Trivia, trivia #2

A few months back, I did a review of a series of trivia books and I’ve finished a bunch more since then. I have a habitual vice of poring into tomes of useless information, especially when I’m too stressed to read continuously, or when I need a break from long narratives.

This time around, I have another set of four trivia books on a variety of subjects, from general information to language to etiquette and combat: Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? and 114 Other Questions edited by  Mick O’ Hare; Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Everyday by Albert Jack (illustrated by Ama Page); Directions to Servants by Jonathan Swift; and The Action Heroine’s Handbook by Jennifer Worick and Joe Borgenicht (books 237-240 of 2009).

Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? and 114 Other Questions is a compilation of questions sent in by readers to the New Scientist magazine’s long-running Last Word column, and the answers sent in by readers as well.

The questions cover a wide range of topics in everyday science, little things everyone wonders about but never seem to find the answer to. There are questions about the human body, common ailments, plants and animals, food and drink, domestic science, the universe, weather, transportation and many more. This means questions like, Why is mucus green? and Why does melted cheese become stringy? and Why does superglue not stick to its tube?

In the online version, site members get to post and answer questions, and answers get rated by the readers. When someone comes up with a particularly good answer, there is an indication that the editorial staff of New Scientist has chosen that answer.

Here’s a sample question and some answers from the website:

Why do we grimace when we eat sour or bitter food? –  Laura Offer, London, UK

– I think it could be some sort of social signal. So our primitive foraging ancestors, watching each other eat a foreign substance like a bitter plant, could learn it is bitter without having to eat it themselves (Anonymous)

– My knowledge of this comes from the very scientific and fair television program: Brainiac! They did an “experiment” looking at tastes of different food, including sour foods, hot foods and bitter foods.

The explanation given for the grimacing associated with sour foods was that sour foods are usually highly acidic (such as lemons and limes). The acids need to be diluted (presumably to prevent excess stomach acid?). To do this you rub your cheeks on your gums to encourage production of saliva which dilutes the acid. An amusing side effect of which is the grimacing and gurning!!  (Mark Jepson)

– This answer has been selected and edited by New Scientist staff

The body has stereotyped sequences of action for avoiding and responding to noxious stimuli such as pungency and acidity. Some resemble involuntary defences against physical attack and are similar through most of the animal kingdom, so they are almost certainly primitive in origin.

In humans, a faceful of ammonia or acetic acid fumes causes retreat, closed eyes and arms thrown across the face, among other responses. A noxious mouthful of a salty, bitter, acidic or otherwise vile chemical that our species instinctively avoids, such as one’s own ordure, causes another range of reactions, related to spitting or vomiting. Typical responses include: drawing down the corners of the mouth or gagging in preparation to vomit; salivating to clear the mouth and dilute harmful substances; puckering to avoid more intake; closing the eyes for protection; and performing convulsions that would help free oneself from assault.

More trivial stimulation – for instance, from piquant foods like pickles or mustard – provoke milder incipient reactions such as grimaces and shuddering. Perhaps the reason these different levels of reaction have survived and become entrenched is that such behaviour has evolved into a warning to offspring and associates: “Bad stuff! Beware!” These less vigorous communication signals evolved more recently than the primitive reactions, and accordingly vary more widely between species, but they serve the same functions: warning of danger or nastiness and indicating good feeding (Jon Richfield, Somerset West, South Africa)

– I believe that our ancesters used the ‘screwing-up-your-face’ technique as a signal not to eat a food, because it is unpleasant (Anonymous)

I am guessing those responses published in the book are those that sufficiently answer the questions, although there is no authoritative verification that tells you if what you’re reading is in fact the answer to the question or some creative, fabricated response. It’s entertaining, no doubt, but they should indicate  which answers are scientifically accurate to avoid confusion among the readers.

The next book in this roundup is Red Herrings and White Elephants, a book that details the origins of commonly used phrases and sayings in the English language, tracing their roots to nautical and military practice, literature, languages, ancient civilizations, sports, trade, the Bible, people and places, politics, law, music, theatre, food, hunting, and many more.

For instance, did you know that a person “not worth his salt” is someone not worth the wages he earns. In the Roman Empire, salt was a valuable commodity and soldiers were paid partially in salt (hence we have the word salary).

To “burn a bridge” means to sever a connection, at great cost. When the Roman Army marched into battle, they burned the bridges they passed, to remove the thought of retreat from their minds (for sea invasions, they burned their boats).

To “keep it up” or to persevere at the task originated in Victorian badminton games, where the crowd frequently chanted the phrase during rallies.

“Letting the cat out of the bag” refers to revealing a secret. In Medieval marketplaces, pig vendors scammed piglet buyers by diverting their attention and switching cat for the piglet in the bag. The scam gets revealed when the buyer gets home and opens the bag.

The book is certainly highly informative, although its attempt at humor runs a bit dry. I was a bit disappointed because the topic really had the potential to be interesting, but the writing is pedantic and lacks that spark to capture the reader’s attention, coming off more like an academic reference than a trivia book.

Next up is Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, a handy guidebook for all sorts of servants, from general instructions, to specific instructions for the different types of servants: the butler, the cook, the footman, the coachman, the groom, the house steward and land steward, the porter, the chambermaid, the waiting-maid, the housemaid, the dairymaid, the children’s maid, the nurse, the laundress, the housekeeper, and the tutoress or governess (phew… I didn’t know there were so many kinds!).

