Henry Hudson made this curious journal entry in the Canadian arctic, June 15, 1610:
This morning one of our company looking overboard saw a mermaid; and calling up some of the company to see her, one more came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after, a sea came and overturned her. From the navel upward, her back and breasts were like a woman’s, as they say that saw her; her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long hair hanging down behind, of colour black. In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.
“Whatever explanation be attempted of this apparition,” wrote Philip Gosse, “the ordinary resource of seal or walrus will not avail here. Seals and walruses must have been as familiar to these polar mariners as cows to a dairy-maid. Unless the whole story was a concerted lie between the two men, reasonless and objectless, — and the worthy old navigator doubtless knew the character of his men, — they must have seen, in the black-haired, white-skinned creature, some form of being as yet unrecognized.”
Last year, University of Queensland psychology undergraduate Sean Murphy was collecting images of faces while preparing an experiment. As he skimmed through them, he noticed that they began to appear grotesque and deformed, though when viewed individually they appeared normal and even attractive. (The demonstration above uses photographs of celebrities.)
“The effect seems to depend on processing each face in light of the others,” writes grad student Matthew Thompson, who published the result last year with Murphy and Jason Tangen. “By aligning the faces at the eyes and presenting them quickly, it becomes much easier to compare them, so the differences between the faces are more extreme. If someone has a large jaw, it looks almost ogre-like. If they have an especially large forehead, then it looks particularly bulbous. We’re conducting several experiments right now to figure out exactly what’s causing this effect.”
(Tangen, J. M., Murphy, S. C., & Thompson, M. B. (2011). Flashed face distortion effect: Grotesque faces from relative spaces. Perception, 40, 628-630.)
On Sept. 12, 1952, three West Virginia boys saw a floating reddish sphere drop behind a hill, where it emitted a steady glow. As they went to investigate, they were joined by a local beautician and three others boys.
A dog ran ahead of the group, barked furiously at something, and fled with its tail between its legs. The first boys to reach the site saw a “big ball of fire” among a foul-smelling mist to their right. To their left were two points of light. When one boy turned his flashlight on them, the group saw a grotesque, armless creature with a head shaped like the “ace of spades,” with a circular window through which two pale blue beams of light played.
The creature, which was more than 6 feet tall, glided toward the group at first, then turned toward the glowing ball as the group fled. When a reporter from the Braxton Democrat arrived at the scene, he noticed an unusual odor in the grass that irritated his nose and throat.
No one knows what the group saw that night, but the most likely explanation seems to be a meteor and a startled barn owl. Flatwoods held a “monster festival” in September 2002, on the 50th anniversary of the event; the alien, if that’s what it was, failed to attend.
In October 1956, Los Angeles mentalist Jack Swimmer declared that he would predict the exact number of votes that President Eisenhower would receive that year in the nation, in California, and in Los Angeles County. A small box containing his predictions was placed in a larger box, which was locked in a county safe on Oct. 10, and Swimmer deposited $5,000 with the county board of supervisors, saying they could give it to charity if he failed.
On Nov. 13, a week after Election Day, the supervisors opened the smaller box and found a tiny roll of paper on which were written three numbers:
These corresponded exactly to the published totals. The board returned Swimmer’s money, and he donated it to charity anyway, saying he was happy with his “small part in bringing out the vote.”
Swimmer wouldn’t say how he had accomplished the feat, though he said there was nothing supernatural about it. “Some of the spectators later said the tiny roll of paper on which the figures were written could have been hidden in a hollow key and injected into the box when it was unlocked,” noted a UPI account. “But by the time they thought of it, the key was no longer available for inspection.”
The nephew of British composer George Lloyd discovered this among his papers — a Christmas carol written as a “tabletop double canon” that can be read simultaneously by singers facing north, south, east, and west.
A printable PDF is available here.
(Thanks, Steve and Bill.)
At 6:03 on the morning of Aug. 16, 1942, U.S. Navy blimp L-8 ascended from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to conduct an anti-submarine patrol along the coast of California. Aboard were pilot Ernest Cody and ensign Charles Adams. The flight proceeded uneventfully until 7:42, when Cody reported that they’d spotted an oil slick and were going to investigate.
