Complete Columns

Daredevils, Honeymooners and the the Cornelian Ice Sheet: It’s Niagara Falls
We go over the edge in a cheap barrel as we investigate America's deadliest honeymoon hotspot.

Known for decades as an attraction for adventure seekers and honeymooners alike, visited by tens of thousands of awe-struck tourists each year who flock to marvel at the majestic, multi-colored tableaus of its unbridled superfluity, Las Vegas is not the home of Niagara Falls, which is what we really came here to talk about.

The advance of the Cornelian Ice Sheet

While most people probably assume that Niagara Falls is just one waterfall, they would be considered dumb for thinking so if I weren’t also one of them, because there are actually three separate waterfalls. These are Horseshoe Falls (shaped like a curved horseshoe), Bridal Veil Falls (shaped like a gracefully descending bridal veil), and the American Falls (shaped like an obese American). Niagara (in Native American Iroquois, Gahnawehta, meaning “Those Idiots in Barrels”) is the collective name given to the falls, as the river that flows into them is called Niagara, as well as the one that flows out. The international boundary line between Canada and the US was originally drawn in 1819 through Horseshoe Falls, but it has shifted over the years because of erosion, construction, and crafty Canadian subterfuge. The Falls were formed during the last ice age (Official Motto: “You Got Your Mammoths, Now Get Out”) when the advance of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which is not a rebel fleet attack maneuver in the new Star Wars movie, but a sheet of ice which nucleated in the northern North American Cordillera extended across the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and [insert more glacial science stuff here] and that’s why the Cubs will never win another World Series.

Just don’t spend your honeymoon at Chuck-e-Cheese

Quite possibly the most famous honeymoon and wedding destination in the US, unless you count Marriott hotels and churches, Niagara has loads of chapels, churches, barges, boats, sloops, steamboats, humvees and helicopters in which you can wow your potential spouse with the joy of overwhelming tackiness. However, considering the fact that over 5,000 people have died there, it seems a little like holding your grandma’s funeral at a Chuck-e-Cheese, aside from the fact that as far as we know there are no recorded deaths from playing Whac-A-Mole. Nonetheless (or neverthemore) thousands of couples have gotten married in the swirling death mist of Horseshoe Falls each year, some of them even sober.

Discretion-deficient daredevils and cannon mouths

No description of Niagara would be complete without a mention of the numerous brain-addled folks who’ve ventured over its edge in everything from barrels to just their own skin. The craze began in 1901 when a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor plunged over the falls in a barrel as a hope of raising money for her retirement, apparently not realizing she wouldn’t be able to spend any of it if she were already dead. She made it successfully, however, and despite her statement that “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces” than go over again, 14 other discretion-deficient people have voluntarily gone over since, one of them twice, possibly looking for the common sense he lost on his first trip. Other daredevils, apparently afraid of water, crossed over Horseshoe Falls on tightropes, including 22-year-old Maria Spelterini, who went over four times, proving along with Annie Edson Taylor that women are possibly even crazier than men.

  • 3,160 tons of water flows over Niagara Falls every second, which, coincidentally, is also exactly the same amount needed to fill the Niagara River below.
  • The Niagara River is not a “river”, it is a “strait”, according to the same people that get upset when you say “good” instead of “well”.
  • The Falls are not only regarded for their beauty but for their power, which over the past century has been used for powering sawmills, gristmills, tanneries and Lex Luthor’s secret lair, which he time-shares with Electro.
  • The Falls generates 2.4 million kilowatts, enough to light 24 million 100 watt bulbs or one 24 billion watt bulb.
  • The popular sight-seeing boat “Maid of the Mist” takes visitors to the base of Horseshoe Falls, where passengers can experience the thrill of not dying under millions of tons of crashing water. Taking its first voyage in 1846, the Maid is North America’s oldest running tourist attraction, narrowly beating out “Gill’s Geyser Roulette” at Yellowstone Park.
  • With a rate of erosion of 3-4 inches per year, scientists predict the falls will be gone in approximately 50,000 years, at which time all of the signs on the outskirts of town will have to be changed to “Niagara Flats.”
Photo Credit: rattler97 cc

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The glowing history behind Christmas's most stop-motiony character.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a fictional Christmas-time character that first appeared in 1939 as the ninth reindeer pulling Santa’s forced servitude toy-distribution sledge. Known for his glowing red nose and inability to successfully convince his co-workers to allow him to participate in common playtime activities for reindeer, he was the creation of a low-paid advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

