The Things You're Missing Out On!

Last month, Jason and I started a side project called Watercooler Ammo. It's a fun newsletter that comes out every Monday-Thursday, and it features one bit of perfectly curated, smile-inducing trivia. If you're not a subscriber, you can sign up here to try it out (you'll like it!). But if you need more convincing, these are just a few of the great stories you've been missing out on:

Long Live the (Part-Time) King!

Up until a few months ago, Peggielene Bartels was a secretary living alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, MD. Then, in the middle of the night, she got a call from Ghana. Her distant uncle-- who had been king of a village-- had passed away, and the tribal elders on the phone wanted to know whether she'd take over.

After a lot of debate, Peggielene decided to wear the crown. Now, she uses all of her vacation days in Otuam, Ghana where she stays in an 8 bedroom palace, and spends her time sorting out the problems of her 7,000 subjects! And while a few of the elders were keen to crown a woman king because they thought she'd be a pushover, Peggielene refuses to let the chauvinism get in her way. She's already rooted out a good bit of corruption. And she's working hard to install computers in Otuam's schools, dig new wells in the region, and bring up the region's literacy rates. While she's a part-time ruler for now, once King Bartels retires from her job in 5 or 6 years, she plans to move to Otuam. As she put it in this wonderful Washington Post write-up "Late in life, God gave me many children. Now I have 7,000 of them and I must raise them the best I can."

The Weirdest Birthday Present Ever

Metro UK is reporting on what has to be the strangest (and creepiest!) kid's birthday gift ever. In Switzerland, parents are flocking to hire "Evil Clown" Dominic Deville to surprise their kids on the week leading up their birthdays. For a fee, Dominic will personally stalk your children-- following them around, leaving notes that he's watching, sending text messages and setting little traps in mailboxes. Then, at the end of the week, the Evil Clown will jump out from nowhere, chase your kid down and then... throw a cake in their face. According to Deville: "Most kids absolutely love being scared senseless." And while that may be true, I think I would have preferred a Nintendo game and an ice cream sundae to all this special attention.

The Time the Army Stopped Niagara Falls

A few weeks ago we were stunned to learn that scientists once actually stopped the falls from flowing. Here's what happened: In 1969, the Army Corps of Engineers were engaged in erosion control efforts at Niagara. Apparently, the force of the falls had been wearing down the rocks and riverbed on the American side, and if left as is, would have caused serious devastation. So, the Army basically built a dam to divert the Niagara River's flow to the Canadian side for 6 months! In the process, they studied the riverbed and "mechanically bolted and strengthened any faults they found." In any case, whatever they did seems to have worked. To redivert the water back to the American side of the falls, the Army corps simply dynamited the dam they constructed. The photo to the left is just one pic of the eerily dry falls, but you can see more stunning photos at this Flickr gallery.

The Height of the Party

If you're into theme parties, check out Hans Hemmert's Same Height Party. The German artist constructed a whole bunch of different-sized foam shoe lifts that he custom-designed for his guests. The result? A party where everyone was exactly 6 feet 7 inches tall, and at one another's eye-level. Of course, while the photos show that Hemmert has a real grasp on the concept, it looks like he could use some help in the appetizers and decor department. Link via the always fascinating Presurfer.

Balloony Tunes

Last week, after finally seeing the gorgeous, animated film Up, we started wondering how many helium balloons it would take to move a real-life house. Luckily, the folks at Wired had the same question. To fact-check the science, the magazine first called a mover that specializes in moving old houses. He determined that the structure would weigh about 100,000 lbs. Then Wired put their calculators to use. According to the article, if you use balloons that are 3 feet in diameter, you'll need about 105,854 balloons. (According to their estimates, the animators in Up drew in about 112,000 balloons.) While it's strange that you can technically move a house with party balloons, what we find even stranger is that there's a crazy subculture of people who enjoy "Cluster Ballooning." Essentially, they just tie a huge number of large helium balloons to a harness, strap on parachute (just in case), and then float to heights of 3,000-5,000 feet. Some cluster balloonists have even hit heights of 20,000 feet! To see pics of people in flight, be sure to click here. And to read more on the science of Up, be sure to check out this delightful piece at

Convinced yet? Go ahead and subscribe to our Watercooler Ammo newsletter here. We promise you won't regret it!

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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