Monday, March 24, 2014

Apple #667: The No. 2 Pencil

I thought, after my entry on 666, that I ought to do something at the opposite end of the spectrum.  What could be the opposite of fiery and dramatic and hysterical and murderous?  Hmm.  How about pencils.  So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Number 2 Pencil.

The ever-present yellow #2 pencils.
(Photo from the Iqra Foundation)

Let's begin with the basics and then we'll progress to the more complicated questions.

Why, if the writing stuff inside pencils is graphite, do we call it "lead"?

  • Partly because once upon a time, way way back in Roman times, the forerunner of the pencil, the stylus, was made of lead.  But of course there is more to the story than that.
  • In 1564, in Borrowdale, England, someone walked past a whole bunch of shiny black stuff stuck to the roots of a tree.  I suppose its shininess made it look like it ought to be good for something, and after people played with it a while, they discovered it made dark marks on paper -- good for writing things down, they decided.  Since it looked similar to lead, they called it "blacklead."  (Some people called it plumbago, which is Latin meaning "lead ore.)  Turned out, the stuff was graphite.
    • Sidenote: Borrowdale happens to be in the Lake District.  How fitting was it that graphite, a great tool for writing, was literally in the ground of the birthplace of some of Western literature's finest poetry?

Graphite mixed in with tree roots, as it was discovered in Borrowdale, England.
(Photo from the Museum of Everyday Life)

  • Holding blacklead by itself was messy and hard to use, so people thought it would be easier to use if they put it inside some sort of holder.  Hey, if you take a wooden stick, hollow it out, and fill it with blacklead, sort of like putting ink inside a quill, then you've really got something there!  (That was the first pencil.)
  • In 1796, a German mineralogist figured out that blacklead was a different substance than actual lead.  So he called this stuff graphite.  Which comes with the Greek graphein meaning "write."  He was, in effect, saying, Hey, you can write with this!
  • Thereafter, everybody knew that blacklead should be called graphite.  But for whatever reason, when it was inside a pencil, they still called it lead. You know, people. So resistant to change.
  • (By the way, Germany started mass-producing pencils in the 1600s.  Faber-Castell, a name many artists will recognize, was founded in 1761 as one of those very early pencil-making companies.)

As the image says, this is the oldest known pencil encased in wood, from Faber-Castell.
(Photo from

Faber-Castell 250th edition limited edition wooden case of pencils in 120 colors, plus watercolor pencils, pastel pencils, black-lead pencils, woodless graphite, compressed charcoal, and more.  All this started in 1761, from lowly hunks of black stuff stuck in some tree roots.
(Photo from Extravaganzi)

Was Henry David Thoreau really a competitive pencil-making manufacturer in his day job?

  • The short answer to this question is yes.  
    • (Test-taking hint: if they ask a complicated yes/no question, the answer is usually "yes." They wouldn't have asked it otherwise.)
  • Now for the essay response.
  • So, in the early 1800s, people in New England discovered that there was a whole lot of graphite thereabouts. Thus, many pencil-making businesses were founded in New England.
    • One of those businesses, by the way, was the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company, founded in 1829 in Massachusetts.  One of its graphite mills was located in Ticonderoga, NY. Thus today we have the omnipresent Dixon Ticonderoga pencils.

The Dixon Ticonderogas.  These days, probably the most prevalent brand of No. 2 pencils in the US.  This package is available from Amazon for about $10.  Pre-Sharpened Pencil, #2, Yellow Barrel, 30/Pack - DIX13830

  • Dixon's company was one of many pencil-makers in the early 1800s in New England.  Another such company was John Thoreau & Company.  John was Henry David's dad. 

Broadside advertising J. Thoreau & Company Pencils, circa 1845.
(Image from the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries)

  • Thoreau's pencil company was in Concord, New Hampshire.  Another guy, David Munroe, had a pencil-making business of his own, also in Concord, New Hampshire. Munroe & Thoreau, being so geographically close and making the same product -- graphite pencils -- were therefore quite competitive.
  • Munroe hired a cabinet-maker, Ebenezer Wood (yes, seriously, he was a cabinet-maker named Wood), to help him cut the cedar wood necessary to hold the graphite.  Wood was also pretty inventive, and he figured out better and faster ways of producing the pencils.
  • The way Munroe was making pencils was faster than hollowing out sticks of wood and jamming solid graphite in the middle, but it was still pretty labor-intensive.  He basically made a graphite sandwich inside two slabs of cedar.  Munroe took the graphite, ground it to a powder, and mixed it with glue.  Meanwhile, he took the cedar wood, cut it into slabs to form a rectangular casing, hollowed out a trough in the casing, and then poured the graphite-glue mix into the trough.  Then he put another hunk of cedar on top of the first, and sealed the two with a veneer.  Once everything was dry, he cut the pencils out of the slab in a suitable size & shape. 
  • Wood made this whole process go faster.  He was the first one to use a circular saw to cut the pencils out of the slab, and he also invented a machine that could mold & trim the pencils 12 gross at a time. He was also the first one to cut pencils in the octagon shape -- the same shape most pencils have today.
  • All these innovations were a big deal.  Faster, cheaper, better -- everybody a hard time competing with that.  Thoreau and his dad were no exception.

