tuba player from the Jaws theme, the first physician convicted of illegally performing an abortion in a hospital, and many, many more. (See also: Blog of Death.)

4. Information Aesthetics
I suspect we need a chart to explain why this blog is so great, because just saying "this blog tracks instances of data visualization" sounds like it could be a weapon to kill terrorists with boredom. But this site is essential reading for anyone interested in the ways that engineers and designers turn the messy world into a clear visual representation. (See also: Visual Complexity & xBlog.)

Before you load up your newsreader with all of these new blogs, however, don't forget to take a moment to subscribe to ours if you haven't already done so.

calendardesign.jpgSpecial end-of-year note: even if the description above doesn't send you immediately clicking over to Information Aesthetics, I still recommend you check out a recent post about Creative calendar design, which includes links to a variety of fascinating, printable, and in most cases useful interpretations of the classic yearly calendar. I've already got David Seah's 2007 compact calendar taped to the side of my monitor, which makes a nice complement to the 2007 World Almanac's calendar of the year, perpetual calendar, list of major holidays and notable dates, and other essential time- and calendar-related resources.

The Air That We Breathe

bacsta_cr.jpg Think about this the next time you take a breath of fresh air: according to a "first-of-its-kind census" by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, there is an incredible abundance of germ life in the air around us—which is teeming with as many as 1,800 types of bacteria. (Fortunately, most of the germs are harmless.)

There are several practical applications for this research. For example, it could lead to a nationwide bacteria census, which would show the normal levels and yearly fluctuations in the amounts of certain pathogens in the air. This could help the Department of Homeland Security identify abnormal levels of bacteria that could signal a bio-attack. It may also give scientists more insight into the role that climate plays in the amount of bacteria in the air.

If more surveys like this are done, you may one day see some World Almanac data showing nationwide bacterial levels in various U.S. cities. But that could be years away, so don't hold your breath.

Study Finds the Air Rich with Bacteria (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

This Day In History: Dec. 27

1927: Leon Trotsky and his followers are expelled from the Communist Party by the Soviet Communist Congress. The musical Show Boat opens in New York.
1941: Rubber rationing begins in the United States.
1947: Howdy Doody, the first popular children's TV show, premieres.
1979: The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.
2002: Four days after starting to reopen a plutonium processing plant, North Korea announces that it will expel all international inspectors from the country. Chechen rebels explode two bombs near the pro-Russian government offices in Grozny, killing at least 63.

Have a Heart!

heart-interior.jpgA friend recently brought up a question that had long nagged her: why are our hearts on the left side of our bodies instead of in the center? I thought I’d play Q&A columnist on this one.

While the human body on the outside appears symmetrical, internally it is not, and the primary reason seems to be space. The typical human torso exhibits left-right asymmetry because it can pack in only so much: for example, the heart, stomach, and spleen on the left, the appendix and gall bladder on the right. And actually, only about two-thirds of the heart is located left of the body’s midline. But we feel that side more strongly because our hearts’ left chambers pump blood to the rest of our bodies.*

Some people are born with their heart on the right. In others, all the organs are flipped—their bodies are basically mirror images of most people’s bodies, a condition called situs inversus. Symmetry can also occur. The heart can appear on the midline, in which case the person might have two left or two right lungs. These conditions aren’t life threatening unless "tubes and vessels don't connect properly," as this article puts it. The article states that about 35,000 birth defects every year are the result of organs growing in different places.

*The blood flow sequence is also responsible for the difference in size between the left and right lung. (That is, oxygen-poor blood enters the heart on the right and flows from there to the lungs, as you may all remember from biology class diagrams.)

Image from National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

Born This Day: Dec. 27

1571: Johannes Kepler, astronomer (Wurttemberg, Germany; died 1630)
1822: Louis Pasteur, chemist/bacteriologist (Dole, Jura, France; died 1895)
1879: Sydney Greenstreet, actor (England; died 1954)
1901: Marlene Dietrich, actress (Berlin, Germany; died 1992)
1915: William H. Masters, physician and sex researcher (Cleveland, OH; died 2001)
1926: Lee Salk, child psychologist (New York, NY; died 1992)
1942: John Amos, actor (Newark, NJ)
1943: Cokie Roberts, TV journalist (New Orleans, LA)
1948: Gerard Depardieu, actor (Chateauroux, France)

December 26, 2006

It Is Greater to Return Than Receive

wrap-paper.jpgToday is Boxing Day in the UK and Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. Accounts of its origin vary, but according to the World Almanac Encyclopedia, "Traditionally, on that day the gentry would give presents, generally of money, to servants, tradespeople, and others of humble life."

Most of us in the U.S. don't celebrate Boxing Day, but December 26 does represent another Christmas tradition: returning unwanted gifts. In 2005, December 26 was the 4th busiest shopping day of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, more than one in three consumers (37.6 percent) will return or exchange at least one gift. And the majority of gift givers (56.9 percent) are including receipts to make returns easier. Click here to get the NRF's advice on making returns easier after everything's been unwrapped. Or hit the jump to see what won't be returned—in the NRF's lists of the most popular toys of 2006.

Continue reading "It Is Greater to Return Than Receive" »

This Day in History: Dec. 26

1620: The Pilgrims, aboard the Mayflower, land at Plymouth, MA.
1776: After staging a surprise attack, Gen. George Washington and his Continental Army defeat the Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton, NJ during the American Revolution.
1898: French scientists Pierre and Marie Curie discover the element radium.
1971: U.S. bombers begin a massive five-day campaign against North Vietnam, in retaliation for alleged violations of earlier agreements.
1991: The Soviet Union is officially broken up.
1996: In a case that draws national attention, 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey is found murdered in her basement in Boulder, CO.
2003: A horrific earthquake in the ancient Iranian city of Bam kills 41,000.
2004: An extremely powerful earthquake off the coast of Sumatra triggers a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that slams into the coastlines of a number of countries, killing at least 178,000 people. Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko defeats Premier Viktor Yanukovich in a repeat presidential runoff election.

Battle of the Kegs

turtle_new.jpgDavid Bushnell, an American inventor at the time of the American Revolution, is best known for designing the first submarine for war. His Turtle (pictured at right) was an egg-shaped, one-man vessel that was not entirely successful in its Sept. 1776 debut: the pilot tried, but failed, to attach a bomb to the hull of a British warship.

His pioneering experiments with sea mines are not as well known today, but they received a good deal of attention at the time. Shortly after Christmas in 1777, Bushnell set afloat a collection mines at Bordentown, NJ, 26 miles upriver from a British fleet at Philadelphia. The mines were kept afloat by kegs and were spring-triggered to detonate upon impact. As they drifted down river, two boys detonated one keg, while the crew of a civilian barge set off another. That was enough to alert the British, who set orders to fire upon any kegs floating downstream. Francis Hopkinson farcically recounted the "battle" between “the conquering British troops” and the “wicked kegs” in his song “Battle of the Kegs” set to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It was totally a hit with the American troops.

The Connecticut Water Machine Versus the Royal Navy (American Heritage)

(Turtle drawing, and other information on historical submarine technology, from the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations' Submarine Warfare Division)

Born This Day: Dec. 26

1194: Frederick II, Holy Roman emperor (Lesi, Italy; died 1250)
1837: George Dewey, Spanish-American War naval hero (Montpelier, VT; died 1917)
1891: Henry Miller, novelist (New York, NY; died 1980)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 26" »

December 25, 2006

Holiday Greetings...

