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Things I Learnt in 2021

Jan 1, 2022

See also: things I learnt in 2020 (and its HN discussion)

I am pretty much a knowledge addict.

I use Twitter, RSS, and numerous other mediums of information — from Telegram channels to standalone blogs.

Out of a thousand articles a hundred gets skimmed through. A few dozens make it to my "Read Later" list, and only a fraction I find worthy of sharing.

These worthy ones end up in my weekly newsletter, the Tuesday Triage, where I comment on the most intriguing articles I've read and share facts I learnt over the week.

Some of those trivia are not trivial at all, so I decided to condense 10% of this crème de la crème of the Internet in a subjective list of the best ones in no particular order.

Snail caviar ¶

Up until now I thought I tried all types of caviar out there (think meh caviar, red caviar, and black caviar, all of which were available in abundance in my childhood, thanks to post-Soviet supplies).

This is however a completely different story.

Snail caviar, also known as escargot caviar or escargot pearls, is a type of caviar that consists of fresh or processed eggs of land snails. It is a luxury gourmet speciality produced in France and Poland. They were also a delicacy in the ancient world, also known as "Pearls of Aphrodite" for their supposed aphrodisiac properties.

It sounds… disgusting? But I would try anyway, I mean look at it:

Bidets were considered a form of birth control ¶

Ah, the creative class! The reason bidets never became common in the States was the lack of proper marketing and some questionable practices:

But even before the war, bidets were linked to sex and scandal. In the United States and Britain, when various forms of douching were thought of as a pregnancy preventive, bidets were considered a form of birth control. As Norman Haire, a birth-control pioneer, put it in 1936, “The presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin.” The present-day American sociologist Harvey Molotch agrees, concluding that the devices were tainted with France’s hedonism and sexuality. “Bidets have had such difficulty ... Even all the power of capitalism can’t break the taboo.”

Subway ‘Tuna Sandwich’ ¶

I kind of knew that, but apparently whatever is in Subway tuna sandwiches, it doesn't contain the actual tuna. Or any fish.

According to a new lawsuit, Subway’s tuna sandwiches contain “no scintilla of tuna at all” — “anything but tuna,” in fact. “We found that the ingredients were not tuna and not fish,” attorney Shalini Dogra told the Washington Post, declining to disclose the specifics.

If you remember, recently we've learnt that Subway's bread can't be called "bread" either.

Pringles Salt Vinegar is not vegan, while Pringles Smokey Bacon is vegan ¶

That's quite hilarious:

The main reason that some Pringles varieties are not suitable for vegans is their inclusion of one or more ingredients derived from dairy products (for instance the milk-derived lactose in the Salt Vinegar flavoured Pringles).

Silica beads are not toxic ¶

I never considered eating silica gel packages, but I never thought they are edible either. Apparently eating them is not dangerous, and now I am not sure what to do with that knowledge.

Although the packages say, “Do not eat,” they aren’t actually toxic. They are filled with little silicon dioxide beads, and the only real danger associated with them is that they could pose a choking hazard for young children.

This was a yet another childhood myth being debunked.

Nata de coco ¶

An unexpected way to turn something into a jelly:

A chewy, translucent, jelly-like food produced by the fermentation of coconut water, which gels through the production of microbial cellulose by Komagataeibacter xylinus.

Looks rather fancy actually, would definitely try it:

Honorary citizenship of the United States ¶

There is one way to get a US citizenship which somehow gets overlooked by many:

A person of exceptional merit, a non-United States citizen, may be declared an honorary citizen of the United States by an Act of Congress or by a proclamation issued by the President of the United States, pursuant to authorization granted by Congress.

For those jumping on a ship like Lafayette to join the ranks of sir Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa, bear in mind that it still doesn't make eligible for a proper US passport, and can't be used as a real document.

Narezushi ¶

Recently I've learnt that Salmon sushi isn't a Japanese invention, it's Norvegian instead. So what's the original Japan's sushi then?

The word sushi is derived from the Japanese word for sour, and its earliest form — narezushi — is pickled for months or even years.

First recorded in Japan in the 8th century, narezushi is considered a delicacy today because of how long it takes to make. But this preservation technique was originally born out of necessity. Before refrigeration, making narezushi was the one of the best ways to preserve seasonal fish throughout the year.

There are still places serving a 30-year-old aged ones, so think about it.

The Cornhill Devils ¶

A nice part of London's architecture:

The “Cornhill Devils,” according to legend, came as a rather unholy finishing touch to the completed building. A parting gesture of sorts from the architect to the clergyman next door.