Ebenezer Wood, inventor of many pencil-making processes that sped up the works, and a gadfly to the Thoreaus.
(Photo from Acton Conservation Lands)

  • Although Ebenezer Wood was working & inventing for Munroe, he was also grinding the graphite in his mill for the Thoreaus as well as for Munroe.  In an act of further competitiveness, Munroe tried to get Wood to stop grinding the Thoreaus' graphite.  But he continued grinding the Thoreaus' graphite because, as it turned out, the Thoreaus had more customers and a bigger business than Munroe did.
  • How did that happen?  Enter Henry David.
  • After graduating from Harvard, good old H.D.T. wanted to make a go of it as a writer & teacher, but it didn't go too well.  So he went back home to his dad's pencil business.  He worked part time, probably writing in his non-pencil-making off hours.  But while he was doing his part-time-pencil-making, he came up with some pretty major inventions.
  • He figured out how to inject the ground graphite goo directly into a hollowed-out pencil.  With his innovation, none of that cedar-slab-making-and-cutting business was necessary.  Sped up the process enormously, much faster than Wood's circular saw ever could.  Thoreau also invented a machine that would grind the graphite to an especially fine powder.
  • Not usually how you think of old "I went to the woods" Thoreau, is it?  As an inventor of early industrial machinery?  But that's what he was first.

Henry David Thoreau, civil disobedient, woods-goer, and transcendentalist, was first a pencil-maker and a machine-inventor.
(Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham from Wikipedia)
  • In fact, Thoreau continued to work in the pencil-making business off and on for most of the rest of his adult life.  A final nail in your coffin of innocence, I know.
  • By the way, a lot of people are a little fast & loose with the facts, and they say that Thoreau came up with the idea of mixing poor-quality graphite with clay to make the ground graphite easier to work with and yield a better result at a lower cost.  In fact, this process was first invented by a French guy named Nicholas-Jacque Conté in 1795.  Thoreau's contribution to this process was to improve upon it a bit and to make it part of how his father's company made their pencil leads.

Are pencils rated on a scale of "hard" and "black"?

  • Answer: yes.  Porno-industry-like though that may seem.
  • The reason for this rating has to do with that process we just learned about, that graphite and clay are mixed together to make the pencil lead. 
    • Sidenote: see, I'm still using that phrase "pencil lead."  Because the core of the pencil, as we now know, is not entirely made of graphite.  So it would also be erroneous to call it the "pencil graphite," or the "pencil clay."  The easiest shorthand to refer to the entire inner core regardless of its mixture is to say "pencil lead."
  • As you cooks and chemists might guess, the ratio of clay to graphite makes a difference in the kind of mark the pencil lead will make on the paper.  Contrary to your expectations, the more clay, the harder the lead.  
  • It also makes a difference what kind of graphite you have.  If you've got graphite from the Lake District in England, which is much harder and higher quality, it actually makes a lighter mark on the page.  If you've got the New England Thoreau graphite which is softer and of poorer quality, it makes a darker mark.

Pencils with different ratios of graphite & clay make marks of varying degrees of lightness & darkness
(Image from Artmaker)

  • So British pencil-makers came up with a system of indicating the hardness of the lead in the pencil.  Hard was denoted with an H and soft was denoted with an S -- no, a B.  Huh?  Since when does Soft = B?
  • Since the softer leads produce a darker, or blacker mark.  So Soft = Black which = B.  Harder leads got HHs or HHHs, and the softest/darkest leads got BBs or BBBs.  
  • The midway point on this scale is M -- no, it's F.  Again, huh?  Some people say the F means the lead can be sharpened to a finer point, but that makes no sense because there's no reason that lead should sharpen to a finer point than any other lead.  Other people say there is no known logical reason for calling the midpoint F, and they leave it at that.  So I will leave it at that too.
  • Leave it to the British to complicate things.  But wait, there's more.
  • The British then decided they didn't like repeating all those Bs and Hs, so they put numbers in front of the Bs and Hs.  There was no number to put in front of the F since it's the midpoint.  Then, for reasons no one understands, they also added an HB (Hard-Black, apparently) which is just slightly darker than the F.  So in the end there is no actual midpoint.  And you get this:

