Haunted Houses

Halloween Week Day #5: Haunted Houses

I think all of us, at one time or another, have felt like there was a mysterious presence in our homes. Maybe it was when we were little and heard noises coming from the closet. Or maybe it was when we spent our first night alone and could have sworn there were footsteps on the stairs. Or maybe it was when we stayed at an old farmhouse and saw strange shadows dancing across the walls...

Spooky noises or sights, especially at night, can come from a variety of non-ghost-related sources:
- Air trapped in a radiator can make a squealing or hissing noise.
- Changes in humidity can make the wood in the floorboards expand and contract creating squeaking sounds.
- Leaky windows can make curtains billow.
- Drafts moving through houses can sound like breathing or even swing doors on their hinges.

However, Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger believes that these effects are a result of actual "ghosts" based on his electromagnetic studies. He found fluctuating electromagnetic wave patterns in areas around the "haunted" properties. As far as I understand, there is theory that a person's conscious is contained in the electromagnetic field generated by their brain. Therefore, if a conscious ("thinking") spirit is moving through a space, the electromagnetic patterns in the room will shift with it.

Our friend Stephen James O’Meara has another explanation: "These [electromagnetic changes] could be due to anything from underground minerals or even solar activity such as fluctuations in sunspot activity." A person's temporal lobe (in their brain) can be sensitive to the small vibrations associated with these electromagnetic field fluctuations. It's so faint that one may not be consciously aware of the vibrations, but still feel that someone is moving around them. If the field is strong enough, it can also cause hallucinations!

O'Meara does admit, however, that both his and Persinger's explanations of these phenomena are theories, so I'll leave you to choose which to believe. In the words of O'Meara, "Until scientists find the answer, believers won't 'give up the ghost'!"

(to hear the interview that inspired many of this week's posts, please tune into the NPR podcast of 10.22.09's "Here and Now" at this link)

Have a safe and happy Halloween!



Halloween Week Day #4: Werewolves

Stephen James O'Meara, author of Are You Afraid Yet?: The Science Behind Scary Stuff, also gave a potential explanation about the origins of werewolves.

He thinks that werewolf legends were inspired by two medical conditions:

1. Hypertrichosis: a genetic disorder where an unnatural amount of hair covers the entire body or a specific area, like the face.


2. Split Personality Disorder: a psychiatric disorder where someone can display or act out multiple identities. In some cases, one of the identities may be a "wild animal", and the person might chase after other animals or even attack them.

Imagine the misfortune of a person who happens to be suffering from both of these ailments! And imagine the stories that people would make up about them!

Sorry, Michael J. Fox. Your condition was just misunderstood!



Halloween Week Day #3: Zombies

Oh those sneaky blowfish, bringing back people from the "dead".

Certain cultures like to eat blowfish, particularly the Japanese, in soups. Raw puffer meat, or sashimi fugu, is also sometimes eaten because of its intoxicating effect.

If someone eat too much of it, however, the meat can be deadly. Its poison can cause dizziness, vomiting, and numbness of the mouth. This is likely followed by a rapid heart beat, decreased blood pressure, paralysis, and a coma. If the person is one of the lucky ones and stays alive for 24 hours, he or she has a good chance of survival, but the coma can last several days. Worst of all, the person is typically aware of being in the coma, but due to the paralysis, can't communicate!

Before modern medicine, the decreased heartbeat and coma presented itself as death. The poor victim would then be treated as deceased. But lo and behold, a few days later at the funeral (if not too late!), he or she would wake up! To the distress of loved ones, the only explanation they could come up with would be "It's a zombie back from the dead!"

The lengths people will go through for delicious food. :)



Halloween Week Day 2: Vampires

Here is another interesting fact from Stephen James O'Meara, author of Are You Afraid Yet?: The Science Behind Scary Stuff:

People who used to be labeled as "vampires" probably had a horrible blood disease called Porphyria. Victims tend to have very photosensitive skin so when they get exposed to the sun, their skin boils and blisters. As a result, they often only leave home at night.

Also, the disease turns their teeth red, so it looks like they've been biting necks, and their urine is a purplish red, so they appear to have drank blood. It didn't help that early doctors recommended that the patients drink blood from slaughterhouses to treat the condition!

According to O'Meara, it is likely that Bram Stoker got his idea for vampires by studying people with Porphyria.