Rhonda, Carl, Ricky and Rudolph

Robert L. May was tasked with coming up with a cheery Christmas coloring book to lift the spirits of Depression-era shoppers using an animal as the star. After going through a round of rejected characters which we would like to think included Rhonda the Ruby-Lipped Rhinocerous and Carl the Crimson-Beaked Cockatiel, he decided to make a deer his central character, finally landing on “Ricky, the Deer with Extreme Nose Rosacea”, at which point he was fired for being such a terrible copywriter. Just kidding; of course the deer was Rudolph, and May’s creation was described in the poem he wrote for the book, which was first published during the 1939 holiday season. Written as a poem in anapestic tetrameter, the same horrific rhyming disease that also afflicted Dr. Seuss, May told the story of a young reindeer named Rudolph, whose father may or may not have been the guy in the Operation game. His unfortunate genetic disorder is ridiculed by his co-workers, causing great distress to the young deer, who is then convinced by lawyers from the Animal Defense Fund to file an employment discrimination lawsuit that ultimately wins him $14 million which bankrupts Santa and then Christmas is canceled (See: “The Year Without A Santa Claus“).

A killer-diller lulu of a magilla

The poem was a hit with shoppers, who snapped up over 2.4 million copies using their 24 million greedy holiday snapping fingers, but even so the poem wouldn’t be reprinted until 1946 because of wartime restrictions on paper use (thanks again, Hitler.) May was generously given the rights to the Rudolph story and proceeded to release a spoken word version of the poem, followed by a print book, with both items making killer-diller moola like a lulu, if you really want the whole magilla, which in 1940s-speak means they sold well. Next, his brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who was a songwriter, decided to write a song based on the now-famous deer in 1949. It became an instant hit; or at least it did after it was recorded by country-western star Gene Autry and made into actual records and played on whatever people used for MP3 players back then. It sold more copies than any other Christmas song with the exception of White Christmas and the one those chipmunks sing about the hula hoop.

Get to the sled!

A sequel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again, starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as an older and now bitter, disillusioned Rudolph who exacts bloody revenge on a Mexican drug cartel for killing his family over a magic candy cane or something. But again, that’s just what we’d like to think. The character probably achieved it’s ultimate fame as a result of the eponymous Rankin and Bass stop-motion TV special which aired in 1964 in what is now regarded as a Christmas Classic, right up there with the Santa Norelco shaver commercial and that one weird special where David Bowie sings “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby in a cardigan sweater. The special added such characters as Sam the folk-singing hipster snowman, Hermey the slightly masochistic unlicensed dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, winner of the most gravity-defying mustache in history. Subsequent annual viewings have cemented Rudolph and his pals into the public consciousness like an impacted Abominable Snow Monster molar, although certain children, not necessarily me, suffered deep psychological trauma when they weren’t allowed to watch the show until they had finished eating their nasty pig-in-a-blankets, because Tivo hadn’t been invented yet, and he had mean parents.

So while you may have your Dasher’s, Donner’s, Vixen’s, Nixon’s and Agnew’s, remember good old Rudolph and his glowing proboscis is at the front of the pack making sure that you get your Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots you never got when you were a kid, as long as you eat your pig-in-a-blankets.

Photo Credit: olivia_henry cc

Get to the Choppa! (Helicopters)
A brief history of vertical flight, plus, lots of accent thingys

Helicopters are aviation devices that utilize rotating blades for lift, used primarily for transport and for dumping Bond villains into tall smokestacks. They are also used for military purposes, law enforcement, medical use, and for providing something for Arnold Schwarzenegger to point to while yelling “Get to the choppa!”.

Here come those accent thingys again

Although helicopters are one of the more recent methods of powered flight, references for vertical flight come from as far back as ancient China, where Chinese boys would tie small animals to rockets, as well play with bamboo flying toys that were spun by rotating a stick attached to a rotor. It would take six centuries for the Chinese to realize that rocketed-powered rats could only get you so far in the vertical flight race, as they didn’t develop their own helicopter design until the 1950’s, with help from their buddies the Soviet Union. However, the Chinese bamboo toys would served as a model for later helicopter experiments by European inventors with names containing lots of those accent thingys over the letters, such as “Alphonse Pénaud” and Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt. They developed a variety of tethered helicopter devices, useful for advertising used car sales and high school pranks, but not yet practical. It was French inventor d’Amécourt himself who coined the word “helicopter” in 1861, by graciously taking all of the accent thingys out of the French word hélicoptère, which itself was derived from the Greek words “helix” and “pteron”, which themselves were derived from some even older words, all the way back to some noises a caveman grunted when he saw a dead bird cartwheeling out of the sky.

