Chris Farley was the original voice of Shrek. Almost a year after Farley died, Mike Myers took on the role. Locked away in some Hollywood vault are the audio recordings of Farley as the giant green ogre.
The Reptile House at the Bronx Zoo has been closed following the escape of an adolescent Egyptian cobra. The snake certainly isn’t the first zoo resident to make a break for it—check out these examples of crafty animal escapes we rounded up in 2008.
1. No Cage Can Hold Fu Manchu
You may be impressed by escape artists like David Blaine, but orangutan Fu Manchu scoffed at such escapades. (Or he would have if orangutans could scoff.) Fu Manchu made his first jailbreak from the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in 1968; his keepers assumed someone had accidentally left the door to his cage open. They coaxed Fu Manchu and his family back into their habitat, and everything seemed normal. Or at least it did until Fu Manchu escaped again. And again. After the third breakout, Fu Manchu’s handlers started keeping a closer eye on him. Eventually, one of them noticed something shiny in the orangutan’s mouth. It turned out to be a piece of wire that Fu Manchu had shaped to fit in between his lip and gums; it was also the lock pick that he used to make his daring escapes. His cage was stripped of all wires, and Fu Manchu’s brief stints on the lam came to a close.
2. Juan the Andean Goes Bike Shopping
Anyone who’s watched a jailbreak movie knows that you won’t get far without stealing a set of wheels. Even Juan knew that, and he was a bear. Juan, an Andean spectacled bear, made a daring escape from the Berlin Zoo in 2004. He rode a log across a moat designed to keep bears in their habitats, and then scaled a wall to gain his freedom. His first stop? The zoo’s playground, where he terrified parents, rode the merry-go-round, and went down the slide. After a few minutes of play, though, he started to wander around again. Zookeepers needed a way to distract Juan, so they set a bicycle in his path. As Juan inspected the bike – possibly to see if it was a worthy vehicle for his ride to freedom – his handlers nailed him with a tranquilizer dart and carried the sleeping 300-pound bear back to his habitat.
Tonsils, those oval-shaped masses of tissue in the back of your throat, have been the targets of surgeons from the earliest days of medicine. Around 1000 BC, doctors in India practiced partial tonsillectomies. In the days of Jesus, a Roman physician named Aulus Cornelius Celsus recorded performing tonsillectomies by holding on to the tonsils with “a blunt hook” and excising them. But even today, doctors don’t completely understand the function of tonsils. It’s believed that they help prevent infection in the respiratory and digestive tracts; however, the tonsils themselves are prone to infection because they have pitted surfaces that tend to capture food debris.
That tendency for infection led to a tonsillectomy boom in early 20th-century America.
Like many hockey players drafted in the 11th round of the 1974 NHL Draft, Taro Tsujimoto never actually made it to the big time. But unlike the other players drafted with him, Tsujimoto didn’t exist.
His name is in the record books because of Punch Imlach, the former general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. Imlach was so fed up with tedious late rounds of the draft that he decided to poke some fun at the league. He pulled a Japanese name from the local phone book and made up an imaginary team. Then, he simply told NHL President Clarence Campbell that his draft pick was Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas. Sure, no one had ever heard of Tsujimoto, but that didn’t stop the NHL from making the selection official.
Several weeks later, Imlach revealed his prank, but Sabres fans didn’t care. For years after the draft, Buffalo crowds would break into chants, demanding “We want Taro!”
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: 100 Years Later
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, March 25, 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of a 10 story building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. The garment factory, which specialized in manufacturing women’s blouses, would be called a “sweat shop” in today’s terminology. The workers were mainly immigrant women (some as young as 12 years old) from Italy, German and Eastern Europe, who worked 14-hour daily shifts for approximately $70 $7 per week.
Accident Waiting to Happen The factory had flammable textiles stored throughout the building, and scraps of fabric littered the floors and overflowed from bins. Designers smoked cigarettes at their desks and regularly tossed their butts into the scrap fabric bins instead of ashtrays. (Buckets of water were located throughout the factory to extinguish the bin fires that cropped up regularly.) Per company policy, several of the exit doors were locked during business hours; when employees left for the day, they had to line up by the few unlocked doors and leave single file under the careful gaze of a supervisor to make sure they weren’t stealing any fabric or other supplies.