How pencil leads are graded according to the British scale
(Image from The Almighty Guru)

  • Do you feel us closing in on where Number 2 business comes from?  We are, but wait, there's still more.
  • So, you'll remember that Americans were making pencils, too.  They decided they wanted a different scale for indicating the hardness/softness/blackness of their pencil leads.  They decided they wanted to use strictly numbers.  And their numbers would not exactly correspond with the numbers in the British scale.
  • The American scale goes like this: 1, 2, 2½, 3, 4.  It's like they were saying, "I'm going to count to five, young lady," and so they threw the 2½ in there.  No, really, I don't know why the 2½.
  • When you put the two scales together, you get this:

As you can see, the American #2 matches up with the British HB.
(Image from Jet Pens)

  • So the Number 2 pencil that you used to take all those standardized tests in school was really the Hard Black pencil.
  • You might be tempted to think that an HB pencil made by, say, Faber-Castell would be of the same darkness as a Number 2 pencil made by, say, Dixon.  It would be lovely if that were the case.  But it's not.  
  • This grading scale does not correspond to any kind of industry-wide manufacturing standard.  The relative hardness/blackness of a company's pencils applies only to the company's own pencils.  Thus an HB you get from Faber-Castell may not be of the same HB-ness as an HB from, say, Uni.  So, serious pencil-purchasers are advised to try the pencils of various manufacturers to find the hardness/blackness they prefer.

So is the whole Everybody Must Have a Number 2 Pencil thing kind of a scam?

  • Sort of, yes! 
  • Not all Number 2 pencils are equal.  Since different manufacturers make their Number 2s to their own specifications, one company's Number 2 will be different than another's.
  • The differences might be slight, but they are real.  
  • The point of everybody having to get a Number 2 pencil was that was the closest approximation the test-makers could get to making sure everybody had the same writing instrument.  
  • I want you to think about that for a minute and let that expand in your mind, especially in this era of standardized school testing.  They can't even get everybody using the same kind of pencil lead.  The best they can do is settle on an approximation. 

Those of us taking standardized tests are not the same.  Even down to our Number 2 pencils, we are different.
(Photo from New Futuro)

  • Now seems like the right time to introduce the hotbed topic:

Was a pencil ever used as a murder weapon?

  • (You know how to answer this) Yes.
  • Most famously, when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by members of the Senate, he tried to defend himself with the only weapon he had -- his stylus (a.k.a. pencil).  He managed to stab Casca with it, but it wasn't enough of a blow, what with all those other guys with their knives, and he was killed.
  • More obscurely, a priest and teacher from the times of early Christianity/Roman rule, Cassian of Imola (a.k.a. Cassianus) was arrested for being a Christian.  He was told to renounce Christianity and he wouldn't do it, so his students "were invited to hack him to death."  The weapons they used were their styluses (pencils).  So it took a really long time for him to die.
  • Talk about a violent classroom.

I guess the painter decided not to include the pencil in Caesar's other hand.  Probably thought it too undignified.
(Image from History in the Headlines)

Bonus Question: Why are number 2 pencils yellow?

  • When an Austro-Hungarian pencil-making company, the Hardtmuth Company introduced their fancy new pencils at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, their pencils were painted yellow.  
  • The graphite in these pencils came from the Far East, and it was supposed to be the very best graphite in the world.  So to enhance the fanciness of their pencils, they named them after the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a famous diamond in India and the height of luxury, and they painted the outside of the pencils yellow.  Much fancier than the plain old bare cedar wood, these pencils were not only painted, but painted yellow, a color that was difficult to come by in paint in those days.
  • Naturally, everyone copied the Hardtmuth Company.  Soon everybody's pencils were painted yellow.
  • So, once upon a time, your yellow Number 2 pencils would have been considered luxurious by their very yellow-ness.

Ah, a bouquet of yellow pencils!  How lovely -- and how erstwhile decadent!
(Wallpaper of Bouquet of Pencils from IDMarching)

  • Congratulations!  You have reached the end of the test.  Please put down your pencil to signal you have finished.

