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Rat Fans

February 17, 2011

At a pub quiz last night. Got the following rather innocuous sounding question: “In 1972 Michael Jackson had a hit song called Ben. Who or what was ‘Ben’?”

I, like most of the rest of the Irish-replica tavern, hadn’t the foggiest. Misguidedly inspired by Gentle Ben, I guessed at ‘bear’. The answer was ‘rat’.

Sounded pretty strange. A song about a rat. By Michael Jackson. Well, this morning, the more I’ve googled, the stranger it’s got.

First I find the song on youtube. It’s a pretty dire ballad. Can’t quite see what it has to do with a rat until I discover that the song, Ben, was from a film of the same name.

I go to IMDB. “A film about a lonely boy who becomes good friends with Ben, a rat.” A weird enough plot for a movie I would’ve thought.

Then I read on….”This rat is also the leader of a pack of vicious killer rats, killing lots of people.”

Not only that but the film was a sequel (troubling, I know) to 1971’s Willard (also about killer rats).

So a sentimental early Jacko track (Oscar-nominated, might I add) was used as the theme to a 70s, low-budget, rodent-based horror flick. You live and learn.


It’s a Kind of Magic

February 7, 2011

Went to Stockholm’s Magic Bar on Friday night – one of only a handful of restaurants in Europe which has live magic every night of the week. The close-up magic was exceptional and the stage show richly entertaining.

We also got a guided tour by the owner during which we were given the story behind various piles of memorabilia dotted around the establishment.

One such memorabilis was the extravagantly illuminated letter paper of Chung Ling Soo, a renowned Chinese magician from the turn of the nineteenth century.

He travelled the UK and stunned audiences with his bullet-catching trick (you can already guess how he died…). Since he didn’t speak or understand any English, his manager conducted all wage negotiations on his behalf, so that when Soo turned up to perform, the Machiavellian theatre owners had no chance to renege on their original offer.

One fateful night, Soo caught the bullet as usual, but this time in his right lung instead of between his teeth. On being shot, Soo, who was said to have performed before the Emperor of China, started speaking English.

His greatest trick, it seems, was convincing the world that he was Chinese, when he was in fact an American fraudster named William Robinson. Leaving behind a failed magic career in the US, Robinson reinvented himself in the UK by stealing the act of genuine Chinese conjurer, Chung Ling Foo. Acting as a latter-day David Chopperfield, he built such a reputation for himself that when the real-deal Chung Ling Foo arrived in Britain several years later, he faced public accusations of being his own fake.

Coincidently, Soo’s manager also disappeared the very same night Soo didn’t bite the bullet, leading people to believe that Soo and his manager were in fact the same person.

The plot of a film? Maybe. Evidence that before the Internet you could get away with pretty much anything? Very definitely.

Bricking It

January 29, 2011

Just about to get CS5 at work. Which prompted someone to ask me what “CS” stood for. “Creative Suite,” I answered.

And that prompted me to look up a few computer-related names and acronyms to see what they meant.

Adobe. Very well-known. Creators of the pdf (portable document format) and Creative Suite (of which PhotoShop and InDesign are a part). But where did the company get its name from?

I had this as a quiz question once. Cannot imagine many people got it right. I certainly didn’t. The quizmaster proudly announced to a few appreciative ahs that “adobe” was Spanish for brick.

“Clever,” I thought, “Cryptically alluding to the power of its software to build the world around us.”

Turns out the company was named after Abobe Creek which ran behind the house of one of the company’s founders and adobe is in fact a primitive method of building houses using dry mud and straw.

But that wouldn’t have made for as tidy an answer as “It’s brick in Spanish,” so I can see the quizmaster’s dilemma.

Spare Tyre

January 25, 2011

The Michelin Guide – designed to make chefs hyperventilate and motorists use more tyre rubber – was first pubished in 1900 by André Michelin, founder of the Michelin Tyre Company.

A Michelin star – or rather three – appears to be the accolade chefs crave the most. However, they are not given out all over the world. Originally covering just France, the Guide has expanded to take in most of Europe’s major countries as well as key cities in the US (New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Las Vegas) and Asia (Hong Kong, Kyoto/Osaka and Tokyo).

Tokyo (surprisingly) now has almost twice as many stars as Paris and more three-star restaurants than anywhere else in the world.

Even Belgium.

Fruity Language

January 19, 2011

A mandarin, the Mandarin, a mandarin duck and Milan Mandaric

Was listening to the radio today – little bit of politics, as it happens – and heard use of the word “mandarin”.

Two questions immediately sprang to mind: i) why do we call influential senior bureaucrats “mandarins” and ii) how many other fruits and vegetables can be used as nouns to describe people?

I suppose the first one isn’t a big stretch. A mandarin was any one of nine ranks of civil servant from imperial China. Since they spoke a common language amongst themselves, this “language of the officials” became known as Mandarin which today is synonymous with Standard Chinese.

As for my second query, besides “mandarin”, I’ve come up with “peach”, “cabbage”, “gooseberry” and, of course, “swede”.

Dewey Digital

January 17, 2011

Heard mentioned today that the Library of Congress in the US keeps a complete record of all public tweets.

The Library – the largest in the world – has copies of over 21 million catalogued books, 12 million photographs, 6 million pieces of sheet music and 3 million audio files, not to mention a load of films, prints and posters, making the entire collection over 144 million items.

As if that wasn’t enough, every single public message written on Twitter – which since its inception in 2006 stretches into the billions – is also stored at the Library.

A library, may I remind you, whose motto is “to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people”.

Quite how it thinks saving terabyte after terabyte of non-sensical, inconsequential drivel will help advance anyone’s mind is beyond me.

Like Clockwork

January 11, 2011

I heard someone say – which is not a credible way to introduce reliable information, I know, but nonetheless – that all clocks and watches in adverts tell the same time.

Well, it turns out to be more or less true. Search for “watches” under Google images and you’ll notice that the majority show the same time: about eight minutes past ten.

I was hoping the reason for this would be some kind of horologists’ in-joke to which only the finest watchmakers (and now the Internet) were privy.

It appears, however, that roughly 10:10 is a convenient position because the arms do not obscure any of the face’s features and they neatly frame the watchmaker’s logo.

And they also make the watch look happy.

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