Friday Fun: Countries Quiz

Quick: how many countries can you name in 5 minues? Take this quiz over at to find out!

I took the quiz several times and averaged around 65 countries. As you can see from the little map that the site generates, I have a little work to do when it comes to Africa (dark green countries are the ones I successfully named; light green countries are the ones I missed):

Keep in mind that to name the countries, you have to spell them correctly as well. This is what tripped me up on a lot of the new “-stan” countries in Asia. I know Uzbekistan exists, but I have no idea of how to spell it (especially with a clock ticking down on me).

Try it out and tell me what YOUR score was!

Fun With: Airport Codes

If you’ve spent any time at all traveling, you’re probably familiar with three-letter “airport codes”. If you’ve ever been on a frequent-flyer message board, you know that airport codes are tossed around like so much jargon by road warriors. And if you’ve thought about it, you might have wondered why some airport codes are obvious – like CLT for Charlotte, NC or ATL for Atlanta, GA – while others don’t seem to make any sense at all. MCO for Orlando, FL? MSY for New Orleans? Why are some codes simple and others mysterious?

Well, it all has to do with history. These “oddball codes” generally fit into four categories:

Laziness: Before there were commercial airports, the National Weather Service (NWS) used a two-letter code for most US cities. By the 1930s, commercial aviation began to take off, and some bureaucrat noticed the need for airport codes in cities that didn’t already have an NWS weather station. So a three-letter airport code system was adopted, and many cities simply took their existing NWS code and put an X at the end… thus, Los Angeles is LAX, Portland, Oregon is PDX, and Phoenix, Arizona is PHX, and so on.

Changing names: Most of the “oddball” airport codes fall into this category. The airport at New Orleans, Louisiana, now known as “Louis Armstrong International Airport”, was called the “Moisant Stock Yards” for years, hence the MSY code. Another Louisiana example is Alexandra, where the airport is known as ESF, for Esler Field. Orlando International Airport stands on what used to be McCoy Air Force Base, hence MCO. The airport in Columbus, Ohio was known as Columbus Municipal Hangar, so CMH. And Chicago’s O’Hare airport changed names from Orchard Field (hence ORD) to O’Hare to commemorate a Chicago-born WWII flying ace.

Other codes got in the way: As a general rule, most TV and radio stations east of the Mississippi River begin their call signs with the letter W, while most cities west of the Mississippi use the letter K. What you might not know is that the U.S. Navy claimed all the “N” codes, Canada uses all the “Y” codes, “Q” was once used exclusively for international communication, and the FAA itself reserved “Z” for “special uses”. This means that W, K, N, Q, and Z were off limits as first letters for airport codes, and airports that wanted to use those letters had to think of something else. Norfolk, Virginia, for example, couldn’t begin their code with “N”, so the folks there dropped the “N” entirely to get ORF. Newark, New Jersey had to make do with EWR, while Wilmington, North Carolina came up with ILM. Newport News, Virginia skated around the issue by using a code named after the airport – Patrick Henry Field (PHF).

A combination of the above: Because Washington, DC couldn’t begin any airport codes with a “W”, they chose to use DCA for Washington National Airport. However, when Dulles Airport came along, it was initially given the code DIA (Dulles International Airport). But this was a nightmare for baggage handlers, since DCA and DIA are so similar, especially since luggage tags were handwritten at the time. So DIA became IAD, which is almost impossible to confuse with DCA.

Airport names come and go, but their codes are rarely changed. This is because travel industry folks become used to using a code, and because reprogramming every computer with a new airport code would be a giant pain. New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport is one of the few to have changed both names and codes. It was originally known as Idlewild Airport (IDL), but when the airport was renamed for the slain president, the airport code became JFK. The three-letter code system is so pressed for codes that IDL was retired and eventually reused: IDL is now the airport at Indianola, Mississippi.

Geography Fun!

