“This coffee plunges into the stomach … the mind is aroused, and ideas pour forth like the battalions of the Grand Army on the field of battle.” So wrote Balzac, who wrote for up to 15 hours a day wired on black coffee.

If anything, he was ahead of his time. Today we drink more than 400 billion cups of coffee every year, making it the world’s most popular beverage. It’s second only to oil as the world’s largest traded commodity.

So, is it safe to consume that much of anything? Well, yes and no.

Generally, one dose of caffeine is 100 mg. That’s what you’d get in one shot of espresso, 5 ounces of coffee, or 2.5 cans of soda. The lowest dose that’s ever killed someone is 32 times that — and that was delivered intravenously. Even with strong coffee, you’d have to drink 3 cups an hour for 100 hours even to come close to killing yourself.

But that’s not all that can happen. At lower doses you might develop “caffeinism,” a condition that mimics mental illnesses ranging from anxiety and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and psychosis.

(And that’s just humans. Dogs, horses and parrots have much more trouble metabolizing caffeine, and it hits spiders harder than even LSD, marijuana, benzedrine and chloral hydrate, as you can see here.)

And, as always, there’s no accounting for craziness. Jason Allen, a student at a North Carolina community college, died after swallowing almost 90 pills — about 18 grams of pure caffeine. That’s the equivalent of about 250 cups of coffee, a gallon and a half of espresso, or 22 gallons of Mountain Dew. That’s a serious all-nighter.

Famous Diabetics

Famous diabetics:

  • Jack Benny
  • James Cagney
  • Johnny Cash
  • Paul Cezanne
  • Ty Cobb
  • Miles Davis
  • Thomas Edison
  • Joe Frazier
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Hughes
  • Elvis Presley
  • Giacomo Puccini
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • H.G. Wells
  • Mae West

A CIA Mystery

This is a little embarrassing — the CIA is having trouble decrypting a sculpture on its own grounds.

The piece, called Kryptos, was dedicated 15 years ago by American artist James Sanborn. It’s inscribed with four different messages, each encrypted with a different cipher. Sanborn would say only that the sculpture contains a riddle within a riddle, which will be solvable only after the four passages have been decrypted. He gave the complete solution to CIA director William H. Webster, who has passed it on to his successors.

The first three messages have been solved by CIA analysts, but the fourth — and the final riddle — remains open.

If you don’t want to work on this yourself, you can wait for Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown — reportedly it’s the subject of his next book.

Hitchcock’s Lifeboat Cameo

In the film Lifeboat, the action is set entirely in a small boat. This left director Alfred Hitchcock momentarily at a loss how to make his traditional cameo appearance.

Finally, inspired by a recent diet, he hit on a solution — Hitchcock can be seen briefly in a newspaper advertisement for “Reduco, the Obesity Slayer.”

“The 1729 Anecdote”

The Indian mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan showed an almost supernatural facility with numbers. British mathematician G.H. Hardy once visited him in the hospital:

I had ridden in taxicab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

“Every positive integer,” remarked J.E. Littlewood, “is one of Ramanujan’s personal friends.”

Balloon Mail

Besieged by Prussians in 1870, Paris found a clever way to get mail to the outside world. For 20 centimes you could write a letter on a thin piece of green paper; these were collected and sent hopefully upward on unguided mail balloons. Each 4-gram postcard carried an address; the Parisians hoped that the balloons would drift to earth somewhere and that whoever found the messages would forward them.

It worked. During the four-month siege they sent up 65 balloons, and only two went missing.