Wednesday, August 30

The Debunker: Why Does Washington, D.C. Have Its Strict Limit on Building Height?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Why Does Washington, D.C. Have Its Strict Limit on Building Height?

Visitors to the nation's capital often remark on Washington's broad boulevards and lovely vistas of the city's monuments, just like city planner Pierre L'Enfant drew things up in 1791. Washington's spacious vibe wasn't a happy accident; it was a result of Congress passing the Height of Buildings Act of 1899, which keeps high-rise development out of the District of Columbia. As many Washingtonians will tell you, backed by any number of books and articles and tourism bureaus, this far-sighted measure was taken to preserve the supremacy of the city's landmarks—by law, they say, no building in town can be higher than the Capitol dome. But that's not why the height limit was enacted at all.

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Wednesday, August 23

The Debunker: Is New Orleans Located Below Sea Level?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Is New Orleans Located Below Sea Level?

When the levees broke in New Orleans in 2005, I heard more than one person (thousands of miles away and unaffected by the disaster, of course!) note, with a smirk and a shrug, that, hey, that's what happens when you build a major coastal city below sea level. But I was shocked when this actually became a political talking point in the post-Katrina conversation. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert (recently in the news again doing prison time after accusations of being a serial child molester!) was asked about rebuilding New Orleans, given its low elevation, he replied, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."

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Wednesday, August 16

The Debunker: Did Peter Minuit Pay $24 for Manhattan?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Did Peter Minuit Pay $24 for Manhattan?

It's hard to walk around the densely crowded canyons of midtown Manhattan, home of the world's most expensive commercial real estate, and imagine the island as a primeval forest wilderness, purchased by Dutch colonist Peter Minuit from local Native Americans for just $24 in beads and trinkets. Twenty-four dollars! You can't even get into the Museum of Modern Art today for that!

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Wednesday, August 09

The Debunker: Are San Francisco's Cable Cars the Only Mobile National Monument?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Are San Francisco's Cable Cars the Only Mobile National Monument?

The Debunker

Years of Rice-a-Roni commercials might make you think you're an expert, but in fact out-of-towners get plenty wrong about transit in the city by the bay. BART, for example, is a regional train system that only has eight stops in San Francisco city limits; the lesser-known Muni Metro is the light rail that locals use to get around San Francisco (or "Frisco," as they like to call it). The Golden Gate Bridge isn't golden, it's painted a color called International Orange. (In fact, the name "Golden Gate" pre-dates the bridge and even the 1849 gold rush.) And the city's iconic heritage streetcars and cable cars are often confused, but are in fact are two completely distinct transit systems. The streetcars are electric trolleys that ride on rails, while the three cable car lines are pulled up the city's steeper hills by an underground cable that moves continuously.

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Wednesday, August 02

The Debunker: Is the "Windy City" Named for Bloviating Chicago Politicians?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Is the "Windy City" Named for Bloviating Chicago Politicians?

One of life's finest small joys is watching some would-be know-it-all correct someone about something—and get it wrong. For example, after hearing a reference to the windy lake weather of Chicago, a certain kind of pedant likes to insist that the "Windy City" nickname has nothing to do with climate, but is actually a reference to the endless talk of hot air-filled Chicago politicians. How smug they are, these people who know something you don't! (This column is exempt from this problem, of course. I'm in the debunking game not to feel better about myself, but for the noble goal of educating my fellow man.)

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Tuesday, August 30

The Debunker: Was "The Jazz Singer" the First Sound Film?

by Ken Jennings

This is the season of Hollywood's unrestrained id: the brainless summer blockbuster, the air-conditioned multiplex, the bottomless popcorn refills, the avalanche of kids emerging blinking into bright sunlight, waiting for their parental pickup. But August is also the anniversary of the movies themselves! It was on August 31, 1897 that Thomas Edison patented his first movie camera, the Kinetograph. In honor of 119 years of cinematic glitz and glamour, we've asked movie buff and Jeopardy! tough Ken Jennings to give us the "reel" truth on all kinds of old-movie misinformation.

The Debunker: Was The Jazz Singer the First Sound Film?

Every time the deafening THX or Dolby Digital logo appears on the screen of my neighborhood theater, I kneel down in my row and say a quick thank-you prayer to the makers of Hollywood's first "talkie," without which none of this would be possible. Thank you, movie gods, for…1928's Lights of New York. Oh, you thought I was talking about The Jazz Singer? Wait a minute, wait a minute—you ain't heard nothing yet.

