Cyclopedia of Factoids - The Letter B

Entries written by Sam Vaknin for the Links and Factoids Study List


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Barbie was invented by Ruth Handler in 1959. It was modelled on a minuscule German sex doll called "Lilli". Barbie was the nickname of Ruth's daughter, Barbara. Ruth proceeded to found Mattel with her husband, Elliott. It is now one of the world's largest toy manufacturers (revenues - c. $5 billion annually, a third of which in Barbie sales). More than 1 billion Barbies were sold by 1996. Mattel commemorated this event by manufacturing a "Dream Barbie".

 Bathory, Erszebet

 If you think that today's serial killers are unsurpassed, try this for size:

In 1611, Countess Erszebet Bathory was tried - though, being a noblewoman, not convicted - in Hungary for slaughtering 612 young girls. The true figure may have been 40-100, though the Countess recorded in her diary more than 610 girls and 50 bodies were found in her estate when it was raided.

The girls were not killed outright. They were kept in a dungeon and repeatedly pierced, prodded, pricked, and cut. The Countess may have bitten chunks of flesh off their bodies while alive. She is said to have bathed and showered in their blood in the mistaken belief that she could thus slow down the aging process.

Her servants were executed, their bodies burnt and their ashes scattered. Being royalty, she was merely confined to her bedroom until she died in 1614.

She was married to a descendant of Vlad Dracula of Bram Stoker fame.

She was notorious as an inhuman sadist long before her hygienic fixation. She once ordered the mouth of a talkative servant sewn. It is rumoured that in her childhood she witnessed a gypsy being sewn into a horse's stomach and left to die.

For a hundred years after her death, by royal decree, mentioning her name in Hungary was a crime.


When President John F. Kennedy sought to impress the Germans in 1961 - then besieged by the Russians - he visited Germany and famously said, in a public speech: "Ich bin ein Berliner". Alas, "Berliner" in German is also a kind of yummy doughnut with jam filling and vanilla icing. This gave rise to the fallacy - adopted even by "The Economist" - that "Berliner" is wrong usage or gaffe.

It is not. "Berliner" in German means "that which belongs to Berlin or of Berlin". The Berlin Wall is the "Berliner Mauer", for instance. Berlinerin is the female form of Berliner. Kennedy was grammatically correct to have said "Ich bin ein Berliner".



The Jews do not include the 27 books of New Testament in their Bible. The factoids below relate to the version of the Bible used by Christians everywhere: Old (39 books) and New Testament. Altogether 1189 chapters (929 of which are in the Old Testament), 31173 verses. The Old Testament contains 592439 words (2728100 letters), the New Testament contains 181253 words (838380 letters). Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 14 were written by St. Paul.

The Bible contains words in Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek.

The Bible is the bestseller of all times. More than 50 copies are still being sold every minute. The Bible is also the most shoplifted book in the world.

According to the Concordance - a compilation of the words and names in the Bible - cats are not mentioned at all. Christians appear only 3 times (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The words "grandmother" and "eternity" only once each. The Bible records seven suicides and seven different Jeremiahs - but not a single "trinity".

The books of Esther and the Song of Solomon do not contain the word "God". The Jewish codifiers of the Bible almost left them out (i.e., almost declared them apocryphal).

Amen is the word that seals the Bible.


The bobtail squid lives in the shallow waters of the coast of Hawaii. During the day, it is buried deep in the sand. It emerges to hunt at nightfall. Moonlight is its mortal enemy: conveniently for its predators, the squid casts a black and moving shadow. To fend off these risks, the squid emits a blue glow from a "light organ". The luminosity perfectly matches the amount of moonlight filtering through the water, rendering the squid indistinguishable from its light-flooded environs.

To generate the fine tuned radiance, the squid hosts a community of luminescent bacteria called Vibrio fischeri. From the first moments of its life, the squid circulates bacteria-infested seawater through a hollow chamber in its body. Only the Vibrio fischeri cells are caught by the squid's tiny cilia. Henceforth, the squid provides his microscopic "prisoners" with oxygen and amino acids - and they reciprocate with emitted light.