Mental Floss, What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?
The Straight Dope, How come you see #2 pencils but no #1 pencils? 
Online Etymology Dictionary, graphite
Jennifer Schuessler, Thoreau's Pencil, The New York Times, May 1, 2009, Pencil History and Pencil Myths: The Unleaded Pencil
Acton Conservation Land, Early American Pencils
The Museum of Everyday Life, A Visual History of the Pencil
Today in Science History, Joseph Dixon: The Story of a Lead Pencil
Dixon Corporation, Joseph Dixon 1799-1869
The Almighty Guru, Pencil Grades
Jet Pens, Picking the Perfect Pencil Lead Hardness Grade 
Catholic Online, St. Cassian of Imola
New Advent, Classical Latin Literature in the Church
CBS Money Watch, Why Are Pencils Yellow?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Apple #666: The Mark of the Beast

I could not let Apple #666 go by without talking about the number itself: 666.

(Image from The Daily Cannibal)

I was going to change my template so it was all in red & black with fangs and snarling noises and the like.  But nothing was legible.  I mean, you couldn't read anything.  I had to squint to make out the words.  Very unpleasant.  So, since I was monkeying around with changing templates, I just, picked something I did like.  What do you think?  Keep it or go back to the outdoor picture thing?

Anyway, back to the mark of the beast.  (I'm not half so threatening now, am I?  Rar.)

  • The whole mark of the beast/666 thing comes from the Bible.  Revelation, chapter 13.  (Hah, now there's another numerical coincidence.)
  • John, who is narrating all the things he saw in his vision, says he saw an awful beast.  It's got 10 horns and 7 heads and each head is marked with blasphemous names. It's like a leopard, but it's got paws as big as a bear's and a mouth of fangs like a lion.  This beast is, according to most readings, Satan.
  • The 7-headed beast is given charge of the world, and people are going around awestruck, doing whatever the beast says.  The beast does nothing but say blasphemous things against God, wage wars, conquer people, and generally cause all kinds of havoc and destruction.
  • The beast does have a wound in one head, which the footnotes say means that each head represents a Roman emperor, and the wounded one represents Nero.  More on him in a bit.

One rendering of the 7-headed leopard beast, along with some explication.
(Image from

  • So then John says he saw a second beast emerge from the ground.  This one had only 2 horns like a ram's.  It was in league with the first, 7-headed beast, and it got all the people of the world to worship the first beast, whose wounded head had been healed.
  • The second beast was given its power by the first beast, and it used all those powers to lead people astray, and forced people to worship 7-headed beast #1, and to kill anyone who wouldn't worship beast #1.
  • Now, here we come to the part about the number:
 (16) [The 2nd beast] forced all men, small and great, rich and poor, slave and freee, to accept a stamped image on their right hand or their forehead. (17) Moreover, it did not allow a man to buy or sell anything unless he was first marked with the name of the beast or with the number that stood for its name. (18) A certain wisdom is needed here; with a little ingenuity anyone can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a certain man.  The man's number is six hundred sixty-six.
  • So, 666 is the number of the beast who is going to force all people to worship his more evil and terrible master, Satan.
  • In verse 18, John all but comes right out and says, "Come on, people, it's obvious who this is.  I'll tell you, but in code."  
  • How to beak the code?  It was the custom of the day to assign numbers to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  If we were to do the same thing to our alphabet, it would go like this: A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on.  
  • In the Hebrew alphabet, once they got to 10, they counted by tens, and once they got to 100, they counted by 100s.  So it goes like this:
alef = 1; bet = 2; gimel = 3; dalet = 4; hey = 5;
waw = 6; zayin = 7; chet = 8; tet = 9; yod = 10;
kaf = 20; lamed = 30; mem = 40; nun = 50;
samek = 60; ayin = 70; pey = 80; tsadeh = 90;
qof = 100; resh = 200; shin = 300; taw = 400

Pictorial form of the same thing.
(Image from Dial-the-Truth Ministries)

  • How you go from letters to numbers seems pretty clear.  But how you go backwards, from numbers to letters is less clear.  So you get lots and lots of theories.
  • Over the centuries, people have argued, depending on their religion or their politics, that the beast is the person who personifies some focus of their particular hatred.  Catholics have said the number works out to be Martin Luther.  Protestants have said it equates to the Pope, or the Pontiff.  Democrats have argued that it is George W. Bush.  Republicans have said it was John F. Kennedy, or Bill Clinton, or Hillary Clinton.  You see how it goes.
  • But most Biblical scholars think that 666 is code for the Emperor Nero.  In Hebrew, those two words translate to Nun-resh-waw-nun Qof-samek-resh. In numbers that is 50+200+6+50 (306) and 100+60+200 (360).  Add the two together and you get 666.