I know what you’re thinking… “geography isn’t fun!” And I’d actually agree with you on that. It’s interesting, sure… but fun? Yes! Geography can, in fact, be fun. Check out these bizarre geographic anomalies in the United States:

Kentucky Bend, Kentucky: Kentucky Bend is a tiny enclave of the state of Kentucky caused by a hairpin bend in the Mississippi River. It’s surrounded by Tennessee to the south and the Mississippi River (and Missouri) on the remaining three sides. Interestingly, the bend was caused by earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, and Tennessee claimed the region until 1848:

Kentucky Bend

The Northwest Angle: A tiny sliver of Minnesota extends above the 49th parallel (in fact, the Northwest Angle is the only part of the US above the 49th parallel, not counting Alaska). The Northwest Angle came to pass due to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War. The treaty stated that the boundary between the U.S. and what would eventually become Canada would run “…through the Lake of the Woods to the most northwesternmost point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi…” The only problem was that the map the treatymakers were using was wrong. In time, the error was noticed, but not “corrected”. Amusingly, any time the Angle’s residents get angry with the United States, talk of annexation by Canada comes up, although nothing serious have ever come of such talk. The Angle is shown here in purple:

Northwest Angle

Elm Point, Minnesota: Another enclave on Lake of the Woods, Elm Point is located southwest of the Northwest Angle.

Point Roberts, Washington: Yet another enclave, Point Roberts is located on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula. By all rights, Point Roberts should be part of British Columbia, Canada. But the Oregon Treaty of 1818 (which attempted to settle long-standing border disputes between the US and the UK), defined the border as being the 49th parallel (except for Vancouver Island, which was retained by the British). Someone, somewhere eventually noticed that a tiny sliver of the peninsula existed south of the parallel, and thus, Point Roberts became part of the United States. As in the Northwest Angle and Elm Point, you can only get to Point Roberts by ferry or by driving through Canada:

Point Roberts, Washington

Estcourt Station, Maine: this tiny town (population: 4) is located directly on the border between Maine and Quebec. Many of the (now abandoned) homes were built in Estcourt Station before the border between the US and Canada was finalized, leading to some interesting situations (your house is in the US; your neighbor across the street lives in Canada). Interestingly, there are no public roads that connect Estcourt Station with the rest of Maine – just privately-owned logging roads. The closest public road is Rue Frontière, a street on the Québec side of the border. Although part of the United States, Estcourt Station uses Quebec’s 418 area code, and relies on Hydro-Québec for electricity and the nearby Canadian town of Pohenegamook for water and other municipal services. Estcourt Station was the site of an “international incident” back in October of 2002: because the area is so sparsely populated, border agents there only work part-time. Michel Jalbert, a Canadian citizen and Pohénégamook resident, was imprisoned for three months in the U.S. after purchasing gas at Estcourt Station’s (now closed) gas station outside of normal operating hours for the U.S. Customs Service. American Border Patrol agents stated that Mr. Jalbert was a convicted felon (he was convicted of minor vandalism at age 19) and in illegal possession of a firearm; he was reportedly preparing for the local deer hunting season and had a rifle in his truck.


The 1980s were decadent times for rock stars. Stories of bad behavior by some of rock’s finest – from trashing hotel rooms to over-the-top demands – were splashed all over the headlines. And few of those stories were as famous as the “Van Halen M&Ms” story.

If you weren’t around in the 80s, the rock supergroup Van Halen had a clause in their concert contracts which stipulated that the band would be provided with one large bowl of M&M candies with all brown candies removed.

Once the “M&Ms” story leaked to the press, social commentators jumped all over it. Some called it an egregious example of the spoiled behavior of rock artists. Some saw it as yet another sign of the decline of Western Civilization. And to this very day, any time a story about a celebrity acting like a diva surfaces, my mom rolls her eyes, clucks her tongue, and asks if “she wants the brown M&Ms taken out of the bowl, too??”

Here’s the thing, though: the band put the “no brown M&Ms” clause in their contracts for a very good reason.

*     *     *

Van Halen was one of the first rock bands to bring truly massive concerts to smaller cities like Macon, Georgia or Tempe, Arizona. Arena staff in smaller cities were used to bands coming to town with, at most, three tractor-trailers full of equipment. But Van Halen would roll into town with nine tractor-trailers. It was a lot of stuff, and staff at these venues were frequently overwhelmed. And when people are overwhelmed, they make mistakes. At a concert, “making a mistake” during setup can make the band sound bad or it can kill someone… which is exactly what the band was afraid of.

*     *     *

At the heart of any major concert is the contract. Most of these contracts are standard legal text that varies little from performer to performer. In fact, if one were to take the core contract from a Katy Perry concert in Nevada and a Foo Fighters concert in Florida and switch the artist and state names, there’s little chance anyone would even notice.

