Thursday, November 8, 2012

Confessions Of An Information Junkie

Information Junkies (of which I am one) take many forms.  Some keep a television set tuned to 24 hour news channels running day and night.  Others hole up in cluttered offices, surrounded by memorabilia of a bygone era: printed books and almanacs and encyclopedias.  Younger IJs may have Wikipedia on their computer's speed-dial...

Science has not yet discovered the cause of this particular form of madness that drives a man or woman to know things normal people don't really care about.  Is it a kind of Geek Power?  The IJ would dispute this and claim it's simple curiosity.  He or she would deny any interest in winning big cash prizes on  TV's Jeopardy game show.  But a true IJ would never forget to remind you the current version of the word Jeopardy comes from Middle English's jeopardie which came from the Anglo French ju parti of the Norman Era.  Nor will you escape learning ju parti derives from jeu parti, Old French for Modern English's "divided game"...
Advertisement for 1903 edition of The World Almanac.

Having an almanac handy is no proof that one is prone to being an Information Junkie.  Many of the families I knew as a kid growing up in Alexandria owned a thick and occasionally used World Almanac and Book of Facts.  Since 1868, the World Almanac has rescued anyone with a sudden and overpowering need to know the population of Belgium, the average distance from Neptune to the Sun, or who was Senate Majority Leader twenty years ago...
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie Bly
added an "e" to her last name so she would
appear more sophisticated.  She was forced to
use a pen name as a journalist because her
editors didn't believe men would take a woman
writer seriously.

To be honest, the World Almanac didn't appear on newsstands from 1876 to 1886.  It takes its name from the New York World newspaper that served the Democratic Party and Gothamites well until 1931.  For most of the Civil War and early days of Reconstruction, a gentleman named Manton Marble owned and edited the journal.  He was shut down for three days in 1864 when he published forged documents allegedly authored by President Lincoln.  Marble stepped into financial quicksand and had to sell the World.  Joseph Pulitzer bought the struggling paper in 1883, transforming into an influential periodical (with nearly one million readers) that chose sensational headlines over boring facts when push came to shove...

[Pulitzer hired Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, a pioneering female journalist who wrote under the name Nellie Bly.  Cochrane was a fearless adventurer who boosted World readership when tens of thousands of people followed her record breaking hop across the globe as she tried to beat the time set by Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg in Eighty Days Around The World.  She made it in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, 14 seconds after stops that included a visit to a Chinese leper colony and a visit with Jules Verne himself in France.  Unchaperoned, Nellie Bly dallied briefly in Singapore where she bought a monkey to share her journey.  Her courage had another side that ultimately benefitted others.  She spent ten days as an anonymous mental hospital patient to expose the brutal "treatment" used to cure insanity.  As a result of her exposeˊ, new examination procedures were instituted to prevent a false diagnosis of mental illness and $850,000 was added to the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.]

Benjamin Franklin, shown here conducting his
famous kite experiment in a painting by Benjamin
West, edited colonial America's Poor Richard's
Almanack, selling roughly 10,000 copies annually. 

The World Almanac, despite its impressive pedigree, is far from being the oldest data treasure trove in the US.  (British almanacs date to at least the 12th Century and listed solar and lunar positions vis-a-vis the Zodiac as well as the location of the then known planets.  Such information was useful to those who planted crops or needed to know when to expect high and low tides.  It also provided the basic data needed to practice astrology and divine the future.  On the continent, Johannes Gutenberg used his now famous printing press in 1457 to produce an almanac-- eight years before he utilized it to print the Bible.)  Colonial America saw William Pierce of Harvard College compiling An Almanac for New England for the Year 1639...

Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard's Almanack for twenty-five years, beginning in 1733.  It contained the required daily calendar, weather forecasts, astronomical data, and doggerel expected of an almanac.  But Poor Richard was true to his secret identity of Ben Franklin, adding mind-sharpening mathematical puzzles and pithy aphorisms reminding colonists that early to bed and early to rise made them healthy, wealthy, and wise...
Robert B Thomas' The Old Farmer's Almanac has
appeared annually since 1792.  It is famous for its
generally accurate seasonal "weather indications"
computed by a secret formula.

He was not the first of the Franklin family who hoped to meet the data needs of 18th Century Information Junkies.  Ben's brother James published his first Rhode-Island Almanack in 1728.  But Poor Richard's was the almanac destined to become a pop-quiz item for American History classes in US high schools.  And it also helped Ben become wealthier if not healthier and wiser:  his almanac sold as many as 10,000 copies yearly.  Franklin provided 500 copies free of charge to James' widow for her to resell as a way of supporting herself without asking for charity...

But now comes the hour of confession, when my secret must be revealed...

As dearly as I love the World Almanac and the almost bragging way it seems to say "everything you really need to know can be found between my covers", I must admit to eagerly awaiting the coming of each autumn since I was a youngster in Louisiana:  Halloween AND Thanksgiving AND the next year's edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac "containing, besides the large number of Astronomical Calculations and the Farmer's Calendar for every month in the year, a variety of New, Useful & Entertaining Matter"...
Pogonip, seen here in Spring Creek, Nevada, was believed by
Native Americans to be injurious to the lungs-- a fact known to
any devotee of The Old Farmer's Almanac.