Watch out, short people

Ján “Ha! I’ve Got One More Accent Thingy Than You, Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt” Bahýľ developed a helicopter model in 1901 that was powered by an internal combustion engine. It reached a height of 1.6 ft; useful for trimming some of the taller grass in his back yard, but fairly dangerous around children and short people. Finally, two French brothers, Jacques and Louis Breguet, were able to achieve the first manned flight with their Gyroplane No. 1; with the pilot achieving a brief, one minute trip about 2 feet off the ground before realizing he forgot his cell phone in the house. Another Frenchman, Paul “Ain’t Got No Accent Thingys” Cornu was able to pilot his double-bladed machine up to 6.5 feet into the air, but had to abandon his design because of instability (the helicopter’s, not his).

Cyclic Pitch and the fast-sounding “turbs”

A major advancement occurred in the 1920’s when another accented inventor, an Argentine named Raúl Pateras-Pescara de Will This Name Ever End Castelluccio, was able to successfully apply the concept of “cyclic pitch”, where coaxial, contra-rotating, biplane rotors could be warped to cyclically increase the blah blah blah and then the helicopter flew! Other inventors throughout the 20s and 30s perfected helicopter design, even though some of their names were woefully lacking in accent thingys, culminating with the concept of a transverse rotor mounted on the tail, which allowed for stability and a cool way to cut off the villain’s head at the end of action movies. Russian-born engineer Igor Sikorsky was the main instigator of practical, mass-produced helicopters, developing helicopters for the military for use in picking up injured soldiers who had been shot by other helicopters. The famous (to helicopter enthusiasts, I suppose) Bell 47 was the first machine certified for civilian use in the US, and was also the type of helicopter flown in the TV show M*A*S*H, although it is still involved in a protracted lawsuit involving rerun residuals. With the addition of turbines, turboshafts and other mechanical things that contain the fast-sounding word “turb”, helicopter design advanced rapidly, reaching it’s nadir with the production of Airwolf in 1984, which, if the producers had been thinking, should have talked like the car in Nightrider.

So, next time you’re being airlifted to the hospital because you tried to say a word with too many accent thingys, or you’re just contemplating if there really are any other aviational words containing the word “turb”, be thankful for helicopters, science’s excuse for being able to say “get to the choppa!”

Photo Credit: Defence Images cc

Campaign Hats, Opposable Thumbs and Evil Space Loggers (Smokey Bear)
We dig into the history behind America's favorite topless fire hater.

Smokey Bear is a mythical sentient forest creature with a penchant for wearing jeans but going topless. He has been the official mascot of the US Forest Service (Official Motto: “The Trees… So Many Trees… Everywhere… Who Knew? WHO KNEW?!?!”) since 1947, although he was first introduced on a 1944 poster as part of an advertising campaign for the “Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign,” the world’s least interesting campaign name containing the word “fire”.

Evil Space Loggers vs. The Shrewd Ad Council

[x_pullquote type=”right”]Smokey was the original creation of Harold Rosenberg, an art critic who apparently felt there weren’t enough anthropomorphic bears in modern art…[/x_pullquote]An original story from 1955 depicts Smokey as an orphaned cub rescued from a forest fire, who later after years of grueling martial arts training in the Chinese Changbai Mountains, returns to wreak bone-cracking vengeance on the person who started the fire, only to find out it is his long-lost father, who started the fire in order to save Smokey from some evil space loggers, and from there it gets even more complex and dark. Shrewd Ad Council executives ditched the last, but definitely more interesting part of this back story, leaving Smokey an orphaned cub who pays off his debt to the US Government for saving him by learning how to hold a shovel, point, and speak. Smokey was the original creation of Harold Rosenberg, an art critic who apparently felt there weren’t enough anthropomorphic bears in modern art, who designed it for the Ad Council (Official Motto: “Making That Native American Cry Because Of All The Trash Since 1971.”). He is always featured with his trademark “campaign hat”, leading some ursine biologists to speculate his hair was burned off and he is actually bald.

Only YOU have opposable thumbs

Forest Service worker Rudy Wendelin was the official artist for Smokey, creating hundreds of drawings of the spokes-bear from his debut in 1944 until Wendelin’s retirement in 1973. Wendelin described Smokey during these sessions as “approachable, sensitive, yet with a deep primal mystery he kept just beneath the surface. He refused to pose nude because he did not want to scare the children.” The slogan originally associated with Smokey: “Remember… only YOU have opposable thumbs — for the love of all that’s holy put down those matches!” was replaced with the more familiar “Remember… only YOU can prevent forest fires” in 1947. The word “forest fires” was updated to “wildfires” in 2001 as a reminder that California seems to be constantly burning.