Each band “customizes” their contracts by attaching specific demands via something called a “rider”. Each contract can have hundreds of such riders.

You’ve probably more familiar with the “outrageous” personal riders artists have included over the years. For example, Willie Nelson requires that all his shows be smoke-free (don’t ask about Willie’s own type of “smoke”). The Beach Boys demand several Bic lighters in the backstage area, but absolutely no green ones. Country group Alabama demands that NO ANIMALS OF ANY KIND be allowed backstage. Meanwhile, animal lover Paul McCartney not only bans leather furniture backstage, he’s also banned all types of synthetic leather as well. Madonna once requested some $200 French candles for her dressing room. And to the very end, Prince required that EVERYTHING in his dressing room be covered in plastic wrap (yes, really).

The thing is, although the nutty personal riders make headlines, the vast majority of riders are actually technical in nature. They’ll include the size and weight requirements for the stage, electrical and lighting needs, pyrotechnical needs, data and fiber optic cabling specifications, sound and video board requirements, office space requirements for tour personnel, minimum number of security personnel, etc. It’s like an instruction manual for a concert, only in legalese.  For instance, a rider might say something like

“Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, spaced evenly, providing nineteen amperes total, on beams suspended from the ceiling of the venue, which shall be able to support a total gross weight of 5,600 pounds each, and be suspended no less than 30 feet, but no more than 37.5 feet, above the stage surface.”

Van Halen’s concert contracts would have several hundred such demands, causing lead singer David Lee Roth to joke that the band’s contracts were so thick they looked “like a Chinese Yellow Pages”.

The staff at large venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden and Atlanta’s The Omni were used to complex shows like Van Halen’s, so the band usually played there without incident. But the band kept noticing errors, sometimes significant errors, in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in.

The band included a request for “a large bowl of M&M candies” with their backstage demands for typical things like Coca-Cola, whiskey, cigarettes and sandwiches. But, hidden deeply in the middle of the technical riders, the band added this clause:

“Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”.

That way, the band could simply enter the backstage area and look for a bowl of M&Ms. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract. Roth himself said:

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl… well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

The “no brown M&Ms” clause became a national news story after an “incident” at University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University-Pueblo). The national press told a story of unacceptable behavior from the band, and how they caused $85,000 worth of damage to the arena.

David Lee Roth remembers it a bit differently:

The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747.

I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean “What is this before me?” . . . you know, with the skull in one hand . . . and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.

The staging sank through their floor. They didn’t bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and this sank through their new flooring and did eighty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the arena floor. The whole thing had to be replaced. It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area.

Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?

Silly Baseball Trivia

This is just about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard:

If you’ve ever watched a baseball game, you’ve probably seen a “bat boy”. Bat boys are like “field assistants” in baseball. When a batter hits the ball, he drops his bat and runs to first base. It’s the bat boy’s job to pick up the bat and take it back to the dugout. Bat Boys have other duties too, like cleaning equipment, fetching a new bat if a batter wants one, taking a fresh supply of baseballs to the umpire if needed, keeping beach balls and other debris off the field and removing foul balls from the field of play if they land near him. Every baseball game features two bat boys, one for the home team and one for the visiting team. Bat boys almost never travel with the team, so in most cases both bat boys are employed by the home team.

Bat boys are often male, and are usually between the ages of 16-20. Because bat boys are so young, and might need to miss games for school or family, teams have a “pool” of bat boys that they’ll call on for each game. Remember this point, OK?

Here’s where it gets weird: although bat boys are not officially “members” of any team, they still wear a standard baseball uniform on the field. In the case of minor league teams, the home team’s bat boy wears the home team’s home jersey, while the visiting team’s bat boy wears the home team’s road jersey. Got that?

But here’s what doesn’t make any sense at all: in Major League Baseball, the visiting team’s bat boy is required to wear the visiting team’s jersey. And because every team uses a pool of bat boys, a visiting team has no idea which bat boy will be assisting any given game. Which means that every road team must bring along a couple dozen of their uniforms for the bat boy, since they have no idea which boy will assist them.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there’s little uniformity between teams when it comes to the bat boy’s uniform. Some teams give their bat boys plain uniforms without a number or name on back. Others have uniforms with “Bat Boy” on the back, like a player name. Others say “Batboy” on them, so apparently MLB can’t even decide on how to spell the position! Still others skip the issue by putting “BB” on the back as a number. And some teams give their bat boys “player numbers” that are the last two digits of the year (2007 = 07). This was all well and good from the 1970s to 2009, since no player uniforms have any of those numbers. But in 2010 they’ll face a problem, since “10” is a legitimate player number.