Almost every second building here has unusual statues or structure, especially in the city centre. I wonder what else am I missing if not looking up at buildings?

Star-shaped sand ¶

There are beaches where sand grains are actually shells of fossils that are star-shaped.

When Foraminifera die, their shells remain in the sea and the tide brings them ashore. In the case of Hatoma, Iriomote and Taketomi islands in Okinawa, this results in beaches sprinkled with star sand.

Bubble and squeak ¶

A fresh addition to classic recipes of the island I occupy.

Bubble and squeak is a British dish made from cooked potatoes and cabbage, mixed together and fried. The food writer Howard Hillman classes it as one of the "great peasant dishes of the world".

I'd probably stick to the English breakfast though.

Post-credits scenes are a thing since 1966 ¶

I was somewhat convinced that Marvel popularised post-credits scenes, but it's been around for way longer:

The first film to feature a post-credits scene is The Silencers, released in March of 1966. The scene depicts lead character Matt Helm (played by Dean Martin) along with a cadre of beautiful women and the caption, "Matt Helm Will Return".

Not I am not even sure if Marvel came up with an idea to have two different scenes after credits...

Cholmondeley, Cheshire ¶

This is pronounced /ˈtʃʌmli/ CHUM-lee and now you have to live with this knowledge too.

Cholmondeley is a civil parish in Cheshire, England, north east of Malpas and west of Nantwich.

Can't imagine what the locals go through whenever someone asks them to spell the name.

Xuixo ¶

Over the last trip I had a chance to try this Spanish speciality:

It is a deep-fried, sugar-coated cylindrical pastry filled with crema catalana.

Although I must say it definitely looked way smaller than the classic one:

Rhubarb Triangle ¶

There is a place in Englands famous for a very specific thing:

A 9-square-mile (23 sq. km) area of West Yorkshire, England between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell famous for producing early forced rhubarb.

You don't need me to guess its national dish.

Hagfish slime ¶

So there is this thing which looks (almost) like an eel:

Naturalists can tell the two apart because hagfish, unlike other fish, lack backbones (and, also, jaws). For everyone else, there’s an even easier method. “Look at the hand holding the fish,” the marine biologist Andrew Thaler once noted. “Is it completely covered in slime? Then, it’s a hagfish.”

And it has slime. And I bet you don't want to deal with it (no one does, really, but read the whole article as it goes into way more details).

(photo by Reuters)

Chess boxing ¶

Back then in my childhood chess players were disregarded as nerds. Wish I knew of this hybrid sport before.

Chess boxing, or chessboxing is a hybrid sport that combines two traditional pastimes: chess and boxing. Contestants compete in alternating rounds of chess and boxing.

Wonder what do they do if it's a draw?

Starch retrogradation ¶

Do you know why bread (and many other baked goodies) turn into stone in the fridge?

Retrogradation is a reaction that takes place when the amylose and amylopectin chains in cooked, gelatinized starch realign themselves as the cooked starch cools.

So the only way to keep something starch-based soft is to either keep it warm, or chill rapidly and then freeze.

Turtle shell ¶

I've been this week years old when I learn that turtles don't live in a shell, they are the shell.

And I had a turtle in my childhood! Not sure if the lesson here is to disassemble things more proactively.

Largest unused subway in the world ¶

The only reason I knew about Cincinnati is because of Simpsons (until now).

By the time the 1920s were in full swing, cost overruns, construction errors, property damage, and political finagling had shut down the Cincinnati subway for good. When construction ceased in the 1920s, 2.2 miles of tunnels had been constructed in what was once the old Miami-Erie Canal bed.

However starting from today I also know that they have the most depressing subway landscapes all over the city.

Pomato ¶

For those running out of space but wishing to grow both potatoes and tomatoes, I am pleased to announce:

The pomato is a grafted plant that is produced by grafting together a tomato plant and a potato plant, both of which are members of the Solanum genus in the Solanaceae family. Cherry tomatoes grow on the vine, while white potatoes grow in the soil from the same plant.

Look at that:

I honestly don't understand why bother with growing them separately anymore.

Manx cat ¶

The Isle of Man must be a nice place to visit, partly due to its fauna:

Tailless cats, then called stubbin (apparently both singular and plural) in colloquial Manx language, were known by the early 19th century as cats from the Isle of Man, hence the name, where they remain a substantial but declining percentage of the local cat population.

They also have sheep with four horns.