The Fire The quitting time bell rang at 4:45PM, and while the women were putting on their coats and gathering their belongings, someone on the eighth floor yelled “Fire!” Flames leapt up from discarded rags on the floor between the first and second row of cutting tables. One man grabbed a bucket of water and threw it on the fire, but the flames had already spread to the paper patterns hanging overhead. It seemed like only seconds after the first cry of “fire” that the tables, partitions and ceiling were ablaze. Terrified employees crammed themselves into the single, small elevator and onto the narrow fire escape.
The fire quickly spread to the ninth and 10th floors. Some women were able to make it to the roof, where a professor at the New York University Law School next door used ladders left by painters to form a “bridge” between the two buildings and helped 69 Triangle employees to safety. Other workers were not so fortunate; when the fire escape collapsed from the stampede of panicked people, women began jumping from the windows. Engine Company 72 was the first on the scene, but the firefighters were torn between extinguishing the flames and trying to catch the jumpers in a life net. Once other fire departments reached the scene, it took 18 minutes to bring the fire under control, but not before 146 employees had lost their lives.
The Aftermath The public outrage and the lawsuits filed by relatives of the dead led to the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist being tried for manslaughter (they were subsequently acquitted). A Factory Investigating Commission was formed, which examined the working conditions of all factories in New York City. Thanks to the findings of this Commission, 36 new laws were enacted to reform the state labor code. In addition, a Fire Prevention division was added to the city’s fire department; its job was to inspect places of business and make sure they complied with the new laws, such as not locking doors during working hours and installing ceiling sprinklers.
The Dilemma: You’re writing an important memo/term paper/mental_floss book, and you need a dash. But not just any dash. People You Can Impress: Almost no one, really.
The Quick Trick: It’s almost always an em dash. No document can ever contain too many em dashes.
The Explanation: An en dash (–) is bigger than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash (—). The names come from an obscure typographical measurement system, but the dashes have now taken on a life of their own in grammar. The em dash is the spork of English grammar: It ain’t particularly pretty, but you can use it for most anything. Em dashes can replace colons or sets of parentheses, or represent a sudden change in thought or tone.
But if the em dash is a spork, then the en dash is nothing less than a salad fork: We often forget what it looks like and when to use it. But here are the two basic uses of en dashes:
1. To show numerical ranges, signifying “up to and including”—of dates, ages, pages, etc. (Example: “I read pages 7–22 last night.”)
2. The storied “compound adjective hyphen,” an event so rare in the English language that proofreaders shiver with excitement whenever they come across it. Basically “pro-American” gets a regular hyphen because “American” is only one word, whereas “pro–Falkland Islands” gets an en dash because “Falkland Islands” is two words. So, too, phrases like “Civil War–era.”
Nothing says “Destined to hold its value indefinitely” quite like a teddy bear stuffed with plastic pellets. Or so collectors thought in the late 1990s, when Beanie Babies, the plush stuffed animal brainchild of Ty Inc. founder Ty Warner, were sweeping the national collecting market. But what made these little stuffed critters a billion-dollar industry that sucked in both children and adults?
A number of factors contributed to the beanbags’ meteoric rise as collectibles. Ty’s brass originally envisioned the product line as a set of inexpensive, high-quality stuffed animals that kids could afford. Prices were generally around $5, low enough that kids could get the whole set of Beanies. Ty eschewed normal distribution chains for stuffed animals; the company avoided big chain discount retailers in favor of smaller gift-shop type outlets, a decision that made the product seem classier and rare.
Moreover, the Beanie Babies themselves received constant tweaks. Colors or names changed, their trademark ear tags would be subtly redesigned, and, most importantly, Ty retired certain models, further spiking collector demand.
As you may remember, the secondary market for the toys absolutely exploded. By 1996, Beanies had graduated from kids’ fad to full-blown collecting craze. It seemed that almost any Beanie could conceivably become the next hot limited edition, so collectors snapped them up as soon as they hit store shelves. A royal blue Peanut the Elephant, which was only produced in limited quantities for a short time in 1995, could sell for over $3,000. Other individual Beanies, like a wingless Quackers the Duck, fetched prices well over $1,000 apiece. The good times were never going to stop rolling, and Beanie Babies seemed poised to replace the less-adorable dollar as the nation’s currency.
That is, until the good times promptly stopped rolling.
By 1999, the craze had started to lose steam. Most of the newer toys hadn’t appreciated like their predecessors, possibly because the market was so flooded with bean-filled animals. (Ty’s revenues had ballooned to over $1 billion, which represents an awful lot of stuffed bears flowing into collectors’ hands.) In 1999, Ty announced it was completely retiring the entire Beanie line, and although a fan outcry convinced the company to revive the line in 2000, the hysteria was dead.