On a side note, if blood-seeking vampires did exist, garlic would prevent their attacks. Garlic does a nice job of covering up the scent of blood. Helpful hint: keep some garlic around in the summertime to ward off mosquitoes!


Science of Fear

With Halloween coming up, I am devoting this week to facts about scary things. I am going to start off Day #1 explaining why our bodies have such a strong physical reaction to fear.

Ever wonder why you breathe faster when you're reading a suspenseful novel? Or why you sweat while checking the basement for that "strange noise"?

It's all due your sympathetic nervous system! When you feel a threat, your body does amazing things to prepare you to be able to engage in battle ("fight") or run away ("flee"). Your endocrine glands release neurotransmitters such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into your system, causing:

1. your pupils to dilate and your senses to heighten so you can easily scan the scene and recognize danger.

2. your heart to beat faster, the blood vessels to constrict in your extremities, and you to breathe faster so you get more blood and oxygen to your core muscles and they can act quickly.

3. your metabolism to speed up so it absorbs every bit of sugar and fatty acids to use as energy.

4. your perception of pain to decrease so even if you get injured you can continue to fight or flee.

5. you to begin to sweat so your body doesn't overheat in action.

6. your body hairs to stand on end so that you appear larger and more intimidating to enemies.

However, when there is not an actual threat of danger, like when you're watching a scary movie, your body can react like there is a real threat. These natural reactions can then present themselves as a loud heartbeat, hyperventilation, a tightening in your chest, icy hands or feet, cold sweats, goosebumps, or an upset stomach. You also can feel jumpy, sensitive to little sounds, and "paranoid".

But don't worry, it's just your body doing its job! It you needed to run away from a bear, for example, you would be pleased that your body can work in this extraordinary way! Some people actually like the way the adrenaline feels pumping through their systems. :)


Are Black Cats Lucky?

Black cats have a long history of symbolism in the world. The most well-known in the United States is summed up well by Wikipedia:
The black cat in folklore has been thought to shape shift into humans to spy and bring information and ingredients (such as rosemary) to their witches to use in spells.
Therefore the cats are considered "bad luck" or a "bad omen" (and as a result are the least adopted kittens in the US!).

However, the award-winning astronomer Stephen James O'Meara debunks some of these myths in his book Are You Afraid Yet?: The Science Behind Scary Stuff. He claims that black cats may actually be good luck (as quoted in his interview on NPR's "Here & Now"):
"[Researchers have found that black cats] have a specific gene which helps them to fight diseases so they [live] longer. In fact, humans have the same gene within our own bodies and it may actually help us lead to antidotes."
Good! I knew I always found black cats intriguing for a reason. :)

Next week as Halloween approaches, I'll throw in some more Halloween mystery explanations. Enjoy!


Happy Birthday Grape Nuts!

When I went to purchase my favorite cereal, Post's Grape-Nuts, I was pleasantly surprised with a vintage box and a little history of my morning staple. Grape-Nuts is celebrating its 112th birthday this year and is still in business!

Here are some fun facts about this crunchy treat:

-- It hit the shelves in 1897 and was one of the first ready-to-eat cereals on the market. Made from neither from grapes nor nuts, it got its name from the "grape sugar" Mr. Post believed was formed from the baking process and it's "nutty" taste.

-- Starting around 1920, Grape-Nuts became popular with explorers and even was included in World War II ration kits! It's ideal for travelers because it's high in nutrition, resistant to spoilage, and lightweight. Edmund Hillary took Grape-Nuts with him for energy when he traveled to the top of Mount Everest!

-- Grape-Nuts has gone through a variety of slogans, including but not limited to:

1910s-1930s: "There's A Reason"

"Mental Dullness usually comes from imperfectly nourished brains.
The man who thinks clearly and acts promptly wins money and position... The regular use of this world-famed food makes 'clear thinking' easy."

1950s: "For Goodness Sake, Get Post Grape-Nuts"
1950s: "Look For The Post Mark... For Happy Eating!"
Late 1960s: "Fills You Up, Not Out"

"Oh no, Mrs. Burke! I thought you were Dale!"