Nero. The original 666 guy.
(Image from Biography)

  • Revelations was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian.  So why would it be a big deal to say that Nero, who had been dead 13 years, was the handmaid of the devil?
  • Because Domitian had revived various persecutions of Christians and Jews (the Romans regarded Christians and some wacko Jewish cult) which had not been in force in the days of Nero.  So it is possible that, in pointing the devil-finger at Nero, John was thereby also pointing the devil-finger at Domitian.  Naturally, he wouldn't want to come right out and say it so directly or he might get all sorts of people executed for his trouble.
    • I really want to interject some little facts I learned about both those emperors.  They're just too good to let them lie quiet.
    • OK, so Nero was actually kind of normal and helpful at first.  It was his mother who was whacked.  She married her uncle, the then-emperor Claudius.  She talked him into naming her son by a previous marriage as his successor.  This was Nero.  Then she poisoned Claudius and Nero became emperor.  He was 17.
    • Nero fell in love with a slave, his mother didn't like her, they had a falling out, and he spurned his mother. She got pissed, then started telling everyone Claudius's son should have been emperor, not Nero.  Then, mysteriously, Claudius's son turns up dead. Hmm. Wonder how that happened.
    • Nero's mom still went around saying that Nero shouldn't be emperor, so he kicked her out.  Then he decided he was sick of being with the slave whom he had married, he wanted to marry someone else instead, but Nero's mom went around saying he couldn't do that because divorce was bad, so Nero had her killed.
    • That's right, Nero had his mother murdered.
    • After that, he went right off the wagon.  He got drunk all the time, went around performing his own poetry and music, he had wives he was sick of executed and married new ones, he turned tyrannical against all sorts of people, etc etc.

Nero. With the thumbs down, saying someone ought to be killed for sport.
(Image from Listverse)

    • Then came that business of Rome burning that you've heard so much about.  Nero did not stand around fiddling, but the fire did go on for 10 days.  75 percent of the city burned down.
  • Rumor had it that Nero started the fire to make way for the new villa he planned to build.  He couldn't have people saying he burned down the city, so he needed a scapegoat.  Who started the fire?  The Christians, of course!  Those people in that weird new cult, they're the ones responsible for 3/4 of Romans being burned out of their houses.  Thus began the emperor-sanctioned persecution of Christians.  He had them eaten by dogs, nailed to crosses, set on fire, or burned to serve as a light source after sunset.
    • Nero did all sorts of other nefarious things, such as selling political offices to raise money for his new villa, etc., etc.  That's when the Senators began conspiring against him.  Nero found out they were planning on having him beaten to death.  Rather than face that, he decided to kill himself.  He tried to stab himself in the neck but he couldn't finish the job, so he told his secretary to do it, which he did.
  • This is why people think the wounded head on the 7-headed monster is Nero. The wound was Nero's somewhat self-inflicted stab wound to his neck.
    • Domitian, several years & emperors later, came to power, but he was young and inexperienced, and people weren't really accepting of him as emperor.  So he started invoking the whole I'm an emperor and therefore I'm a god thing.  He made people introduce him as the god Domitian, and they had to say certain things in a certain way to indicate that they thought he was a god, etc. etc.
    • The Christians and the Jews, they didn't want to do that.  So Domitian saw them as undermining his efforts to establish his imperial authority.  So he ordered some of them to be put to death, and then after that, people started persecuting the Christians and the Jews in the way they had while Nero was running around getting drunk and shouting at people and setting them on fire and so on.  The John who wrote the book of Revelation lived during the time of Domitian.

Domitian. Later in his rule, "in fits of paranoia, instructed several murderous 'terrors'" which seem to have originated in a deep sense of personal inadequacy in the eyes of his brother & father. Aw, gee.
(Image from Roman Scotland)

  • So, historically, that's what the mark of the beast is most likely about.  Indicating the emperors who were running around killing people left and right.
  • But, since those verses don't come right out and say those emperors' names, and since there's that verse about people not being allowed to buy or sell anything without being marked with the name of the beast, people have read all kinds of things into the number 666.
  • They have claimed that 666 stands for this person and that person, or such and such an economic thing, and so on.  Here is some of the 666-insanity:
    • Barcodes are the mark of the beast

How exactly these lines represent 6s is not clearly explained, but swiping these barcodes means someone is taking money from your bank account, and soon there will be a single bank in control of everyone's money, and then the end days will be upon us.
(Image and extremely vague but exclamation-point-ridden theory from this site)

    • The Beatles bear the mark of the beast

See how Paul is making the OK sign?  That doesn't mean OK.  That's the number 6 three times!  It's 666!  The Beatles are agents of the devil!
(Image and theory from this site)

See? This does not mean sex, but DEVIL!
(Image and theory from 666 hand sign)

From this moment, Michael Jackson's doom was sealed.
(Image and theory from 666 hand sign)

