rolling trivia roundup

Does time keep on slippin…slippin…slippin…into the future? Are you a joker, a smoker, and/or a midnight toker? Are you concerned about everyone’s junk going bad and living in a sexless future dystopia, or sad that there’s no more Dunkaroos or Hi-C Ecto Cooler? Really unsure how to feel about the possibility of Ghostbusters III? If so, hit the brakes hard and slam your face into the airbag of the trivia roundup.

pow camps :: spruce goose :: tycho :: fanta :: coasters :: fungi :: arnold


1. In the early 1940s Britain experienced something of a housing crunch and was forced to ask for assistance. The US sighed deeply, and eventually agreed that, yes, they could house tens of thousands of German POWs. More than 700 POW camps were set up across the US, housing German and Japanese prisoners during the war. Wisconsin had almost 40 of them and was unique in part because pretty much everyone in Wisconsin was German anyways—there are stories of wisconsinites meeting family members at the pow camps.

The bizarre thing was how mundane this was. Most POWs held down local jobs, working at farms, canneries, or tanneries. Camps were spread out all over the place; Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport held more than 3000 prisoners, others held only a few dozen. There’s a potentially apocryphal story that a few prisoners escaped one night, found a nearby bar where everyone was speaking German, and were apprehended there a short time later, sharing pleasantries and beers with the local townfolk. Many POWs were so pleased with their treatment that they tried to stay. When he was in the nursing home, another resident’s comment about the Germans in WWII prompted my grandpa to (he thought) commiserate—“those damn german bastards…” until he was interrupted by the other guy saying “I vas a german soldier!” That should definitely have been made into a sitcom.


2. The Spruce Goose, flown just once in 1947, still has the largest wingspan of any airplane in history. Having seen it as a child, I can confirm: it’s a big plane. The War Department had been looking for a solution for troop and equipment transport across the Pacific, and specs on the Goose showed it capable of transporting 700 troops, 1 tank, or some 20,000 jars of urine. However, because of concerns about weight and restrictions on metal use, the plane needed to be built almost entirely out of wood (though it wasn’t built out of spruce, the name sounds better than Birch PerchOl’ Hickory, or Hughes’s Woody). In part due to Hughes’s notorious perfectionism/untreated OCD, the prototype was not completed until 1947. By that time, the plane had been rendered obsolete by the development of the Spruce Moose, which can ferry two hundred passengers from New York’s Idlewild airport to the Belgian Congo in seventeen minutes:

smithers…get in.

Actually, it was rendered obsolete because the war was over two years earlier, and the military wasn’t in much of a rush to get troops or tanks across the ocean. Hughes was actually hauled in front of congress to explain the wasted money. He responded with an impassioned speech, the plane’s only test flight, and then by locking himself in a hotel room for about 20 years. The cherry on top of Hughes’s particular brand of compulsion was that the plane, which flew a grand total of one time, for a grand total of just about a mile, was kept in flight shape for more than 20 years by a full-time crew of 300 people. 300!

tycho3. Astronomer Tycho Brahe is a facial hair hall-of-famer who led an interesting life. Among his astronomical highlights were the obsessive cataloging of star movements and star positions with an accuracy never before achieved, and the “Tychonic system” for describing the motion of planets, in which the earth was the center of the universe around which the sun and moon rotated, while other planets rotated around the sun. Also, he was the last major astronomer to not use a telescope. He didn’t use a telescope! In fairness, they hadn’t been invented yet, but he was still doing accurate and useful work with the naked eye. In contrast, I sometimes have trouble finding the fucking moon.

His non-scientific accomplishments, though, might be even better. In his 20s, after picking fights with an acquaintance multiple times (mostly over a mathematical proof—NERD ALERT), they duelled with swords. This resolved their problem but left Tycho with the front of his nose missing. He is said to have crafted a prosthetic from gold, silver, and copper, which I very much would like to have seen. He also kept a domesticated elk as a pet which is so cliche because that’s what all half-nosed astronomers do. Unfortunately the elk partied too hard one night, got drunk, fell down a flight of stairs, and died (no joke). At least he died doing what he loved. Brahe’s own death was similarly undignified. At a banquet, he did not want to breach etiquette by getting up to use the bathroom. By the time he did so, he was in excruciating pain, could no longer urinate, and eventually died of renal failure (though there is a conspiracy theory that he was poisoned by mercury, possibly by his longtime assistant Johannes Kepler, a famous astronomer in his own right).