Late 1970s-1980s: "Great Hot Taste From An Unexpected Place"
1980s: "You Know When You Have Something Good"
Late 1980s: "Helps Keep You Going Strong All Morning Long"

-- Grape-Nuts is one of the only cereals that advertises to men. Typically cereals are shown being eaten by children with their mothers in commercials, but Grape-Nuts, as far as cereals go, is pretty popular with men (and me!).

-- Grape-Nuts can be used in a variety of desserts: sprinkle on ice cream, mix them with granola, or use them in delicious candied apples! Visit the Post website for lots of recipes!

Well, I don't know about you, but I am going to look at my daily bowl of Grape-Nuts a little differently tomorrow morning. :)

Life Magazine ad from 1948. har har!

(Pictures via Vintage123, Flickr, and the Gallery of Graphic Design)


Smart Speedbumps

Cool new technology for people who respect speed limits and hate speed bumps:

Concerns over the environment — and the utter annoyance of having to brake and accelerate frequently — have prompted one Mexican state government to embrace a "smart" speed bump that could make driving smoother, without sacrificing safety.

The device, being developed by Mexico-based Decano Industries, automatically lowers into the ground when drivers go the speed limit or slower. Drive too fast, and the bump stays up.

"With this speed bump, people will feel rewarded for obeying the law," says Carlos Cano, the company's president.

Brilliant! I can't wait for them to make their way into the States!

(for more info & my source, click here)


FreeCreditReport.com Actor Dubbed?

I heard a rumor that the guy who sings the catchy tunes on the FreeCreditReport.com commercials doesn't actually sing the songs. In fact, the rumor goes so far to say that the guy barely even speaks English in real life!

However, the actor himself, Eric Violette, and his website say that he's had all sorts of acting and singing training. Here's who he is really, according to his homepage:
I know you guys think I live in my in-laws basement and drive a sub-compact, but really I'm just an actor/musician who got a lucky break.
But this part of his bio leaves me wondering if the rumor is true:
I was born in 1981 in a small town in Canada. In fact I still live near Montreal. And yes, I speak French but I'm fluent in English too. I attended the National Theatre School of Canada for my training.
One quick internet search later, I found this information from USA Today:
Eric Violette is the lead "singer" in three commercials... Violette and his buddies do songs about how it has affected their lives. Violette, a French Canadian, sings and plays guitar in real life and has a following on the Web. Because he speaks little English, however, he lip-syncs the song in the ad, which is performed by a studio artist. The songs were written by David Muhlenfeld. The "band" in the ads, by The Martin Agency, is a group of actors. The group of commercials, which began airing in October, are part of the third national ad campaign for FreeCreditReport.com, which was launched in 1999 by credit-rating giant Experian.
So there you go! Rumor confirmed (except the part about speaking English, he seems to be bilingual)! Hope I didn't destroy any well-loved illusions of yours!


How To Eat A Banana Like A Monkey

I haven't personally tried it yet, but it looks very intriguing!


Crayola Corrections

Cool Crayola fact from a Core77 Design Magazine review of the writings of Rachel Berger:
Only three times in its hundred-year history has the Crayola company changed the name of a crayon. Prussian Blue became Midnight Blue in 1958 and Indian Red was renamed Chestnut in 1999, both in response to requests from educators. In 1962, the company voluntarily changed Flesh to Peach, partially in response to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Thank you, Crayola, for recognizing and changing your non-politically-correct ways!

For more interesting tidbits and musings from the Yale Art School student, click here.


The Camera Does Add Ten Pounds

As the "Friends" watch an old home movie from a Thanksgiving when Monica was heavier:
Joey: Some girl ate Monica!
Monica: Shut up! The camera adds ten pounds!
Chandler: Oh. So how many cameras are actually on you?
As far as the NBC Studio tour guide I met is concerned, the camera does indeed add ten pounds. Why? Because the studios like to shoot with wide-angled camera lenses: it can make a small set look much bigger on TV. But as a result it can make the actors on that set look a little bigger as well!


Must U.S. Merchants Accept All U.S. Currency?

Is it legal for stores to say things like "We don't accept bills over $20"?

I was actually inspired to look this up because in an episode of "30 Rock", Liz Lemon tried to pay for a bottle of water with a $100 bill, and it sparked the following dialog:

Cashier:No $100s, Small bills.
Liz:Oh, I knew this was gonna happen.
Cashier:Store policy.
Liz:Yeah, Well, That's an illegal policy. You have to take this.
Cashier:No, I don't
Gray:Yeah sir you do, it says "legal tender for all debts, public and private."
Cashier:Does it say anything about $100 for a bottle of water?
Gray:You can't decide what money you'll accept. That's illegal.
Liz:It's an illegal policy.
Cashier:You're holding up the line!
Liz + Gray:No, You're holding up the line!

