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

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

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by Bill McLain, William McLain

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

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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

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.05(d)

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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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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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Do Fish Drink Water?: Puzzling and Improbable Questions and Answers 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is represents an interesting endeavor: trying to distill so much trivia into so little a space. Athough it is filled with fun facts (termed 'factoids') and does contain much accurate information, the book also contains numerous errors and incomplete answers to questions. Examples include: *The books declares, incorrectly, that there are no speed limits on the Autobahn (page 244). *Page 126 claims that Isaac Asimov has authored at least one book for every Dewey Decimal cetergory. Considering there are nearly 1,000,000 catergories, this seems unlikely. *Page 153 tells us that 'no one lived to tell what happened' at the battle of Little Big Horn. I suppose this is true if we ignore that fact that Native Americans are people. *page 108 provides only one of the most popular theories about the origin of 'Mind your p's and q's'. We are left wondering...what are some of the other theories. A quick search on the internet yielded 8 different theories, all interesting and plausible. *Page 112, paragraph 3, talks about 'one of the greatest finishes of the decade'. Fine, but what decade are we talking about here? *The book also states that 'An Englishman invented a toilet in 1775...It was another 200 years before another toilet appeared'. Really? I could have sworn there were toilets in the pre-1975 era (page 169). *page 124 tells about L. Frank Baum's infamous 2-drawer file cabinet that led to his naming of 'Oz'. Everywhere else I've checked, however, indicate that there were three drawers in the file cabinet (much more plausible, too, if you know anything about the English language). *Page 187 promises to tell us four methods for saving soap slivers, but then only provides three. *page 179 claims that a star on a Tootsie Pop wrapper can be exchanged for a free Tootsie Pop. This is an urban legend, long-since debunked. *page 73 tells us that Napoleon was, at five foot five inches, an average height for his century. But then pages 255-7 lead us to believe that it is untrue that people were shorter in previous centures, despite the fact that it also notes that five foot nine is now an average height for a man. I also suggest, if you do read this book, try your best to ignore the pointless subtitles that many of the questions are given. It appears as thought they are an attempt at humor, but they simply detract from the information.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It doesn't talk about anyone topic for a certain numbers of pages. It sounds boring.