Archive for September, 2008

No, not today. That other stock market crash – the one that happened all the way back in 1929.

Here’s the story: America was the place to be during the 1920’s. You had the Charleston, people sitting on top of flagpoles, the introduction of ‘talkie pictures’… but best of all, everyone was getting rich. That guy you bumped into on the street? A millionaire. The fellow who worked in the local supermarket? Owned thousands of shares of the Ford Motor Company. Shoe shine boys had their own portfolios, and stockbrokers regularly smoked cigars that were lit by crisp hundred dollar bills. Whenever the market fluctuated slightly in either direction, the answer was simple: Buy! Buy! Buy!!!

On October 24, 1929, it all came crashing down. It started off with some simple selling by investors. Stock prices began to fall, slowly at first, but soon picking up in momentum, until the ticker tape machine fell a full hour and a half behind. This increased the panic quite a bit, and people started to sell without even knowing the price of their stocks. Seven prominent speculators committed suicide, and police had to be dispatched in order to prevent a potential riot. By 12:30 PM, the Chicago and Buffalo Exchanges had been shut down.

The New York Stock Exchange remained open, though, and rumors continued to fly. Thomas Lamont, a senior partner of Morgan (a major brokerage firm), released a statement that said, “There has been a little distress selling on the Stock Exchange.” Oddly, this did not calm the masses. 12.9 million shares would ultimately be traded that day, more than had ever changed hands before. The population was stunned, and people foolish enough to venture onto the streets had to run back and forth constantly to avoid the stockbrokers jumping out of their 30th story windows.

This fateful day would come to be known as “Black Thursday” by historians. Trading would continue dramatically over the next month, as people sold everything that they had and quickly realized that their formerly vast holdings were now worthless. This would be followed by the Great Depression, a sad period in America’s history involving gigantic dustbowls and truly wrathful grapes. Not that any of this has any bearing on today, of course.


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The Tacoma Narrows Bridge first opened on July 1st, 1940. Many construction designs had been considered by the local government, including those of Joseph B. Strauss (who would later go on to be chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge), but New York engineer Leon Moisseiff eventually won out in the end. Mostly, because his proposal was the cheapest.

Instead of using 25-foot girders to provide structural support for the bridge, he decided to use girders that were only 8-feet in length. The aesthetic was much more visually pleasing, but also not very rigid – after construction was complete, it soon became apparent that a mild gust of wind could cause portions of the platform to rise and fall in rapid succession. The bridge came to be known as “Galloping Gertie”, and people who dared to drive upon it stated that the experience was not unlike riding a roller coaster.

On November 7, 1940, the bridge finally collapsed. According to eyewitness accounts, the bridge began to sway more violently than normal, slowly gaining in momentum as it pitched from side to side like a drunken earthworm. People began to lose control of their cars, resulting in several crashes, and they had to flee on foot while the concrete cracked behind them. They just barely made it to the other side when everything shuddered and plunged down into the icy waters below.

Remarkably, no human lives were lost, though a cocker-spaniel named Tubby was sadly killed in the collapse. There would also be numerous problems with collecting the insurance on the bridge, because the companies stated that the designers were at fault (they were), though 80% would eventually be recouped. On a side note, you can see footage of the collapse after any episode of the TV program Drawn Together. It’s the video slogan of Double Hemm Productions.

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BAD HAIR – The Comb-Over

When a middle-aged man’s hair starts to thin, he gets desperate. He doesn’t go out nearly as much in public. He tries to avoid the eyes of people that he meets. He might even remember the biblical story of Samson, and how his hair was the source of his strength, and so, in a sad attempt to deny reality, he may choose to comb the pathetic remnants of his previously lustrous locks over the side of his head. This is, in theory, to conceal the growing baldness, but all it really does is call dramatic attention to the fact. Sometimes it truly is better to just buzz off the top or let it go.

Comb-overs can be seen on several prominent media personalities. The most famous is probably Donald Trump, who has a technique all his own, though Sam Donaldson has consistently given him a run for his money. There is even a variation of the comb over that has a U.S. patent (# 4,027,227) connected to it. The style involves dividing a person’s hair into three sections and folding them over each other, much like an arts and crafts project at the local senior center. Oddly enough, the riches from that particular copyright have yet to come rolling in.

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The Chicago Cubs have a rather unfortunate boast: they haven’t won a World Series in over a century. There are many reasons for this, but it has occasionally been said to be due to a curse involving a billy goat and a Greek immigrant and details that really don’t make sense even after you’ve heard them. Their losing streak is one of the worst on record, and yet it looked like it might finally end in the fall of 2003. They had made it all the way to Game 6 of the National League Championship, and seemed destined to become celebrated victors. They might have succeeded, too, if it weren’t for a baseball fan named Steve Bartman.