Here's what the Federal Reserve says about it:
Is U.S. currency legal tender for all debts?

According to the "Legal Tender Statute" (section 5103 of title 31 of the U.S. Code), "United States coins and currency (including Federal Reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal Reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues." This means that all U.S. money, as identified above, when tendered to a creditor legally satisfies a debt to the extent of the amount (face value) tendered.

However, no federal law mandates that a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment for goods or services not yet provided. For example, a bus line may prohibit payment of fares in pennies or dollar bills.

Some movie theaters, convenience stores and gas stations as a matter of policy may refuse to accept currency of a large denomination, such as notes above $20, and as long as notice is posted and a transaction giving rise to a debt has not already been completed, these organizations have not violated the legal tender law.
Isn't that interesting? They only have to accept all bills if the goods or services have already been provided! So Liz Lemon was wrong (sorry, Tina!) in the water bottle case, but if she tried to pay for a haircut she just got or for a meal she just ate, she could have paid in $100s or pennies and they'd have to take it. Good to know!


Caffeine Comparisons

In case you ever wondered how your favorite caffeinated drink measures up:

For your viewing pleasure, I sorted the chart by item and by amount of caffeine!

Of course these numbers are relative; all sorts of things factor into how much caffeine is precisely in each item.

Those are the basics, at least. For a more exhaustive chart, please visit EnergyFiend!


Fun Outdated Slang

I read in Bill Bryson's Made In America: An Informal History of The English Language In The United States that there were many words that the early American settlers used that didn't quite stand the test of time. A small sampling:

Skulduggery: underhanded behavior; a devious trick

Slobberchops: a messy eater

Sooterkin: a sweetheart

But who knows? Sometimes old slang comes back. For instance, the 2007 Fergie song "Glamorous" included the term "flossy", which is a mid-1800's term for "very stylish" (think old-timey "bling").

If Fergie can bring back old slang, maybe we can, too? Let's try: My sooterkin is such a slobberchops that whenever he wants to go to a restaurant, I have to pull skulduggery to get out of it! :)


Tea Bowls

I heard a rumor recently about why people in the Far East sometimes prefer teacups without handles.

The justification went something like: "If the cup too hot to hold, then the liquid inside is too hot to drink". Pretty smart, huh?

I don't know if the rumor is true, but it has saved me from a burnt tongue on many, many occasions!


Are Minimum Purchases for Credit Cards Legal?

The other day I went to the hardware store and picked out $4.52 in merchandise. I went to pay with a Visa card and the following conversation occurred:

Clerk 1: "We have a $5 minimum purchase requirement for credit cards."
Me: "Oh... I don't think that's legal."
Clerk 2 to Clerk 1: "Just run it through."

Even though I technically "won" the argument, I instantly realized that I had NO idea if what I said was true! So I decided to look it up. :)

Here's what the CreditInfocenter had to say about it:
[Is it valid for a merchant to impose a minimum purchase?]

Never for Visa and MasterCard; generally not for American Express. Discover explicitly allows the merchant to set a minimum purchase amount, according to email received by the previous editor.

MC and Visa rules provide that a merchant may not require any minimum purchase amount. This is the merchant's agreement with Visa or MasterCard; it is not a Federal law.

According to Bankcard Holders of America, if a merchant takes American Express and also Visa or MC, Amex doesn't let the merchant impose a minimum purchase on Amex users because that would discriminate against them. Merchants who take Amex but neither Visa nor MC may impose minimum charges but Amex officially discourages the practice.
So in the above scenario I was right! Good thing I didn't try to pull that with my Discover Card!


What Is A "Yankee Doodle Dandy"?

I think most of us are familiar with the song "Yankee Doodle". Have you ever been confused by the following lyrics?

Yankee Doodle went to town,
A'riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

Some definitions might help:

Yankee: 18th century term for a United States native
Doodle: 17th century slang for a "fool"
Macaroni: 18th century term for vanity or obsession with one's appearance

It's kind of odd actually that it became a popular patriotic song here because it's likely that it was originally sung by Britons making fun of Americans during the French and Indian War! This verse is basically saying, "These American fools think that by sticking a feather in their cap, they are being fashionable!"

