Archive for January, 2009

The Hyatt Regency Hotel had a rather unique design feature when it was unveiled to the public. There was an open central court that connected the second, third, and fourth levels through suspended walkways, with the fourth floor promenade directly above the second. This created a delightfully clever appearance that inspired the mind and provided excellent photographs for travel agency brochures. Sure, there was an occasional creaking sound from the steel tie rods, but the structural engineers assured the hotel owners that this was completely normal.

On one fateful day in July, nearly 2,000 people mobbed the atrium in order to watch a dance contest down below. The overcrowded walkways started to shift from the enormous weight, and before anyone knew it, the girders failed and sent the multitudes falling. 112 men and women would perish in the disaster, while another 200 suffered from serious injuries. By sheer chance, a radiology convention was going on inside the hotel at the time, so most of the victims were able to receive immediate medical attention from the scores of available doctors.

The Kansas City Star investigated the tragic incident, and soon discovered the source behind the collapse. The fourth floor walkway was originally supposed to be connected by steel beams to the ceiling, and the second floor walkway through long rods to a separate area. The designers decided (for financial reasons, naturally) to connect the second floor walkway to the fourth floor one, thereby doubling the weight load. They would be convicted of gross negligence and professional misconduct, and the catastrophe would go down as one of the deadliest collapses of the decade.


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You’re sitting at your cubicle on a dismal Monday morning. The fax machine suddenly perks up in the background, prompting you to walk over and investigate. Is it the insurance information from corporate that you desperately need to complete the TPS reports and stop the Boss from breathing down your neck? Nope, it’s an unsolicited advertisement for Herbal Viagra, written in broken English with a badly photoshopped former President Clinton giving a thumbs-up to the reader. As are the next eighty-seven faxes in a row that you receive.

If the junk faxes were simply cluttering up offices all across the country, that would be bad enough. That’s paper wasted, and it takes time to get rid of the stuff. Some of the more insidious offenders use calling methods where the businesses themselves get charged for the faxes, however, wracking up huge costs for something they neither want nor need (except for maybe Earl in Accounting.) This is of course, extremely illegal, but that hasn’t stopped such offenders from faxing your company and others thousands of identical ads for discount fax paper.

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Roy Sullivan was an U.S. park ranger known for a rather dubious distinction: he would get hit by lightning on no less than seven separate occasions. Considering that the chances of being struck are about 1 in 3000, this makes him one of the unluckiest people in history. His bad fortune would get him into the Guinness Book of World Records, and after the fourth incident, he supposedly began carrying a bucket of water around so he’d have something to cool himself off with if (when) he was hit again. The unfortunate incidents are listed as follows:

1942 – The first lightning strike occurred while Roy was at a lookout tower, and the sheer force of the blast managed to knock away his big toenail.
1969 – The second time happened while he was out driving and burnt off his eyebrows.
1970 – The third incident took place when he was standing in his front yard, prompting one of his shoulders was burned badly.
1972 – The next lightning bolt struck Roy at a ranger station and lit his hair on fire.
1973 – The fifth strike, perhaps the most comical, hit him on the head and knocked him out of his car, setting his hair on fire once again.
1974 – The sixth episode was at a campground and resulted in an injured ankle, along with a profound realization that the forces of the universe really hated him.
1977 – The final lightning strike occurred while he was out fishing, and sent him to the hospital with severe chest and stomach burns.

He died in 1983 of natural causes.

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The Teapot Dome Scandal refers to a particularly shady land deal that went on during the height of the Warren G. Harding Administration. The idea of conservation had just begun to spring up, and had gained traction in response to some of the events of the Great War, so oil reserves were established in Wyoming and California for exclusive use by the U.S. Navy. One of these oil fields was known as the Teapot Dome, mostly because of an enormous boulder in the area that happens to look remarkably like a teapot. It did a little dance and everything.