Mark Prior had been pitching extremely well that night. Luis Castillo of the Florida Marlins was at bat, with two outs to go in the inning, and unintentionally hit a pop foul towards the bleachers. Moises Alou rushed over to catch it, but before he could, Steve Bartman reached down and snatched up the baseball. This is what is known as “screwing over your team through excessive eagerness.” The Cubs were notably rattled by the incident, and the Florida Marlins took advantage of the sudden shift in momentum to score eight runs and win the game.

To be fair, the ensuing collapse can’t really be blamed on Bartman. There’s no way of knowing for certain if Moises Alou would have caught the ball (though he likely would have), and if one overzealous fan can unnerve you that much, then you probably don’t deserve to win. Steve Bartman quickly became one of the most despised men in the city, though, as his name, phone number and address were printed for all to see by the Chicago Sun-Times. He faced constant scrutiny and public derision for months, until he made a sizeable donation to juvenile diabetes that finally allowed him to retreat into the shadows.

As for the offending ball, it was purchased in an auction by Grant Deporter for the sum total of $113,824. He blew up the hated object in a widely broadcast spectacle, and then allowed the remains to be used in a pasta sauce. A fitting end for something that once changed the course of sports history.

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Everybody loves bumblebees. These friendly insects gladly create honey for human consumption, buzzing around merrily as they flit from flower to flower to spread life-giving pollen, tiny bee smiles on their tiny bee faces as they watch an adorable bear climb up a tree and stick his nose into their hive, only to accidentally lose his grip and fall backwards onto his fuzzy posterior. To say nothing of their impromptu woodland jamborees.

Killer bees, on the other hand, are an altogether different beast. They are much more aggressive, much more organized, and they have the word ‘killer’ in their name, which shows they mean business. Studies have proven that they swarm with far greater frequency, and there’s nothing more horrifying that the sight of hundreds of killer bees descending upon a schoolchild for the mere crime of throwing rocks at their hive. It is for this reason that they are considered one of the greatest threats to society today.

Each year, they encroach further into the American mainland, and it is only a matter of time before they completely overrun our cities. Unfortunately, there isn’t very much that can be done to counteract this, because they possess a remarkable ability to “recruit” other bees to their cause through the use of pheromones. There’s also the minor fact that killer bees produce more honey than regular bees, prompting many beekeepers to switch if they want to stay competitive. Such short-sighted fools have obviously never seen the 1978 TV movie, “The Savage Bees” starring Ben Johnson.

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The blue screen of death is probably responsible for more nightmarish screams of anguish than anything else in the computer industry. This common system error is exactly what it sounds like: a giant blue screen, followed by a kernel error and several rows of nonsensical jabbering text. This typically occurs right before you’ve saved your thirty-page finance report to the database, and have no choice but to reboot the computer. The original system error, in which the disembodied head of Bill Gates appears and laughs maniacally at the user, was discontinued due to memory leaks.

The sheer horror of the blue screen of death is so great that several haikus have been written about it. To whit:

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
— Peter Rothman

Seeing my great fault.
Through darkening blue windows.
I begin again.
— Chris Walsh

Everything is gone;
Your life’s work has been destroyed.
Squeeze trigger (yes/no)?
— David Carlson

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The Watergate hotel suffered from a somewhat odd break-in on the night of July 17, 1972. Frank Willis, a security guard who was making his rounds, stumbled upon several locks that had been taped up. He called the police, and they discovered five men stumbling through the offices of the Democratic National Committee. They tried to assure the cops that they were merely part of the cleaning crew and just looking for a lost scrub brush, but the authorities weren’t buying. The men were charged with attempted burglary and attempting to intercept telephone records.

When the story first broke, it was deemed largely insignificant. Sure, the burglars had connections to several high ranking politicians, but so did half of the petty crooks on the Eastern seaboard. That didn’t stop Woodward and Bernstein, two investigative reporters who worked for the Washington Post, from following up on the events. At the urging of “Deep Throat” (not to be confused with a popular movie during the time period), they followed the money and discovered a trail of hundred dollar bills that led all the way back to the White House.

It turned out that the Oval Office regularly employed a team of plumbers to fix “leaks” and perform acts of political sabotage. The president denied all involvement, of course, but that didn’t stop from a Senate investigation from being launched. The revelation that Nixon recorded all of his conversations resulted in immediate demands to hand them over, but when he did, there were several obvious gaps at key junctures. The president’s legal team claimed this was just due to an unfortunate accident and that people shouldn’t read too much into it.

Nixon would eventually resign from the presidency, mostly so he wasn’t impeached while in office. Gerald Ford pardoned him soon after, contributing to the widespread feeling of disillusionment among the masses. Far worst than that, though, was the fact that all political scandals were now required to have the word ‘gate’ in their title. Monicagate, Travelgate, Whitewatergate, it didn’t matter whether the incidents had anything to do with a red wooden door on hinges or not; they were forever consigned to the realm of bad political hyphenations.

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