Maybe it would have been better to have just believed that Mr. Doodle called his hat a tubed piece of pasta! :)


Bombs & Bikinis

Who would have thought that the "bikini" could have been named so because of the atomic bomb?

The modern two-piece swimsuit, invented by Louis Réard in 1947, was named after Bikini Atoll, an island in the Pacific that was being used to test an atomic bomb in 1946.

Réard wanted to make the connection: he compared the "burst" of excitement that would come from the new swimwear option to that of the bomb. (He clearly left the devastating after-effects of the nuclear weapon out of the advertisements!)

Also, conveniently for the metaphor, another French designer, Jacques Heim (a competitor of Réard's), had invented a small women's bathing suit called the "Atome" (since it was "so tiny"). Since Réard's bikini was basically a two-piece version of Heim's design, he said that he "split the Atome", much like the atomic bomb splits atoms.

Wow. Part clever and part crazy!


Dreams of Hidden Rooms

I have many reoccurring dreams, and I can usually figure out what they mean after a little thought, but one has baffled me for a while.

Why do I dream that I find hidden rooms in my house?

A couple of websites offer these interpretations:

1. The hidden room may be a part of yourself that you keep hidden from others; a part of yourself that you will not allow anyone to "go to", and which you only allow yourself to "peek" at. (source)

2. Discovering hidden rooms means that your subconscious is getting you ready for surprises in your life - new interests, goals, potential ventures, and/or unexpected possibilities, and whole unexplored parts of yourself that you never knew existed. (source)

(it's hard to find much online, since many dream dictionaries are incomplete or opinion-based)

As my mom always says, you're the best interpreter of your own dreams. So what do I think is happening?

Typically, when I find a hidden room in my dream, there's a sense of relief like I needed the extra room for some reason. Therefore, it may have to do with discovering myself or preparing for new things in my life, and being excited about those possibilities. Or maybe it could just mean I want a little more space to put stuff. :)

For more resources on dream interpretation, check out these highly-rated books:

The Complete Dream Book: Discover What Your Dreams Reveal about You and Your Life by Gillian Holloway
(This one has a section on secret rooms!)

The Dream Book: Symbols For Self-Understanding by Betty Bethards

I Had The Strangest Dream... The Dreamer's Dictionary For The 21st Century by Kelly Sullivan Walden

Best of luck and happy dreaming!


In A Roundabout Way

How do you feel about roundabouts?

Maybe you feel like they are confusing and dangerous? Maybe you think they are a waste of space? Maybe you can relate to Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's European Vacation every time you enter one?

Personally, I am a big fan. I love anything that prevents me from having to wait at red lights or for green arrows. I don't like stopping in general.

Wonder why they are springing up all over the place lately?

Well, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:
"Where roundabouts have been installed, motor vehicle crashes have declined by about 40 percent, and those involving injuries have been reduced by about 80 percent. Crash reductions are accompanied by significant improvements in traffic flow, thus reducing vehicle delays, fuel consumption, and air pollution."
(click here for their reasoning)

Those are all good things! Go roundabouts!


Benefits of Starving a Man

I heard on NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me" yesterday that hungry men tend to be attracted to more voluptuous women. Researchers think that it has to do with primitive instincts; in places where food is scarce, a man would want to find a woman with the best chance of survival.

This may explain why American men often prefer super skinny women - we're in the Land of Plenty. There are not too many truly starving men around.

But it's not too hard to distract an American guy away from food for a while... just to see what happens... ;)

(an analysis of the study from the BBC is here)


Benefits of Coffee!

As I have gotten older, I have developed a little bit of a coffee addiction. :) I just can't stay awake like I used to! Plus, since I got used to the taste, all it takes is one whiff of a brewing pot and I am a goner...

I know that there can be a lot of issues with drinking coffee - caffeine addiction, teeth stains, etc - but today, since I had to wake up at 7am, I want to focus on the health benefits of a good old cup of joe.

Coffee can...
1. reduce your risk of diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, gallstones, cirrhosis, and colon, breast, skin, and liver cancers!
2. relieve headaches!
3. lower your risk of cavities!
4. contribute to your sense of well-being and happiness!
5. relieve muscle soreness!
6. clean out your liver!
7. decrease your chance of dying from heart disease!
8. help prevent memory loss!