Smokey Bear facts

  • According to the Ad Council, Smokey is recognized by over 95% of adults, 77% of children, but only .02% of bears.
  • Smokey happily celebrated his 70th birthday in 2014 although, due to an ill-advised use of birthday candles, he smashed his cake flat with his shovel.
  • Only two people in the United States have their own ZIP code: Smokey Bear and Chris Christie.
  • A real version of the firefighting icon was designated in 1950 when a burned cub who had survived a forest fire in Lincoln National Forest was named “Smokey Bear.” The cub later successfully sued the Forest Service for negligence and spent the rest of his days in a penthouse suite in Miami.
Photo Credit: Wendy cc

Gotta Have That New World Smell (Columbus Day)
Uncovering the unsordid history behind the not-quite discoverer of America

Every American schoolchild is probably familiar with that famous poem about Christopher Columbus, so if some of you schoolchildren out there know it could you please send it to me? Because I can’t think of it right now and I’m too lazy to Google it. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the day behind the man behind the day celebrated as the time Equatorial Guinea declared its independence from Spain in 1968, except we call it Columbus Day, and we celebrate it because a Spanish guy discovered the Bahamas 600 years before Carnival Cruise lines.

Colorectal Polyps and Colusa, Illinois

Although Columbus is traditionally celebrated as the first European to discover America, it is now commonly known that that honor goes to Leif Ericson and his Vikings, who beat the Packers 26-10 sometime in the 11th century at a settlement called “L’Anse aux Meadows” in Newfoundland (Official Motto: “We’re Not Only A Dog, We’re A Country!”). Even so, Columbus has secured his place in history, right between colorectal polyp and Colusa, Illinois, as the discoverer of the New World®. #NewWorldColumbus #NWRocks #IndigenousSlavery

That New World Smell

Columbus began his journey where most explorers do: at the local bank, which in this case was the King and Queen (Ferdinand and Isabella) of Spain. After lobbying for two years he was finally able to procur funding from the court in the sum of 1.14 million maravedis, or 555,000 guildergroats, or 3.5 million guineafrancs; an amount so large that in today’s dollars it could only be measured in Kelvin. So, while Isabella and Ferdinand presumably waved their hankies from the dock, Columbus set sail on August 3 in a small fleet consisting of a large carrack called the Santa María, two smaller caravels, the Pinta and the Nina, and three tiny caramels named Dick, Bartholomew, and Leon, which Columbus kept in his right pantaloon pocket. After a voyage of however many units Spanish people used to measure the time it takes to sail to the New World with back then, a lookout on the Pinta spotted land at 2:00 in the morning while he was watching the Late, Late Show. He immediately alerted the Captain, who was able to verify the discovery and alerted Columbus by firing a lombard, who, being part of the Lombards Local 128, later sued Columbus for wrongful termination, but that’s another story. Calling the new land “San Salvador“, because Finland was already taken, Columbus began a long career of making scholars write history books about him of which you can read if you want to know more. After three more trips the intrepid explorer decided to settle in what is now Haiti while it still had what he called “that New World smell”.

Columbus Day Cards and Frank Sinatra

Columbus’s voyage has been celebrated since colonial times in the United States; many cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landing in 1792 by taking a day off from wearing their itchy powdered wigs. In 1892 President Benjamin “Yes, I Was A President, Too” Harrison called upon the people of the United States, apparently with a gigantic megaphone, to celebrate Columbus Day on the 400th Anniversary of the day he landed, which was October 12 if you haven’t been keeping score. The first state to officially recognize Columbus Day as an official holiday was the famous, tropical seafaring land of Colorado in 1906. In 1934 Generoso “Not Actually A Real” Pope, an Italian leader in New York City, along with the Knights of Columbus lobbied to make Columbus Day a Federal Holiday, until they realized that “lobbying” did not mean hanging out at the bar in the foyer of the Biltmore Hotel on West 47th Street hoping to score some free drinks. It wasn’t officially recognized as a federal holiday until 1937, when the Hallmark Company reluctantly agreed to make a couple of Columbus Day cards: “New World? I was just getting used to the old one!” and “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Columbus sailed under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain in the context of emerging western imperialism and economic competition between European kingdoms through the establishment of trade routes and colonies in 1492”. Many Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus Day as a reminder of their heritage, for although Columbus wasn’t an American, he did apparently like to listen to Frank Sinatra.

So the next time you’re eating a caravel, watching the Vikings beat the Packers, or just firing your lombard, remember Columbus, the man who’s memory we honor in the most American way possible: by not getting our mail for a day.