Penguin.jpgWe thought we should take some time this week to welcome new visitors (especially all you proud recipients of a brand-new 2007 World Almanac) to our blog. While you're digesting your holiday meal, take a few minutes to browse some of the highlights from recent weeks:

Blogging From a War Zone: If you enjoyed the "Voices of Service to America" feature in the World Almanac 2007, take a look at this entry for links to all of our featured military bloggers and more. Also click here for information about sending care packages to active duty soldiers around the world.

Piper.jpg Oh, Penguin, the Pipes are Calling: This is one of my favorite historical features — the weird but true tale of a Scottish Antarctic expedition, a kilted bagpiper, and a "phlegmatic" penguin who most emphatically did not have Happy Feet. Or if you're more into sports than penguins, read this for the tale of the first football game played under artificial lighting.

Dow 12,000... Population 300 Million: Just in case you missed it, the U.S. passed a major population milestone back in October. Check out this feature for links to a little more historical perspective. And if you want to play around with all the population (and other) statistics in your new Almanac, check out this feature for information on Swivel, "the YouTube for data visualization."

We'll highlight other features throughout the week—in addition to our regular schedule of new facts each weekday—so please bookmark us for future visits... or better yet, read this entry for complete details on how to subscribe to this blog in your favorite newsreader (or by e-mail) so you don't miss a single fact.

This Day in History: Dec. 25

800: Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.
1776: Gen. George Washington and his troops, in Pennsylvania, begin to recross the Delaware River.
1868: Pres. Andrew Johnson grants an unconditional pardon to everyone involved in the South's rebellion against the Union.
1926: Hirohito becomes Japanese emperor.
1989: Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, ousted in an uprising, are executed after being tried and found guilty of genocide.
1991: In a nationally televised address, Soviet Pres. Mikhail Gorbachev announces his immediate resignation; shortly after his speech, the Soviet flag above the Kremlin is replaced by the flag of pre-revolutionary Russia.
2003: Pakistani Pres. Pervez Musharraf survives his second assassination attempt in two weeks when suicide bombers slam into his motorcade in Rawalpindi, killing 13 and injuring 40.

Crossing the Delaware

For many, Christmas is a day for celebration and giving. But for the unfortunate soldiers in the Continental army back in 1776, it was about crossing an icy river in the middle of the night to put a hurt on some Hessian soldiers camped out in Trenton, NJ. Today, in fact, is the 230th anniversary of George Washington’s famous Delaware River crossing. Leutze-Washington.jpg

Unlike the famous 1851 painting by Emmanuel Leutze, Washington didn’t stand at the bow of his rowboat staring defiantly across the shore. Had he done that, odds are he would have tipped the boat, causing everyone on it to fall into the icy water. More likely, he was huddled with his other officers trying to stay warm. However, the drama of the situation was real.

Before the famous crossing, the rag-tag Continental army had spent most of the late summer and fall of 1776 getting beaten across New Jersey by the British, who had captured New York City the previous August. To put some distance between his tired army and the very well-supplied British, Washington led his troops into Pennsylvania in November. Knowing that a Christmas attack would be the last thing that the British or their Hessian mercenaries would expect, Washington ordered his 3,000-strong Continental army to cross the Delaware River over to New Jersey. Once across, they marched to Trenton, where on the morning of the 26th they surprised and soundly defeated the Hessian troops, most of whom were hung over from Christmas celebrations.

For more about Washington's famous crossing, check out pp. 460-461 of the 2007 World Almanac, or try the links after the jump:

Continue reading "Crossing the Delaware" »

Born This Day: Dec. 25

1821: Clara Barton, nurse and founder of the American Red Cross (Oxford, MA; died 1912)
1876: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founding father of Pakistan and its first governor-general (Karachi, Pakistan; died 1948)
1887: Conrad N. Hilton, founder and chairman of Hilton Hotels Corp. (San Antonio, NM; died 1979)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 25" »

December 24, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 24

1798: The Second Coalition, a military alliance comprising a number of European empires and kingdoms, is formed to resist French revolutionary forces commanded by Napoleon.
1814: The Treaty of Ghent is signed by the United States and Britain, ending the War of 1812.
1865: The Ku Klux Klan is formed in Tennessee.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 24" »

Born This Day: Dec. 24

1167: John, king of England, signer of the Magna Carta (Oxford, England; died 1216)
1737: Silas Deane, American Revolution diplomat (Groton, CT; died 1789)
1745: Benjamin Rush, patriot/physician (Byberry, PA; died 1813)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 24" »

December 23, 2006

The Week in Facts: Dec. 17-23, 2006

Climate Anomalies of 2006 : A little context for the weather extremes of the past year.

Statistical Abstract of the U.S. : Highlights from the latest edition of the Census Bureau’s annual analysis of the U.S.

Sizing Up Your Online Purchases : So, will that new hardcover 2007 World Almanac you just ordered actually fit on your shelf? Figure it out online.

Almanac(k)s of Seasons Past : A tip of the hat to Ben Franklin’s legendary Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Hatchet Murders and a Famous House : Want to spend the night in Lizzie Borden’s house? Neither do we, but it’s an interesting story anyway…

More Drug Money, But Fewer New Drugs : A look at diminishing returns in the pharmaceutical industry.

When Nixon Met Elvis : A classic (and true) meeting between two American legends.

Saparmurat Niyazov, 1940-2006 : The passing of one of the strangest dictators of modern times.

Reflection and Self-Recognition in Elephants : Maxine, Patty, and Happy join the elite club of creatures who exhibit “mirror self-recognition.”

Cult of Personality : More on “The Great Head of All Turkmen” (and his hatred of lip-synching).

This Day in History, Dec. 23

1913: In a major reform of U.S. banking and finance, the Federal Reserve System is authorized.
1947: Three Bell Labs scientists—John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley—invent the transistor.
1948: Hideki Tojo, prime minister of Japan from 1941 to 1944, is executed for war crimes.

Continue reading "This Day in History, Dec. 23" »

Born This Day: Dec. 23

1805: Joseph Smith, religious leader and founder of the Mormon Church (Sharon, VT; died 1844)
1810: Karl Richard Lepsius, Egyptologist (Naumburg, Germany; died 1884)
1860: Harriet Monroe, poet (Chicago, IL; died 1936)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 23" »

December 22, 2006

This Day in History, Dec. 22

1807: The Embargo Act is passed, barring all U.S. trade with foreign countries and forbidding U.S. ships to set sail for foreign ports.
1864: During the Civil War, Union troops under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman take Savannah, GA, completing their "March to the Sea" through Georgia.
1928: In India, Mahatma Gandhi calls for mass civil disobedience if India is not given dominion status within a year.
1968: North Korea releases the crew of the USS Pueblo, captured in the Sea of Japan in January.
2001: A provisional government takes power in Afghanistan, led by Hamid Karzai. British citizen Richard Reid is prevented by other passengers from detonating explosives in his sneakers on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, FL.

Cult of Personality

The news yesterday that Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov had died has left a "power vacuum" in the gas-rich former Soviet republic in Central Asia. However, most westerners familiar with Niyazov probably know of him for reasons that don't have much to do with politics. The Christian Science Monitor described Niyazov's cult of personality:turkmen.jpg
In recent years, Niyazov had become increasingly erratic, passing laws banning men from wearing beards or listening to car radios, and prohibiting teenagers from playing video games. He named a key town, an airport, and even a meteorite [sic] after himself, and scattered statues of his mother around the country. A year ago he ordered all doctors to swear a personal oath to himself instead of the Hippocratic oath.

