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What was the name of the actor who played Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 film Lust for Life?

The actor's stage name was Kirk Douglas, otherwise known as Issur Danielovitch.

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Can you tell me a bit about Ansel Adams?

Ansel Adams was born on February 20, 1902. Four years later, in 1906, he broke his nose by falling during an aftershock of the San Francisco earthquake--an accident that left a permanent scar. As an adult, Ansel became a world-famous photographer of the American West.

Is there a way to remove dried wax from wood or metal?

For a drip of candle wax on a wooden table or floor, put a paper towel over it, then run a warm iron over the towel. Move the towel to blot up the melting wax. You can also soften up the wax with a blow dryer and blot it the same way. This trick should work for metal surfaces as well, but may be more difficult if your metal surface is vertical. Scrape off as much as possible with a blunt, straight edge.

Does the weather proverb "Red sky at morning, sailor take warning / Red sky at night, sailor's delight" have any basis in weather fact?

The basic idea here is a sound one for most of the United States, where the weather patterns move from west to east. A red color in the sky is the result of sunlight reflecting off clouds. If the sky is red in the morning, the eastern horizon must be clear, and the clouds foretelling a coming storm are in the west, indicating the potential for bad weather. By contrast, a red sky at night can be produced only if the western horizon is clear and the clouds overhead are moving east, or clearing out. So the proverb seems to have some validity.

Why did old-time fire trucks have dogs (usually dalmatians) on board? Were the dogs just mascots, or did they serve some purpose?

Originally, dogs ran in front of horse-drawn steam engines, barking loudly to alert pedestrians and vehicles so the fire wagon could pass unhindered. Dalmatians were fit and loyal enough for this work, and they got along well with the horses. With the advent of gasoline-powered fire engines, the dalmatians weren't really needed any longer, but they became a kid-friendly symbol of the honorable profession of fire fighting.

What causes the halo or ring around the sun that looks like a rainbow?

Halos (larger circles) around the Sun can be caused by the refraction (bending) and reflection of light in ice crystals in the clouds. Sometimes these halos will show color like a rainbow. You might also see two “mock suns” (also called "parhelia" or “sundogs”), one on each side of the Sun. If you see a smaller rainbow circle around the Sun, this might be a corona (not the same as the corona we think of in the Sun’s outer atmosphere), caused by the diffraction of light through water (and sometimes ice) droplets.

In a British dictionary, I found the word okta, used to express cloud cover. Is this an American meteorological term as well?

The term okta is not widely used by American meteorologists. It is an older, worldwide standard used to describe how much of the sky is obscured by clouds. An okta is a unit of eight, so one okta would indicate that about one-eighth of the sky was covered. In the United States, weather forecasters describe the sky using the following abbreviations: SKC -- sky clear, no oktas; FEW -- few clouds, less than 1 to 2 oktas; SCT -- scattered clouds, 3 to 4 oktas; BKN -- broken clouds, 5 to 7 oktas; and OVC -- overcast, 8 oktas. Pilots use the okta terminology when they are taking off and landing at international airports, but you won't hear your local TV weather forecaster use it. Instead, he or she will use descriptive terms such as partly sunny, partly cloudy, mostly cloudy, and mostly sunny.

My grandmother used to say that if a blackbird flew into your house, there would be a death in the family. Where did this superstition come from?

Birds of ill omen -- ravens, vultures, crows, owls, and albatrosses -- have existed in every culture since the beginning of civilization. This could account for your grandmother's idea about blackbirds. These omen birds show up in countless stories and folktales. In ancient Rome, an augur -- a religious official and fortune-teller -- carried a ceremonial standard that featured different birds on either side. The birds on the right were considered good luck, and the birds on the left were bad luck. The standard was used to tell someone's future.

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