Archive for July, 2006


Fifteen-year-old Owen Burnham was walking along a Gambian beach in 1983 when he came upon a group of villagers cutting up a carcass. He says it measured about 15 feet long, with a 4.5-foot head and a beak containing 80 conical teeth. The villagers eventually sold the head to a tourist and buried the body.

Burnham’s story is a little fishy — he took extensive measurements but didn’t think to take a photo or save a sample. And now no one can find the body.

Maybe “Gambo” was a living dinosaur; maybe it was a mangled whale; maybe it never existed. At this point the only person who can shed any light is the tourist … and he’s not talking.

In a Word

adj. full of rabbits

“A Bill Becomes a Law When the President Vetoes It”

Excerpts from students’ civics exams in the 1800s:

  • “The three departments of the government is the President rules the world, the governor rules the State, the mayor rules the city.”
  • “The first conscientious Congress met in Philadelphia.”
  • “The Constitution of the United States was established to ensure domestic hostility.”
  • “The Constitution of the United States is that part of the book at the end which nobody reads.”
  • “Congress is divided into civilized half civilized and savage.”

— From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887

First Draft, Best Draft

Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a passage denouncing the slave trade:

He [George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

Congress removed it.


George Bernard Shaw is the only person who has won both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.

He won the Nobel in 1925 and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1938 (for Pygmalion).

“I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite,” he once said, “but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”

Ironic Post-Ironic Irony

In 1998, University of Iowa communications professor Kembrew McLeod trademarked the phrase “Freedom of Expression.” Then he sent AT&T a cease-and-desist letter because they were using his phrase in an advertising campaign.

He said he knew he was overreaching, but “I do want to register my genuine protest that a big company that really doesn’t represent freedom of expression is trying to appropriate this phrase.”

P.S. Need More Erasers

During the American Civil War, captured Union soldiers held in Libby Prison, Richmond, Va., were allowed only six lines in correspondence with their friends at home. Here’s a sample letter:

“My Dear Wife. – Yours received – no hopes of exchange – send corn starch – want socks – no money – rheumatism in left shoulder – pickles very good – send sausages – God bless you – kiss the baby – Hail Columbia! – Your devoted husband.”

It Pays to Advertise

Ted Hustead was kind of a nut for self-promotion. When he bought a drugstore in tiny Wall, South Dakota, in 1931, he figured he could attract customers through advertising.

Maybe he overcompensated a little. There are now 500 miles of Wall Drug billboards on Interstate 90, stretching all the way to Minnesota at an annual cost of $400,000, plus signs at the North and South Poles, the Paris Metro, and the Taj Mahal. The photo above was taken somewhere in Africa in the 1950s.

The signs may be eyesores, but they’re scaring off the competition — the little pharmacy is still the only one within 500 square miles.


The maker doesn’t need it.

The buyer doesn’t use it.

The user doesn’t know he’s using it.

What is it?

Uh, Right

Decimal arithmetic is a contrivance of man for computing numbers, and not a property of time, space, or matter. It belongs essentially to the keeping of accounts, but is merely an incident to the transactions of trade. Nature has no partiality for the number 10; and the attempt to shackle her freedom with them [decimal gradations], will for ever prove abortive.

— John Quincy Adams, recommending against the metric system in 1821, as reported in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, May 15, 1852


Bob Marley was buried with a guitar, a soccer ball, a bud of marijuana, and a Bible.

She Ain’t Heavy

At 54 million pounds, the Statue of Liberty is the heaviest sculpture in the world.


“Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited.” — John Cleese

All Right, Already

Warring governments can be kind of blunt. James Montgomery Flagg’s famous 1917 “I Want You” recruiting poster (left) echoed an earlier English poster featuring Lord Kitchener, and the Red Army wasn’t any subtler in the 1920s (“Did you volunteer?”).

In the long run, time and patience resolve everything. “When armies are mobilized and issues are joined,” wrote Lao-tzu, “the man who is sorry over the fact will win.”