I actually read this book as a social science book for last year’s FFP diversity challenge, and it’s really very interesting. Before I read the book, I’d thought it was a haughty piece of work that talked down to servants, but I soon found out (in the introduction by Colm Toibin) that Jonathan Swift was actually a secretary and personal assistant to an English diplomat so he actually counted himself as a servant, and the book is more of a tips-and-tricks kind of book.

I was actually quite surprised at how cheeky the book is — it reads like it was written by a wisecracking who knew all the tricks to make the most out of his position in the household.  The language is conversational, and the book proved to be a lot more entertaining than I expected it to be.

Here’s a sampling of directions to servants in general:

When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave your self as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.

If you see your master wronged by any of your fellow-servants, be sure to conceal it, for fear of being called a tell-tale: However, there is one exception, in case of a favourite servant, who is justly hated by the whole family; you are therefore bound in prudence to lay all the faults you can upon the favourite.

It often happens that servants sent on messages, are apt to stay out somewhat longer than the message requires, perhaps, two, four, six, or eight hours, or some such trifle, for the temptation to be sure was great, and flesh and blood cannot always resist: when you return, the master storms, the lady scolds; stripping, cudgelling, and turning off, is the word. But here you ought to be provided with a set of excuses, enough to serve on all occasions: for instance, your uncle came fourscore miles to town this morning, on purpose to see you, and goes back by break of day tomorrow; a brother-servant that borrowed money of you when he was out of place, was running away to Ireland; you were taking leave of an old fellow-servant, who was shipping for Barbados; your father sent a cow to you to sell, and you could not find a chapman till nine at night: you were taking leave of a dear cousin who is to be hanged next Saturday; you wrenched your foot against a stone, and were forced to stay three hours in a shop, before you could stir a step; some nastiness was thrown on you out of a garret window, and you were ashamed to come home before you were cleaned, and the smell went off; you were pressed for the sea-service, and carried before a Justice of Peace, who kept you three hours before he examined you, and you got off with much a-do; a bailiff by mistake seized you for a debtor, and kept you the whole evening in a spunging-house; you were told your master had gone to a tavern, and came to some mischance, and your grief was so great that you inquired for his honour in a hundred taverns between Pall-mall and Temple-bar.

To the cook:

Let there always be a strict friendship between you and the butler, for it is in both your interests to be united: the butler often wants a comfortable titbit, and you, much oftener, a cool cup of good liquor. However, be cautious of him, for he is sometimes an inconstant lover, because he hath advantage to allure the maids with a glass of sack, or white wine and sugar.

To the chambermaid:

If you happen to break any china… gather up the fragments, put them together as well as you can, and place them behind the rest, so that when your lady comes to discover them, you may safely say they waere broke long ago, before you came to the service. This will save your lady many an hour’s vexation.

To the housemaid:

Leave a pail of dirty water with a mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.

To the nurse:
If you happen to let the child fall, and lame it, be sure never to confess it; and if it dies, all is safe.

To the tutoress or governess:

Make the misses read French and English novels and French romances, and all the comedies writ in King Charles II and King William’s reigns, to soften their nature and make them tender-hearted.

It’s a wickedly funny and irreverent book, considering it was written in 1731, and this Hesperus press edition packages it elegantly, with a comical cookie jar on the cover.

The last book in this batch is The Action Heroine’s Handbook, a guide for wannabe Lara Croft or Charlie’s Angels, which includes instructions on how to win a catfight, drink someone under the table, choke a man with your bare thighs, and many more action heroine skills.

The humor of the book is in how seriously it takes the topics it presents.

For instance, on the topic of drinking someone under the table, there are pre-event instructions, that advise you to practice one month before the contest by drinking three shots of your favorite liquor every night for a week, topped up with an additional shot of 151 rum every night. Then you add one shot of hard liquor to your daily intake every subsequent week before the contest. It also advises to drink water between the shots to keep the body hydrated to keep the liver functioning up to speed.

For the actual drinking contest, it has 9 steps.

1) Fill your tummy with a normal-sized meal (because a full stomach lets your bloodstream absorb alcohol more slowly). Just don’t eat sushi or Chinese food (see 2).

2) Serve sushi or Chinese food to your opponent — high protein food increases metabolism, causing their bloodtream to absorb alcohol more quickly. His liver won’t be able to keep up and he’ll get drunk faster.

3) Have one glass of stout beer half an hour before the contest — this prepares your body to process alcohol later on.

4) Concentrate. Enjoying the drink will cause you to get drunk faster.

5) Agree on a liquor for the contest. Best bets are tequila (80-90 proof, will help you remain alert), vodka or whiskey (no more than 80 to 90 proof). Steer clear of cocktails – sweet liqueurs will make you tipsy faster.

6) Remain standing to help your body burn off alcohol faster.

7) Steel your face. Knock back that shot as if it were water.

8) When your opponent is going down, order a harder shot, but make sure you can finish it off before ordering.

9) Down the shot and claim your victory.

Each topic starts off with a quote from an action heroine from a film or tv show, before launching off into the detailed guides.on various topics, classified into tough chick skills, beauty skills, brain skills, brawn skills, and escape skills. My favorite topics in this book include how to fend off the undead; how to hook a millionaire, how to eavesdrop from a distance, how to subdue your opponent with a whip, and how to fake your own death. There are also useful illustrations and diagrams throughout the book, as well as useful appendices on handbag essentials and action heroine hairstyles.

The skills take a lot of practice and dedication to develop, but you never know — they just might come in handy someday!


Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze, paperback, 3/5 stars
Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Everyday, hardcover with dust jacket 3/5 stars
Directions to Servants by Jonathan Swift, paperback,  5/5 stars
The Action Heroine’s Handbook, paperback, 4/5 stars


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