The squid constantly monitors to what extent the night sky is illuminated, using dedicated sensors on the surface of its body. It then adjusts an iris-like "shutter" to release the correct amount of light from his bacterial colony. The squid replaces the hosted vibrios daily.

Still, bacteria multiply ceaselessly. How is a constant level of luminescence maintained as time passes?

Woody Hastings, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois, noticed in the early 1960s that though the bacterial population doubles every 20 minutes - the quantity of luciferase (the light producing enzyme) remains constant for up to five hours. luciferase production resumes only when a certain "critical mass" (quantitative threshold) is attained. This is called "quorum sensing".

Black Death

AIDS has infected hitherto 42 million people, of which perhaps 22 million have died.

The "Black Death" - an epidemic of bubonic plague which ravaged both Europe and the Mediterranean in 1347-1351- killed one quarter to one third of the population - c. 25 million people. This is the equivalent of 250 million today. It took 150 years for the population to recover its pre-epidemic levels.

Scholars believe that the plague emanated from the Middle East through southern Russia, between the Black and the Caspian seas.

Contemporaries did not use the term "Black Death". They called it the "Pestilence" or the "Great Mortality". They regarded it as divine punishment of humanity's sins.

Black Holes

Black holes are extremely dense bodies. Their density and gravitation are so enormous that it was thought nothing - not even electromagnetic radiation such as light - can escape them once caught by their gravitational pull. Hence the "black" in "black holes". This is what laymen and the media know about them.

Yet, the truth is different.

The English physicist Stephen William Hawking proved that in the vicinity of tiny black holes, it is possible for one member of an electron-positron or proton-antiproton pair of particles to escape while the other is hurled towards the singularity (i.e., the center of the black hole). The escaping particle draws energy from the black hole itself and thus "evaporates" it. It is as if the black hole gives off heat, thermal radiation.

Bolivar, Simon

Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) is a Latin American folk hero, revered for having been a revolutionary freedom fighter, a compassionate egalitarian and a successful politician. He is credited with the liberation from Spanish colonial yoke of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, a country named after him. Venezuela's new strongman, Hugo Chavez, renamed his country The Bolivarian republic of Venezuela to reflect the role of his "Bolivarian revolution".

Yet, while alive, Bolivar was a much hated dictator and - at the beginning of his career - a military failure.

His aide and friend, Gen. Daniel O'Leary, an Irish soldier described him so:

"His chest was narrow, his figure slender, his legs particularly thin. His skin was swarthy and rather coarse. His hands and feet were small …a woman might have envied them. His expression, when he was in good humor, was pleasant, but it became terrible when he was aroused. The change was unbelievable."

Bolivar explained his motives:

"I confess this (the coronation of Napoleon in 1804) made me think of my unhappy country and the glory which he would win who should liberate it"

And, later, after a victory against the Spaniards in 1819:

"The triumphal arches, the flowers, the hymns, the acclamations, the wreaths offered and placed upon my head by the hands of lovely maidens, the fiestas, the thousand demonstrations of joy are the least of the gifts that I have received," he wrote. "The greatest and dearest to my heart are the tears, mingled with the rapture of happiness, in which I have been bathed and the embraces with which the multitude have all but crushed me."

Venezuela became independent in 1811 and Bolivar, being a minor - though self-aggrandizing - political figure, had little to do with it. After his first major military defeat, in defending the coastal town of Puerto Cabello against royalist insurgents out to oust the newly independent Venezuela, he advocated the creation of a professional army (in the Cartagena Manifesto). Far from being a revolutionary he, justly, opposed the reliance on guerrilleros and militiamen.

He then reconquered Caracas, Venezuela's capital, at the head of a small army and declared himself a dictator. He made Congress award him the title of El Libertador (the Liberator). The seeds of his personality cult were sown. When he lost Caracas to the royalists in yet another botched campaign, he retreated and captured Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia in December 1814.

After a series of uninterrupted military defeats, Bolivar exiled himself to Jamaica. In a sudden conversion, he published the Jamaica Letter (1815) in which he supported a model of government akin to the British parliamentary system - yet, only following a phase of "guided leadership" (identical to Hitler's "Fuhrerprinzip").

