History of the World: Famous Fires

If you're a good sleuth—I mean, if you could really give Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew a run for their money—then you might have noticed that the _floss has a book coming out at the end of the month. That means we have roughly 400 pages jam-packed with fascinating flossiness to share with you. It comes out October 28, so between now and then, we thought we'd feature some of our favorite bits. I've been through it three or four times now and I find something new and interesting every time—hopefully you'll agree!

Rome

romeDuring the night of July 18, 64 CE, a fire broke out in the shops near the Circus Maximus, the city's mammoth stadium. It spread quickly and lasted more than a week, destroying more than 70 percent of Rome. Who was the culprit? Romans had their eyes on Nero, who made no bones about wanting a new palace in the center of the city. The Senate held him off because they didn't want to tear down perfectly good buildings just to make his (not-so) humble abode, so obviously citizens assumed Nero took things into his own hands. It was even said that Nero's thugs stopped people who tried to put the fire out. But, truth be told, Nero wasn't even in town. When he heard, he rushed back to Rome and did what he could to help. But Romans weren't convinced of his innocence, so he pointed the finger at Christians and had hundreds executed horribly and painfully. In reality, the fire probably did start by accident, although some historians still blame Nero and some think the more zealous Christians could have actually started it by trying to fulfill Biblical prophecies.

The Globe Theater

globe
It's easy to be snooty about your Shakespeare knowledge these days, or feel a little high brow if you're attending a stage production of King Lear or something. But in Shakespeare's time, the experience was actually really bawdy. The Globe was located in the same neighborhood as buildings that hosted cockfights, the place was lousy with pickpockets and it was totally commonplace for theatergoers to yell at the actors and throw things at the stage. With such craziness and riot-like crowds, it's not that surprising that a theatrical cannon went off in the wrong direction, hit the rafters and started a fire. The fire burned the Globe to the ground, but miraculously, records show that only one person was hurt. That's pretty amazing considering that the Globe often packed in 3,000 people for one play. And the one guy who was injured? Well, that was his own fault. When his pants caught on fire, he thought it would be best to extinguish the flames by dousing them with ale.

Tokyo

On September 2, 1923, a four-minute, 7.4-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake rocked Tokyo. It definitely did some damage, but worse were the fires that popped up everywhere afterward. It happened right around lunchtime, so thousands of stoves were lit. This resulted in, well, thousands of little fires that joined up with the large ones already in progress. All in all, the death toll was more than 130,000 with more than 700,000 residences destroyed. Worse, though, all of the mayhem created rumors that Japan was being invaded, so vigilante mobs started beating and killing non-Japanese, especially Koreans.

Dante's Inferno

DANTE

OK, it's a different type of fire, but a fire nonetheless. Dante Alighieri pretty much based his Inferno on creative ways of torturing people throughout history whom he really hated. Despite being more than a vengeful and, you know, creepy, it was actually a really good thing: he wrote in his native Italian, so ordinary people were able to read his writings. His books were so influential that a lot of his spellings and grammar have carried over into modern Italian.

Picture 4.pngIt's the greatest deal in the history of history books! Our first hardback, The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through History's Best Bits, hits stores later this month, and we're so excited that we've teamed up with the fine folks at Amazon.com to give you a special deal. Pre-order the book before October 27th and we'll throw in 6 FREE MONTHS of mental_floss magazine! Just click here to get the deal now.

For more about the book, check out our FAQ.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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