Royal Mail rubber band ¶

Not sure if it is still a thing as I hardly seen any of them at the streets, but as a cultural phenomenon it definitely counts:

A Royal Mail rubber band is a small red elastic loop used by the postal delivery service in the United Kingdom. In the course of its work, the Royal Mail consumes nearly one billion rubber bands per year to tie together bundles of letters at sorting offices. In the 2000s, complaints about Royal Mail rubber bands littering the streets of Britain gave rise to ongoing press interest in this minor cultural phenomenon.

If you happen to know the name of the factory, check out if it trades on the stocks market. Might be worth tracking for some time closer to Christmas.

Why do anime characters yell their names and attacks ¶

I don't watch anime (although I used to when I was a kid) and yet I do get exposed to it occasionally, and anime characters shouting out their names and attacks always confused me. Now the mystery is solved.

Most anime stories started as manga. Manga does a good job at showing action, but as a still-imge medium, it has limits. Sometimes panels become muddled when authors try to show a flurry of action. Because manga is typically black and white, characters can look similar to each other. To fix these issues, mangaka have their characters announce themselves and yell the names of their special attacks. In the flurry of action lines and camera angles, a reader can get confused and lose what is going on. By having announced signature attacks, the reader can have an anchor. This helps clarify who is attacking who.

So because manga is usually black and white, without lots of shouting readers get confused what's going on.

In Denmark it is common to leave babies outside while eating ¶

Probably now I know where I'd like to raise children, as seems like in Denmark it's relatively common to leave kids in their strollers napping outside restaurants or bars while you dine inside.

The episode sparked outrage in New York, where residents were astounded at the idea of parents depositing a child alone on a sidewalk. In Denmark, people were equally stunned by the notion of being arrested for leaving a child unattended for a spell while shopping or dining.

The lady in the story was fined for doing so in New York but managed to sue the city and win. Also kids sleep better in cold air.

lord (n.) ¶

I didn't even think of the word's ethymology and yet it makes so much sence now.

Old English hlaford is a contraction of earlier hlafweard, literally "one who guards the loaves," from hlaf "bread, loaf" (see loaf (n.)) + weard "keeper, guardian" (from PIE root *wer- (3) "perceive, watch out for").

For those curious for more, lady literally meant "bread-kneader".

Three Grand Soups ¶

So I've learnt about this recently:

The Three grand soups is a common term in Japan referring to three types of soup thought to be the best in the world.

And I have two questions.

Why there are four soups?

And how come one of these soups is borscht?

Water activity ¶

There is a way to model how possible is food contamination with bacterias:

Water activity is the partial vapor pressure of water in a solution divided by the standard state partial vapor pressure of water.

So if something has high water activity (e.g bagel's is 0.92, or bacon's is 0.96) it will be more prone to getting spoiled, but things with lower water activity don't require a fridge to stay fine unless exposed to a very humid air.

Some examples: honey (~ 0.6), peanut butter (~ 0.35) or soy sauce (0.80). Don't keep them in the fridge.

Bit rot ¶

This year the Merriam-Webster dictionary added new 450 words, and "bit rot" is one of them.

bit rot: the tendency for digital information to degrade or become unusable over time. This kind of data degradation or corruption can make images and audio recordings distort and documents impossible to read or open.

It's not mentioned here, but I am a strong believer that the same applies to code, and over time it becomes unusable.

Mustard balls ¶

Speaking about condiments, mustard used to be rolled into balls for easier storage and transportation.

The town of Tewkesbury was well known for its high-quality mustard balls, originally made with ground mustard mixed with horseradish and dried for storage, which were then exported to London and other parts of the country, and are even mentioned in William Shakespeare's play King Henry the Fourth, Part II.

These days they still sell the balls in that town, but as it is mostly for tourists they are wrapped into edible gold leaves.

Lowercase letter ‘A’ ¶

Since my birthday I got a chance to ressurect my curiosity in typography and calligraphy: here is something I didn't think about before.

Letter A has two ways to be rendered in lowercase, and that actually has fifteen centuries of history:

They worked in unison and performed different functions, depending on the script being used, the type of document being produced, the hierarchy of each part of the document (headings were fancier, the names and titles of kings and bishops slightly less so, and the main text of the document even less so).

Hungry men exposed to blue light are sensitive to Earth's magnetic field ¶

The secret of the sixth sense and an ability to navigate without a compass has been found a few years ago:

The orientation was reproduced under blue light but was abolished under a blindfold or a longer wavelength light ( 500 nm), indicating that blue light is necessary for magnetic orientation.

So seems like it works only for hungry men exposed to blue light, for example those who forget to eat regularly and spend all their time in front of a computer.

Oh wait.