What the CSM's article does not mention is that he renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother. It also leaves out a story about Niyazov banning lip-synching that The World Almanac 2006 included in its Offbeat News Stories (p. 38). After the jump, read the story as we told it back in 2005. Or visit Turkmenistan's info page in the CIA World Factbook to learn more than wacky trivia about this republic.

Continue reading "Cult of Personality" »

Born This Day: Dec. 22

1639: Jean Racine, French dramatist (La Ferté-Milon, France; died 1699)
1696: James Oglethorpe, English general and colonizer of Georgia (London, England; died 1785)
1858: Giacomo Puccini, opera composer (Tuscany, Italy; died 1924)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 22" »

December 21, 2006

Reflection and Self-Recognition in Elephants

184947867_c4108cda5f_m.jpgWho’s that elephant in the mirror? Maxine, Patty, and Happy seemed to know.

In experiments at the Bronx Zoo, three female Asian elephants (Maxine, Patty, and Happy) demonstrated mirror self-recognition (MSR), according to a study released in October by the National Academy of Sciences. (Full text of study available only to subscribers.) An elephant-sized mirror was placed in their enclosure, and researchers observed their interactions with it.

MSR was previously known to exist only in humans, apes, and dolphins, who all exhibit complex social behaviors. An animal that fails the MSR test reacts to its mirror image as if it’s another animal. But an animal possessing MSR will inspect the mirror as though it’s aware the image is of itself. Furthermore, Happy passed an additional “mark” test, in which she apparently recognized that a white mark had been drawn on her head based on her reflection in the mirror.

Photo by Janice Gelona (CC)

Saparmurat Niyazov, 1940-2006

Turkmenbashi.jpg President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov (whose official title was "Turkmenbashi," or Great Head of all Turkmen), reportedly died of heart failure this morning at age 66.

If Americans know one thing about Turkmenistan, it’s usually Niyazov. As Turkmenistan’s chairman of the Communist Party at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse, Niyazov assumed the presidency and quickly became an eccentric dictator (is that redundant? Aren’t all dictators eccentric?).

In trying to define a unique culture for Turkmenistan, he set the gold standard for a cult of personality, literally. In addition to the typical statues and portraits of Niyazov around the country, a gold-plated statue revolves atop the Arch of Neutrality in the capital city Ashgabat. There are tight controls on the media but earlier this year he opened a book-shaped $17-million "House of Free Creativity." The Rukhnama, the philosophical guidebook to life penned by Niyazov, is required reading in all schools. You can even take an online quiz on it (I passed! 80%). It apparently holds some of his poetry too.

It’s all actually very sad. His regime was entirely repressive and Turkmenistan is squalid despite sitting on a large supply of natural gas. If you can read Russian, follow the propaganda as it breaks at Turkmenistan.ru. The English version hasn’t been updated yet. However, the official government site has.

The personality cult of Turkmenbashi (The Guardian)
Turkmenbashi Dies, But Impact for Turkmenistan Unclear (Eurasianet)

This Day in History: Dec. 21

1913: The first crossword puzzle is published, in a supplement to the New York World.
1914: The first German air raid on England during World War I takes place when Dover is attacked.
1968: Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon, is launched.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 21" »

When Nixon Met Elvis

Elvis-Nixon%20NARA.jpgThirty-six years ago today, Elvis Presley delivered a five-page handwritten letter to the White House. In it, he requested a personal meeting with President Nixon to discuss "the problems that our country is faced with."
The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do NOT consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help The Country out. I have no concern or Motives other than helping the country out.

Nixon's staff acted quickly to arrange a meeting between Nixon and "The King." Presley arrived at the White House late in the morning and met Nixon in the Oval Office at 12:30 PM. According to notes taken by Egil "Bud" Krogh, Jr.--a White House official who would later go to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal--Presley called the Beatles "a real force for anti-American spirit," and Nixon stated repeatedly that Elvis needed to "retain his credibility" in order to reach young people. Krogh also reported:

At the conclusion of the meeting, Presley again told the President how much he supported him, and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the President and hugged him.

The National Archives have a terrific record of the meeting, with dozens of photographs (including Nixon admiring Elvis' cufflinks), images and a transcript of Presley's letter, and facsimiles of other documents related to the visit. Don't miss Krogh's agenda for the meeting, which includes statistics about radio and TV viewership in the U.S. (no indication of whether they came from the 1970 edition of The World Almanac, unfortunately), as well as a suggestion for Presley to "record an album with the theme 'Get High on Life' at the federal narcotic rehabilitation and research facility at Lexington, Kentucky."

BONUS FACT: Elvis mentions in his letter that he and Nixon have both been honored as two of America's Ten Most Outstanding Young Men. The award he refers to (now known as the Ten Outstanding Young American Awards) is conferred annually by the U.S. Jaycees. You can find Elvis' 9 fellow honorees from 1970, and Nixon's from 1947, at the Jaycees website.

When Nixon Met Elvis (The National Archives)

Born This Day: Dec. 21

1118: Thomas à Becket, chancellor of England and archbishop of Canterbury (London, England; died 1170)
1401: Masaccio, Renaissance painter (Italy; died 1428)
1804: Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister, novelist (London, England; died 1881)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 21" »

December 20, 2006

More Drug Money, But Fewer New Drugs

Fillmore_pills.jpgYou’d think that if more money were put into scientific research, then there would be more results, or in this case, more drugs. However, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that examines research costs in the pharmaceutical industry, this isn’t necessarily so.

The GAO found that between 1993 and 2004, funds dedicated to research in the pharmaceutical industry increased nearly 150%. But during that same period, applications sent by drug companies to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for the approval of new drugs rose only 38%. There are many possible reasons for this poor return on research investment, including a growing emphasis on creating highly profitable "blockbuster” drugs (which are harder to develop) and high failure rates in trials of drugs developed to treat complex diseases such as cancer. However, critics (including members of Congress who requested the report) assert that even these factors don't necessarily account for the high cost of drugs already on the market. You may hear more mention of this report later on when Congress again takes up the issue of medical care and drug costs.

GAO-07-49: New Drug Development (Abstract)
GAO-07-49: New Drug Development (Full report PDF)
New Drugs Declining, Research Costs Increasing, GAO Says (Washington Post, December 20, 2006)

Photo: Mike Chen (CC)

This Day in History: Dec. 20

1606: Three ships set sail from London, England , en route to America, where colonists will establish the first European colony at what is now Jamestown, VA.
1803: The Louisiana Purchase is completed; under its terms, the United States doubles its area by taking title to more than 800,000 square miles of land previously owned by France, for a price tag of $15 million.
1860: South Carolina becomes the first state to vote to secede from the Union.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 20" »

Hatchet Murders and a Famous House

Lizzieborden.jpgDevotees of crime dramas and/or the paranormal might be interested in this attraction: the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, MA. The house was the site of the Aug. 4, 1892, murders of wealthy business owner Andrew J. Borden and his second wife, Abby Borden. They were found dead of multiple hatchet blows to the head. Andrew’s daughter Lizzie Borden, who was 32 at the time, was arrested for the murders but was later acquitted following a sensational trial.