    • The numbers on a roulette wheel add up to 666.  Therefore roulette, or maybe it's casinos, or maybe it's gambling that is the mark of the beast. 
  • The Hebrew letter Vav, or Waw, which might as well be W in English, correlates with the number 6.  So web precursor www = 666, so therefore the entire internet bears the mark of the beast.
    • The Washington Monument measures 55.5 ft on each side.  If you convert that to inches, each side measures 666.  Therefore the Washington Monument is an occult symbol, and a mark of the beast. (In fact, the Monument measures 555 ft. 5-1/8 in. tall.  That is 6,665-1/8 inches.  The base is 55 ft. 1-1/2 in. wide. That is 661-1/2 inches.  Not 666.)
    • The Louvre has 666 panes of glass, or if you converted the doors to glass, it would have 666 panes of glass, therefore it is a mark of the beast. (Actually, the Louvre has 673 panes of glass, excluding the doors.)

VISA's name is the mark of the beast.
(Image from DeusILUSÃO)

Walt Disney's signature bears the mark of the beast.
(Image and a whole other theory I could not even begin to describe from Tricked by the Light)

  • It just goes on and on and on. . . .
  • There are some rather interesting coincidences about the number 666, numerically.
    • The first six Roman numerals add up to 666: I+V+X+L+C+D=666
    • The smallest prime factor of 666 is 37. If you translate the letters IVXLCD in the English alphabet to numbers (like what we did with the Hebrew alphabet) and add them, the largest prime factor of that total is also 37.
    • Take the first 7 prime numbers, square them, and add them up: 22 + 32 + 52 + 72 + 112 + 132 + 172 = 666
  • And many more besides.  But, you know, look at any number long enough, and I'm sure you'll find all sorts of interesting coincidences about it.
  • In response to such extensive 666-fixation, some people have come up with a joke list of 666s, which includes the following:
    • 666 = number of the beast
    • 668 = neighbor of the beast
    • 660 = approximate number of the beast
    • 665 = older brother of the beast
    • 0.666 = number of the millibeast
    • 1010011010 = binary number of the beast
    • 00666 = zip code of the beast
    • $665.95 = retail price of the beast
    • $656.66 = Walmart price of the beast
    • $646.66 = next week's Walmart price of the beast
    • $333.00 = after-Christmas sale price of the beast
    • Phillips 666 = gasoline of the beast
    • Route 666 = way of the beast [actually there is a Highway 666. People keep stealing the road signs.]
    • 666k = retirement plan of the beast
    • 999 = Australian number of the beast
    • Chanel No. 666 = perfume of the beast
    • IAM 666 = license plate of the beast
  • and so on. 
  • Meanwhile, maybe the number of the beast isn't really 666.  Maybe it's actually 616.
  • No, really.  Some people think that the text originally said 616, not 666.  A few translations even say six hundred sixteen, not six hundred sixty-six.
  • In which case, all those people with their special, significant 666s need to do some quick recalculating.  And in which case, the area code for West Michigan is the area code of the beast. 

West Michigan. Den of the beast?
(Image from eachTown)

Catholic Resources, 666: The Number of the Beast
Biography, Nero synopsis, Nero
Donald McFayden, The Occasion of the Domitianic Persecution, American Journal of Theology, Jan 1920
I don't even want to give this site any credence, 666
Rapture Ready, The Number of the Beast
Enchanted Learning, Washington Monument
Prime Curios, 666
Math World, Beast Number

Monday, March 10, 2014

Apple # 665: Nickels

I've still got my eye on Ukraine (as do many other people, I'm sure), but while that gets worked out, I noticed something the other day about nickels.  They are the only coin we call by the metal they're made of.

We don't call pennies "coppers" (not anymore, anyway), and the other coins we call according to their value.  Dimes, for example, are 1/10th of a dollar. The word "dime" comes from the Latin decimus, which means "tenth". We do say "silver dollars," but we don't call them "silvers," we call them "silver dollars." 

So, nickels are the only coin we call by their composition.  What else is there to know about nickels?

More fun than a pile of nickels?
(Photo from Truth Alliance Network)

  • Nickels originally weren't made of nickel, and they weren't called "nickels," either.
  • Back in the early days of the United States, all US coins had to be made of either gold, silver, or copper.  The five-cent coin at that time was made of silver, and it was called the "half disme" (pronounced "half dime").

The silver half-dime, this one from 1796.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • The silver half-dime was minted until 1873.  But in 1866, Congress decided to mint a new five-cent coin, this one made of the much-cheaper nickel.  
  • So for 7 years both types were in circulation, meaning you might have 2 different five-cent coins in your pocket at the same time: the silver half-dime and the nickel nickel.