Certain rare Beanies still have significant value, but they’re far below their heady late-90s peaks. Peanut the Elephant seems to be bravely soldiering on; examples of his royal blue variant have pulled in four-figures on eBay in recent years. These examples are exceptions, though; the great bulk of speculative Beanie purchases seem to be worth a few bucks at most.
Growing up in Florida, I had a weird allergy: the sun. Walking outside, coming from from a typically cool, dark indoor place, I’d invariably sneeze — sometimes twice. It happened to my father too, causing a strange family multi-sneeze spectacle whenever we’d leave a movie. For me it was just one or two sneezes, then all better. What caused this? I always assumed there was something about bright light that disagreed with my bookish, “indoor kid” nature. Apparently I was right; I learned that science indeed has an answer: this phenomenon is called the photic sneeze reflex, and according to Wikipedia it “affects 18-35% of the human population.” So my Dad and I aren’t alone.
According to Scientific American, the photic sneeze has long been a subject of curiosity, going all the way back to Aristotle. Francis Bacon even tested the phenomenon in the 17th century by stepping outside with his eyes closed — no sneeze. Hmm. So why would exposure to bright sunlight affect the nose? According to Scientific American:
A reader writes: “I have a stupid question. How is it that Hawaii, which obviously borders no other states, has interstate highways?”
While we’d like to believe Hawaii’s Interstate system was created for the sole purpose of annoying the late George Carlin, the name is actually a misnomer. Not all Interstates physically go from one state to another; the name merely implies that the roads receive federal funding. The three Hawaii Interstates (H1, H2, and H3) became Interstates as part of The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and National Defense Highways to protect the U.S. from a Soviet invasion by making it easier to get supplies from one military base to another.
Odd as it seems, men can lactate. In their 1896 book, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, Dr. George Gould and Dr. Walter Pyle recount several occurrences of men breastfeeding their young. The stories include a sailor who put his son to his breast to quiet him and started producing milk; a South American peasant who sustained his child with his own breast milk during his wife’s illness; and a Chippewa man who put his infant to his breast following the death of his wife and produced enough milk to rear the child.
The phenomenon hasn’t stopped. In 2002, a Sri Lankan man named B. Wijeratne lost his wife and was left to care for their 18-month-old daughter. When the child refused powdered milk, Wijeratne tried something different. “Unable to see her cry, I offered my breast,” Wijeratne told a Sri Lankan newspaper. “That’s when I discovered I could breastfeed.”
Wijeratne isn’t alone. All men can breastfeed, because they possess the two most vital components for lactating—mammary glands and pituitary glands. Mammary glands, which produce milk, are present in all mammals. In fact, they’re one of our defining characteristics. In some cases, such as with mice, the mammary glands of the males are too underdeveloped to function. In humans, however, they’re fully formed in both sexes, complete with breastfeeding ducts and nipples.
Of course, for a human to actually breastfeed, those mammary glands have to be activated somehow. In women, this usually happens during pregnancy, when the brain’s pituitary gland starts releasing large amounts of a hormone called prolactin, which prepares the breasts to produce milk.
All men produce small amounts of prolactin during their lifetimes. It’s released after orgasms, for example, and may be responsible for the associated feelings of satisfaction and relaxation. But typically, it’s never present in large enough quantities for men to breastfeed. Under the appropriate psychological circumstances, however, the mind can demand that the body produce more of the hormone. This often happens to mothers who adopt children and suddenly find they can nurse. And as Dr. Gould and Dr. Pyle have documented, there’s a long history of it happening in men, too.
Brother Against Brother: The Great Confederate Snowball Fight of 1863
History lessons on the American Civil War tend to focus on its depressing aspects: a divided country, rampant gangrene, and Ken Burns appear prominently in most classes. However, despite schedules packed with receiving shoddy medical care and standing still for minutes on end to have their photos taken, some Confederate soldiers found the time to stage what sounds like one of the most strategically sound snowball fights in history.
On January 28, 1863, two feet of snow covered a large contingent of Confederate troops camped in Virginia’s Rappahannock Valley. Rather than complaining about the cold weather, the First and Fourth Texas Infantry put their military training to work.
