By Gareth Edwards

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Hollywood musicals and the Metropolitan Rat Board

More from the blog that sets out to provide an explanation for everything in the universe by answering your questions. New special safety feature: in an emergency this blog can be printed out and used as paper.

@tghelani How do islands stay afloat and in place?
Although islands do indeed seem to be afloat this is actually not the case. Islands are lumps of rock, sand and millionaires that are in an extremely low geostationary orbit; so low in fact that they are mostly stuck in the sea with only a bit sticking out. Like other moons and satellites, islands feel the pull of gravity but their angular velocity is sufficiently high that they move around Earth rather than falling towards it so it looks like they are fixed in place. You should always take care when going to an island that you don’t slow it down or it will fall out of orbit and sink, drenching your tent and ruining your holiday, unless you’ve gone to Anglesey in which case you won’t notice.


 Why was good King Wenceslaus out looking on the feast of Stephen?
This is a slight misquotation, as the popular carol begins thus:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen.

The Feast of Stephen was a notoriously dangerous day for the Bohemian nobility in the 9th and 10th Centuries. In Czech tradition the martyrdom of Stephen was commemorated by the giving of cakes but over time this charming tradition had become a conduit for feelings of social discontent, with the ruling classes being given heavier and heavier cakes at higher and higher velocities. Thus in 891AD Duke Vratislavalamp died when he was hit on the head by a suet and iron pudding dropped on him from the spire of St Vitus cathedral and in 913AD Wenceslas’s cousin Elastovlast was run through by a metal pudding in the shape of a giant arrow fired from a giant crossbow. Thus on that day of all days Wenceslas decided he had better “look out”. The monarch was no doubt alarmed by the sight of an approaching peasant with an armful of wood and fearing a high-velocity “Yule Log” he immediately set off to shower the man with gifts taking with him a page as a human shield.

@helenarney Is it true that we're never more than 3ft from a rat in London?
Yes. Up until 1947 rat distribution in Britain’s cities was appallingly haphazard. Indeed the rat supply throughout Europe had hitherto traditionally been left to unregulated private enterprise, so that the entire rat supply system could easily be manipulated for profit by maverick entrepreneurs with magical pipes. Citizens literally had no idea where the next rat might be coming from. Step forward Evelyn Sysor, MP for Norwood who championed the establishment of London’s Metropolitan Rat Board, a state-run system of pneumatic tubes under the streets and houses of London. Now twenty-four hours a day rats can be shoved up drainpipes by trained staff and are propelled swiftly and silently to any part of the capital where there may be two consecutive rat-free yards. There has recently been talk of a statue commemorating Syssor’s remarkable achievement, but detractors have pointed out that actually nobody really wanted him to do any of it.

@Testudo_aubreii Would life be better if it followed the rules of Hollywood musicals?
Life does follow the rules of Hollywood Musicals, just not the ones that have been commercially successful. Executives at MGM still wince at the memory of Rodgers and Hart’s box-office fiasco Those Kids Have Been Getting On My Tits All Day in which Shirley Temple sang “Mommy, I Hate this Broccoli”, but it set the benchmark for children’s behaviour for the next five decades. Warner Brothers’ lost a packet on Burt Bacharach’s Me and My Crappy Job and even Disney were left licking their wounds after the straight-to-video disaster Admin of the Arctic, the tale of a lemming whose pension documents are in hopeless disarray until he is helped by a kindly auk. The lemming’s song “Filing Without Wings” was later re-versioned with some success by Westlife.

That’s all for this year but do ask a question in the comments below as I am confident that 2013 will be the year we get the universe explained once and for all.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Triple-Decker Buses and the Apostrophe of Evil

More from the blog that confidently sets out to answer every possible question in the universe, but struggles a bit when it comes to setting realistic goals.

asked Has anybody ever built a triple-decker bus?
When in 1897 Hennimore Phayres invented the double-decker omnibus he became the toast of London. Fame suited him, and he rode around his native Clapham on the top deck of one of his creations telling anyone who would listen of his inventing prowess. Phayres tried to repeat his success the following year with a triple-decker bus and in order not to fall foul of local planning bye-lays he expanded the passenger accommodation on his buses downwards to form a basement. Hennimore’s magnificent new vehicles were fully twenty-three feet from top to bottom, but seven feet of this was below road level and the new buses required an extensive network of trenches which played havoc with the sewer system and in the end the project was abandoned. Fearing disgrace and financial ruin Phayres absconded with a large quantity of bus company funds and was never seen again, though for many years enraged bus company employees persistently searched the capital’s buses shouting his name.

Miss Pear Where is the lid?
Don’t look at me. I’m not the one helping myself to jam at 11.00 at night. No don’t do that face. You’d look a lot less guilty without a smear of raspberry up your nose.

@tommo121 Since the construction of 'the gherkin' in London, sales of gherkins and other pickles have risen. So why aren't other vegetable-shaped buildings "cropping up" everywhere?
It’s not for want of trying. Residents of Dorset still remember with dismay The Swanage Caulifower, a two-hundred foot high steel and concrete floret that for a time was headquarters to the World Brassica Corporation. For much of the 70s the building dominated the small seaside town until a freak accident at a nearby dairy-processing plant during a high wind resulted in the structure being coated in a thick layer of melted cheese, rendering it simultaneously uninhabitable and delicious. The ghastly story of the Epping Swede is too horrific to go into in a family blog.

NanceIs the apostrophe becoming a banished mark in grammar? I see there replacing they're and its for it's (or worse dont for don't) in numerous texts, tweets, and emails. Is this some kind of bigger plot against the maligned point of punctuation? What's to be done?
It is well known that spelling in Shakespeare’s day was based on a system of free-form improvisation. What is perhaps less well-documented is the state of punctuation in those happy times. Look at any writing from the 17th century and you will see it was populated by exotic and imaginative punctuation marks roaming more or less at will: commas and full stops existed in abundance of course, though they were wilder in those days; but there were pilcrows too, and tildes, hederas, guillemets, and even here or there a mighty capitulum.  And then the dark times came. Distrustful of the apparent free-for-all in 1732 a coterie of wealthy grammarians lead by Trismegistus Stickler, an apostrophe manufacturer from Leatherhead, petitioned parliament to adopt the Great Punctuation Act, containing “Four Hundred and Twenty-Seven Simple Rules for the Correct Arrangement of His Majesty’s English.” Overnight people who had happily punctuated words as the mood took them were made to feel that whatever they wrote was somehow bound to be wrong. And that oppression continues to this very day. For years the flame of resistance was kept alive only on grocery stall price-tags for potato’s. ¶But now with a mighty randomly ~ punctuated «ROAR» the fight^back is beginning ⁄ Join us & victory shall be our’s §

becca_mcgee If we're not supposed to put cotton buds into our ears what exactly are we supposed to do with them?
They are for brightening up your bathroom. Put the cotton buds in a vase with some water and they will bloom into cotton blossoms. They look pretty in an arrangement with chrome-plated shower roses and a spray of Cif.

That's all for November's instalment as I see it is now December. But why not defy the relentless encroachment of time by asking this blog a question of your own in the space below?