Who knew the world of the bat boy could be so complicated?

This Odd House

My girl watches a lot of HGTV. Since I kind of “own” the HDTV in the living room, Lisa and I have an unspoken pact where she “owns” the TV in the bedroom. So I don’t complain when she flips it on HGTV, even though it’s not really my bag. I mean, House Hunters is OK, I guess – even though it’s all kind of the same after a while – and I actually kind of dig House Hunters International just to see how crazy home prices are in London or how it is that Italians pay cash for their houses. But really, the only shows I really enjoy on HGTV are those “weird house” shows. You know what I’m talking about… the type of show that visits a house made entirely of Lego blocks or maybe an old theatre or elementary school that’s been converted over to a house. That sort of thing.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, let me offer my own contribution to the “weird house” phenomenon:

St. Albans

This is all that’s left of St. Alban’s church, on Wood Street in London. Some believe that this site was the location of the palace of King Offa, an Anglo Saxon ruler of Mercia (what is today the English Midlands), who ruled from from AD 757 to 796. Parish records date back to the year 930, and it is known for an absolute fact that a church has been on this exact site since 1077. In any case, by 1633 the church had fallen into serious disrepair, and a committee fronted by Exchequer Sir Henry Spiller and Inigo Jones (who is widely regarded as “England’s first architect”) recommended that the church be demolished. And it was, in 1634. The church built to replace it was short lived, having been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The church was rebuilt yet again, this time by Sir Christopher Wren in 1685. And this is what you see today… sort of. Most of the church was destroyed during The Blitz in 1940. The tower was the only part of the church to survive the bombing, and the remainder of the ruined building was demolished in 1965.

The tower is now a private residence. Interestingly, it stands in the middle of a busy London street, in a “traffic island”. Here’s another picture:

St. Albans (second pic)

The Magic Roundabout

Here’s an interesting “behind the scenes” look at how this website works. You see, I meant to write the following post several months ago. However, something or the other happened, and I just never got around to it. In fact, I had completely forgotten about it altogether for several months.. until this past weekend. I was in Atlanta for the Thanksgiving holiday, and my parents suggested that we all go to the neighborhood IHOP for breakfast on our way back to Charlotte. Lisa and I agreed, and so I was driving Lisa’s Jeep and following my parents to the nearest IHOP. We suddenly came across something rare in the metro Atlanta area: a roundabout!

For those of you that have never been to the England – either “old England” or America’s “New England” – a roundabout is a circular intersection. You’ve probably seen them on TV or in the movies – especially National Lampoon’s European Vacation: “Look kids… Parliament… Big Ben!” Roundabouts are superior to the traditional “red light” intersection in many ways: they don’t require electricity, so they work exactly the same if there’s a power failure; they can handle a much larger amount of traffic than a traditional intersection; and they’re statistically much safer than red lights (unless you’re on a bicycle). In fact, roundabouts are superior to red lights in almost every way. It makes one wonder if the only reason America doesn’t use them more is a lack of familiarity. But even if you’re familiar with roundabouts, you probably haven’t seen one like this:

Magic Roundabout

This is the legendary “Magic Roundabout” in Swindon, Wiltshire, in southwest England. There are other “magic roundabouts” in the UK these days, but Swindon’s was the first, dating back to 1972. It’s a 5-point intersection containing 5 “mini-roundabouts” within one large roundabout. Although it looks insanely complex at first, it’s really quite simple. Traffic in the “outer ring” moves clockwise, while traffic in the “inner ring” moves counter-clockwise. At any point, you can circle around one of the “mini roundabouts” and move in the opposite direction. Here’s a diagram:

Magic Roundabout (diagram)

Let’s say that you’re approaching the roundabout from the southwest corner (that is, the road on the bottom left of the diagram). You want to take the road at the bottom right corner of the diagram. If you’re a tourist, you simply enter the roundabout and go almost all the way around the circle and take the road. If you’re a Swindonian (or a fearless driver), you might choose instead to enter the roundabout, then turn around at the first available roundabout (at about 9 o’clock in the diagram), then circle around the second roundabout (at about 5 o’clock) and make the turn.