On the morning of January 29, they launched a major snowball offensive against their comrades in the Fifth Texas Infantry, who somehow repelled their attackers before deciding to join them in a snow assault on the Third Arkansas Infantry, which surrendered quickly beneath a slushy barrage. The conquered Arkansans joined forces with the victors, and together they set out to pelt the encampment of the nearby Georgia Brigade.
This combined expeditionary force rolled into the Georgian camp armed with bags of snowballs and decorated with battle flags, but the Georgia Brigade had received advance notice and managed to put up a valiant fight for over an hour before eventually falling. The defeated Georgians joined their conquerors and attacking another division. By this point, upwards of 9,000 troops were engaged in ice combat that grew increasingly more dangerous as rock-centered snowballs entered the mix.
After hours of this melee, the Texas Brigade apparently won a Pyrrhic victory in which many soldiers sustained slight injuries. In response to the upheaval and the disfigurement of a few troops, General James Longstreet, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, reportedly banned snowball fighting.
Some of you might remember Hypercolor or Hypergrafix clothing,* the color-changing T-shirts produced by Generra that were all the rage in the early ’90s. Now that the ’90s are back and high-end Hypercolor-esque items are popping up everywhere (for example: scarves from LA-based Anzevino and Florence, T-shirts and denim shorts from British designer Henry Holland, T-shirts from American Apparel, and sneakers from Puma), it might be a good time to finally figure out the science behind the color-changing clothing.
Spell It Out: 16 Abbreviated Company Names Explained
Dozens of companies use acronyms or initials in their names, but how well do you know what the abbreviated letters mean? Let’s take a look at the etymologies behind a few abbreviated company names.
Sorry, drugstore fans, there aren’t three fatcat pharmacists with these initials running around out there. When the pharmacy chain was founded in Lowell, MA in 1963, it was known as “Consumer Value Stores.” Over time the name became abbreviated to simply CVS.
Longtime five-and-dime mogul Sebastian S. Kresge opened his first larger store in Garden City, Michigan, in 1962. The store was named K-Mart after him. (Kresge had earned the right to have a store named for him; he opened up his new venture at the tender age of 94.)
The Swedish furniture giant and noted charity takes its name from found Ingvar Kamprad’s initials conjoined with a the first initial of the farm where Kamprad grew up, Elmtaryd, and the parish he calls home, Agunnaryd.
A List of Grammar Myths We Probably Should Have Run on Friday
Today is not National Grammar Day. That was Friday. But this article by the great Patricia T. O’Conner, which first ran on mentalfloss.com in 2008, is still worth reading.
When I think about the rules of grammar I sometimes recall the story—and it’s a true one—about a lecture given in the 1950s by an eminent British philosopher of language. He remarked that in some languages two negatives make a positive, but in no language do two positives make a negative. A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, yeah.”
Don’t we all sometimes feel like that voice from the back of the room? When some grammatical purist insists, for example, that the subject has to go before the verb, aren’t we tempted to reply, “Sez you!”?
English is not so much a human invention as it is a force of nature, one that endures and flourishes despite our best attempts to ruin it. And believe it or not, the real principles of English grammar—the ones that promote clarity and sense—weren’t invented by despots but have emerged from the nature of the language itself. And they actually make sense!
So when you think about the rules of grammar, try to think like that guy in the back of the room, and never be afraid to challenge what seems silly or useless. Because what seems silly or useless probably isn’t a real rule at all. It’s probably a misconception that grammarians have tried for years to correct. There are dozens of ersatz “rules” of English grammar. Let’s start with Public Enemy Number 1.
Myth #1: Don’t Split an Infinitive.
“Split” all you want, because this old superstition has never been legit. Writers of English have been doing it since the 1300s.
Where did the notion come from? We can blame Henry Alford, a 19th-century Latinist and Dean of Canterbury, for trying to criminalize the split infinitive. (Latin, by the way, is a recurring theme in the mythology of English grammar.) In 1864, Alford published a very popular grammar book, A Plea for the Queen’s English, in which he declared that to was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. (False on both counts.) He was probably influenced by the fact that the infinitive, the simplest form of a verb, is one word in Latin and thus can’t be split. So, for example, you shouldn’t put an adverb, like boldly, in the middle of the infinitive phrase to go—as in to boldly go. (Tell that to Gene Roddenberry!)
