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Explaining the Chinese Zodiac (Just in Time for Chinese New Year)

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According to legend, the celebration of the Chinese New Year began with a monster called Nian. The beast would arrive on the first day of the new year and devour crops, livestock and people. To protect themselves, people put food outside their doors, hoping that Nian wouldn't attack after eating. They also used firecrackers to scare it away. One year, Nian was driven from a village by a child wearing red clothes, so people began hanging red lanterns and scrolls on their windows and doors when a new year began—and Nian never returned. (Nian was eventually captured by Hongjunlaozu, a Taoist monk, and became his mount.)

Today, the Chinese New Year is celebrated with a festival that begins on the first day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar and ends on the fifteenth day (at least since the Han Dynasty—before that, dynasties celebrated during the twelfth, eleventh or tenth months). The Nian legend explains the food, the lanterns and the fireworks that we associate with the holiday, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who knows his Chinese zodiac sign, but doesn't know story behind it. Let's fix that.

What's your sign? (And what are the signs?)

While we have a linear concept of time in the West, the traditional Chinese calendar is cyclical and based on the cycles of the moon (China has used the Western calendar since 1911, but the lunar version is still used for holidays and festive occasions). A folk method for keeping track of the years is the twelve animal signs. Each year is assigned an animal according to this cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep (or Ram), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar (or Pig).

In addition to the 12-year animal zodiac, there's a 10-year cycle of ten "heavenly stems" composed of the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) in their alternating yin and yang forms. Together, they form a 60-year cycle that begins with Yang Wood Rat and ends with Yin Water Boar. The last cycle began in 1984 and will end in 2044. Today, we enter the 26th year of the cycle—Yin Earth Ox.

Why are the animals in that order?

According to Chinese legend, when the system was created, thirteen animals argued about who got to be first in the cycle of years. The gods (or the Jade Emperor or the Buddha, depending on where you hear the story) decided that a contest was the only fair way to settle the matter. The animals would race across a river and be placed in the cycle in the order that they finished.

zodiac.jpgThe Rat & The Ox: The thirteen animals gathered on one side of the river and jumped in. The rat was a poor swimmer and decided that the best way to cross the river was to ride on the ox's back. The ox—apparently a little naïve—let the rat on board. As soon as the ox crossed the river, the rat jumped off his back and, in a photo finish, touched the shore first.

The Tiger: Not far behind was the tiger, which had a harder time fighting the river's current than the ox, but was just strong enough to come in third.

The Rabbit & The Dragon: The rabbit arrived next, explaining that it planned to cross the river by jumping from one stone to another. Halfway across, though, the rabbit hopped onto a floating log and almost got swept downstream. The log somehow washed up on shore. The dragon, which flew across the river, came in fifth. The gods were curious as to why a mighty flying dragon didn't come in first place. The dragon explained that it had to stop to make rain for the earth. On the way to the finish line, the dragon saw rabbit clinging to a log and decided to do a good deed and blow the log to shore.

The Snake & The Horse: The horse then came galloping up onto the shore, only to be surprised by the sight of the snake, which had hidden itself wrapped around the horse's hoof. The startled horse fell backwards into the river, allowing the snake the sixth spot, while the horse placed seventh.

The Ram, The Monkey & The Rooster: The ram, monkey and rooster came ashore together after helping each other across the river. The rooster spotted a raft at the start of the race and agreed to share if the others rowed. The gods placed them in the order they stepped off the raft.

The Dog & The Pig: The dog, which was supposed to be the best swimmer of the bunch, came in eleventh place. It explained that it was so far behind because it hadn't had a good bath in a while and decided to take one in the river. The pig, which finished last, also got held up when it got hungry during the race and stopped for lunch and a nap.

And the 13th animal that started the race? The cat was also riding on the ox's back, but the rat pushed the cat into the river, costing it a spot in the cycle. This must be why cats don't like rats or water to this day.

Making pigs (and rats and oxen and rams, etc.) of ourselves

Each animal has a distinct personality, and the animal sign a person is born under is believed to bestow upon them certain traits and characteristics. But the animals assigned by year are not the only factor. There are also inner animal signs (representing the person you would like to be) assigned to the month you were born and secret animal signs (representing the side of you hidden from the rest of the world) assigned to the shichen or "large-hour" (two-hour period of the day) during which you were born. I was born in the year of the Rat, but I'm a Dog internally and a Monkey secretly.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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