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Tuesday, August 23

The Debunker: Was Ronald Reagan the First Choice to Star in "Casablanca"?

by Ken Jennings

This is the season of Hollywood's unrestrained id: the brainless summer blockbuster, the air-conditioned multiplex, the bottomless popcorn refills, the avalanche of kids emerging blinking into bright sunlight, waiting for their parental pickup. But August is also the anniversary of the movies themselves! It was on August 31, 1897 that Thomas Edison patented his first movie camera, the Kinetograph. In honor of 119 years of cinematic glitz and glamour, we've asked movie buff and Jeopardy! tough Ken Jennings to give us the "reel" truth on all kinds of old-movie misinformation.

The Debunker: Was Ronald Reagan the First Choice to Star in Casablanca?

It's one of the most storied "what if"s in Hollywood history: what if the most iconic screen role of the 1940s, the world-weary Rick Blaine in Casablanca, had been played by not by Humphrey Bogart but by a different actor? Furthermore, what if that actor had been genial future president Ronald Reagan? Reagan, according to movie lore, was Warner Brothers's first choice for the project.

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Tuesday, August 16

The Debunker: Do Movies Work Through "Persistence of Vision"?

by Ken Jennings

This is the season of Hollywood's unrestrained id: the brainless summer blockbuster, the air-conditioned multiplex, the bottomless popcorn refills, the avalanche of kids emerging blinking into bright sunlight, waiting for their parental pickup. But August is also the anniversary of the movies themselves! It was on August 31, 1897 that Thomas Edison patented his first movie camera, the Kinetograph. In honor of 119 years of cinematic glitz and glamour, we've asked movie buff and Jeopardy! tough Ken Jennings to give us the "reel" truth on all kinds of old-movie misinformation.

The Debunker: Do Movies Work Through "Persistence of Vision"?

Nearly every work on film theory begins with one starting principle: that the illusion of motion in motion pictures is only possible through a phenomenon called "persistence of vision." This was a turn-of-the-century attempt to explain the miracle that makes cinema possible: images flash on a screen, and even though they don't move, our brain believes they do. Psychologists decided that something called "persistence of vision" must be involved: some kind of retinal after-image in the eye itself weaves the still images together into a moving whole.

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Tuesday, August 09

The Debunker: What Kind Of Animal Roars At The Start Of The MGM Movies?

by Ken Jennings

This is the season of Hollywood's unrestrained id: the brainless summer blockbuster, the air-conditioned multiplex, the bottomless popcorn refills, the avalanche of kids emerging blinking into bright sunlight, waiting for their parental pickup. But August is also the anniversary of the movies themselves! It was on August 31, 1897 that Thomas Edison patented his first movie camera, the Kinetograph. In honor of 119 years of cinematic glitz and glamour, we've asked movie buff and Jeopardy! tough Ken Jennings to give us the "reel" truth on all kinds of old-movie misinformation.

The Debunker: What Kind Of Animal Roars At The Start Of The MGM Movies?

In 1924, theater magnate Marcus Loew merged his Metro Pictures with two other movie production companies belonging to Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer. The result was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the biggest and most legendary star factory of the Hollywood "studio era." MGM's marketing genius was a man named Howard Dietz, who had been Sam Goldwyn's director of publicity and advertising. Dietz was an alumnus of Columbia University, and adapted the Columbia lion mascot into Leo the Lion, who's now been roaring away for almost a century at the start of MGM movies, from Ben-Hur to Spectre.

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Monday, August 24

The Debunker: Is the Earth Closest to the Sun in the Summer?

by Ken Jennings

Take a break from your fun in the August sun to ask yourself: what do I really know about this giant glowing globe of plasma shining down on my picnic/game of Ultimate Frisbee/clothing-optional beach right now? Given that the Sun is what makes life on Earth possible, it's appalling how much misinformation we've been fed about our nearest star. Speaking of our nearest stars: Ken Jennings, that one guy from Jeopardy!, may not be as bright as the Sun, but he's an expert on debunking myths and misconceptions. All month, he'll be lighting up our stellar misconceptions regarding the sun.

The Debunker: Is the Earth Closest to the Sun in the Summer?

Yes, the Earth is closer to the sun in the summer! But only if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. If you're not Argentine or Australian, read on.

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