Do Fish Drink Water?: Puzzling and Improbable Questions and Answers

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Spanning a spectrum from useful to bizarre to downright comical, this amusing, amazing Internet Q & A ranges form a language to geography to medicine to simply off the wall. As the official Webmaster for Xerox, Bill McLain is responsible for handling all mail from Xerox's external Web site. However, he was quickly surprised by the kinds of questions he was receiving, questions like whether people born blind can see in their dreams, where the lowest point on Earth is, and why...

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Spanning a spectrum from useful to bizarre to downright comical, this amusing, amazing Internet Q & A ranges form a language to geography to medicine to simply off the wall. As the official Webmaster for Xerox, Bill McLain is responsible for handling all mail from Xerox's external Web site. However, he was quickly surprised by the kinds of questions he was receiving, questions like whether people born blind can see in their dreams, where the lowest point on Earth is, and why rabbits are associated with Easter.

In a move that brought national attention from MSNBC, CNN, and People magazine, McLain began to answer each and every question he received. The result -- collected in Do Fish Drink Water? --is a surprising, funny, and informative collection of facts. McLain even explains the origin of the Christmas tree, what caused the Great Depression of 1929, and how to properly eat an Oreo cookie. He can even tell you why cats purr!

McLain's answers -- often as wild as the questions -- prompt entertaining anecdotes about where he found them, and how he's played a role in inventions, long-delayed reunions, and even a marriage or two. He also provides an extensive list of Web sites where he conducts research, offering an informative guide to making the most of the Internet.

*Although fish do drink water, their primary method of obtaining fresh water is through osmosis. The water seeps into their body through tiny holes in their skin.

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Editorial Reviews

San Jose Mercury News
The legions who have dropped him a line have dubbed McLain...Prophet, Answer Dude, Webmeister, Guru of Locating' Unusual Informtion.
San Francisco Chronicle
A veritable Internet legend known for having all the answers.
Library Journal
Xerox web master McLain has compiled a fascinating, often hilarious list of questions submitted by the public to the Xerox web site and their supposed answers. The questions are divided into 20 categories, ranging from "Animal Kingdom" ("On a turkey, what is the name of that red thing that hangs down over the beak?") to "World" ("What are the seven wonders of the natural world?") to "Off the Wall" ("How long would it take to vacuum the state of Ohio?"). In addition to responding to these queries, McLain provides, at the end of each section, a list of between three and ten web sites that he recommends for further research. The "United States" section, for example, lists web sites for zip codes, the CIA, and the FBI as well as an online phone directory; the "Sports" section supplies URLs for the National Football League, major league baseball, and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the last few pages, McLain also lists major web search engines and offers a few general tips. With the exception of the suggested web sites, this title is similar to David Feldman's "Imponderables" series. Unfortunately, like the books in Feldman's series, this volume also suffers from a reliability problem: although McLain's answers sound authoritative, he only infrequently provides their original source. (And a surprisingly large number of answers in each section cannot be found using the web sites McLain recommends.) While this book is entertaining and makes for enjoyable browsing, it is not an appropriate choice for most reference collections. Recommended only for larger public libraries with a demand for humorous trivia books.--Leah J. Sparks, Bowie P.L., MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fun, fact-filled snack for the terminally informed. Who would ask or answer a question like, "Do people who were born blind ever dream?" The answer is, a Webmaster at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. And yes, blind people hear and feel in their dreams. In 20 chapters like Food, Music, Finance, Words, and including Odds and Ends and Off the Wall, McLain provides intriguing questions and answers along with subsections like Did You Know?, Factoids, and references to Web sites and Internet resources for further information (including Santa's e-mail address). The many diverse facts are enlivened by the author's wit, so that the Sports question "What is the difference between billiards, snooker, and pool?" is followed by the parenthetic "Are you waiting for a cue?" Many of the Ripley's-type facts intend to astound more than stump, such as the printing of a $100,000 bill and the existence of a 12,000-year-old shrub. Other information challenges us to know why "Geronimo" is yelled before leaping (the chief escaped the cavalry with a daring jump) or why our keyboards are designed as they are (the T and H keys require different fingers to keep typewriters from jamming). Most of the challenges challenge, but we knew that green mailboxes aren't for mailing. At least half of the book, however, is stuff we didn't want to know, such as that a Johnny Carson joke began a toilet-paper shortage, that there's a name on the US map 49 letters long, and that the nation's favorite pizza topping is pepperoni. If going to the beach this August and being out of touch with our information overload makes you feel like a fish out water, then this is the book to take along.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762854875
  • Publication date: 7/15/2001

Meet the Author

The Internet's legendary "Answer Whiz," Bill McLain was Xerox Corporation's official Webmaster. Responsible for the e-mails sent to the company Website, McLain and his team responded to an astounding 750-1,000 questions daily. While most of the e-mails he received were Xerox-related, every day scores of curious fact-seekers wrote with questions ranging from the bizarre to the useful to the downright comical. McLain collected the most memorable of these questions, along with his equally memorable answers, in What Makes Flamingoes Pink? and in its predecessor, Do Fish Drink Water? He lives in Santa Clara, California.