The case is still technically unsolved, with people variously proclaiming Lizzie, Bridget Sullivan the maid, or some other mysterious figure to have been the murderer. Lizzie remained in Fall River the rest of her life, first sharing a house with older sister Emma and then living alone, ostracized by the community. The Borden house has been restored to the way it looked when the murders occurred. Guests can tour the house and, if that's not excitement enough, spend the night at this notorious location.

Born This Day: Dec. 20

1868: Harvey Firestone, industrialist and tire manufacturer (Columbiana County, OH; died 1938)
1881: Branch Rickey, baseball executive (Lucasville, OH; died 1965)
1894: Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, Australian political leader (Jeparit, Victoria, Australia; died 1978)

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December 19, 2006

Almanac(k)s of Season's Past

franklin.jpgOn this date in 1732 (OS), Benjamin Franklin published the first edition of Poor Richard's Almanack, which was not the first almanac ever published, but is certainly one of the best remembered in the U.S. Poor Richard's is probably recalled more for its maxims and homilies than for its informative value, though various editions contained sage advice on everything from "How to Secure Houses From Lightning" to "Rules to find a fit measure of Meat and Drink."

Written under the pseudonym 'Richard Saunders' (with the occasional preface from 'Bridget Saunders,' his fictional wife), Poor Richard's also contained some of the same content you'll find in The World Almanac today--meteorology, agriculture, other contemporary information--albeit in different form. Consider this prediction on eclipses from 1734 (and compare it to the modern almanac standard in The World Almanac 2007, on page 331):

"Of the eclipses, 1734. There will be but two: the first, April 22, 18 min. after 5 in the morning; the second, October 15, 36 min. after 1 in the afternoon. Both of the sun; and both, like Mrs. ------'s modesty, and old neighbor Scrape-all's money, invisible. Or like a certain storekeeper late of ------ County, not to be seen in these parts."

More such gems can be found online here, where you can read a page-by-page facsimile of an early edition of Poor Richard's Almanack.

This Day in History: Dec. 19

1777: During the American Revolution, the Continental Army establishes a camp at Valley Forge, PA.
1958: The satellite Atlas transmits the first radio voice broadcast from space, containing Christmas greetings from Pres. Dwight Eisenhower.
1984: Chinese Prem. Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Min. Margaret Thatcher sign an agreement granting China sovereignty over Hong Kong as of July 1, 1997.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 19" »

Sizing Up Your Online Purchases

Sizeasy.jpg This made the rounds a few months back, but I thought I’d remind people it’s there as a useful tool for those who prefer to do their last minute holiday shopping online but want a more tangible image of the item they’re ordering. Sizeasy lets the user enter the dimensions of an object and then visually compare its size with up to four other objects, including some ready made graphics like a 19” TV, a wine bottle, a deck of playing cards, a door, or a double mattress.
For instance, say you would prefer a hardcover edition of the 2007 World Almanac (10.2 x 7.3 x 2.4 inches) over the paperback (7.9 x 5.5 x 1.5 inches) but aren’t sure if its vastness of facts in larger fonts is just too much for your bookcase. Just enter the dimensions of all three and then compare them from the front, side, top, or at an angle (“3D”):


Born This Day: Dec. 19

1790: Sir William Parry, Arctic explorer (Bath, England; died 1855)
1814: Edwin McMasters Stanton, U.S. secretary of war (Steubenville, OH; died 1869)
1875: Carter Woodson, educator/historian (New Canton, VA; died 1950)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 19" »

December 18, 2006

Statistical Abstract of the U.S.

Last week, the U.S. Census released its 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States. A press release offers some highlights, including:
Our armed forces are smaller: Active-duty strength in 2005 included 493,000 in the Army, 354,000 in the Air Force, 363,000 in the Navy and 180,000 Marines. The nearly 1.4 million men and women in uniform compares to 3 million-plus members in 1970.
Federal employees are fewer as well: There was an overall 13.4% drop in civilian employees of the federal government from 1990 to 2005.
We drink more bottled water: Americans drank 23.2 gallons of bottled water per capita in 2004, compared to 2.7 gallons per capita in 1980.
An increasing number of students are "straight-A": Nearly half (47 percent) of college freshmen enrolled in 2005 had earned an average grade of A in high school, compared to only 20 percent in 1970.

This Day in History: Dec. 18

1787: New Jersey enters the Union as the third of the original 13 states.
1916: The longest battle of World War I, the Battle of Verdun, ends with 750,000 casualties.
1917: The 18th Amendment, establishing Prohibition, is submitted to the states by Congress.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 18" »

Climate Anomalies of 2006

significant-extremes2006.jpgWhen it comes to weather extremes, it's hard to put them into context. Sure, we'll see images on TV of blizzards, forest fires, and other climatic events, but it isn't easy to put events together into one big world picture, especially when a lot of the events happen so far from our homes. To help us get a better feel for the global situation, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration released a world map showing major climate anomalies from 2006. The map also shows whether the climate activity in certain areas was normal or not. It's a well-done and concise presentation of data in an easy-to-understand format.

For a more historical view of extreme weather, you can also take a look at the new list of "Notorious U.S. Storms" on p. 302 of the 2007 edition of The World Almanac--a great way to see how recent storms like Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Floyd (1999) compare with storms as far back as the 19th century.

Born This Day: Dec. 18

1879: Paul Klee, painter (Switzerland; died 1940)
1886: Ty Cobb, baseball player (Narrows, GA; died 1961)
1888: Robert Moses, New York urban planner (New Haven, CT; died 1981)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 18" »

December 17, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 17

1777: France recognizes the independence of the 13 American colonies.
1819: The republic of Colombia, consisting of Venezuela and New Granada (now Colombia), is proclaimed, with independence leader Simón Bolívar as president.
1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright pilot the first successful flights of a heavier-than-air mechanically propelled airplane , at Kitty Hawk, NC.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 17" »

Born This Day: Dec. 17

1778: Sir Humphry Davy, British chemist (Penzance, Cornwall, England; died 1829)
1807: John Greenleaf Whittier, poet (Essex County, MA; died 1892)
1830: Jules Goncourt, French writer (Paris, France; died 1870)

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December 16, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 16

1773: To protest a British tax on tea, patriots dressed as Indians board a British vessel and throw 350 chests of tea overboard, in what becomes known as the Boston Tea Party.
1864: During the Civil War, Union troops defeat the Confederates at the Battle of Nashville, TN.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 16" »

Born This Day: Dec. 16

1485: Catherine of Aragon, first wife of England's King Henry VIII (Alcalá de Henares, Spain; died 1536)
1742: Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, Prussian general (Rostock, Germany; died 1819)
1770: Ludwig van Beethoven, composer (Bonn, Germany; died 1827)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 16" »

December 15, 2006

The Week in Facts: Dec. 10-16, 2006

A few highlights from the past week at The World Almanac:

Sports Slang: “The batter blooped a Texas leaguer into shallow right off the southpaw’s heater..." Huh?

Seattle Rain Record Retracted: Seattle residents thought they had a new precipitation record to celebrate, but University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass set the record straight.

Election Day. Redux: Haven't they all been elected yet?

Food for Thought: A rundown of current topics in food safety and nutrition.

Orbital Debris and a Slushy North Pole: Strange and scary changes are afoot in the upper atmosphere.