(I added the exclamation points because that's how I say my sentences after drinking coffee!)

Many of these benefits come from coffee's high level of caffeine (which is about twice that of cola). But coffee also contains antioxidants (six times more than bananas), which we all know are vital to good health!

Of course, coffee is best consumed in moderation (probably less than 4 cups a day), and without a lot of cream and sugar. But I'll happily take what I can get!

Drink on, coffee lovers!


Buffalo Wings

No teasing me for the first factoid, I really did just learn it. :)

I have always wondered how "buffalo wings" got their name. Don't worry, I didn't have any Jessica-Simpson-esque reasoning for it ("I don't want buffalo wings because I don't eat buffalo"), but I figured that the sauces and spices may have originally been used on buffalo meat or something.

Nope, buffalo wings got their name because they were first prepared like that in Buffalo, NY. Sometimes questions have the simplest answers!

Understandably, residents of Buffalo typically just call them "wings" or "chicken wings". Most food phenomena that is created in a particular place is referred by that place afterwards. For example, someone from Detroit invented what Michiganders now call a "coney island style hot dog" (it's a hot dog on a bun, topped with chili, onions, and mustard). The East Coast calls them "Michigans" instead. :)

While we're on the topic of chicken dishes, ever wonder how "chicken a la king" got its name? I can't find a definitive answer, actually, but what I can tell you is that it likely originated in some restaurant on the East Coast around the turn of the 20th century. It's rumored to be named after someone with the last name King or Keene, who possibly was the inventor, a harsh food critic, or a beloved family member of the chef.

So I suppose we'll all still have to wonder about that one for how!


Autumny Allergy

The other day, I felt like I was experiencing seasonal allergies for the first time. I mentioned it to a friend who chuckled, thinking I was joking. She asked, "Allergies in the fall? Are there things even growing now?"

Oh yes. Yes there are.

Since then I have experienced my fair of sneezing and swollen passages, and what feels like an insatiable itch in my runny nose. In case you're like me and suspect that you've just developed fall allergies, here's what they could be caused by:

1. Ragweed (which can travel hundreds of miles by wind)
2. Mold Spores (which thrive in cold damp environments)
3. Dust Mites (which can get stirred up when you turn on your furnace)
4. Pollen (which plants can release from March until October)

Also, maybe you think you're getting something like the swine flu because you are feeling a bit stuffy these days. It may actually be allergies. The symptoms typically include:

1. Runny nose (check!)
2. Watery eyes
3. Sneezing (check!)
4. Coughing
5. Itchy eyes and nose (check check!)
6. Dark circles under the eyes (always check!)

If you're feeling bogged down by allergies this season, try these tips:

1. Take an OTC antihistamine or a decongestant.
2. Stay indoors during peak allergy hours (morning for pollen, afternoon for mold).
3. Use a humidifier in your home.
4. Get your ducts cleaned.
5. Use a HEPA filter in your furnace to trap airborne allergens.
6. Wear a dust mask when raking leaves or mowing the lawn.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

(thanks WebMD)


A Little Toilet History

Believe it or not, the basic mechanisms of the modern "flushing toilet" were invented in 1596 by Sir John Harington, and was called the Ajax. Sir John installed one in the palace of Elizabeth I of England, but it's rumored that she did not like using it because it was too loud.

A variety of designers and inventors tweaked the design for the next 300ish years before plumbing companies like Thomas Crapper's really popularized the technology and flushing toilets started appearing more in private homes.

It makes one wonder why took so long for flushing toilets to become a household staple. I mean, I know it was probably due to some cost or mass production issue, but I feel like I would have made it a priority! :)

Onto the obvious questions:

1. Did the nickname "john" for a toilet come from Sir John Harington?
Not that I can see. Toilets (flushing or non) began being called "johns" in the mid-1800s, probably because, at that time, some people referred to outhouses as "johnny houses". I don't imagine these people had access to the full history of the toilet to know who Sir John even was!

2. Well, did the nickname "crapper" for a toilet come from Thomas Crapper?
No, says snopes.com. The word "crap" actually originated around 1845, which was about 35 years before TC went into the toilet industry. Maybe his name inspired his profession?