4. Fanta was originally developed in Germany during WWII. Because of a trade embargo, Coke syrup could not be imported, and the head of Coke Germany tried to come up with an alternative. fantaLike so many wartime replacements, it sounds horrific: they were forced to make do with the leavings of other food industries, and the original recipe contained whey and the leftover bits of apples pressed for cider, and was sweetened with saccharin (although the recipe changed depending on what was available). Despite urban legends to the contrary and even though it was invented in Nazi Germany, the company was never part of the Nazi apparatus. Fanta was introduced in the United States in the 1960s, and is now marketed in over 90 countries; apparently the classic orange Fanta sold in Europe is more like Orangina and made with orange juice, but the US version is standard orange soda. Here is a short list of actual Fanta flavors that have been available at one time or another:

• Cinnamon Rum • Fermented Banana Milk • Grenadine • Elderfower • Internet Cherry (?) • Exotic (?) • Bitter Water (??) • Unflavoured (???)


5. The roller coaster was first patented in 1885, but the idea goes back several centuries before that. The first roller-coaster-like things were the “Russian Mountains”, which were giant ice slides with wooden supports built in the 17th century or earlier (interestingly, the Russian word for modern roller coasters literally translates to ‘american mountains’). Riders rode an ice slab or toboggan-like device down the slide, which were, unsurprisingly, a big hit with the Russian upper crust. The “Russian Mountains” were exported to France in the early 19th century, which is around the same time that the idea of wheeled carts were added to the mix. By the mid-1800s, scenic railways and “gravity rides”, originally designed for schlepping coal and re-purposed as a way for the coal companies to make some spare change in off-peak hours, were becoming popular amusement activities. By 1885, the oval circuit and lift hill were instituted as the coasters became true amusements (the first coaster with a lift hill, incidentally, was called Gravity Pleasure Road). By 1895, two separate coasters had added a loop,

which turned out to be wildly dangerous—lap bars hadn’t been invented yet—with many passengers suffering from whiplash. That idea was put in the can for a solid half-century before being brought out of mothballs in the late 1950s, when the first steel coaster was built at Disneyland. The flexibility of steel coasters led to the second golden age of roller coasters: we’re living it right now. Designers are in a constant fight to one-up each other in terms of height (current record: 456 feet), steepness of drop (current record: 121 degrees— holy living fuck)

“inversions” (current record: 14), and top speed (current record: 149 mph, on the Formula Rossa roller coaster at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi) Side note: did you know there is a Ferrari-themed amusement park in Abu Dhabi? It looks like this:


More recently, one artist has designed what he calls the “euthanasia coaster”, intended to humanely kill its riders. For more information and photos of roller coasters you couldn’t pay me enough to ride, please see this nice list here.


6. When bark-bearing trees evolved, nothing had evolved that could decompose bark. That had some consequences. First, possibly as a defense mechanism, trees were up to 95% bark (modern trees are usually about 20%). When they died, they didn’t decay and formed huge woodpiles that were slowly buried. As a result, the atmosphere’s oxygen content went up by nearly 75% over current levels. This allowed insects and amphibians to grow to otherwise-impossible proportions (dragonflies with 2.5 foot wingspans? Yes, please). Wildfires abounded. More important from a modern-day perspective is that because they were buried without decomposing, all of these trees were turning into coal. Evolution, it turns out, doesn’t sit still, and eventually “white rot fungi” developed the ability to metabolize the components of tree bark, ending our coal party. White rot fungi: total jerks.


7. I don’t know what to say about Arnold Ziffel. That is one amazing pig.


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