At 11:15, caddies at a seaside golf club saw the airship float in from the sea, its motors silent. Descending, it struck some telephone lines and the roofs of several homes before coming to rest in Daly City. The first person to reach the downed ship, volunteer fireman William Morris, was surprised at what he found: “The doors were open and nobody was in the cabin.”
There was no trace of Cody or Adams. Though most of the fuel had been dumped, the parachutes and life raft were stored appropriately, and the radio was in working order. Only the crew were missing.
After a search, the Navy declared itself certain that “the men were NOT in the ship at any time it traveled over land.” Two fishing vessels near the oil slick testified that they’d seen the blimp descend to investigate, but nothing had fallen or dropped from it.
That’s all. A Coast Guard search found nothing. Cody and Adams were both declared missing, then pronounced dead a year later. No one knows what became of them.
- A pound of dimes has the same value as a pound of quarters.
- The French word hétérogénéité has five accents.
- 32768 = (3 – 2 + 7)6 / 8
- Can you deceive yourself deliberately?
- “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” — Thomas Paine
In 2000, Guatemalan police asked Christmas revelers not to fire pistols into the air. “Lots of people die when bullets fall on their heads,” National Civilian Police spokesman Faustino Sanchez told Reuters. He said that five to ten Guatemalans are killed or injured each Christmas by falling bullets.
On visiting the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto, Douglas Adams was impressed at how well the 14th-century structure had weathered the passage of time. His Japanese guide told him that it hadn’t weathered well at all; in fact it had burned to the ground twice in the 20th century.
“So this isn’t the original building?” Adams asked.
“But yes, of course it is.”
“But it’s been burned down?”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burned down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
“I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise,” Adams wrote. The essence of a building is its design, the intention of the builder. The materials may decay and be replaced, but these are only instantiations of a persistent idea. “I couldn’t feel entirely comfortable with this view, because it fought against my basic Western assumptions,” Adams wrote, “but I did see the point.”
From Last Chance to See. John Locke asked: If I keep patching holes in my sock until none of the original material remains, is it the same sock? And see Ship Shape.
On April 23, 1982, the Florida keys seceded from the Union. Frustrated that a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint was obstructing the main artery to the mainland, Key West mayor Dennis Wardlow opted for a lighthearted public relations campaign: He proclaimed his “Conch Republic” a separate nation, declared war on the United States, surrendered one minute later, and applied for $1 billion in foreign aid.
Since then the republic has maintained an uneasy peace with its giant neighbor. On Sept. 20, 1995, when an Army reserve battalion forgot to notify Key West of local training exercises, Wardlow mobilized for war. He sent letters to Bill Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state Warren Christopher, and his militia engaged La Dichosa Bakery to bake Cuban bread with which to pelt the convoy (“our historic weapon of choice for dealing with Federalist Forces”) and Key West Lager “to provide the beer.”
By 10:50 p.m. they had received a fax from the battalion’s leaders stating that they had “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic.” An official surrender ceremony was held two days later.
Above is a photo of the Indian city of Jodhpur. Below, seemingly, is a detailed scale model of the same scene.
In fact it’s the same photo, altered so that the foreground and background are out of focus. This narrow depth of field is most familiar from close-up photographs of miniature scenes, so the eye assumes that’s what it’s seeing.
On April 10, 1818, John Cleves Symmes Jr. of Ohio issued the following challenge:
To All The World. — I declare the earth to be hollow and habitable within; containing a number of concentric spheres, one within the other, and that their poles are open twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the concave, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.
I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in autumn, with reindeer and sledges, on the ice of the Frozen Sea; I engage we find a warm country and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching about sixty-nine miles northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.
Kentucky senator (and future vice president) Richard M. Johnson proposed that Congress fund two vessels for the expedition, but Congress voted this down. But we have an account of the voyage anyway: An anonymous hoaxer published Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery under Symmes’ name in 1820.
These images are identical, yet the tower on the right appears to lean more. Why?
