Pointless Trivia – er – Fascinating Mysteries

It’s been a rough week nationally, which means it’s time for fascinating mysteries. The world is filled with mystery, so here are 5 more for you to ponder. Most of these make good conversation starters, or you can use them if things get uncomfortable at a family dinner.   Be sure to memorize all of them so you can cement your reputation as a boring know-it-all: this will help achieve unity, since everyone in your family will at least agree on that one fact.

ONE Why are sock sizes different than shoe sizes?

In the U.S., .the sock size is the length of the foot in inches. Shoe sizes, however, are measured in something called a “barleycorn”. A barleycorn is about a third of an inch. Shoe sizes start at 12 and then count backwards in barleycorns. I’m not making this up.

Actually, it’s the shoes that are crazy.

The real question, then, is why are shoe sizes so screwed up? Socks sizes suddenly seem simple by comparison. The whole thing is a mess, and makes you realize why standard weights and measures are a boon to civilization. We owe a lot to the geeks at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.  Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten around to fixing shoe sizes yet.

TWO Why is the Star Spangled Banner so hard to sing?

The obvious answer is that it has a large range—from the lowest note to the highest, it’s a range of an octave PLUS a fifth.  By contrast, songs that most of us can sing (like row, row, row your boat or happy birthday to you) fit in an octave (8 notes).  “Itsy Bitsy Spider” has a range of only a fifth, which is much more my speed.

Back when “having fun” was called “a diverting spectacle”

That’s the “why” as in “what makes it that way.”   Now for the “why” is in “what were they thinking when they did that?”

Everyone knows F. Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner. He only wrote the words, though. The tune was borrowed from the anthem of the Anacreon Society. Back then, clubs were all the rage. The well-heeled Victorian gentleman always joined at least one. The club you belonged to, in a very real sense, defined you. It was where you met friends and did business. Often, clubs had a theme. Drinking, racing, deep thinking, art – everything was open except for allowing women in. Gentlemen expected to be able to let fly with phrases such as “Damn me, but that’s a shapely ankle on the wench!” without causing any red faces. Since women couldn’t vote or work, it hardly mattered, but there you have it.

The original.

Back to the SSB. One of these clubs was the Anacreon society, which existed for the sake of loving music (and drinking). They did a lot of singing, although sometimes the lyrics were considered fit only for the hardy ears of the menfolk. The anthem in question was their signature song, and they sang it after dinner (yes, you ate with your club members, not home with your family). This particular song wasn’t suited for the delicate sensibilities of weak women, because it contained salacious lyrics such “we’ll learn to entwine the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine”.  Well, you can’t have THAT in the streets.

At least the song wasn’t measured in “barleycorns”

The melody of this ditty was applied to the poem by Key, resulting in our national anthem. The melody was difficult to sing because it was SUPPOSED to be. This was a society devoted to music, so they needed to show their chops with something really complicated. Also, they’d get a soloist with a good voice and training to sing the hard parts that go up high, and everyone else chimed in for the easier bits.

Kind of like what happens at the ballpark today, in fact.

THREE Why does baseball have 9 innings and not 8 or 10?

Originally, baseball did not have a set number of innings. One team had get 21 runs and then, BOOM, game over. This resulted in long, unpredictable game times. Clearly, people back then didn’t exactly run on a tight schedule. Since this was happening before public lighting had been invented, the sun had the last word on when the game ended. After flood lights came into play, games could no longer be called on account of “darkness”.

National passtime.

Baseball delights in arcane, arbitrary, non-obvious rules. This contributes to what fans call “the beauty of the game”. There was a convention at some point in the 1850s, and the rules changed to 9 innings rather than 21 runs. The number nine seems to have been chosen to match the number of players, for no actual good reason. So why are there 9 players? At least THAT makes some sense.

FOUR Why do doormen wear uniforms with brushes on their shoulders?

The sillier the uniform, the more expensive the hotel. Most NYC co-ops tend towards more subdued uniforms, but this begs the question: why does a doorman need a uniform? After all, if you want to know who the doorman is, he’s usually the one standing by the door. If you’re worried about that being too subtle, he could wear a tee-shirt saying “I’m the doorman”. Why all the ribbon and braid?

Spot the doorman.

That’s because doormen uniforms are part of a tradition of dressing ones servants in “livery”.  Livery is the technical term for stuff like this:

Spot the “livery”


Disney likes livery, a lot, because it evokes childish fantasies of old-time royalty. That’s why the Queen likes it, too.

Not silly at all.

Once upon a time, before Robespierre started chopping heads off, you wanted everyone to know you were an aristocrat with money. Unlike the newly wealthy savages (Americans) who tend to show off money by coating ourselves in gold and then slapping you in the face with a wad of Franklins, the “old money” used more, um, subtle? techniques such as dressing all their servants in expensive fancy outfits and sending them around town. If you could keep a mental count of how many people were seen wearing pink vests with silver braid, you’d know the Duchess of Xerxes was in town and that her investments were doing well.  And by “investments”, I mean slave labor on plantations in the Caribbean.

Those shoulder brushes, usually called epaulets, were borrowed from military uniforms of the time, as was much of the rest of the outfit. The ultimate aristocrat could and did own whole regiments of soldiers, dressed in finery, and ready to be sent off to war if another duke got too uppity for you. The epaulets served two purposes: they conveyed information such as “I’m a captain in the Dragoons and I won a medal for slaughtering my enemies with extreme fervor”; and they had a practical purpose, to whit, buttoning ammo to your body during a battle. If you misplace your bullets, you’re in trouble.

FIVE Why are barber poles red and white?

Follow up question, what are barber poles?  You can google this one yourself.

BONUS POINTS Why does the A train suck so badly?

This is a big mystery! Is it possible the MTA spent all its money on the 2nd avenue subway line, the Fulton Street Atrium, and the 4-billion dollar Fruit Fly and shopping mall

Most expensive fruitfly in history.

downtown instead of paying to fix the signals? Is it because our governor and our mayor hate the very sight of each other and therefore no budgeting is being done? Who knows? Some mysteries can’t be solved.

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