Lesson #332: The French and the Panama Canal

I was out at trivia with a bunch of friends tonight and, apart from killing the round on Canadian postal abbreviations (in fairness, I don’t think the guy running the game anticipated a ringer), my team came within a Prince album of winning the whole thing. None of us is a Prince fan, so…

Anyway, the thing about playing trivia is that a lot of right answers can be deduced if you don’t know the answer straight away, but have a good team. Our question was “from which country did the United States take over construction of the Panama Canal after an aborted effort between 1881-94?” We answered France correctly based on our knowledge of history and our deductive reasoning skills, but it turns out that while we guessed right, we didn’t guess right for the right reasons. We had figured that whichever country it was had to have been “in the empire business”, had to have had holdings in the Caribbean that it may have had to surrender, and had to have found itself in over its head financially. That gave us France.

What we didn’t know is that the reason France withdrew from the project is that they weren’t awesome engineers, and their people kept dying. The project was under the supervision of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had overseen the construction of the Suez canal and, because no one bothered to do much research in the way of basic geography and/or geology, it was intended to have been a sea-level canal. In fact, de Lesseps had rejected an earlier route that had included a locks system. Turns out, the mountains were a bit of an unanticipated problem. Now, combine this “maybe we should have thought this through a little better” engineering problem with a malaria/yellow fever problem and a shoddy-safety-measures-during-construction-resulting-in-death problem and you wind up with a financial problem. Adding in a corruption problem in France, you’ve got a recipe for a multi-million dollar ($287,000,000 at the time) failure.

In fairness to the French, who were at least trying, by the time they abandoned construction, there were parts of the canal that were nearly completed.

Read more here, here, and here.

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Lesson #126: Cassini

I wandered into the living room this evening to find Urban Planner Housemate and Club Manager Housemate watching a program about the history of maps. I love maps, so I decided to join them.* We learned a stupid number of things in the course of the first hour (there are two more to come). Like how France was the first country to measure distances between cities and that early maps of Britain are very accurate regarding inlets and bays and other places where raiding/attack ships could be landed, but cliffs and rocky areas were left pretty generic and the political ramifications of dividing up the land in the Middle East in the early 20th century (which was done mostly because the British imperialists were pretty big dicks, but that’s not news). But the thing I found most interesting is who Cassini was.

Up until about half nine this evening, Cassini was nothing but a spacecraft NASA and the ESA sent to study Saturn. And I’ve learned all sorts of fun things from the spacecraft including what space sounds like and that there’s water on one of Saturn’s moons and what a lightning storm looks and sounds like from space. I did not imagine that Cassini was an actual person.

It turns out that Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) was an astronomical genius. He was responsible for being the first to accurately measure longitude using eclipses, figuring out that there’s a gap in Saturn’s rings (apparently called the Cassini Gap), co-discovering Jupiter’s big red spot and discovering four of Saturn’s moons, among other things.**

As an added bonus, the answer to Urban Planner Housemate’s question about at what point people stopped believing the earth was flat (my best guess was “sometime during the Renaissance because up until that, there wasn’t that much exploration being done”) is “no one ever believed the earth was flat. The ancient Greeks (specifically Eritosthenes) already had an idea of a spherical world and calculated the circumference of it. The Bible (specifically Isiah) also makes mention of a spherical world.”

*I live in a house full of geeks and I love it!

**More reading on Cassini the person here and here.

Lesson #118: Napoleon’s Height

Napoleon Bonaparte was apparently 5’6″, not 5’2″ as everyone thought he was.* At his autopsy, the coroner or ME or whatever his title was, a man by the name of Antommarchi, listed him as 1.686 metres, which was the average height for Frenchmen at the time.

If you read French, this is a really interesting article from La Revue de l’Institut Napoléon entitled “La taille de Napoléon” (Napoleon’s Height) that explores this question in more detail.

*Though, this may be like how our soccer media guide listed our/the conference’s star player (who plays for her national team) as 5’5″ even though she’s really 5’2″. One year, she tried to get us to put her in the media guide as 5’7″. Like Napoleon, it’s not like everyone didn’t know who she was and how much damage she could do, regardless of her height.

Lesson #44: Chansons de Geste

If you’re wondering how I got to this topic, I came by way of Wagner (or Mozart)’s composition of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana.*

Anyway, a few steps later, I ended up looking into the chansons de geste. The chansons de geste are medieval (11th-13th centuries) French epic poems forming the base of the Charlemagne legend and are typical in their composition in that they narrate stories of heroic adventure and great deeds.** The most famous of these is The Song of Roland, but there are more than 80 in total.***

*Seriously. I actually read today that either Wagner (wrong) or Mozart (VERY wrong) composed Orff’s masterpiece. My soul cries.

**Like epics from pretty much everywhere in the western world beginning with one of my very favourite pieces of literature, Homer’s Iliad and including such heroes as Grettir the Strong (Iceland — Sagas of the Icelanders), Cu Chulainn (Ireland — The Ulster Cycle) and Väinämöinen (Finland — Kalevala).

***If you read French, descriptions for all of the chansons de geste can be found here.