Frederick Kingdom, Ali Yoonessi, and Elena Gheorghiu of McGill University discovered this effect in 2007. Normally parallel towers viewed from below appear to converge with distance; because that doesn’t happen here, the brain infers that the towers are diverging.
Any person in want of a DEAD PIG may find one, that will probably answer his purpose, in the middle of Broadway, between Broome and Spring Streets. Applicants need not be in any great haste, as it is expected that he will lie there several days; and if the warm weather should last, and the carriages will let him alone, he will grow — bigger and bigger.
— New York Daily Advertiser, 1822
Letter to the Times, May 2, 1940:
In view of the publicity you have accorded to Mrs Barrow’s letter, I hope that you will spare me space to say, as an advocate for the consumption of grass-mowings, that I have eaten them regularly for over three years, and off many lawns. The sample I am eating at present comes off a golf green on Mitcham Common. I have never suffered from urticaria or any of the symptoms Mrs Barrow mentions. Nor did any of the many of my horses to which I have fed grass-mowings, freshly cut and cleaned from stones, &c. For my own consumption I also wash them well.
When a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook Olympia, Wash., in 2001, shopowner Jason Ward discovered that a sand-tracing pendulum had recorded the vibrations in the image above.
Seismologists say that the “flower” at the center reflects the higher-frequency waves that arrived first; the outer, larger-amplitude oscillations record the lower-frequency waves that arrived later.
“You never think about an earthquake as being artistic — it’s violent and destructive,” Norman MacLeod, president of Gaelic Wolf Consulting in Port Townsend, told ABC News. “But in the middle of all that chaos, this fine, delicate artwork was created.”
Is this woman spinning clockwise or counterclockwise?
Miss Mildred West, whose duties on the Alton [Ill.] Evening Telegraph include the writing of obituaries, has been taking a week’s vacation. And, for the first time in the memory of her fellow workers on the newspaper, a week has passed with no deaths being reported in this city of 32,000. Normally, ten occur every week.
— New York Times, Sept. 1, 1946
Here are three items that I haven’t been able to confirm — I expect the first two are false, but I’m posting them here for what they’re worth. The first is from Henry Thomas and Dana Lee Thomas, Living Biographies of Great Poets, 1941:
An interesting and touching story is told about the manuscript of the first Jungle Book. Kipling gave this manuscript as a present to the nurse who had cared for his first-born child. ‘Take this script,’ he said, ‘and someday if you are in need of money you may be able to sell it at a handsome price.’ Years later, when the nurse was actually in want, she sold the manuscript and managed to live in comfort for the rest of her life.
I can’t verify that anywhere. The second item is from Robert Hendrickson, American Literary Anecdotes, 1992:
Some 5,000 copies of [Steinbeck’s] The Wayward Bus (1947) went up in flames when the truck taking them from the bindery collided with a bus — yes, a wayward bus — travelling on the wrong side of the road.
San Jose State University’s Center for Steinbeck Studies repeated that story in a 1995 newsletter, but it cited Hendrickson as the source. I haven’t been able to confirm it independently.
This last one may be true. The Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations claims that Millvina Dean (1911-), the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, while visiting the Kansas City house in which her family would have lived, said, “I can’t bear iced drinks … the iceberg, you know. Perhaps some champagne though.”
The dictionary cites the Times, Aug. 20, 1997, for this quote, but I haven’t tracked that down to confirm it.
A correspondent of the Manchester Sporting Chronicle, thinking that his horse was short-sighted, had his eyes examined by an oculist, who certified that the horse had a No. 7 eye and required concave glasses. These were obtained and fitted on to the horse’s head. At first the horse was a little surprised, but rapidly showed signs of the keenest pleasure, and he now stands all the morning looking over the half-door of his stable with his spectacles on, gazing around him with an air of sedate enjoyment. When driven his manner is altogether changed from his former timidity; but if pastured without his spectacles on, he hangs about the gate whinnying in a plaintive minor key. If the spectacles are replaced he kicks up his heels and scampers up and down the pasture with delight.