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Read an Excerpt

What caused the fire that destroyed San Francisco?
(it wasn't Mrs. O'Leary's cow from Chicago.)

A major earthquake was the direct cause of the 1906 San Francisco fire. The magnitude is estimated to have been 7.7 to 7.9 on the Richter scale. During and after the earthquake many fires started all over the city, ignited by flames and pilot lights in furnaces and stoves, broken gas lines, shorting electrical lines, and ruptured storage tanks holding flammable materials.

Many buildings collapsed because of the earthquake and became much more vulnerable to fire. They were nothing more than a pile of kindling, the gaps in the roofs and walls acting as chimneys to help fuel the fire.

Although the San Francisco firemen were thought to be the best in the nation, they were virtually helpless because the earthquake had also broken most of the water mains. Leaking gas lines ignited fires all over the city until the gas works blew up, finally stopping the flow of gas.

The fire destroyed almost 500 city blocks over 5 square miles. Over 28,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged so badly that they had to be demolished.

The fire burned for four days and nights. When it was over, 250,000 people were homeless, 500 were dead (some authorities claim the death toll was in the thousands), and hundreds were injured.


The San Francisco earthquake broke more than 270 miles of ground, with up to 21 feet of displacement in some areas.

The shaking lasted only 45 to 60 seconds but was enough to do catastrophic damage. To those in the earthquake, it seemed to last for an eternity.

Residents as far north as southern Oregon, as far south as LosAngeles, and as far inland as central Nevada felt the earthquake.

When the ground was displaced, it moved at a speed of about 3 mph, but the rupture itself propagated at a speed of 5,800 mph.

A telegraph station in San Diego, California, sent newspaper reports of the disaster to the U.S.S. Chicago anchored in San Diego harbor. The ship steamed at full speed to San Francisco to aid the stricken city. This was the first time that telegraphy was used in a major natural disaster.

One fire chief was killed when a chimney from a hotel crashed through the fire station where he was living.

The earthquake shock covered an area of about 375,000 square miles. About half of this area was in the Pacific Ocean. Damage occurred along a 400-mile north/south corridor, out to 30 miles on either side of the fault zone.

There were 135 aftershocks on the same day as the great quake. Many damaged buildings that had survived the main earthquake collapsed when hit by an aftershock.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cities were overpopulated and buildings were constructed quickly and cheaply out of wood, which was a definite fire hazard. As a result, city after city had its downtown area destroyed by fire.

The three major cities destroyed by fire were Chicago in 1871, San Francisco in 1906, and more recently, Texas City, Texas, in 1947.

A fable states that Mrs. O'Leary's cow knocked over a lantern in a barn and started the Chicago fire. However, it was neither a cow nor an earthquake that caused the destruction of Texas City, a busy port on the Gulf of Mexico. On April 15 a fire broke out in the hold of a French freighter loaded with over 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate (the same explosive used in the recent bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building). At 9:15 in the morning the ship exploded without warning.

The blast triggered other explosions at Texas City chemical plants near the docks and a surge of water added to the damage. Fires burned out of control for days until the last was extinguished a week later. When it was over, 600 people were known dead and many others were missing. Every person in the town of 16,000 people was affected in some way by the explosion and fires. The city was almost completely destroyed.

One Texas paper summed it up very well: "Texas City just blew up."

What is the origin of celebrating New Year's Eve?
(Ringing out the old, ringing in the new, giants beware!)

Celebrating the new year is probably the oldest holiday in the world. Virtually every culture from the beginning of time has had some custom to signify the coming of the new year.

Over 4,000 years ago the ancient Babylonians celebrated the coming of the new year around the end of March. This is a logical time for the celebration because it is the time of year when spring begins and new crops are planted. Like us the Babylonians made New Year's resolutions. However, rather than resolving to lose weight or quit smoking, their most popular resolution was to return farm equipment they had borrowed.