Edward's Untimely Death Series, #1: "Old Tippecanoe's" super-short presidency.

The World Almanac's Biggest Fan: You'd think that the editors of The World Almanac would have the largest collection of Almanacs, wouldn't you? Nope. Meet Rich Gruber.

Truthiness: The word of the year. Again.

Also, tune in to the following radio stations this weekend to listen to the editors of The World Almanac, with a focus on our new list of "Unbreakable" sports records:
Friday, 12.15, 9:30 pm: Boston, MA, WEEI
Saturday, 12.16, 7:10 pm: Minneapolis, MN, WCCO
Saturday, 12.16, 10:30 pm: ESPN Radio Network, “ The V Show with Bob Valvano”


truthiness_dictionary_page_cr.jpgWhen Merriam-Webster announced that voters in their first Word-of-the-Year online survey had chosen 'truthiness'--a Colbert Report staple, fans of words and wordplay may have experienced a slight feeling of deja vu. Last January, the American Dialect Society named 'truthiness'--according to Stephen Colbert, "truth that comes from the gut, not books"--their society's 2005 word of the year.

I've been a fan of the American Dialect Society's end-of-the-year selections for quite awhile, because they include winners in categories like "most likely to succeed" (2005 selection: sudoku) and "most creative" (2004 selection: pajamahadeen, meaning bloggers who fact check and challenge traditional media). The American Dialect Society will choose their 2006 word of the year on January 5, and you can find their other selections, going back to 1990, as well as an email address to which you can send your own nominations, here.

Those following along at home can also check page 723 of their 2007 World Almanac to see what words Merriam-Webster added to the dictionary in 2006. Notable among them: google (v.). And Benjamin Zimmer notes, on UPenn's Language Log site, that the Oxford English Dictionary has included 'truthiness' since 1915, though the OED definition is slightly different from Colbert's.

Merriam-Webster's 2006 Word-of-the-Year
American Dialect Society Words of the Year Announcement
UPenn's Language Log: "One Way to Get a Word in the Dictionary"

This Day in History: Dec. 15

1791 The Bill of Rights goes into effect after being ratified by Virginia.
1890 Sioux leader Sitting Bull is killed in a skirmish with U.S. soldiers.
1917 The new Bolshevik government in Russia signs an armistice with the German government.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 15" »

Born This Day: Dec. 15

37 AD Nero, Roman emperor (Antium—now Anzio, Italy; died 68 AD )
1832 Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, engineer and designer of the Eiffel Tower (Dijon, France; died 1923)
1888 Maxwell Anderson, dramatist (Atlantic, PA; died 1959)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 15" »

December 14, 2006

The World Almanac's Biggest Fan

Fans of The World Almanac often tell us that our book is a longstanding family tradition--in some cases, a tradition that spans decades (and generations) of annual purchases and gift-giving. Rich Gruber, however, has gone one step beyond. He bought his first World Almanac in 1962, at age 8 (for $1.35), and diligently picked up the new edition every year since then. But about four years ago, he started to wonder if he might be able to work his way backwards from the first copy he bought, all the way back to our first edition in 1868.

He's only missing 5 editions now, which makes his collection more complete than our own (Edward Thomas, our Associate Publisher, suspects that Rich may have bid against him in more than one eBay auction). Our own Sarah Janssen caught up with our biggest fan recently for a conversation that covered the history of The World Almanac, a personal grudge against Jeopardy!, and the missing link between the Almanac and Beanie Babies. Hit "play" below to listen, download an audio file of the interview here, or hit the jump for the transcript.


Continue reading "The World Almanac's Biggest Fan" »

This Day in History: Dec. 14

1799 George Washington dies at Mount Vernon, VA, after an attack of acute laryngitis.
1819 Alabama is admitted to the Union as the 22d state.
1911 Norwegian Roald Amundsen , with 4 men and sled dogs, becomes the first explorer to reach the South Pole.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 14" »

Do You Have a Vision for Canada's Future?

If you’re between the ages of 18 and 25 (and Canadian), then you only have until tomorrow to get in your videotaped interview to become “The Next Great Prime Minister” (of Canada).
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. will be airing the TV show on March 18, 2007 in which five finalists will be judged by four former Canadian prime ministers: Joe Clark (June 4, 1979-Mar. 2, 1980), Kim Campbell (June 25, 1993-Nov. 10, 1993), John Turner (June 30, 1984-Sept. 17, 1984), and Brian Mulroney (Sept. 17, 1984-June 24, 1993).

In its initial run earlier this year, political science student Deirdra McCracken was the winner.
(Website in English or French, bien sûr.)

Born This Day: Dec. 14

1503 Nostradamus, astrologer and supposed predictor of the future (Provence, France; died 1566)
1546 Tycho Brahe, astronomer (Denmark; died 1601)
1895 King George VI, king of England and father of Queen Elizabeth II (Norfolk, England; died 1952)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 14" »

December 13, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 13

1545 The Council of Trent, an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to respond to the Protestant Reformation, begins its meetings.
1577 Sir Francis Drake begins his voyage to circumnavigate the globe.
1862 During the Civil War , Confederate troops under Gen. Robert E. Lee defeat the Union at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 13" »

Edward's Untimely Death Series: Entry #1

William Henry Harrison (Feb 9, 1773-Apr 4, 1841), ninth president of the U.S., was the son of a Declaration of Independence signer, and the grandfather to another president – both named Benjamin Harrison. A military leader, he earned the nickname “Old Tippecanoe,” after he commanded a force of militia and regulars that put down a Shawnee uprising at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. But his real claim to fame is his untimely death. The oldest elected president (before Ronald Reagan), Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history (8,445 words), and died of pneumonia one month after taking office. It was believed that Harrison’s exposure to the elements that March 1841, contributed to his early death, causing him to have the shortest presidency ever.
-Edward Thomas

Orbital Debris and a Slushy North Pole

Every year I update data for our Environment chapter in The World Almanac. It’s useful info but it isn’t always clear how the trends shown in the data can affect you in your daily life. This is especially true for tables showing increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. But every so often, the numbers and trends translate into real-world events. A couple pieces from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on global warming caught my eye yesterday. The first unexpected. The other kinda scary.

In the “unanticipated consequences of carbon dioxide emissions” category, according to scientists, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will, by 2017, result in a reduction in density in the Earth’s outer atmosphere, which will affect satellites, spacecraft, and debris (left over booster rockets, parts of spacecraft, etc.) in orbit. The debris is the big worry. Usually, friction in the upper atmosphere slows the orbiting junk so that it falls to Earth and burns up in the atmosphere. With a less dense upper atmosphere, there will be more junk floating around, which could be hazardous to orbiting satellites human-piloted craft.

The second and much more alarming bit of research hits a little closer to home (or in my case, office, which is only a few blocks from a tidal estuary, an area likely to be underwater in the event of a global deluge). According to NCAR scientists, by 2040, there will be no ice covering over the north pole during the summer unless there isn’t a significant and immediate reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. In addition, the wintertime thickness of the ice will be reduced from about 12 feet (what it is now), to only about 3 feet. That’s a pretty bold prediction and there are probably some holes in the analysis, which was done using computer models, but the scenario is still a worrisome one.

Here’s a link to the piece about atmospheric thickness.
And here's the link to the piece about the ice caps.