— British Veterinary Journal, March 1888
In an 1891 feature, the Strand attempted to notate the songs of various English birds. The nightingale, shown here, “shares with the lark the honours of poesy. Though sometimes dwelling for minutes on a strain composed of only two or three melancholy tones, beginning with a mezza voce, it swells gradually, by a most perfect crescendo, to the highest point of strength, and ends with a dying cadence.”
The songs of birds have long inspired human composers. In 1934 the Rev. K.H. MacDermott, an associate of the Royal College of Music, wrote to the Times:
For many years each spring I have tested the cuckoo’s notes with a piano, and have found that they are always within a tone of D and B, or D and B flat (treble stave). It is of interest to observe that Beethoven, a great lover of birds, when he introduced the imitation of the cuckoo at the end of the second movement of his Pastoral Symphony, gave the two notes D and B flat, to be played by the clarionet. As Beethoven was at the time he composed that work (1808) completely deaf one wonders whether it was by chance he selected the correct notes, or merely because they fit in with the key of the movement, or whether his memory of the bird’s song had survived after he had been unable to hear it for some years. If the latter, it is fascinating to realize that the cuckoo has not altered the pitch of his notes for over a century.
Beethoven used this technique more than once. Ornithologist and bioacoustics expert Luis Baptista of the California Academy of Sciences compared the call of the white-breasted wood wren to the famous opening bars of the composer’s Fifth Symphony:
And if humans imitate birds, Baptista also found that “when birds compose songs they often use the same rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, permutations, and combinations of notes as human composers,” noted Patricia Gray, head of the National Academy of Sciences’ Biomusic program, in Science in 2001. “Thus, some bird songs resemble musical compositions; for example, the canyon wren’s trill cascades down the musical scale like the opening of Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Etude.”
Indeed, birdsong reflects every elementary rhythmic effect found in human music, Gray wrote. “There are interval inversions, simple harmonic relations, and retention of melody with change of key.” Many birds transpose motifs into different keys, and some pitch their songs to the same scale as Western music.
Modern composers have narrowed the gap still further. Olivier Messiaen’s 1952 flute piece Le merle noir was based entirely on the song of the blackbird, and his orchestral work Réveil des oiseaux is built almost entirely on the songs one hears at daybreak in the Jura mountains of the composer’s native France. Critic Paul Griffiths said he considered Messiaen a more conscientious ornithologist than any previous composer, and a more musical observer of birdsong than any previous ornithologist.
This must end somewhere, though. If we’ve been emulating birds’ music, now they’re emulating our technology.
In 1891 the Strand ran two features on oddities encountered by the British post office, which kept facsimiles of the most puzzling letters in three great scrapbooks. “Many a pictorial curiosity passes through the post; and the industrious letter-sorter is often bewildered as to where to despatch missives, the envelopes of which bear hieroglyphics which would positively out-Egypt Egypt.”
Some examples are merely helpless, such as the direction above or a letter intended for Pamber, near Basingstoke, Hants., which was addressed “Pambore near Beas and Stoke, Ence.” Elsewhere, “A seafaring man evidently expected at the Sailors’ Home is addressed, ‘Walstrets, Selorshom Tebiekald for'; which, being interpreted, means, ‘Sailors’ Home, Wells-street: To be called for.”
But others seem deliberately elusive — one letter bore only these lines:
… was intended for Swansea in South Wales.
“One envelope has an ingenious direction on it. It is intended for S.S. Kaisow, lying in the Red Sea. It shows a very deliberate-looking sow labeled K, with a belt round it in the form of the letter C painted red.”
But at least those letters had envelopes. One thrifty correspondent simply wrote his message on the back of a postage stamp and dropped it in the mail:
“Meet me to-night without fail. Fail not — I am hard up.” “Though he probably parted with his last penny,” note the editors, “considering the state of his exchequer, he ran a great risk of remaining still hard up, owing to non-delivery of his communication.”
Amazingly, many of these letters actually found their recipients, a testament to the diligence and imagination of the postal authorities. “But we are rather in doubt as to whether a communication from the United States addressed to ‘John Smith, Esq., or any intelligent Smith, London, England,’ or possibly a proposal from some unknown admirer for ‘Miss Annie W—, London, address not known,’ ever reached their rightful owners.”
