November’s facts

2 December 2013

fact checking in action

Fact-checking detritus from various freelance assignments last month, culled from a lifetime in service to the truth.

From Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Raised in a Kauai geodesic dome by two surfing parents, Keala Kennelly has an untouchable reputation as the sport’s most fearless tuberider. […] Breaking rank from the girlish ‘surfette’ look that all but defined women’s surfing in the ’90s and early ’00s, Kennelly was a leather-clad and tongue-studded nightclubber who moonlighted as a DJ and often looked, as surf journalist Alison Berkeley put it, like ‘a sinister Disney cartoon character.’”

On graphene: “A square metre of graphene is a thousand times thinner than paper. Made into a hammock, it would be strong enough to cradle a cat but weigh no more than one of its whiskers.” As the two Russian scientists who discovered it found, it also allows one to passively distill vodka by evaporating water vapor from a mug of watered-down spirit through an otherwise-impenetrable graphene membrane.

Two stanzas from traditional Basque folk songs dedicated to Olentzero, who is kind of like Basque Santa Claus—he brings the children presents, and is a charcoal burner who lives in the mountains, smokes a corncob pipe and wears a Basque beret, always drunk and red-cheeked, although in the old legends he is also the last of the pagan giants that inhabited the Pyranees before the coming of Christianity:

Olentzero buru handia
entendimentuz jantzia
bart arratsean edan omen du
hamar arroako zahagia.
Ai urde tripahandia!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.
Ai urde tripahandia!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.
Olentzero big head
robed in understanding
is said to have drunk last night
a wineskin of ten arrobas
Ai, big-bellied pig!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.
Ai, big-bellied pig!
Tralaralala, tralaralala.


Our Olentzero
we can’t sate him
he has eaten whole
ten piglets.
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
because Jesus is born
have mercy.

One of the major events in the history of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, according to its Wikipedia entry: “In 2013, a local citizen by the name of Arnaldo Pierre defied the odds and is the only man in history to pick a cloud out of the sky.”

Two medieval royal nicknames (not counting King John Softsword and King Alfonso the Slobberer):

John II, Duke of Cleves, was nicknamed the Babymaker for having fathered 63 illegitimate children.

Opponents of the iconoclast Byzantine emperor Constantine V called him Kopronymos—or Name of Shit—allegedly because the infant Constantine had defecated in his own baptismal font.

A verbatim five-star review of the CrossRope jump-rope set—seven ropes ranging from the 2-oz. Sprint Rope to the 3-lb. PVC-wrapped steel cable “Titan”—posted on the company’s website:


Finally, this is a letter to the editor from the 21 November issue of the London Review of Books:

Andrew O’Hagan writes: ‘Joan Didion gave me her hand and she was so thin it felt like I was holding a butterfly’ (LRB, 7 November). A beautiful sentence, but I wondered about the simile’s plausability. It’s been reported that Didion weighs less than eighty lbs. She’s so thin her doctors have to put her on an ice cream diet to keep her mass up. A woman’s hand is said to be 0.5 per cent of her body weight. So if Didion weighs 75 lbs, her hand probably weighs about six ounces. The world’s heaviest butterfly, the female Queen Victoria Birdwing, weighs about two grams. There are about 28 grams in an ounce, and Joan Didion’s hand probably weighs about the same as holding 86 female Queen Victoria Birdwings. It would be difficult to hold them all in your hand because each on has a wingspan of 18 centimetres. The smallest butterfly in the world is the North American Pygmy Blue and you’d probably need thousands of them to tip the scales against one of Didion’s fingers. None of this is to detract from the loveliness of O’Hagan’s sentence. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Penny Cartwright

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