But the self-anointed leader did not hesitate to desert his soldiers and leave them stranded after yet another of his military exploits - an attempt to capture Caracas - unravelled in 1816. He simply defected to Haiti, letting his loyal troops fend for themselves as best they could.

There followed a string of successful - even brilliant - battles and coalitions with local warlords and politicians which culminated in the liberation of Peru. In 1824, Bolivar was declared dictator - or, to be precise, "Emperor" - of Peru and commander in chief of its army. Bolivar liked power and its trappings. In the constitution he composed in 1826, he suggested that the president of Bolivia - the name given to the entire region, except Peru - should be appointed for life and should have the right to choose his successor.

This president - presumably, Bolivar - was described unabashedly by Bolivar himself as:

"The sun which, fixed in its orbit, imparts life to the universe. …Upon him rests our entire order, notwithstanding his lack of powers …a life term president, with the power to choose his successor, is the most sublime inspiration amongst republican regimes."

In a letter to Santander, the Liberator expounded:

"I am convinced, to the very marrow of my bones, that our America can only be ruled through a well-managed, shrewd despotism."

The National Geographic describes how:

"William Tudor, the American consul at Lima, wrote in 1826 of the 'deep hypocrisy' of Bolívar, who allowed himself to be deceived by the 'crawling, despicable flattery of those about him.' Later, John Quincy Adams would define Bolívar's military career as 'despotic and sanguinary' and state baldly that 'he cannot disguise his hankering after a crown.' In Bogotá the U. S. minister and future president, Gen. William Henry Harrison, accused Bolívar of planning to turn Gran Colombia into a monarchy: 'Under the mask of patriotism and attachment to liberty, he has really been preparing the means of investing himself with arbitrary power.' "

When, in 1828, a constitutional convention in Colombia rejected amendments to the constitution that he proposed, Bolivar assumed dictatorial powers in a coup d'etat.

Now, Bolivar was the oppressor. He has murdered, or exiled his political rivals throughout his career. He confiscated church funds and imposed onerous taxes on the populace. Consequently, the "Liberator" faced numerous uprisings and narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. By the time he died he was so despised that the government of Venezuela refused to allow his body onto its soil. It took 12 years of constant petitioning by the family to let his remains be interred in the country that he helped found.


Mary Phelps Jacob - a rich socialite - received the first patent for a bra in 1914. Her corset - replete with whaleback bones was visible under a brand new evening gown she purchased. She used handkerchiefs and ribbon to replace the bones. The bra was born. she sold the patent to  Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500. They made $15 million over the next 30 years. Bras were one size fits all until 1928.

An interesting coincidence: one of the forerunners of the bra was patented by a George Phelps in 1875. Other bra-like devices were patented in 1893 and 1889.

During the first world war, in 1917, the US War Industries Board called on women to stop buying metal-rich corsets. Some 28,000 tons of metals were thus made available to the war effort.

Burma (Aung San)

Aung San Suu Kyi is a much revered opposition leader in Myanmar (Burma) (born 1945). She has bravely resisted - and still does - the murderous military regime in her homeland and has won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Her mother was ambassador to India in the 1960s. She is cherished by all her countrymen.

Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of an illustrious figure in Burmese history, a national hero - Aung San, who was murdered in 1947.

Aung San may be a hero to the Burmese but he has collaborated with the Japanese war-crime tainted military machine throughout the second world war - though he conveniently switch allegiances to the winning side five months before the Japanese capitulated.

Aung San raised a Burmese contingent - the "Burma Independence Army" - to assist the Japanese in their invasion of Burma in 1942. He was rewarded with the post of minister of defense in Ba Maw's puppet government (1943-5).

In March 1945, in what amounted to a coup, he opportunistically defected, together with the Burma National Army, to the Allies, and worked closely with the British, whom he hitherto claimed to have been fighting for independence.

When the war was over, he established a private militia, under his commend - the People's Volunteer Organization. He proceeded to negotiate Burma's independence from Britain and its first elections. He was murdered - with his brother and four others - probably by a political opponent, U Saw, in 1947.

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