Kottabos ¶

Here is an idea for your next drinking games party (if people still do them out there, obviously):

Kottabos (Ancient Greek: κότταβος) was a game of skill played at Ancient Greek and Etruscan symposia (drinking parties), especially in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. It involved flinging wine-lees (sediment) at a target in the middle of the room. The winner would receive a prize, comprising cakes, sweetmeats, or kisses.

Note that they weren't throwing full glasses, only the ones with a sediment, that's really important.

Paternoster lift ¶

I was aware of these lifts, but never knew neither how they are called, nor what are the origins of the name.

Needless to say, it's a bit unexpected:

The name paternoster ("Our Father", the first two words of the Lord's Prayer in Latin) was originally applied to the device because the elevator is in the form of a loop and is thus similar to rosary beads used as an aid in reciting prayers.

I wonder how often they break, and when they do, does it count as a fast track to Heaven due to their metaphysical value?

Airplanes don't carry oxygen for the oxygen masks ¶

I was 100% confident that airplanes stock up oxygen tanks just above passengers to provide support for their masks. They don't!

If the pressure in the cabin changes and masks drop, tugging the mask causes a pin to ignite a smal explosion which combines sodium chlorate and potassium perchlorate to make oxygen.

The reaction goes on until the chemicals are exhausted. So, once the mask is pulled, it can provide breathable oxygen for 12-20 minutes, depending on the type and size of the oxygen generator. At any rate, you only need the ‘mask oxygen’ until the plane descends to 10,000 feet, as the surrounding air will become breathable again from that point on.

That's so cool, I never even though of it.

Ruin value ¶

There is a design concept that not just aimes at making buildings beautiful but also thinks of what they become once collapsed.

Ruin value (German: Ruinenwert) is the concept that a building be designed such that if it eventually collapsed, it would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins that would last far longer without any maintenance at all.

Here is how the Bank of England's ruins might look like:

Artificial banana flavoring ¶

Something very unexpected: the artificial banana flavouring tastes so different from the real banana flavour because it was built upon a variety that is now extinct. And its flavour was very close.

Remember how isoamyl acetate is the chemical compound primarily responsible for banana flavoring? Gros Michel contains more of that compound than the Cavendish. In fact, isoamyl acetate was one of the first chemical compounds used in artificial flavors that was confirmed to exist in the actual fruit as well.

So, when you’re biting into a piece of banana Laffy Taffy, you’re getting a taste of the bananas of the past. “That’s kind of why I think of these older, ‘cheap’ artificial flavors as ‘heirloom’ artificial flavors,” says Berenstein. “Because they’re the simpler formulas that have been less modified by time.”

So the artificial flavouring is our only way to taste the bananas from years ago.

Earl Grey tea intoxication ¶

Someone had 4L tea a day and it causes blurred vision and extensive muscle cramps. Drinking 1-2L instead makes all symptoms go away.

The longer he drank Earl Grey tea, the more intense the muscle cramps became. After 3 weeks, they also occurred in the left foot. After 5 weeks, muscle cramps had spread towards the hands and the right calf. Occasionally, he observed fasciculations of the right adductor pollicis and gastrocnemius.

I wonder if there are any survivors after doing the same but with coffee? Or is it considered normal in the States?

Harrier in Tate Britain ¶

I think it looks a bit plane to be in an art gallery, but who am I to judge?

Hosepipe ban ¶

I learnt about this ban from someone, who has heard it in their childhood and for the past twenty years thought it's a permanent ban.

In fact it was only for a few weeks back then.

The provider sometimes states that their customers are not allowed to use a sprinkler or unattended hosepipe for a few days (or longer), but commonly, a total ban is enacted. Bans are usually in England and South Wales, rarely in Scotland because of the damper climate.

Sikterusa coffee ¶

Here is a great idea from Sarajevo: serve guests a bad-tasting coffee so they know it's time to leave.

When you visit locals, you are offered docekusa. Before leaving, you drink sikterusa. If you are having coffee and the person adds water to it, making it a doljevusa, it is because they want you to linger longer, to make the coffee cup last an extra few minutes, to keep the conversation going.

The origins seem to come from the Turkish word "Siktir", which means "fuck off". What a beautiful name for a coffee, innit?

SWOLF ¶

Apparently that's a common way to measure one's swimming efficiency.

SWOLF is the combination of your stroke count and time taken in the water and is often used as a measure of your swimming efficiency.

“Swimmers have been adding these two numbers together for years and thinking of it as ‘Swim Golf’ or SWOLF, because lowering the score is the objective,” says Bullock.

So SWOLF is time plus stroke count, and usually it is taken for a fixed swimming pool length (e.g 25 metres). Not the easiest metric to compare though: different techniques would procude very different numbers. Still better than just time.