Born This Day: Dec. 13

1363 Jean de Gerson, French churchman and theologian (Ardennes, France; died 1429)
1553 Henry IV, first Bourbon king of France (Pau, Navarre, France; died 1610)
1797 Heinrich Heine, German poet (Düsseldorf, Germany; died 1856)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 13" »

December 12, 2006

Food for Thought

It seems like 2006 has been a bad year for food and people who, like me, love to eat. Food poisoning outbreaks abounded (sidenote: if spinach, tomatoes, and onions aren't safe, what is?) and local governments have banned everything from foie gras (too cruel) to trans fats (too bad).

Interestingly, as noted in The World Almanac's "Historical Anniversaries 2006," it was 100 years ago, in 1906, that Upton Sinclair's grisly novel The Jungle exposed unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the meatpacking industry to the meat-eating public. Congress passed the first legislation regulating food and drug processing and labeling that same year.

Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser writes in this editorial that FDA food inspections in recent years have fallen about 90 percent, from around 35,000 FDA inspection visits in the 1970s, to about 3,400 a year. Schlosser's editorial also directed me to a Consumer Reports investigation that found campylobacter or salmonella, the leading causes of foodborne illness, in 83 percent of fresh, whole broiler chickens.

I may have laughed (just a little) when my college roommate switched her major to "food politics," but her choice isn't seeming quite so silly now.

This Day in History: Dec. 12

1787 Pennsylvania enters the Union as the second state.
1870 Joseph Rainey of South Carolina is sworn in, becoming the first black in the U.S. House of Representatives.
1913 Italian authorities announce that the Mona Lisa, stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911, has been recovered.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 12" »

Election Day. Redux.

Oath%20of%20Office%20detail.jpg And 35 days later, the final lineup for the 110th Congress is… well we’re almost there. The last runoff election is happening now. Current Congressman Henry Bonilla (R) and former Congressman Ciro Rodriguez (D) are competing for Texas’ 23rd district. After the Supreme Court ruled that the statewide redrawing in 2003 (remember Tom Delay versus the “Killer D’s” democrats?) diluted the growing Hispanic vote in the district, the Nov. 7 election became non-partisan. Eight candidates ran and Bonilla, the only Republican, fell 1.4% short of the required majority vote.
Rep. William J. Jefferson (D) won in Saturday’s race for Louisiana’s 2nd district, which includes New Orleans. Recent legislation ensured this is the last time that Louisiana’s federal elections will be decided by their unique nonpartisan open primary where a runoff is required if one candidate doesn’t secure a majority of the votes (there were 13 candidates on the Nov. 7 ballot for the 2nd district). Jefferson had failed to win a majority of the vote in the primary after the FBI found $90,000 stuffed in his freezer during an investigation into alleged bribes in May.
If you’ve already purchased a copy of the 2007 World Almanac, you can head here for updates to the Congress section.

Image detail from Library of Congress

Born This Day: Dec. 12

1745 John Jay, statesman/diplomat and first chief justice of the Supreme Court (New York, NY; died 1829)
1786 William Learned Marcy, American politician (Southbridge, MA; died 1857)
1795 Leopold von Ranke, German historian and educator (Wiehe, Germany; died 1886)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 12" »

December 11, 2006

Seattle Rain Record Retracted

After surviving a November of heavy rain and even snow, Seattle residents thought they had something special to celebrate: a new local record set for precipitation in a month. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reading of 15.63 inches total for the month did outdo the November 1933 reading for downtown Seattle of 15.33 inches. This new record was publicized by the National Weather Service and news outlets as august as the L.A. Times. However, University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass set the record straight in The Seattle Times last week. City gauges in downtown Seattle had only reached 14.8 inches in total for November 2006.

And really, Seattle doesn't have much to complain about. Check out page 295 in The World Almanac 2007 to see who has it worse in terms of average annual precipitation. Even I was surprised to see that New York's Central Park weather station records more precipitation annually (an average of 49.69 inches) than Seattle's measly 37.07 annual inches.

-Zoë Kashner (Seattle native, New York resident)

This Day in History: Dec. 11

1816 Indiana is admitted to the Union as the 19th state.
1936 Britain's King Edward VIII abdicates so that he can marry twice-divorced American Wallis Warfield Simpson.
1941 The United States declares war on Germany and Italy.
1946 UNICEF is established by the UN General Assembly.
1997 Representatives of more than 150 countries, at a global warming summit in Kyoto, Japan, approve an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sports Slang

“The batter blooped a Texas leaguer into shallow right off the southpaw’s heater.”

For those of you without a baseball vocabulary, the sentence means that a batter lightly hit a fastball thrown by a left-handed pitcher into shallow right field. For our May 2006 World Almanac E-Newsletter, I put together a small piece about baseball slang and its origins, so it’s always in my mind whenever I’m watching games. More than other sport, baseball has given rise to a number of creative and funny terms to describe what’s happening on the field. Maybe this is because the game is so rooted in American culture that it stirs the creative impulses in those who follow the game, allowing them to concoct new phrases, which capture the true essence of the game. But fans and radio announcers also need to use colorful terminology to keep things interesting...because for the most part, nothing happens for most of a typical baseball game.

There are lots of terms for a curveball—hook, 12 to 6, yellow hammer—and many more to describe hits—frozen rope, worm burner, screamer. But slang isn’t limited to baseball. Basketball has its bricks, swishes, and players camped out under the basket, while football has its gunners, flea flickers, and hook and ladder plays. See below for links to some more resources for exploring sports slang.

Sports Slang at SportsIllustrated.com

- Vincent Spadafora

Born This Day: Dec. 11

1475 Leo X, pope (Florence, Italy; died 1521)
1803 Hector Berlioz, composer (La Côte-Saint-André, France; died 1869)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 11" »

December 10, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 10

1817 Mississippi is admitted to the Union as the 20th state.
1848 Louis Napoleon is elected president of the French Republic.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 10" »

Born This Day: Dec. 10

1787 Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, educator and founder of the first public school for the deaf (Philadelphia, PA; died 1851)
1805 William Lloyd Garrison, American abolitionist (Newburyport, MA; died 1879)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 10" »

December 9, 2006

This Day in History: Dec. 9

1775 In the Battle of Great Bridge, fought in Chesapeake, Virginia , the Virginia militia defeats forces of the British governor.
1824 The last Spanish army to set foot on the continent is defeated by the combined forces of Peru and Colombia near Ayacucho, Peru.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 9" »

Born This Day: Dec. 9

1594 Gustav II Adolph, king of Sweden (Stockholm, Sweden; died 1632)
1608 John Milton, poet/essayist (London, England; died 1674)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 9" »

December 8, 2006

Swivel It (Just a Little Bit)

I've been eagerly awaiting the appearance of Swivel, and this week it finally opened to the public. What's Swivel, you ask? Well, it's being billed as "the YouTube for data visualization": a website where people can upload practically any kind of data, render it into graphic form, and compare it against data submitted by other users. It's still in "preview" mode so things can be a little glitchy, but over the past couple of days things have noticeably smoothed out.

For statistics geeks (i.e., World Almanac fans), there's a lot of serious potential here, and even opportunities for fun. One particularly nice tongue-in-cheek touch: the icon to compare data in Swivel shows an apple and an orange, side-by-side — and most users are indeed, comparing apples to oranges, mashing together wildly different and completely unrelated trends, like wine consumption vs. violent crime over the past 30 years.