No matter the name of the current editor, each issue contains an introductory note to patrons that reminds almanac readers: "However, it is by our works and not our words that we would be judged.  These, we hope, will sustain us in the humble though proud station we have so long held in the name of Your obedient servant, Robt B Thomas...

The Old Farmer's cover is as constant as the northern star and as faithful as Penelope awaiting Odysseus' return from war and adventures with all the Cyclopeses and sirens and lovely sorceresses who rule enchanted isles that angry gods could throw at him.  It changes but to reflect the change in year number, provided both in Roman and Arabic numerals.  And, alas, inflation does occasionally force a change in the price printed on the cover...

What makes The Old Farmer's Almanac so attractive and addictive to its readers?  I'm out of luck if I open its pages and try to find the name of the capital city of Angola.  But I do have twelve monthly Farmer's Calendars, each accompanied by an essay whose author is a thrifty and moderate man who savors the feel of soil between his fingers and who embraces the gifts brought by each season of the year as much as he values the benefits bestowed by honest work...
The mysterious "Sailing Stones" of Death Valley-- a locale, as any
Information Junkie can confirm, which has recorded the hottest
temperatures on Earth.  A claim for Libya's portion of the Sahara as
holding the record was recently discredited by meteorologists.

For the April 2009 essay, the author mused on how "ever since Adam set out to identify the other dwellers in Eden, men have given themselves trouble over names."  He talks about the way one man will name a plant and another man who lives down the road will call it by another name.  We have a brief history of how the botanist Carolus Linnaeus attempted to solve this problem by developing unique scientific names composed of the genus and species of a plant or living creature.  Then our author muses on Newfane Hill in his own town and the way it is variously known as Timson Hill, Hubby Hill, or Spring Hill depending on the speaker.  Then he reaches back into history to remind us that the "never-to-be forgotten Charles the Fat (AD 839-88)" was simultaneously Charles the Fat, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Italy, or King of the West Franks-- depending upon which subject was describing him... 

Clearly, this essayist is a focused rambler, a man after my own heart...
New York Sun publisher Joseph Pulitzer sent ace
reporter Nellie Bly on an around the world trip to
break the fictional record set by Jules Verne's
Phileas Fogg.  Verne's novel became an award
winning 1956 movie which spawned this Dell
Comic as part of its merchandising tie-ins.

I suspect, whether he would use these same words, that he might agree with me that a search for connections among things as apparently unrelated as Charles the Fat and Newfane Hill and the history of the scientific method leads to an understanding that all things are connected, no matter how odd that link may seem.  And once we know that all creation is one, it becomes magical and sacred throughout its entirety, a unity to be loved with the same love we should hold for ourselves, our families, our friends...

Although the cover of The Old Farmer's Almanac varies but slightly from year to year,  (the pastoral scenes of the four seasons first appeared in 1851 and were colorized in 1988 and a tiny portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt did grace the cover in 1943 to reaffirm the almanac's support for his war against fascist dictators) the contents are a kaleidoscope of information useful and amusing to agrarians and urbanites alike...
Nellie Bly traveled to Mexico, living undercover, to expose the
the brutality of dictator Porfirio Diaz, seen seated in a 1957
painting by David Alfara Siquieros

Doe goats, the Old Farmer knows, should not be mated before they are ten months old or have reached a weight of 85-90 lbs.  Two pints equal one quart, measured dry.  A teaspoon in the English system equates to five milliliters in the metric.  The wise orchard keeper will avoid grafting trees until the Moon rolls through the sign of Pisces, Scorpio, or Cancer.  Pogonip, the meteorological term used to describe the relatively uncommon occurrence of frozen fog, was believed by Native American tribes living in the mountain valleys of the western US and Canada to cause damage to lungs...

Blogger for LRNArts, my skeptical reader challenges, you postulate connections exist everywhere.  Prove it-- link pogonip to Nellie Bly!  Let us see, I respond with a certain amount of trepidation.  Pogonip begins with "po".  Nellie traveled to Mexico to prepare reports on living conditions under dictator Porfirio Diaz.  His name begins, it appears, with "po"...

Oh, my dear skeptical reader, being, like Robert B Thomas who edited the first The Old Farmer's Almanac in 1792, ever your obedient and humble servant, I would never try to link Nellie to farmers or things agricultural by noting she received US Patent 697,553 for inventing an improved milk can...        

Michelangelo completed painting the Sistine Chapel, my almanac
informs me, in 1512.  This detail depicts the Temptation of Adam
and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from Eden.



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Note: All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Mysterious Sailing Stones of Death Valley from; Pogonip in Spring Creek Nevada from; Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity From The Sky by Benjamin West from; 1903 World Almanac from

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