Despite being one of the most complicated road designs ever, the Magic Roundabout has produced only 14 serious accidents and just over a hundred lesser ones in over 30 years – and in the face of ever-increasing traffic at the intersection, too. The Magic Roundabout even has a song about it – “English Roundabout” by world-famous Swindon group XTC!

Read more about the Magic Roundabout at SwindonWeb or Wikipedia.

Meet Echiniscus madonnae!

Did you know that Madonna has a species of animal named after her?

According to Wikipedia, “[i]n 2006 a new water bear species (Latin: Tardigrada), Echiniscus madonnae… was named after Madonna. It is the first and the only (so far) species named in honour of the artist. The paper with the description of E. madonnae was published in the international journal of animal taxonomy Zootaxa in March 2006 (Vol. 1154, pages: 1-36). The authors’ justification for the name of the new species was: ‘We take great pleasure in dedicating this species to one of the most significant artists of our times, Madonna Louise Veronica Ritchie’. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) number of the species is 711164.”

Here’s a picture of Echiniscus madonnae:

Echiniscus madonnae (small)
Click to enlarge

Read the bits about Echiniscus madonnae at Wikipedia by clicking here (Note: the linked section is copied in full above). You can also find out more than you ever wanted to know about Tardigrada – a species I didn’t even know existed 20 minutes ago – by clicking here.

Welcome to Zzyzx!

Did you know that there’s a “town” in California called Zzyzx? I say “town” because the place was originally built on federal land that was squatted on in 1944 by a guy called Curtis Howe Springer. Springer gave the town its unique name, then built the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. Taking advantage of the mineral waters at nearby Soda Springs, Springer built the resort and bottled the waters for tourists passing through. When that didn’t bring in the kind of money he wanted, Springer started importing animals from all over the world – hoping the zoo would make people stop by.

For some reason, the Feds let this go on for 30 years. In 1974 U.S. Marshalls finally arrested Springer for misusing federal lands, as well as for food and drug violations. In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management allowed California State University to use the site, and several California colleges established a “Desert Studies Center” there. So it’s not really a “town” in the usual sense, although people *do* live there year ’round.

Read more about Zzyzx at Wikipedia.

SONGS I LOVE: “Theme from ‘Harry’s Game'”

Today’s “Songs I Love” is a two-fer: a new song for you to listen to, and some trivia about the band that wrote it!

The 1982 British TV mini-series Harry’s Game was notable for two things. Firstly, many people consider Harry’s Game to be the best film depiction of “The Troubles” (the issues that plague Northern Ireland to this day) ever made. Secondly, the series’ theme song – “The Theme to Harry’s Game” – was a worldwide smash hit, and propelled the band behind it to worldwide recognition. The song has been used in countless movies, TV shows and commercials. Americans might be familiar with the song from the opening scenes of the Harrison Ford film Patriot Games, or a popular Volkswagen commercial on the late 80s. Have a listen and see if you remember it:


Clannad is the band behind the song. The band was founded in a remote part of Ireland in the early 1970s by members Máire Ní Bhraonáin (Moya Brennan), Ciarán Ó Braonáin (Ciarán Brennan), Pól Ó Braonáin (Pól Brennan), Noel Ó Dúgáin (Noel Duggan), and Pádraig Ó Dúgáin (Pádraig Duggan). Máire’s sister Eithne would later join the band on a part-time basis, then enjoy a brief stint as a full-time member, before striking out on her own using the Anglicized version of her name: Enya.

The name “Clannad” is an abbreviation of the Irish phrase “An Clann As Dobhar”, which means “the family from Dore” (Clannad hail from Gweedore, a remote district in County Donegal, Ireland; interestingly, Irish is the predominant language in this area). Amusingly, the band were approached by a policeman one day, and the members feared that they were in trouble for some reason. In fact, the policeman was bringing them an entry form for a local “Battle of the Bands” type of contest. The band hadn’t even thought about a name for themselves yet, so someone proposed “Clann As Dobha”, which someone else abbreviated as Clannad. And the name stuck.

“The Theme to Harry’s Game” is also notable in that it’s the only song sung entirely in Irish (Gaelic) to ever hit the British music charts.

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