1160993Obviously, users should approach any data on Swivel with the same degree of skepticism they would bring to other user-created online content (I'm looking at you, Wikipedia). But it's still an interesting new service, and a great place to play around with any of the millions of authoritative, trustworthy statistics you'll find in the 2007 edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts. For starters, click on the table at right to compare trends in accidental U.S. deaths from falls, poisoning, and firearms over the past 35 years. Which do you think is more likely to kill you?

This Day in History: Dec. 8

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) is formed in Columbus, OH, by 25 craft unions.
In the Battle of Falkland Islands, a World War I naval engagement in the south Atlantic, a British squadron sinks nearly the entire German squadron of ships commanded by Vice Adm. Maximilian von Spee.

Continue reading "This Day in History: Dec. 8" »

New Orleans Recovery

superdome.jpgThe New Orleans Saints played their 2006 season opener at the Superdome, and for many the game represented a city on the road to recovery from Hurricane Katrina. However, the city’s recovery has been slower than an outsider might think. Public policy think tank The Brookings Institution has been researching Katrina recovery since the day the storm landed, and publishes a monthly index of progress on its website, in addition to suggestions for ways to improve the recovery effort. One year after the storm, in August 2006, about 35% of the city’s pre-Katrina population lived in New Orleans and only about 66% of New Orleans Metropolitan area public schools reopened.

The full August 2006 Katrina Index can be found here and the Brookings Institution’s Katrina research home page, with indexes updated to November, can be found here.

Born This Day: Dec. 8

1542 Mary, Queen of Scots (Linlithgow, Scotland; died 1587)
1765 Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin (Westham, MA; died 1825)

Continue reading "Born This Day: Dec. 8" »

December 7, 2006

Pearl Harbor

Pearl%20Harbor%20USS%20AZ.jpg It was in the wee hours of the morning 65 years ago today that almost 400 Japanese planes decimated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Famously recalled as the “date which will live in infamy,” Roosevelt almost referred to it as “a date which will live in world history” (as commenter DianeWT mentioned last week).

This month’s World Almanac E-Newsletter has a great special feature for those interested in reading about Pearl Harbor in greater detail.

Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times have articles recounting the day in their respective cities. And the New York Times waited until today to run this interesting obit on Lt. Kenneth Taylor, one of the first two Americans to gun down a Japanese plane at Pearl Harbor. He passed away Nov. 25.

Also, the Pacific Aviation Museum, an aviation battlefield museum, opens today at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. And the USS Arizona is still leaking oil?

For all your other Pearl Harbor reference needs, the Naval Historical Center website is very comprehensive.

Motion picture frame of the forward magazines of USS Arizona (BB-39) exploding after being bombed. From the Naval Historical Center and National Archives.

World Almanac Blog Basics

Please note that we've made a few changes this week:

Subscribing: Our subscription feed is now being delivered by FeedBurner, which simplifies things for those of you who might not be familiar with newsreaders and RSS feeds. Now when you click on the "Subscribe to this blog" link in the sidebar:


...you'll be taken to a web page that allows you to subscribe to our blog in the newsreader of your choice (I'm a Google Reader fan, but there are a dozen different services to choose from). Or if you'd prefer to get our new entries delivered to you each day in a single e-mail, you can sign up for an e-mail subscription instead.

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This Day In History: Dec. 7

1787 Delaware becomes the first state to ratify the Constitution.
1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, HI, killing 2,300, sinking or damaging 19 ships, and precipitating U.S. intervention in World War II.

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Meteorology: Menaces and Marvels

cloud-mike138.jpgWe had a lot of fun (OK, maybe that's not exactly the right word, but it was a fascinating process) creating a new page on "Notorious U.S. Storms" for the 2007 Almanac; our tables of notable floods, earthquakes, and other disasters throughout history are perennial favorites among Almanac devotees, and we thought that this year we should delve a little deeper into the major meteorological events in U.S. history--from the Blizzard of 1988, to the Super Tornado Outbreak of 1974, to (of course) the devastation of Katrina in 2005.

After reading about all those disasters, however, I recommend a palate-cleansing visit to the Cloud Appreciation Society for a look at some happier, but still dramatic, meteorological events. (Also see another great gallery of clouds here, courtesy of the Athanasius Kircher Society.)

Cloud Appreciation Society

Creative Commons-licensed image by mike138

Born This Day: Dec. 7

1598 Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, sculptor/painter/architect (Italy; died 1680)
1761 Marie Tussaud, creator of Madame Tussaud's waxwork museum (Strasbourg, France; died 1850)

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December 6, 2006

How Natural is Natural Food?

In the 2007 World Almanac, we added a section on Food Label Claims (pg. 151) to better explain what organic, free-range, and other such claims mean. This is one of my favorite sections to research. I'm very concerned about what I put into my body and I'm extremely skeptical of food labels, especially ones that make it seem like the products came straight from the Garden of Eden. One particularly dubious label is “natural,” which the USDA defined back in 1982. Basically, it means that the product doesn’t contain any artificial ingredient or color and has been “minimally processed.” Minimal processing, which applies mostly to meat and poultry, is defined as “nothing done to fundamentally alter the raw products.”

Since they first set down those "guidelines," however, there have been many new additives and processes developed that are used to enhance flavor and preserve food (such as the use of chlorine to clean meat, or the injection of salt water for flavor, both of which can be used in producing “natural” products). So the USDA is taking up the issue. According to this release, the USDA will begin hearings on the what should and shouldn’t be allowed under the food claim “natural.” Putting together new guidelines for these terms takes a lot of time and research, so we probably won’t see this resolved for a while.

The Real Annie Moore

When Ellis Island officially opened on Jan. 1, 1892, a 15-year-old Irish girl was the first immigrant to pass through. Annie Moore and her two younger brothers, Anthony and Phillip, had departed Cobh (formerly Queenstown), Ireland, 12 days earlier on the steamship Nevada. They were on their way to rejoin their parents, who had already emigrated to New York City.
From an article in The New York Times:

There were three big steamships in the harbor waiting to land their passengers, and there was much anxiety among the new-comers to be the first landed at the new station. The honor was reserved for a little rosy-cheeked Irish girl. She was Annie Moore, fifteen years of age, lately a resident of County Cork, and yesterday one of the 148 steerage passengers landed from the Guion steamship Nevada.

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This Day In History: Dec. 6

1712 The last issue of the Spectator, an influential 18th-century journal written by English essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, appears.
1790 Philadelphia becomes the U.S. capital, succeeding New York City. (It remains the nation's capital until Washington, D.C. takes on the function in 1800.)

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Born This Day: Dec. 6

1421 Henry VI, king of England (Windsor, England; died 1471)
1478 Count Baldassare Castiglione, diplomat/soldier/author (Italy; died 1529)

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December 5, 2006

Dollars and Sense


In American currency the shape of things to come (not to mention the size and texture) may soon be unfamiliar. Last week, federal District Court Judge James Robertson ruled that the Treasury Department had to find a way to design and distribute currency with features enabling a person without sight to tell the bills apart. Currently, bills in all U.S. denominations are exactly the same size and use the same kind of paper, so there is no tactile way to identify the denomination. The issue is far from settled, and advocacy groups for the vision-impaired are not in agreement on whether to applaud or criticize the ruling, with one group calling the effort "dangerously misguided."

The U.S. Treasury has been introducing a series of redesigned banknotes incrementally since 2004. But the new currency features have more to do with security measures and design than accessiblity to the vision-impaired. Check out the Treasury's interactive notes for an up close look at currency features—there's more on the face of a bill than meets the eye.