During the Roman Empire, the calendar eventually went out of synchronization with the moon. To put things back in order, Caesar let one year last for 445 days. In 153 B.C. the Roman senate declared that January first would be the beginning of the new year. Although this arbitrary date has neither astronomical nor agricultural significance, today we still consider it to be the start of a new year.

The Romans continued to celebrate the new year but the early church condemned the holiday as pagan and continued to oppose the festivities throughout the Middle Ages. As a result, the New Year's Day holiday has only been celebrated by Western nations for the past 400 years.


Using a baby to signify the new year started in Greece around 600 B.C. The baby was carried in a basket to represent the rebirth of Dionysus, the god of fertility. The image of a baby with a New Year's banner was brought to the United States by the Germans, who had used this symbol since the fourteenth century.

To celebrate the new year in Tibet Buddhist monks create sculptures made from yak butter, some reaching as high as 30 feet.

Many New Year's traditions include pigs. For example, in Austria each new year starts with a dinner of roast suckling pig. In most parts of the world the pig symbolizes moving forward into the new year. A pig moves forward with its snout to the ground.

In Crete nothing is thrown away on New Year's Day, not even waste. It is believed that throwing something away that day will decrease the wealth of the family during the coming year.

In most Muslim societies New Year's Day is observed by wearing new clothes. In Southeast Asia birds and turtles are released for good luck during the coming year. In India, Hindus place shrines next to their beds so they will see beautiful objects when they open their eyes at the start of a new year.


The Chinese celebrate the New Year holiday a month or so later than we do. There are 12 animals in Chinese astrology and each year is named after one of them. Thus, it might be the "year of the dragon" or the "year of the snake." The cycle repeats every 12 years.

Firecrackers are always associated with the Chinese New Year holiday, stemming from an ancient Chinese legend. This legend tell the story of a foul-smelling giant who lived on the western side of a village. If someone offended the giant, he would inflict malaria on them. One of the villagers suggested that they might scare the giant away if they created a great deal of noise. So the people of the village made a huge pile of bamboo stems and set them on fire. As the stems burned, they exploded and frightened the giant so badly that he ran away and never returned.

So the next time you see firecrackers at the Chinese New Year celebration, you can be sure that no foul-smelling giants will be lurking nearby.

