Lesson #295: The Dreidel

One of my friends is about to embark on a year-long, round-the-world trip with his wife,* so last night, he had a “drink all the booze” party. I don’t think we succeeded, but we did put a hurt on it.

Anyway, a mutual friend, who was also in attendance, and I got to talking about dreidels somehow. As he (and his fiancee) are Jewish and I have never actually bothered to learn what purpose a dreidel serves, I asked.

Legend has it that while the dreidel is actually just the game I’ve always known it to be, historically, it served a practical purpose. In the eras of history when Jews were not allowed to study the Torah, it was brought out as a distracting device whenever the powers-that-be (usually soldiers) came around. “No sir, of course we weren’t studying…we were totally just gambling.”**

In reality, the dreidel is based on a 16th century Anglo-Irish game called Totum (or Teetotum) that was played with a four-sided top. Each side of the top had a letter dictating the exact same instructions as the ones the dreidel gives (take all, take half, put in, or do nothing). The letters on the dreidel, however, are derived from a later, German version of the game.***

*It should go without saying that I’m totally jealous of this

**Or as my friend put it, “usually you hide the vice in the sacred text, not the other way around.”

***More information here and here.

Lesson #294: The Psychology of Sports Desperation

I got home from a baseball game last night in time to catch the end of the Red Wings/Blackhawks Game 7. Though I am not a fan of either team (and the Red Wings will be moving into the same division as my team next season), I was cheering for the Red Wings because I support any continued opportunity to watch Pavel Datsyuk be amazing.* Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the cheering section, but it was a pretty intense final few minutes.**

Anyway, this reminded me of an article I read years ago about how fans of losing teams are actually happier overall than fans of teams that are perennial winners. The examples they used were the Pirates and the Yankees. While I was looking around for this article (which I couldn’t find), I came across a more recent article about how fans find games more entertaining and get more enjoyment from them if there’s a dash of desperation involved for their team.***

*I mean this in the literal sense, not in the over-used North American crutch adjective sense. Anyone who can dangle a puck so hard that it lands someone of Logan Couture’s calibre on his backside is okay by me.**** Also, as an aside, Glenn Healy’s recent declaration that Datsyuk doesn’t have “all the God-blessed talent in the world” is truly hilarious. This is a man whose last name has been made into an adjective. And, as the Puck Daddy post linked above notes, “The man is a wizard. There are wizards, I imagine, who see him do what he does and think, “Damn, that’s some next-level crap.”

**Not unlike the final few minutes of my team’s game 7, only without the epic collapse. *sigh*

***They do not find it enjoyable when their team somehow blows a 4-1 lead with ten minutes to go in game 7.

****I reserve all right to completely change my opinion of this ability when it’s someone from my team who gets caught out come the 2013-14 season.

Lesson #293: Paid Vacation Days

Autobiographical note: I have never held a job that offered paid federal holidays. In fairness, I spent four years working in baseball — and three years living abroad — and three to four of those holidays fall over the baseball season, which doesn’t care at all about whether a day is a federal holiday. Or a weekend, for that matter. My first season, we had a 20-game home stand. I thought I knew what long days were until I worked 16-21 hour days for 20 straight days. 

Randomly, and outside of any conversation with The Swede, today I learned that Sweden is second — behind Brazil — in the world in paid vacation/holidays with 41 days. All Swedes (or at least those working in Sweden and non-Swedes doing the same) are given five weeks of paid vacation and 16 state holidays. Of those five weeks of paid vacation, they are entitled to take four of them consecutively between June and August. Not only that, but vacation days can be rolled over for up to five years.

By contrast, by federal law, employers in the United States are not legally bound to provide any paid vacation or federal holidays. Awesome.*

*All of this information (and information on most of the Western World) can be read here.

Lesson #292: Measles

I’m off to the beach with some friends for the long weekend, so won’t likely post again until Tuesday.

I, like pretty much every other infant in North America and Western Europe, was vaccinated against measles when I was very young. Until today, I knew literally nothing about it except that I was immunized when I was very young.

Today, I learned that measles is one of the most contagious diseases in the world. People who have not been immunized and are exposed to the disease, which is literally spread just through breathing (and sneezing and coughing, but serio*…just breathing is enough to spread it!), will almost always contract it. There are an estimated 20 million cases of measles every year and it kills about 187,000** people every year, of whom more than half are Indian.***

2011 saw a significant upswing in measles cases in the US. The average number of cases is 60/year, but there were 222 (an incidence rate of 0.7/million) reported cases in 2011, of which 112 were associated with 17 different outbreaks. Of the 222 cases, 200 were linked to foreign importation — meaning they contracted the disease either while abroad or from foreigners who brought it with them while visiting. 86% of the patients were unvaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status.****

*This is the Polish word for “seriously” and both The Swede and I found it incredibly useful and started using it regularly. Especially in arguments because it sounds much nicer to say “SERIO?” than “ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME?!?” (Don’t worry, our arguments were about footie, so no one went to bed angry.)

**The CDC page gives the number of deaths as 200,000 and 174,000 in two separate paragraphs on the same page, so I took the mean of the two.

***More information on measles here

****More statistical information here

Lesson #291: The Official Rock Song of Ohio

Sometimes, you just randomly learn things that are useless pieces of trivia. This particular bit of information will amuse my dad.