Photo Credit: puritani35 cc

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Famous Flaming Rock! (Halley’s Comet)
A brief synapses of the universe's most famous inedible peanut.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 254,000 mph, plowing through the celestial void on its long, lonely, looping mission of futility, lies the quaint Idaho town on the planet earth called Hailey, from which a celebrated chunk of space ice might have taken its name, if it weren’t for some pesky things called correct spelling, facts and the correct use of plural possessives.

An Astronomical Comedy of Synapses

[x_pullquote type=”right”]Officially designated as 1P/Halley, because astronomers are nerds, Halley’s Comet (correct pronunciation: “Not The Way You Are Probably Doing It”) last appeared in 1986, the same year that Mark Twain would have died if he had lived another 76 years.[/x_pullquote]Officially designated as 1P/Halley, because astronomers are nerds, Halley’s Comet (correct pronunciation: “Not The Way You Are Probably Doing It”) last appeared in 1986, the same year that Mark Twain would have died if he had lived another 76 years. The appearance of the famous flaming rock, which is also a good band name, has been recorded as far back as 240 BPCDWNSTWCOOACA (Before Political Correctness Demanded We Never Say The Word ‘Christ’ Outside Of A Church Again), when Chinese astronomers said, “Look at that famous flaming rock!”, and Babylonian scientists said, “Yes, and wouldn’t that also make an excellent band name!”, then scribbled it down in their clay tablets. It wasn’t until 1705 that an English astronomer named Edmond (Spoiler Alert!) Halley, using laws that his buddy Isaac Newton cooked up to calculate the gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn on cometary orbits predicted that this particular comet would return in 1758 and wipe out all of mankind by infecting it with a deadly comet virus. He was partially right, obviously, as the comet did return that year, but the virus didn’t wipe us out; it apparently only just made us crave reality TV shows. Halley first proposed his theory in his Latin romantic comedy “Astronomiae Cometicae Synopsis” (“An Astronomical Comedy of Synapses”). In it, he observed that between the years 1337 to 1698 a variety of occurrences of comet-like objects appeared, including 24 comets that were visible to the naked eye, and three which could only be viewed when fully clothed. He theorized that many of these occurrences were actually the same comet, and at the comet’s return in 1758 it was dubbed by astronomers “Edmond’s Comet,” which they changed the following year to “Halley’s Comet,” because there was another astronomer named Edmond that nobody liked because he always put shoe polish on the eyepiece of their telescopes.

Giotto, Kelvin and the Canadians

In 1985, the European Space Agency spacecraft “Giotto” was launched in order to more closely inspect the comet to determine if, in fact, it was sent here by an alien race of hideous bug-like creatures in order to enslave our women as we were told by the government would happen if we didn’t switch to the metric system. Fortunately, that was not the case, but the probe was able to determine that the comet is composed mostly of dusty, non-volatile materials, such as old Sunday school teachers and those cheap charcoal briquets that never light unless you douse them with a can of gas. The surface temperature was determined to range from 170 Kelvin (essentially 1 billion degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or -170 Centigrade if you’re into that sort of thing) to 220 Kelvin (still really, really, really, super cold), making it too cold even for Canadians to want to put an ice fishing cabin on.

Halley’s Comet facts

  • As Halley’s comet approaches the sun, it expels jets of sublimating gas from its surface, for which it never apologizes, then, as it leaves, it comments loudly, “whoever smelt it, dealt it.”
  • Some studies suggest that Halley will eventually evaporate, or fracture in two, within the next few tens of thousands of years, or that it will be ejected from the Solar System within a few hundred thousand years, or that it will suddenly and without warning strike the earth and obliterate it; no one really knows for sure.
  • The comet is 10 miles long, 5 miles wide, 5 miles tall, and shaped like a peanut, although it is inedible as far as we know, as if it were to impact the earth it would definitely destroy all peanut-tasting life forms on the planet before we could find out.
  • The next perihelion of Halley’s Comet will occur on July 28, 2061, so we suggest you start stocking up now on your perihelion creams, salves, and ointments as a precaution.
  • The famous writer Mark Twain said in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” His words came to pass the following year, when he and Halley’s comet dined at the Gotham Bar and Grill on East 12th Street in New York City, where Twain had a Roasted Red And Yellow Beet Salad while the comet ordered the Maine Lobster with chanterelle mushrooms.
  • Although the blazing tail of the comet is noticeable for millions of miles, the comet’s actual surface is not bright at all, having possibly only ever passed the Third Grade.