The first nickel nickel, known as the Shield nickel.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • The nickel nickel was made larger than the previous silver half-dime because nickel was cheaper than silver.  The larger size made it easier to handle than its much smaller predecessor.
  • Nickels have also had many face lifts.  That is, the picture on the front & back has changed several times.
    • Liberty Head 1883-1912 (a few were also made in 1913)
    • Buffalo 1913-1938
    • Jefferson 1938-2004
    • Jefferson variations 2005, 2006-present
  • If you find a Liberty or Buffalo nickel, hang onto it.  It could be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  If it's one of those super-rare Liberty nickels from 1913, it could be worth $4.5 million.

The Liberty Head nickel from 1883.  Though it's the earliest one minted, it's not as valuable as the 1913 Liberty Head.
(Photos from Wikipedia)

The Buffalo nickel is atypically called by what's on the back (reverse) as opposed to what's on the front (obverse). The man who designed this nickel said that the Native American pictured on the front is a composite of three Native American chiefs: Chief Iron Tail, a Lakota; Chief Two Moons, a Cheyenne, and John Big Tree, a Seneca.  John Big Tree said he was the one and only model for the coin.
(Photos from Wikipedia)

The Jefferson nickel, minted from 1938-2004. This particular one happens to be from 1965.
(Photos by the Apple Lady)

The more recent version of the Jefferson nickel, first minted in 2006. This one is from 2012.  It's so shiny, I had trouble getting a good picture that didn't have a glare across it.
(Photos by the Apple Lady)

  • Today's nickel has far less nickel than it used to: only 25%.  The rest?  Copper.  Like the penny.
  • It also costs a bit more to make a nickel than it once did.  It costs about 11 cents to make one nickel.  
  • Thus the Treasury Department has recommended that we stop minting nickels (and pennies, too, which cost 2 cents each to make), and President Obama has put such a recommendation into his FY2015 budget.  Whether the Mint stops making nickels or not remains to be seen, as various business groups such as the Coin Laundry Association oppose getting rid of coins.
  • Since nickels cost more than twice their value to make them, you might say that nickels "aren't worth a plugged nickel."
  • What is a plugged nickel anyway?  Well, back in the day, wily and enterprising folks would bore out the middle of a coin and take that metal to be melted down and sold.  The hole in the coin they would fill with a cheaper metal, then pass off the coin as perfectly fine.  But really, they were creating counterfeit coins.  If you got one of those coins whose center had been swapped out for a cheaper metal, your coin wasn't worth jack.
  • The cheaper metal in the middle was the "plug," and the coin that had been so doctored was "plugged."

This is an actual plugged coin.  In this case, it's an 1804 dollar plugged with a penny.  This was done by the Gallery Mint Museum, perhaps for demonstration purposes? I suspect that a real-life plugged nickel would have been disguised somehow, maybe with some paint, to cover up the penny plug in the middle.
(Image from Gallery Mint Museum Scrapbook)
  • Any coin could get "plugged."  There were, in fact, plugged quarters and plugged dimes, and even plugged pennies (or "plugged cents").  
  • But the nickel emerged as the favorite in the phrase "not worth a plugged [coin]" to indicate total lack of value, perhaps because nickels aren't worth much to begin with.  And also, I suppose, because "plugged nickel" is full of satisfying consonants and therefore much more fun to say than "plugged penny" or "plugged cent."
  • By the way, some people think that nickels will be worth saving because their melt value will someday be greater than their face value.  That is, the nickel and copper in the coin will be worth more than 5 cents.  
  • At the moment, however, one nickel is worth only about 4 cents in melt value.  If you want to check current melt values versus face values of all sorts of circulating coins, check Coinflation.
  • And by the way, to make this plan work, you would have to find somebody who would melt down your nickels, and the amount they charged for that service could not exceed the value of the melted metal. Doesn't sound like a very sound investment to me. Har har.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Apple #664: The Black Sea

I decided to follow up my entry on absconded president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych's home on Mezhyhira, Ukraine with an entry about the Black Sea.  I will try to steer clear of politics or finger-pointing or unpleasantness like that and just give you some facts.

Coastline of the Black Sea in Romania
(Photo from Romania - a beautiful corner of Europe)

Aerial photo of the Black Sea.  The lighter blue swirls near the coastline are blooms of phytoplankton.
(Photo by NASA, via Wikipedia)

  • The Black Sea is an inland sea surrounded by 6 countries: Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, and Ukraine.