The notion of all that delicious, juicy, untapped oil just sitting around, unused, drove several politicians crazy. New Mexico Senator Albert Fall, perhaps the biggest opponent of conservation, managed to convince the Secretary of the Navy to trade the reserves to the Department of the Interior, who then (coincidentally) leased the rights to Mammoth Oil. Oddly enough, this wasn’t actually illegal. What was illegal was the $404,000 that the Senator received in exchange for the deal, a process known in obscure political circles as ‘bribery’.

The whole matter would have probably remained quiet if Senator Fall hadn’t decided to throw caution to the wind and start throwing money around like nobody’s business. An investigation was soon launched, the truth came out, and Senator Fall was convicted of bribery and sentenced to a year in prison. The whole scandal became a symbol for government corruption, but because that is such a unique occurrence in United States history, it would always be remembered by politicians and nothing like it would ever happen again.

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Boys and girls who learn to read these days tend to subsist off a healthy diet of Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Harry Potter series. Readers who learned to read in the fifties got Dick and Jane. These friendly characters roamed their neighborhood in search of fun and adventure, teaching children about halting manners of speech and amazingly poor sentence structure. The books were standard issue in every elementary school classroom, and the vastly overcomplicated stories generally went as follows:


But then, there was a plot twist…


What would possibly occur?


For younger readers, the books provided an incredibly simplistic way to follow plotlines as they learned about Jane’s doll. Jane’s new doll. Jane’s new pretty doll. As one might expect, it did inestimable damage to the grammar capabilities of these children, who learned only to speak with a consistent degree of redundancy. Most of them can now be found in advertising, but a few have made it as television pundits and politicians. If you keep hearing the same generic talking points repeated again and again, they person is merely reflecting what they learned in childhood.

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Mirrors were not common in most households until about the 19th century. They were simply too expensive to make, with early versions just being large pieces of polished silver, and owning one was often considered to be a symbol of affluence. As such, they gained a sort of mystical association, and had numerous folk beliefs attributed to them by people who couldn’t believe that’s what their hair actually looked like. The most famous of these notions was that if you broke a mirror, then you would experience seven years of bad luck.

Why was this so? It’s not known, but may be due to the fact that mirrors were supposed to hold the secrets of the future. If you broke one, then you shattered your future, and were pretty much consigned to spending most of the next decade watching your sheep die off and getting accidentally locked in funeral caskets. Some people believed that the curse could be reversed by lighting seven candles and blowing them out at midnight, or by burying all the pieces of the broken mirror underground, but that was just silly superstition. If you broke a mirror, you were (quite literally) out of luck.

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Lizzy Borden had been fascinated with axes ever since she was a small child. They were so solid, so useful, so… sharp along the edges. This obsession made her a bit of a social outcast among the schoolchildren, who couldn’t help but notice that she carried a hatchet with her at all times and spoke to them with a disturbing gleam in her eyes. It thus came as little surprise when her stepmother and father were found brutally murdered in their own home, sprawled out on the floor and horribly mutilated by some sort of common, bladed weapon.

Young Lizzy immediately became a suspect, and was taken in for questioning by the local police. She admitted to being in the house at the time, but stated that she hadn’t heard anything other than the usual bloodcurdling screams. Her bad relationship with her parents quickly came out (they rarely ate dinner in the same room, and had divided up portions of the house, ala “I Love Lucy”), as did the fact that her family suffered from a mysterious bout of poisoning shortly before the deadly attacks. Lizzy was further shown to have burned one of her dresses in the kitchen stove a few days after the murders for no particular reason.

She was put on trial for murder, where it soon became a nationwide sensation (she was, in many ways, the O.J. Simpson of her time). Despite the numerous holes in her story, though, she would be found innocent of the crime. Most of the evidence against her was circumstantial, and the judge wouldn’t allow Lizzy’s original testimony to be used. There is also some indication that the all-male jury couldn’t accept the notion of a pretty young girl committing such a horrible act. Women embroidered, they didn’t chop up people or take the law into their own hands!

The bloody murder would result in the following nursery rhyme:

Lizzy Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

This is of course, a sad reflection of society, because her mother only received 19 whacks (her father got 11). It would seem that even in the 19th century, truth and accuracy were merely quaint customs to be given lip service and discarded when no longer convenient.

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