Where does the phrase “pull out all the stops” come from?

As we all know, “pulling out all the stops” is an expression that means holding nothing back. For example, if you’re throwing a party and you spare no expense getting the best food, entertainment, and decorations, you’d be “pulling out all the stops.” The phrase would probably also apply to these people…

So where does the phrase come from? It was first used in its modern, figurative sense in 1865 by Matthew Arnold. He writes, “Knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that… somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.” This is not only the first figurative usage of the phrase, but it also gives us a great clue into its meaning. It’s a reference to pipe organs!

Often found in churches and chapels, pipe organs produce sound by forcing wind through hundreds of pipes of varying size. Airflow to the pipes is controlled by a series of “stops” – little knobs next to the organ keyboard that can be pushed in and out to change the sound of the instrument. When a stop is pushed in, its corresponding pipes are silenced. When pulled out, its pipes begin to play. By carefully selecting certain groups of pipes, an organist is able to dramatically change the sound of the music. The proper selection of pipes can produce a sound that is loud and brassy or soft and subtle. It all depends on what fits the song.

Of course, the more stops you have pulled out, the more pipes are sounding at the same time. If you pull out all the stops at the same time, things will get quite loud. You’ll literally be holding nothing back!

Organ Stops

Organ stops on the 1799 Tannenberg organ in Old Salem, North Carolina. With thanks to my sister, Ashlyn Batten, for getting us in to photograph it – and for playing some awesome tunes on a 210-year-old instrument!

The bottom line here is that “pulling out all the stops” is essentially an older way of saying “turning it up to eleven.” So, next time you’re out kicking butt and taking names, regale your vanquished enemies with epic tales of the origins of “pulling out all the stops!” You’ll be glad you did.

How do you beat that stupid game at Cracker Barrel?

You know the one of which I speak. It looks extremely easy, is actually rather difficult, and it makes fun of you if you can’t beat it. Cracker Barrel calls it the “peg game,” but it’s really just a variation on “peg solitaire,” a game dating back to at least the 1697.

Cracker Barrel Game

“Leave four or more’n you’re just plain ‘eg-no-ra-moose.'”

So, how do you beat it? Well, plenty of people on YouTube have given demonstrations. Here’s one of them…

But, as you may have already learned, we like to analyze games to death around here. Thankfully, in this case, others have already done the work for us. For example, some guy named Keith Wannamaker (a bored software engineer) modeled the game from every starting point, concluding that a player had the best chance of winning the game by starting with the missing peg in the middle of one of the sides of the triangle. His statistics also show that, from the best starting position, your chances of winning are only about 7%. They’re as low as 1% if you start from the worst position. So, don’t feel too bad if you’ve never been able to beat the game. It’s a statistically challenging feat.

You also shouldn’t feel too bad about Cracker Barrel making fun of your intelligence. On a recent trip, I observed “fixin’s” spelled “fixin’s,” “fixins,” and “fixins'”. Admittedly, whether or not it’s appropriate to put an apostrophe in “fixin’s” (hint: it is – it shows the removed “g”) is a question that seems to cause a lot of pain and sorrow. Still, you’d think a $2.5 billion company that makes its money servin’ up fixin’s could at least come up with a consistent spelling…

Why does the big globe in Raleigh have silver oceans?

Several years ago, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh added a beautiful new wing, complete with a four-story tall globe. If you haven’t visited yet, it’s pretty awesome. The inside of the globe is a huge circular theater, with seating on each floor of the museum. And the outside of the globe is, well… mostly gray.

SECU Daily Planet

In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the oceans… gray.
(Image Credit: Radiofan)

So what’s going on here? Why didn’t they bother to paint in the oceans? I got in touch with Roy Campbell, Director of Exhibits and Digital Media at the Natural Science Museum to find out. Here’s what he said…

The decision to leave the ocean blank on the Daily Planet was a combination of factors. If we had depicted them we more than likely would have portrayed the ocean floors. We would have put a blue cast to that so as not to cheat the sea in favor of the geologic surface. But then again the oceans are dynamic. They show currents and sediment influx, algal blooms, storms and calm. All according to season.

But we never got to argue over all of that because cost was a very major consideration. It cost roughly a quarter million dollars to place simply the continents and the ocean because it is larger than that would have ramped up costs dramatically.

We also were expecting to use the Pacific Ocean as a projection space for all sorts of content but ran short of money and planning time for that as well.

The good news is that we are hopefully back on track to re-install the night lighting effect we had for just three days at the opening. This casts a blue flood light on all the oceanic areas but a white light on the continents to show them in real color. So hopefully within the year you will be able to walk by at night and see the blue planet as it should be.

This leaves us with several fun facts:

  • It cost a cool $250,000 to paint the continents. (Good thing the whole globe was donated by the SECU!)
  • Museum curators have arguments about how to paint oceans.
  • The globe in Raleigh can be lighted up with blue lights to make it look more “realistic.”
The globe can glow blue at night!

The globe can glow blue at night!
(Image Credit: NC Museum of Natural Sciences)

Let’s hope they get that blue lighting back in place soon!