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Chloe Effron

25 Star-Studded Facts About California

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Chloe Effron

California occupies an outsized place in most minds. In the popular imagination, California is all palm trees, sunshine, and Hollywood starlets. But there’s more to the nation’s most populous state, and one of the world’s top 10 economies (it's currently neck and neck with Brazil), than just the film industry and temperate weather. 

1. According to one story, its name comes from a Spanish romance novel. Las Sergas de Esplandián, the fifth book in a romance series by Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, was published in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, a few decades before the Spaniards came upon California for the first time. California is described as an island inhabited only by black women, and ruled by Queen Calafia. 

Image Credit: Nicolas Sanson via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

2. And Europeans did initially think it was an island. Early maps depicted California as its own island off the coast of Mexico. It was only later that explorers discovered that what is now Baja California was a peninsula. The Mexican territory of Alta California, established in 1824, encompassed not only what is now known as California, but Nevada, Utah, parts of Wyoming, and other western states. 

3. It’s one of the only states that rests on two major tectonic plates. The San Andreas Fault, which runs up southern California through the San Francisco peninsula, separates the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Most of the U.S. is on the North American plate, though the Pacific Plate is also slipping beneath the North American plate in the Gulf of Alaska

4. Southern California has about 10,000 earthquakes a year, though most of them are too small to feel. The earliest earthquake reported in the state was in 1769 near Los Angeles. 

5. The first state park was created there. President Abraham Lincoln signed the act granting the land within the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California in 1864. The land was eventually returned to the federal government to become part of Yosemite National Park. 

6. It’s home to the world’s largest living tree. General Sherman is a giant sequoia whose trunk volume is estimated to be about 52,500 cubic feet, and it’s 275 feet high. A naturalist named it in 1879 for his commanding officer in the Union cavalry during the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman. 

The Giant Artichoke's giant artichoke in Castroville, California. Image Credit: Dana Payne via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

7. It’s home to the world’s largest artichoke … made out of concrete. The 20-foot-tall artichoke statue is outside a restaurant called the Giant Artichoke in Castroville, a 6500-person town that grows nearly all of the state’s—and by extension, most of the nation’s—artichokes. The artichoke is such a big part of California's crop output that in 2013, the lieutenant governor made it the state vegetable. 

8. In 1947, Castroville hosted its inaugural Artichoke Festival, and, as a publicity stunt from which both parties would benefit, convinced a rising starlet to serve as its first Artichoke Queen. Her name? Marilyn Monroe.

9. It’s full of rocks. According to the California State Library, it’s home to a wider variety of rock types than any other state. It was the first state to name an official state rock, choosing the green-and-blue serpentine in 1965. In 2010, the California state legislature introduced a bill to strip the mineral of its designation, as serpentine is linked to asbestos. It did not pass. 

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.Image Credit: iStock

10. It hosts an annual marathon race between the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. Each year, runners compete in the Badwater 135, an ultramarathon that stretches across a 135-mile course from Death Valley’s Badwater Basin (elevation: 282 feet below sea level) to Mount Whitney (elevation: 14,505 feet). As the crow flies, the distance between the two is only 76 miles

11. It’s integral to space exploration. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located at the California Institute of Technology, is the leading center for the space agency’s robotic solar system exploration missions, like the Mars rover Curiosity. 

12. If you’re drinking craft beer, there’s a good chance it’s from California. The state has more craft breweries than any other, according to the Brewers Association, and makes more than 3.4 million barrels of craft beer per year. 

13. It produces a surprising amount of cheese. Wisconsin may be known as the cheese state, but California has been upping its cheese production steadily for the last few decades. The state produced 2.4 billion pounds of cheese in 2014, compared to Wisconsin’s 2.9 billion pounds.  

14. Happy cows come from California … or do they? Since 2000, the California Milk Advisory Board has been running commercials picturing cows hanging out in scenic California pastures. “Real cheese comes from happy cows,” the commercials repeat. “Happy cows come from California.” PETA later sued the organization saying that the board couldn’t prove that California cows were happy with industrial farming conditions. The lawsuit was tossed in 2012. 

15. It’s an anti-smoking pioneer. In 1990, the Californian city of San Luis Obispo became the first city to ban indoor smoking in all public spaces, even in bars and restaurants. In 1998, the rest of the state followed suit. 

16. It takes a progressive stance on other issues too. Recently, the state has become the first to ban the use of  “Redskins” as a public school mascot, single-use plastic bags (legislation that passed but is currently on hold), and is implementing new energy efficiency standards on power-guzzling plasma televisions

17. The hottest temperature ever officially recorded on earth was in California. In July 1913, temperatures in Death Valley National Park reached 134°F. 

18. The first Chinatown established in America was in San Francisco. Chinese immigrants flooded to the West Coast during the Gold Rush and the construction of the trans-continental railroad. Racism and exclusionary laws preventing Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens drove them to form their own community within the city. The original San Francisco neighborhood was destroyed in the wake of the 1906 earthquake, but was rebuilt into the tourist destination it has become today. 

19. The current governor was one of the youngest and the oldest in state history. Jerry Brown has been California’s governor since 2011, but he also ran the state from 1975 to 1983. A loophole in the 1990 law limiting a California governor to two terms allowed him (and the three other former governors still living at the time) to run for office again. When he was elected in 1974 at the age of 36, he was the youngest governor of the state since 1863. Now, at 77, he’s the nation's oldest governor

20. Only one president has been born there. Though President Ronald Reagan served as the state’s governor from 1967 to 1975, he was born in Illinois. The only Californian president was Richard Nixon, who was born and raised near Los Angeles. 

The Channel Islands. Image Credit: iStock

21. Some of the earliest human remains found in the Western Hemisphere have been discovered there. Named Arlington Springs Man, this individual’s remains were uncovered in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island, part of southern California’s Channel Islands. This person likely lived around 13,000 years ago, as scientists confirmed in 1999. 

22. It boasts some of the earliest evidence for a seafaring economy in North America. In 2011, researchers discovered the archaeological remains of sophisticated stone projectiles on the Channel Islands. The evidence points to a diverse ocean-based economy among the area’s inhabitants as much as 12,200 years ago. 

23. It has an ocean and a sea. Millions of years ago, the Salton Sea in Southern California was part of the Gulf of California (that strip of water that separates Baja from the rest of Mexico) but later was separated by silt from the Colorado River. Several ancient lakes occupied what was now the Salton Sea, but the body of water is actually quite modern. In the early 1900s, the Colorado River broke through the irrigation system of Imperial County, just next to the Mexican border, and flooded the area, which included a salt factory. The expansive salt deposits, in addition to salts from the river, made the new, 35-mile-wide “sea” salty. 

24. Samuel Clemens wasn’t born in California, but Mark Twain was. The Missouri-born Clemens headed to California in 1864, finding work at a San Francisco newspaper. During a winter sojourn at a cabin in Jackass Hill, Twain heard a story about a jumping frog. That tale became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a story that made a name for the humor writer and convinced him that writing was his future. 

25. It’s home to two quintessentially American products: blue jeans and Barbie dolls

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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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