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The Quick 10: 10 Pirate Myths and Surprises

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I was in Chicago for Lollapalooza two weekends ago "“ Armchair Fieldtrip coming soon "“ and, being the nerd that I am, would have been excited about making time to visit the Field Museum no matter what. But when we approached the museum and saw this, I was really excited:


There's an exhibit there right now about pirates "“ specifically, how the slave ship Whydah ("wih-duh" or "wee-duh" but not "Y-duh") became a pirate ship, how it ended up at the bottom of the ocean, and what happened to all of the men on board. It was really fascinating, and it's not just at the Field Museum "“ it's been traveling the country, so maybe you've seen it. Now, I know that the movie version of pirates is not the real way pirates acted and operated, but I was pretty surprised by some of the things I learned nonetheless. Hopefully you will be too!

blackbeard1. Pirate flags weren't always just white skull and crossbones on a field of black. There were many different versions and the symbols on them represented different things. A plain black flag represented the death of a crew member, an hourglass represented the swift passage of time, and a wounded heart indicated danger. The flag to the left is attributed to Blackbeard.
2. We might think of pirates as grizzled old men, but in reality, most of them were probably in their '20s (with exceptions, of course). Lots of them were guys who had been merchant and navy sailors who couldn't make a living based on that salary, and the life of a pirate actually offered more freedom and democracy as well. Some of them started out on the seas pillaging other ships legally - at least, legally according to their countries. Many pirates were first privateers, men employed by their governments to attack enemy merchant ships.

loot3. Pirate treasure is one of the most enduring myths and intriguing legends in history. But in reality, only one treasure trove has ever been found: The Whydah's. Pirates split up the treasure amongst themselves (very fairly, most of the time) and each pirate spent it pretty quickly. Which makes sense - it's not like they could invest it in their 401(k)s. But when the Whydah sank, it took booty from more than 50 looted ships down with it. The loot was worth more than 20,000 pounds sterling. Photo from the Field Museum.

4. Pirates typically did not make members of the crew walk the plank after a disagreement, or leave them abandoned on a desert island like what happened to Captain Jack and Elizabeth Swann ("But why is the rum gone?"). The whole crew would take a vote - I told you, Democratic! - and the majority ruled. That's how captains were overthrown - not bloody battles to the death.

5. Pirates received workman's comp! Injured pirates received money for injuries received in the line of duty. The worse the injury, the more money the pirate could expect. For example, on the Whydah, "If any Man should lose a Limb, or become a Cripple, he is to have 800 Dollars out of ye Common Stock, & for lesser hurts, Proportionally."

6. In a time when people still owned slaves and treated them like livestock (or worse), pirates were surprisingly unprejudiced. They didn't care where members of the crew came from or what they looked like, as long as they could earn their keep around the ship. They welcomed freed and runaway slaves "“ in fact, Blackbeard's crew was about 60% black. Women, however, were not allowed to be pirates. But in those days, it wasn't that hard for a woman to dress up in men's clothes and pass as male if she really wanted to. There were at least two famous female pirates and probably a lot more that we don't know about because their true identities were never discovered.

johnking7. Remember how I said there were exceptions to the "Pirates were probably in their '20s" rule? There's one very notable exception - John King, who was about nine years old when he joined the crew of the Whydah. He was a passenger on the sloop Bonetta when it was captured by the Whydah crew and demanded to join them. They said no, and his mother said no, so he threatened to kill himself. They relented, little John became a pirate, and he sank with the Whydah less than a year later. A small shoe, stocking, and leg bone were recovered from the ship's wreckage that seem to back the story of the young pirate. Photo from the Field Museum.

8. Pirates didn't often attack other ships by sinking them and slaughtering the crew. Usually just firing a warning shot and flying the Jolly Roger was enough to scare a ship into submission; once they had surrendered, the pirate quartermaster would ask the merchant ship's crew what they thought of their captain. If he was a cruel captain, the pirates would beat him and maybe even execute him. But if the crew reported that the captain was just, then the pirates would usually give the captain and his crew one of the lesser pirate ships and send them on their way. I guess that would be pretty good incentive to be good to your crew "“ you never knew when a pirate attack would happen, putting you on immediate trial!

9. Despite their general fairness and surprising democratic ways, sometimes pirates did force men to join their crew against their will. But not just any random man "“ the ship needed skilled people like doctors and carpenters. When pirates would capture ships that contained some of these skilled workers, they would force them to sign the pirate articles or die. But hey, the pirate articles weren't so bad "“ they guaranteed each member an equal share of whatever goods they, um, "collected"; equal voting rights; and the chance to be elected officer.

10. It wasn't all pillaging and plundering. Sometimes being a pirate was really boring. So to amuse themselves, they drank, of course, but they also sometimes gambled (some ships forbade it, though), sang, danced, and put on plays. Once, some of the crew members of the Whydah were putting on a play about a pirate trial, and had just gotten to the point where one of the pirates was being sentenced to death for his crimes. A group of drunken crew members stumbled in, and, not realizing that it was fake, started fighting to defend their shipmate. They threw grenades, broke one man's leg, killed an audience member and cut off the playwright's arm before they realized it was just a play. Whoops.

So, there you have it! I suddenly have the urge ("Pirate Fever," my sister-in-law would call it) to watch a certain series of Johnny Depp movies"¦ Arrr!!

Have a Q10 request? I'm on Twitter and I'm all ears! Err... all keys. Something.


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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.


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


"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


"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


"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



"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


"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


"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


"[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


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

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


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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