In a Word

adj. of, like or pertaining to summer

Never Too Late

If you ever invent a time machine, be sure to head back to the Time Traveler Convention held at MIT on May 7, 2005. (If you’re coming from the far future, MIT was at 42.360007° N, 71.087870° W.)

The convention was covered on the front page of the New York Times, so presumably it’ll be well attended … eventually.

Zollner Illusion

An optical illusion. The long lines are parallel.

The Quick Brown Fox …

In 1984, British engineer Lee Sallows built a dedicated computer to compose a self-enumerating pangram — a sentence that inventories its own letters. It succeeded:

This pangram contains four a’s, one b, two c’s, one d, thirty e’s, six f’s, five g’s, seven h’s, eleven i’s, one j, one k, two l’s, two m’s, eighteen n’s, fifteen o’s, two p’s, one q, five r’s, twenty-seven s’s, eighteen t’s, two u’s, seven v’s, eight w’s, two x’s, three y’s, & one z.

“Duty to One Another”

From Manners and Conduct in School and Out by the Deans of Girls in Chicago High Schools, 1921:

  1. After dancing with a girl thank her and walk back with her to her seat, to her chaperon, or to her next partner. Never leave her standing alone in the middle of the floor.
  2. Girls, if your partner doesn’t dance well, take it pleasantly — but not as too much of a joke — and help him to do better.
  3. Avoid looking at a boy with your soul in your eyes. A girl holds the key to the social situation. She should keep such a situation at school on a cordial but wholly matter-of-fact basis, — absolutely free from sentimentality.
  4. Base your friendships on good comradeship, not on maudlin emotion, nor on propinquity. The right kind of girl and boy friendships may give joy for a lifetime; the wrong kind must be a continual menace.
  5. Don’t be prudes, girls, but let every boy know that he must keep his hands off from you. If he presumes, a cool glance on your part will usually restrain him. If it does not, avoid him; he is unworthy of your friendship.
  6. Boys, you can easily tell what girls would have you sit very close to them, and hold their hands, and put your arms around them. But, be manly. Always protect a girl; protect her from yourself, even from herself. If she does not wish to be so protected, avoid her as you would the plague.
  7. When you call on a girl, you shouldn’t remain after ten o’clock even though the girl wants you to. Girls, you should not urge. And, girls, observe how your boy friends fit themselves into the family group.
  8. A gift you should acknowledge at once and cordially. But, boys, let your gifts to girls be rare, and restricted to candy, books, and flowers.
  9. To force your presence upon those who seem not to want you, tends to crystallize their feeling of antagonism. On the other hand, nothing more quickly disarms this feeling of antagonism than evidence of delicacy on your part.
  10. Girls, it is poor policy to call up boys often by telephone, and bad manners to whistle to attract their attention.
  11. For you to sit at a social gathering with hat and coat on, girls, — even though you must leave in a few moments, — is discourteous both to your hostess and to the other guests.


Justo Gallego Martínez of Spain joined a Trappist monastery as a young man, but he had to leave in 1961 when he contracted tuberculosis. So he decided to build his own cathedral, on a plot of land he had inherited in the Spanish village of Mejorada del Campo.

He has no plans, permissions, permits or even the blessing of the Catholic Church — he’s basically been improvising for 40 years, with the help of six nephews and the occasional volunteer, using recycled construction materials, old gas drums and bricks from a nearby factory. But he’s doing pretty well — that dome is 40 meters high.

“If you think you can win, you can win,” wrote William Hazlitt. “Faith is necessary to victory.”

Rodent Culture

Mickey Mouse was originally going to be called Mortimer.

Walt Disney’s wife didn’t like the name.


Jack Nicholson’s contract stipulates that he does not film movies during Lakers games.


A photographer from Country Life Magazine reportedly took this picture while shooting a feature on Raynham Hall, a Norfolk country house, on Sept. 19, 1936. The “ghost” has become known as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall because of the brocade dress she wears.

No one’s seen her since.

Permanently Funky

James Brown’s eyebrows are tattoos.