2010.02.24 New almanac means even more useless knowledge

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

As one of those born long before the internet and Wikipedia, I grew up with the encyclopedia and almanac as my sources when I needed to check a fact or study a subject. Our home encyclopedia was one of those supermarket buy-a-volume-at-a-time editions, published the year I was born. It worked fine for the older siblings, but was a bit dated by the time I needed it for high school research.

Even older, but extremely entertaining, was our almanac. It was an old “Information Please” edition, printed in 1948. Wildly out of date, but that made it part of the fun.

I still remember in particular the section on the National Basketball Association, which then included teams like the Syracuse Nationals, which still exist today as the Philadelphia 76ers; the Rochester Royals, which after stops in Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha finally became the Sacramento Kings; and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, long before they moved to Detroit. Toledo even had an NBA team in those days, called the Jeeps.

Eventually, I purchased a current almanac when I entered college and still continue to update my copy when the old one seems more than a bit dated. I had been using a 1999 edition, but recently jumped ahead to a new one, purchased at a bookstore that was closing. Now I’m loaded with odd facts for any occasion.

For instance, did you know that the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar made George Washington more than a year younger? Any biography of Washington will tell you he was born on February 22, 1732, but that wasn’t always the case.

 In the switch of calendars, which took place in England and the colonies in 1752, 11 days were added to the calendar. And New Year’s day, which used to be marked on March 25th, was moved to January 1st. The adjustments changed Washington’s birth date from February 11, 1731, to the date we recognize now.

The switch in calendars took hundreds of years to catch on. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg adopted it in 1582. It took England nearly 200 years to join in. Japan waited until 1873, Russia until 1918 and China until 1949. I’m still a bit amazed that the change in years used to occur in the middle of a month.

When Washington was president, I wonder if he knew how important the post of Secretary of State would be as a stepping stone to higher office? Five of the next seven presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Van Buren) served in that position before becoming president. Next to follow that career path was James Buchanan. No Secretary of State in the 150+ years since has gone on to be elected president. Recent history isn’t looking good for Hillary Clinton.

Current news events led me to check out the almanac’s listing for Haiti. While 80% of the country is Roman Catholic and 16% Protestant, about half of the country also practices voodoo.

Ever hear of an eponym? That’s a word named for a person, like Zamboni, the ice-rink resurfacing machine named for inventor Frank Zamboni. Those I was unaware of include shrapnel, named for British artillery officer Henry Shrapnel and salmonella, named after Daniel Salmon, an American veterinarian and public health official who discovered it. If I was Mr. Salmon, I think I would have turned down that honor.

After searching through all the population by county figures, it looks like Loving County, Texas, is the country’s least populated with a whopping 55 people living in 673 square miles. Up in Alaska, they don’t have counties but instead boroughs or something called a census division. The Yukon-Koyukuk census area covers an area of 145,900 square miles, bigger than the state of Montana, but contains only 5,838 people. That’s about one person for every 25 square miles.

Then there’s the crime section. The total number of inmates in state and federal prisons is higher than the population of 12 states.

But let’s end this on a happier note. I love the section on names of animal collectives. For instance, school is the collective for a group of fish. A group of owls is a parliament; a group of vultures a committee; a group of rhinoceroses a crash; a group of alligators a congregation. A group of cockroaches is known as an intrusion. How appropriate is that name?                                                              

I think that’s enough trivia for now. I’ll get back to you after I finish the book.

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