This Day in History: Dec. 5

1492 Christopher Columbus, on his first voyage to the New World, lands on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
1775 The first Phi Beta Kappa chapter is founded, at the College of William and Mary.

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Discovery's 33rd Launch

Photo from NASA.gov Last night at 11 p.m. (EST), NASA began the countdown towards the launch of the Discovery space shuttle, its 33rd mission (find information on earlier missions in the Almanac's Memorable Moments in Human Space Flight section p.314-317). Due to launch at 9:35 p.m. (EST) Thursday, the STS-116 mission will be delivering and installing new pieces of the International Space Station including the $11 million, 4,000-pound P5 integrated truss segment. They will also be dropping off flight engineer Sunita Williams to replace Thomas Reiter as the third member of ISS’ Expedition 14.
Included in Discovery’s seven person crew is Sweden’s first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang. (Välkommen till världsrymd Christer!)
Extra cool bonus fact: that flood of water unleashed seconds before a shuttle’s launch isn’t meant to keep things cool. The water actually breaks up acoustic waves so they don’t damage the shuttle.

NASA will be blogging the launch starting at 3:30 on Thursday.
Or watch the whole thing in streaming video here.
Crew photo from NASA.gov

Born This Day: Dec. 5

1782 Martin Van Buren, 8th president of the United States (Kinderhook, NY; died 1862)
1830 Christina Rossetti, poet (Britain; died 1894)

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December 4, 2006

Device Formerly Known as the Cell Phone

It's not really shocking news that cell phone use has shot up in recent years. According to info we presented in the 2007 World Almanac (page 363, if you're following along at home), worldwide cell phone subscriptions rose from about 11 million in 1990 to more than 1.7 billion in 2004, the most recent year for which data is available. However, cell phone subscriptions include a lot more than just voice calling these days. That's because the phones themselves have changed so much. Most new mobile phones function as a combination personal organizer, communication device, iPod, and in some places, an electronic wallet carrying users’ credit cards. In a few years, we might have to replace "cell phone" with a completely different term in The World Almanac.

This is the part of the subject of a piece in the Technological Quarterly section of this week’s Economist. As mobile devices’ uses expand, there will be lots of new problems and concerns with security and privacy (in addition to a possible name change for the actual devices).

A little aside from the main point, one particular factoid I found fascinating in the article is the following:

Studies show that people read around 10 megabytes (MB) worth of material a day; hear 400MB a day, and see 1 MB of information every second.

It feels weird to have my daily media intake quantified like that.

The Phone of the Future (The Economist, Nov. 30 2006)

This Day In History: Dec. 4

1783 Gen. George Washington bids farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City.
1961 Floyd Patterson retains the world heavyweight boxing title by knocking out Tom McNeeley.

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The World Almanac E-Newsletter: December 2006

Another month, another fact-filled World Almanac e-newsletter -- this month, featuring a travel guide to the Chachapoyas region of northern Peru and a remembrance of Pearl Harbor, as well as the usual obituaries and news chronology for the previous month, birthdays for the coming month, and Edward Thomas' eagerly-anticipated "Links of the Month." Click on the link below to read the latest version online, and get future editions delivered straight to your inbox by sending an e-mail to newsletter@waegroup.com with the subject line "SUBSCRIBE."

The World Almanac E-newsletter, December 2006

E-newsletter Archives

Born This Day: December 4

1795 Thomas Carlyle, essayist/historian (Ecclefechan, Scotland; died 1881)
1835 Samuel Butler, writer (Nottinghamshire, England; died 1902)
1861 Lillian Russell, singer/actress (Clinton, IA; died 1922)

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December 3, 2006

This Day in History: December 3

1818 Illinois is admitted to the Union as the 21st state.
1901 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt outlines a number of measures designed to secure a greater measure of social justice in his first message to Congress.
1967 Dr. Christiaan Barnard performs the first successful heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Born This Day: December 3

1755 Gilbert Stuart, portrait painter (near Narragansett, RI; died 1828)
1826 George B. McClellan, Union commander in the American Civil War (Philadelphia, PA; died 1885)
1857 Joseph Conrad, novelist (Berdichev, Ukraine; died 1924)

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December 2, 2006

This Day in History: December 2

1804 Napoleon Bonaparte is crowned emperor of France.
1805 In the Battle of Austerlitz (now Slavkov, Czech Republic ), Napoleon, with a French army of about 68,000, defeats an Austro-Russian army of nearly 90,000.
1823 Pres. James Monroe enunciates the Monroe Doctrine, warning that Europe should not intervene in the Americas.

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Born This Day: December 2

1859 Georges Seurat, painter (Paris, France; died 1891)
1915 Adolph Green, songwriter (New York, NY; died 2002)
1923 Maria Callas, opera singer (New York, NY; died 1977)

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December 1, 2006

Turning Off the Lights

In 2003, several Japanese environmental groups urged people to turn off their lights for two hours on the night of the Summer Solstice and “to enjoy something different and unusual.” It marked the beginning of Candle Night. Approximately 5 million people participated in that first Candle Night, according to Japan’s Ministry of the Environment (MOE). The event was repeated on the Winter Solstice.

Since then, Candle Night—with its slogan of “Turn off your lights, and take it slow”—has grown, with many major Japanese landmarks and facilities also committing to turning off their lights.

The MOE holds a similar campaign to reduce CO2 emissions. Called Black Illumination, it takes place over several days around the time of the Summer Solstice. The MOE estimated that about 4,000 facilities participated in 2006, saving roughly 810,000 kWh of electricity. (The average U.S. household consumes about 10,000 kWh a year.)

This Day in History: December 1

1918 U.S. and British troops begin occupying Germany following the end of World War I.
1933 In Germany, a law is enacted by which the Nazi party is "indissolubly joined to the state."
1943 The U.S. government releases a joint communiqué signed by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, in which they declare the determination of their governments to prosecute the war until Japan surrenders unconditionally.
Gasoline rationing begins in the United States.

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Ads, Like Diamonds, Are Forever

According to the book, The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, the most influential fictional icon isn’t a comic book hero, an imaginary cultural symbol, or a childhood toy—although Batman, Barbie, and Santa Claus appear elsewhere on the list. Instead, the Marlboro Man comes in at Number One. According to the book’s authors, the iconic commercial cowboy earned his place by inducing millions of people to start smoking and contributing to the spread of smoking-related illnesses, such as heart disease and lung cancer. The rest of the book’s top 10 are available here.

The Marlboro Man also comes in at Number One on Advertising Age’s list of the Top 10 Twentieth Century Ad Icons. According to the AdAge profile, the Marlboro Man ad campaign went national in 1955 and sales on the former ‘ladies cigarette’ went up a whopping 3,214%. Other top ad icons include Ronald McDonald (whose face is recognizable to 96% of American children), Betty Crocker, and the Energizer Bunny.

–Sarah Janssen

Born This Day: December 1

1886 Rex Stout, mystery writer (Noblesville, IN; died 1975)
1898 Cyril Ritchard, actor (Australia; died 1977)
1910 Alicia Markova, ballerina (London, England; died 2004)

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About December 2006

This page contains all entries posted to The World Almanac in December 2006. They are listed from newest to oldest.

November 2006 is the previous archive.

January 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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