Grammarians began challenging Alford almost immediately. By the early 20th century, the most respected authorities on English (the linguist Otto Jespersen, the lexicographer Henry Fowler, the grammarian George O. Curme, and others) were vigorously debunking the split-infinitive myth, and explaining that “splitting” is not only acceptable but often preferable. Besides, you can’t really split an infinitive, since to is just a prepositional marker and not part of the infinitive itself. In fact, sometimes it’s not needed at all. In sentences like “She helped him to write,” or “Jack helped me to move,” the to could easily be dropped.
But against all reason, this notorious myth of English grammar lives on—in the public imagination if nowhere else.
This wasn’t the first time that the forces of Latinism had tried to graft Latin models of sentence structure onto English, a Germanic language. Read on.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.
For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that “the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government.”
But Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise, and war broke out in April 1861.
The asymptotic high five is the closest thing we at mental_floss have to a secret handshake. Choreographed by Senior Editor Jenny Drapkin, it’s fun and nerdy and allows us to greet each other when we’re sick. And now it’s on a t-shirt!
Now that the secret is out, there are three ways you can support the asymptotic high five:
1. Start giving people asymptotic high fives. (Try it. You’ll like it.)
2. Give someone an asymptotic high five, take a picture, and send it to us!
3. Get the t-shirt! Through the weekend, all our shirts are on sale for $14.90. Use the code PIPARTY (it’s part of our Pre-Pi Day sale).
I’ve got a virtual asymptotic high five for anyone who does any of those three things.
In June 2001, Laura Buxton (almost 10) released a red balloon into the air over her hometown of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. On one side of the balloon, she had written “Please return to Laura Buxton,” and on the other side, her home address. A few weeks later, a man 140 miles away in Milton Lilbourne found the balloon stuck in the hedge that separated his farm from the next-door neighbors. He noticed Laura Buxton’s name and address and immediately took the balloon to the neighbors’ house, showing it to the 10-year-old girl who lived there…whose name was also Laura Buxton.
Laura Buxton from Milton Lilbourne wrote Laura Buxton from Stoke-on-Trent to let her know that she’d found the balloon. Thinking this coincidence was simply too amazing to be true, they decided they had to meet in person. And that’s when things got really weird.
On the day of the meeting, the two girls wore essentially the same outfit – a pink sweater and jeans. The girls were the same height, which was unusual because they were both tall for their age. They both had brown hair and wore it in the same style. They both had three-year-old black Labrador Retrievers at home, as well as gray pet rabbits. They both brought their guinea pigs, which were the same color and even had the same orange markings on their hindquarters. It was almost as though these two Laura Buxtons were the same person.
The strange events surrounding their meeting helped the girls form a strong bond. Both felt the circumstances that brought them together were too significant to write off as mere coincidence. For more on the Lauras, listen to this 2009 Radiolab interview.
There’s a great scene in an early episode of The West Wing (“The Crackpots and These Women”) in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) tries to invigorate his exasperated team with a story about how Andrew Jackson kept a two-ton block of cheese in the foyer of the White House. According to Leo’s story, Jackson left the cheese there as a populist symbol; anyone who was hungry could pop in to the White House for a quick bite to eat.
While the notion of Jackson operating a free federal snack bar is appealing, the story told by Leo isn’t totally accurate. However, it’s not all that far from the truth. Andrew Jackson did own a monstrous block of cheese.
In 1899, Great Britain found itself in South Africa warring with the Boers—South Africans of Dutch descent. One of the British journalists covering the war was an adventurous 24-year-old named Winston Churchill, who loved combat so much that he became a war correspondent after his discharge from the army. On November 15, the Boers captured Churchill and threw him into a POW camp in Pretoria. Immediately, he began closely monitoring the guards and realized that there was a gap in their routine when no one was watching the 10-ft. wall surrounding his building. So, Churchill decided to make a break for it. But first, he needed to settle some accounts. Being the gentleman that he was, he paid his bill with the Boer shopkeeper who’d sold him tobacco, and he wrote a note of thanks and apology to the Boer Minister of War, who’d also befriended him. Then he scaled the wall.
Upon escaping, Churchill ran to a nearby villa, where he waited until he was able to hop on a passing train. For several more days, he followed the rail lines, sleeping in ditches, stealing food where he could, and fishing newspapers out of trash bins to read about the manhunt pursuing him. Six days later, Churchill made the last leg of his journey when he crept onto a train headed for the Portuguese colony at Delagoa Bay. The ride took him 250 miles east to the Mozambique coast, where he crossed the border into freedom. Churchill’s daring escape did wonders for his name. It made him a celebrity in England and helped launch his political career.