McCaughn v. Hershey Chocolate ¶

I wrote about Hershey vs Hershey before.

Seems like they just love suing companies:

They assert that chocolate is food and candy is not, and hence chocolate cannot be properly described as candy. But it is common knowledge that sugar, also a food. is an ingredient both of candy as thus defined and of sweet chocolate, sometimes to the extent of 50% or more of the latter, as was conceded on the argument here.

So chocolate was classified as “candy” under the Revenue Acts of 1918 and 1921, and thanks to that it was taxed as a candy.

Hershey's tried to sue the country and get a refund for $8kk in taxes arguing that it is "food", not "candy".

They lost.

Bread Sauce ¶

I've been looking up what to do with a rock hard stale bread and came across this traditional British recipe:

A bread sauce is a British warm or cold sauce made with milk, which is thickened with bread crumbs, typically eaten with roast chicken or turkey.

The basic recipe calls for milk and onion with breadcrumbs and butter added as thickeners, seasoned with nutmeg, clove, bay leaf, pepper, and salt.

The Street Numbering in Florence, Italy ¶

Designing cities is hard, and numbering streets is not an easy feast, but Florence, WTF?

A double sequence of street numbering exists in Florence. Shops and businesses are identified by the letter 'R' after the number. This signifies 'red'. Private residences are numbered in black. Thus a street may have two number 18's, at times at considerable distance one from the other; 18R (as in the addresses given here) is a shop or business, while 18 is a private house.

Luckily, modern buildings don't rely on that rule anymore.

Sadly, seems like it's not only in Florence, but in other Italian cities too.

The Landlord's Game ¶

Apparently Monopoly the game had a predcessor and it looks as cool:

The Landlord's Game is a board game patented in 1904 by Elizabeth Magie as U.S. Patent 748,626. It is a realty and taxation game intended to educate users about Georgism. It is the inspiration for the board game Monopoly.

Volkswagen Currywurst ¶

Who'd think buying a German car lands you with a bag of free sausages? I am actually not that surprised.

Currywurst has been branded as an official “Volkswagen Original Part,” being designated with the number 199 398 500 A. There were 6.81 million of them manufactured in 2018; the automaker makes more sausages than cars. VW also produces a special ketchup and line of cutlery specifically made to accompany the currywurst.

I have to say, if I ever buy a car here is the company I will consider the first.

Radioactive Camembert ¶

It’s not a secret that in 20th century France was obsessed with radium and used to spike with it pretty much anything, from chocolate to cigarettes.

I never though it’d make its way into cheese too:

I couldn’t find an actual proof though, so take it with a grain of salt. Some sources mention that the word was used very liberally and sometimes purely for marketing purposes.

Pineapple burns mouth due to bromelain, not acid ¶

I knew about enzymes in kiwi and pineapple, as they're commonly used to tenderize meat, but never thought that the burning mouth sensation is not some acid but the same enzymes tenderizing my own mouth.

Pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain. It breaks down proteins and it’s an excellent meat tenderizer. It’s also what makes your mouth tingle, burn and maybe even bleed. This is because bromelain is trying to break down the proteins in your mouth, so when you eat pineapple, it’s pretty eating you back.

Sounds rather scary now.

Lollipop lady ¶

Apparently there is a dedicated person to stop traffic on pedestrian crossings if needed.

Crossing guards are known by a variety of names, the most widely used in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia being "lollipop lady/man", a reference to the large signs used that resemble lollipops.

Peanuts are not nuts ¶

OK, I didn't expect that.

Like soybeans, lentils, and other legumes, peanuts are edible seeds that grow in pods. Still, most people think of them as nuts, along with tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts.

What's next, tomatoes are actually fruits? Avocados are berries? Or maybe watermelons are vegetables?

Bialetti was buried in a moka pot ¶

Here is what happens when your product appears in the kitchens of 90% of all Italians:

His father may have invented the beloved Moka stovetop espresso maker, but Renato Bialetti made it a symbol of Italian style worldwide. Bialetti died last week at age 93. His three children honored him Tuesday by placing his ashes in a large replica of the coffee pot. The unusual urn even featured the famous "Omino con i baffi" (meaning "The little man with mustache" in Italian) pictogram printed on every pot.

And as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words:

And that's a wrap!

If you are keen on exlploring the full list of those wacky things, eclectic articles and my commentary, as well as weekly stories from my life and books I read, feel free to subscribe or check out the previous letters (you can start with this one, for example).

Thank you for joining me on this journey, and hope to see you in the next year.

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