It turns out that a. there’s such a thing as an official state rock song and b. since 1985, the official rock song of Ohio has been The McCoys’ ‘Hang on Sloopy.’

The legislation (House Concurrent Resolution No. 16) that pushed this through is actually pretty hilarious to read, including these last five paragraphs:

“WHEREAS, If fans of jazz, country-and-western, classical, Hawaiian and polka music think those styles also should be recognized by the state, then by golly, they can push their own resolution just like we’re doing; and

WHEREAS, “Hang On Sloopy” is of particular relevance to members of the Baby Boom Generation, who were once dismissed as a bunch of long-haired, crazy kids, but who now are old enough and vote in sufficient numbers to be taken quite seriously; and

WHEREAS, Adoption of this resolution will not take too long, cost the state anything, or affect the quality of life in this state to any appreciable degree, and if we in the legislature just go ahead and pass the darn thing, we can get on with more important stuff; and

WHEREAS, Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town, and everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy down; and

WHEREAS, Sloopy, I don’t care what your daddy do, ’cause you know, Sloopy girl, I’m in love with you; therefore be it Resolved, That we, the members of the 116th General Assembly of Ohio, in adopting this Resolution, name “Hang On Sloopy” as the official rock song of the State of Ohio…”

If all legislation were this interesting to read, I’d probably be far more interested in government.

More information (and the full draft of the resolution) can be found here.

Lesson #290: The Croatian Kuna

One of the stops on the epic road trip was Croatia. Getting there was a bit of an adventure since we drove straight from Brussels to Zagreb in one day. This involved sunrise in Belgium, the GPS being angry that we wanted to drive all the way to Croatia and sending us on these random, super fun back roads in Luxembourg, my blowing by die Polizei at 190kph on the Autobahn,* The Swede’s first ever speeding ticket (in Austria), a steady downpour through the Alps, Slovenia’s compulsive need to put churches on hills, and sunset in Zagreb.

Anyway, Croatia is gorgeous. But that’s not the lesson here.

The Croatian currency is called the Kuna, which I had just assumed was the word for crown.** It turns out, it’s the word for marten. Because back when the Romans ruled the world, tax was collected in the form of marten pelts. And as late as the 17th century, payments were made in marten pelts. In fact, in 1224, there was a monetary value of 10 dinars, then the unit of currency, to each pelt, making the marten an actual currency. Which is kind of awesome, really.

Following their secession from Yugoslavia in 1991 and the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic in 1993, the Croats moved away from the dinar and chose the kuna as their currency. “It can safely be said that the kuna as the name of a monetary unit is justified in many ways in Croatian monetary and fiscal tradition during one thousand years. The kuna as a complex occurrence has nothing its equal in Croatian economic history while in recent centuries the kuna as a figure or name did not have any role outside Croatia with regard to money events. This then is something historically specific to Croatia and is worthy of respect. For this reason, the kuna as the name of Croatia’s currency is itself imposed upon us.”

More information can be found here and here.

*This is literally the most badass thing I have ever done

**The Croatian word for crown is kruna

Lesson #289: Krakow’s Dragon

Last week, I came back from a month abroad. In fairness, the last week of the trip was back in my home country for a family gathering, so it’s not all glamour, but the other three weeks were a nearly 5000km road trip around Europe with the best Swede I know.*

One of our stops was Krakow, which was an alternative to Budapest. It hadn’t been on the original itinerary — or, in fact, on any of the three iterations that followed the original itinerary — but as he was in Budapest last year, I was there fairly recently, and neither of us had ever been to Poland, we settled on Krakow. It turns out, that was probably the best decision we made about the trip because Poland was super awesome and both of us left swearing we’d go back. The Polish people were phenomenal.

However, as a result of the Polish people being phenomenal, we saw very little in the way of touristy stuff while we were there. We were adopted by a local and his friends and they took us out to restaurants and drove us to burial mounds and drank with us in pubs and insisted we join their after hours, basement poker game (at which I won quite a tidy sum of money despite being a terrible poker player). So when I was reading up on something today and there was mention of a dragon, — something that had come into play in cloud formations in Croatia — I sent the Swede an text that said, “we’ll have to go back…we missed the dragon!”

Anyway, the Wawel Dragon has existed in legend since at least the 12th century when Wincenty Kadłubek wrote about it in his chronicle of Polish history. According to the legend, the dragon lived in a cave at the base of Wawel Hill before Krakow was established and was defeated by Prince Krakus, who went on to found Krakow and built his castle on Wawel Hill.

Of course, this was later (in the 17th century) changed to include a princess (Wanda) and a poor shoemaker because that’s a better story…that version goes: the King, tired of the dragon having his way with the livestock of his people, and having offered the dragon every virgin around except his daughter, offered up his daughter’s hand to anyone who could slay the dragon. Enter a cobbler called Skuba who covers a mass of sulfur with a sheep (or cow, depending on which version you’re reading) hide and tricks the dragon into eating it. Unable to slake his thirst in the Vistula River — which runs through Krakow** — the dragon eventually explodes and Skuba and Wanda live happily ever after.***

*Yes, it was effing awesome, thank you for asking!

**No, I did not find a way to get into the Vistula. Failure on my part, I know.

***More information here, here, and here, among many, many other places