The Black Sea and its surrounding countries.
(Map from Marine Insight)

  • It is not a lake since the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles Strait connect it to the Mediterranean.
  • It has a very low level of salinity for a sea: only 17%, which is about half that of the Atlantic Ocean.  Most saltwater animals live in waters with salinity of 20%.
  • 3 of Europe's largest rivers empty into it: the Danube, the Dneiper, and the Don.
  • In spite of those rivers bringing water to it, the Black Sea is practically motionless.  It experiences no tides, and it has a large meromictic basin.  That means the water does not mix itself up, or circulate.
  • Since the water does not mix itself very much, oxygen from the surface is not brought down to the lower levels of the sea.  So in the Black Sea, any water below 200 meters is anoxic -- without oxygen.  In fact this is the largest dead zone in the world -- and it occurs naturally.

Since the waters of the Black Sea don't get mixed around, the oxygen at the surface does not get pulled down to the waters below.  Which means the deeper waters do not contain oxygen.
(Diagram from Marine Insight)

  • So, not much salt at the surface, and no oxygen at depth means this sea is not an ideal environment for fish.  But even so, lots of marine animals do live in the Black Sea
    • Crabs
    • Gobies
    • Flatfish
    • Mullets
    • Black Sea horse mackerels (looks like a mackerel, not a seahorse)
    • Pickerel
    • Damselfish
    • Sea bass
    • Mussels
    • Thornback skates
    • Dogfish

The Thornback skate is one type of fish that uses electroreception -- low pulses of electricity -- to navigate and locate prey. It also has a row of spines on its back which are sharp, though not venomous.
(Photo from

Topside, the Thornback looks fierce. The underside looks like she wants to be friends!
(Photo from

  • Also because of the lack of oxygen at low levels, wooden shipwrecks tend not to decay.  Recent diving expeditions have discovered wrecks at the bottom of the Black Sea as old as the 3rd and 5th centuries B.C.
  • Speaking of ships, the Black Sea also figures very large in maritime cultural history.  
    • Jason and the Argonauts' ultimate destination was to Colchis, across the Black Sea.
    • The shore of the Black Sea at Turkey was the home of the mythological Amazon women.
    • Noah's Ark is said to have come to rest after the waters receded on Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey -- on the edge of the Black Sea.
  • In more recent times, a house so grand and expensive it is referred to as a palace was built on the shores of the Black Sea near a little village named Praskoveevka, in Russia.  Wikileaks revealed many photos of the grand palace and said that it was built by Vladimir Putin, paid for by money he skimmed from million-dollar donations intended to be spent on medical equipment.

Lawn of the palace said to have belonged to Vladimir Putin until it was sold for $350M in 2011.  Perhaps this is where Viktor Yanukovych got his ideas for his house?
(Photo from Wikleaks, via Wikipedia)

The master bedroom of "Putin's Palace."
(Photo from Wikileaks, via Wikipedia)

The exterior, when it was still under construction.
(Photo from Wikileaks, via the Real Estalker)

  • Crimea extends into the Black Sea.  That's where all the focus is at the moment in the discord between Ukraine and Russia.  Sevastopol, the sea port where Russia has its military base, is on the coast of Crimea.  

This building is in Sevastopol, on Artillery Bay.  Wikipedia says this building is called Nahimova, which is a monument built in commemoration of all the ships from Sevastopol that have sunk.  That doesn't speak highly of that location as a naval base, does it?
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • Tolstoy wrote a suite of three short stories based on his experiences in the Crimean War.  They are called The Sevastopol Sketches.  
  • In "Sevastopol in May," Tolstoy reveals how, "as the bloody siege wore on he began to understand more clearly not only the horrible futility of [war], but also the base human motives and practices of men who created war and then fattened on such human folly." (Ernest J. Simmons, 1968)

Tolstoy in 1854, during the Crimean War. Nice facial hair, Lev.
(Photo via Wikipedia)

Yep.  Those are just some facts about the Black Sea, what's in it, and what surrounds it.

Before It's News, Top 10 Interesting Things You Should Know About the Black Sea, December 13, 2012
Marine Insight, 8 Amazing Facts about the Black Sea
The Living Black Sea
University of Delaware, Black Sea: The Treasures of an Ancient Sea
European Commission, The Black Sea: facts and figures
Merriam-Webster, meromictic
National Geographic, Dead Zones, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Black Sea
Mythweb, Black Sea
PBS In Search of Myths and Heroes, Jason & the Argonauts
BBC News Magazine, Putin's Palace? A mystery Black Sea mansion fit for a tsar, May 4, 2012
Business Insider, Putin's Secret Billion-Dollar Palace on the Black Sea, Feb 1, 2011
The Telegraph, 'Putin Palace' sells for $350 million, March 3, 2011