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Table of Contents

1 Animal Kingdom
Do dolphins ever sleep? 1
Where do butterflies go in the winter? 3
Why do cats purr? 5
Is it true that elephants are afraid of mice? 7
On a turkey, what is the name of that red thing that hangs down over the beak? 9
Is there a land animal that has a body the color of purple grape juice? 11
Is a pinto a breed of horse or just a color? 13
Is it true you can't teach an old dog new tricks? 15
Do fish drink water? 17
2 Clothing and Apparel
When and where were the first eyeglasses made? 21
Where did the idea for underwear come from? 23
Are denim, jeans, and Levi's the same thing? 24
What is the origin of the neckties that men wear? 27
3 Finance
Does the government still print two-dollar bills? 30
What does the information on a U.S. penny represent? 33
How much gold does the United States store in Fort Knox? 35
Why are gasoline prices listed to three decimal places, such as $1.479 per gallon? 37
What caused the Great Depression of 1929? 39
Anecdote: A rare disease leads to a wedding 41
4 Food
Where did pizza originate? 43
What's the difference between lager and pilsner beer? 45
How many colors of M&Ms are there? 47
What is the difference between caffe latte and cappuccino? 49
What makes peppers so hot? 51
What is the difference between apple juice and apple cider? 53
What is the difference between jelly, jam, preserves, and marmalade? 55
5 Geography
What is the lowest point on earth? 60
How did each of the seven continents get its name? 62
Is it true that at one time the entire world consisted of a single continent? 64
Is there really a north pole? 65
6 History
How did the ship that landed at Plymouth harbor get the name Mayflower? 70
Did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo because of hemorrhoids? 72
Is it true that in ancient Greece 300 soldiers held off 200,000 Persian elite troops for 3 days? 75
What does "flying the hump" mean? 77
Has a U.S. vice president ever been assassinated? 79
How many people died in the Civil War? 81
Is it true that a former king of England had blue urine? 83
Who were the Knights Templar? 85
Anecdote: Pushing a van around an island 88
7 Holidays
Why are eggs associated with the Easter bunny? 90
What is the origin and meaning of Valentine's Day? 92
Where did the custom of kissing under the mistletoe originate? 94
What is the origin of celebrating New Year's Eve? 96
How did the custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween begin? 98
What is the origin of the Christmas tree? 100
8 Language
What is Zulu time? 105
What does "mind your p's and q's" mean? 108
Why do people say "Gesundheit" or "God bless you" when you sneeze? 109
Where did the term "dark horse" come from? 111
How did grapefruit gets its name? 113
Why do people yell "Geronimo" when they jump off something? 114
What is the origin of the word "jazz"? 117
What is the origin of the phrase "It's not over until the fat lady sings"? 119
9 Literature
What are the fourteen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum? 123
How many pages were in the longest book ever written? 126
What was the first typewritten manuscript of a novel submitted to a publisher? 128
Is there a place called Transylvania and was there a real Count Dracula? 131
Who wrote the first "detective" novel? 133
Anecdote: Can you fix my koto, Kato? 136
10 The Human Body
Why don't Eskimos die from scurvy? 138
Why do I get a headache when I eat ice cream too fast? 140
Do people who are born blind ever dream? 142
What makes us yawn? 144
What blood type is the rarest? 146
11 Music
In the Australian song, what does "waltzing Matilda" mean? 150
Why did Custer choose Garry Owen as his regimental song? 152
What was the last song the musicians on the Titanic played? 154
What makes the sound when you rub your finger along the edge of a glass? 156
What gave Roger Miller the inspiration to write King of the Road? 159
12 Odds and Ends
What is the world's fastest roller coaster? 162
What is the difference between green and blue mailboxes? 164
Why don't beeswax candles drip? 166
Did Thomas Crapper really invent the toilet? 168
What is the name and breed of the RCA dog? 170
What is the average number of flowers used on a Rose Parade float? 172
Before refrigeration was invented, where did the iceman get the ice he delivered to homes during the summer? 174
Anecdote: Which came first, the chicken or the exercise machine? 177
13 Off the Wall
How many licks does it take to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop? 178
How long would it take to vacuum the state of Ohio? 181
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? 183
What is the correct way to eat an Oreo cookie? 185
What can I do with the small slivers of soap left over in the shower? 187
14 Religion
Who are the Shi'i Muslims and what do they believe? 190
When did the Roman Catholic Church begin using the calendar we use today? 193
Why are the signs on Pennsylvania Dutch barns called "hex" signs? 195
What is the religious makeup of the United States? 197
What is the history and significance of the Infant of Prague? 200
15 Science
Is it true that toilets in Australia flush in the opposite direction from those in the United States? 203
My grandmother told me that when she visited Ireland she saw the sun turn green. Is that possible? 205
How are magnets made? 208
What makes the sound when you snap your fingers? 210
Does hot water freeze faster than cold water? 212
Why do some paints, stickers, and toys glow in the dark? 214
Why aren't there 100 seconds in a minute and 100 minutes in an hour instead of 60? 216
What is the star closest to our sun? 218
Why are the oceans salty but not lakes? 220
Is it true that opals contain a lot of water? 222
Anecdote: A visit from the Dutch Royal Navy 225
16 Sports
What does "packers" refer to in the name of the Green Bay Packers football team? 226
Who was the model for the Heisman trophy? 229
How did the "seventh-inning stretch" originate? 231
What is the difference between billiards, snooker, and pool? 233
Why is a dartboard laid out the way it is? 235
In football, why is it called a "down" instead of a chance, or try, or attempt? 237
How did the sport of hockey get started? 240
17 Transportation and Travel
How does a traffic signal know that a car is waiting for a green light? 243
Why do they drive on the left side of the road in England? 245
Why are the roofs of some school buses painted white? 247
Why don't they make dirigibles anymore? 249
How many people in the world visit zoos in a single year? 251
18 United States
What is the average height of a person in the United States? 255
Who was the youngest American to go up in space? 257
What is the book that the Statue of Liberty is holding? 259
What caused the fire that destroyed San Francisco? 262
Which place in the United States has the longest name? 264
How many political parties can be represented in a presidential election? 266
Anecdote: A 14-year search for a cowboy song 270
19 Weather
What is the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon? 272
What is the difference between partly cloudy and partly sunny? 274
What part of the world gets the most rain? 276
Can it really rain frogs? 279
20 World
What is the oldest living thing in the world? 282
What is the tallest clock in the world? 284
When the Panama Canal was built, was it just cut through the land or did they have to build a concrete bottom and sides? 286
What are the seven natural wonders of the world? 289
Why is the Tower of Pisa leaning and will anyone ever straighten it? 291
What is the largest museum in the world? 293
Exploring the Internet 297
Index 299
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