On July 18, 1917, the U.S. Navy gunboat Yorktown called at Clipperton Island, a tiny coral atoll in the eastern Pacific. The ship’s commander, Harlan Page Perrill, sent two men ashore and was surprised to see them return with a complement of women and children. When his men made their report, Perrill later wrote, they revealed “a tale of woe absolutely harrowing in its details.”
The three women and eight children were the only survivors of the island’s original colony, which had once numbered 100. The last ship had visited the island three years ago, and their supplies had given out six months after that. Since that time they had survived on fish, fowl, and eggs. Scurvy and starvation killed much of the population; others died at sea while attempting to escape in a whaleboat. By 1917 lighthouse keeper Victoriano Álvarez was the only man on the island; he declared himself king and began terrorizing the women, threatening, beating, and sadistically raping them, even killing two.
Álvarez had promised to kill Alicia Arnaud, the governor’s wife, when help finally arrived, to prevent her talking to the authorities, but an odd quirk saved her. That very morning, finally determined to act, she and fellow survivor Tirza Randon had confronted Álvarez in his hut, where Randon had killed him with a hammer. Only minutes later, Arnaud’s son had spotted the Yorktown. “What if we had been an hour earlier!” Perrill reflected. “It is almost certain that the man would have killed Señora Arnaud.”
Risking court-martial, Perrill left Álvarez’s body to be devoured by crabs and omitted any mention of him in his official report, and he and the entire crew of the Yorktown kept the secret for 17 years. He later explained that “I was afraid of the effects it might have upon the fortunes of Tirza Randon.” “Had Perrill not sanitized his reports and included titllating details of Álvarez’s reign of terror,” wrote Jimmy Skaggs in his history of the island, “the story undoubtedly would have received far greater attention.”
In September 1924, the wheels of a truck sank into the ground behind the Pelham Courts apartments in Washington, D.C. On investigating, the building’s manager and janitor discovered a mysterious brick-lined passageway that led to a bizarre network of concrete tunnels extending as much as 32 feet underground.
The discovery put Washington into two days of wild speculation. Was this a German plot? A relic of the Civil War? But then Smithsonian Institution entomologist Harrison G. Dyar came forward to admit that he had dug the tunnels when had lived in the capital 10 years earlier. From Modern Mechanix, August 1932:
Dyar’s obsession had begun innocently enough. He told the Washington Star that in 1906 he had dug a flowerbed for his wife, and “When I was down perhaps six or seven feet, surrounded only by the damp brown walls of old Mother Earth, I was seized by an undeniable fancy to keep on going.” He had continued the project in secret for 10 years, stopping only in 1915, when he moved out of the area.
“I did it for exercise,” he told the New York Times. “Digging tunnels after work is my hobby. There’s really nothing mysterious about it.”
Where is pain? If my foot hurts, it’s natural to say that the pain is located in my foot, that I’m perceiving something outside my mind in the same way that I might see a rainbow or smell a rose. The same is true of itches, tickles, tingles, and other bodily sensations.
But this is troubling — suppose I discover that my foot has been amputated, and that the pain exists only in a “phantom limb.” Was I then mistaken? The pain certainly exists somewhere; it seems impossible to be wrong about that. You may convince me that the rainbow is an illusion or the rose an hallucination, but it seems absurd to suggest that one’s experience of pain is mistaken. (Inversely, pain can’t exist without someone’s feeling it. If you anesthetize me and drop a hammer on my foot, the pain isn’t somehow hidden from me — it doesn’t exist at all.)
So pain is strangely private and incorrigible — only I can know whether I’m feeling it, and I cannot be wrong about this impression. It would seem that I can have such authority only if the pain is really in my head. But “it is perfectly OK with common sense that we may have sensations in body parts other than the head — say, under our right foot! Why?” asks University of British Columbia philosopher Murat Aydede. “This, then, is another puzzle about pains and other intransitive bodily sensations: how to properly understand the common practice of locating what appear to be essentially subjective and private sensations in various parts of the body.”