Oddities

Light Reading

French writer Paul Fournel’s 1990 novel Suburbia begins conventionally enough:

Table of Contents

A Word from the Publisher vi
Foreword by Marguerite Duras vii
An Introductory Note by the Author viii
Suburbia 9
Afterword by François Caradec 215
Supplement for Use in Schools 217
Index 219

And the “Word from the Publisher” promises that “the quality of this little novel, now that passions have subsided, has emerged ever more forcefully.” But the first page is blank except for four footnotes:

1. In French in the original.
2. Concerning the definition of suburb, see the epigraph et seq.
3. What intention on the author’s part does this brutal opening suggest?
4. Local judge.

The same thing happens on the second page:

1. Notice how Norbert comes crashing onto the scene.
2. This passage is a mixture of backslang and immigrant jargon. Transpose into normal English.
3. Motorcycle.
4. Obscene gesture.

And so on — except for footnotes, all the pages in Suburbia are blank. “In Suburbia Fournel was not attempting to give some postmodernist exploration of the nature of literature,” explains Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “Suburbia, instead, was written according to the lipogrammatic constraint that it contain no letters or symbols. This constraint force Fournel to write a textless narrative. Because of the footnotes on each page, it has content — it is not an empty text; it is simply a textless text, a text that just happens not to contain any words.”

Maillardet’s Automaton

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henri_Maillardet_automaton,_London,_England,_c._1810_-_Franklin_Institute_-_DSC06656.jpg

Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo was inspired by a real event. In 1928 Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute received the remains of an 18th-century brass automaton that had been damaged in a fire. It had been donated by the descendants of wealthy manufacturer John Penn Brock; they knew it had been acquired in France and supposed it to be the work of the German inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, famed for his metronome.

The institute’s machinist set about restoring the machine and discovered that its mechanism used an ingenious system of cams to store almost 300 kilobits of information. When he had finished his work, he placed a pen in its hand and watched it draw four strikingly elaborate illustrations and write three poems (click to enlarge):

The final poem contained a surprise — in its border the machine wrote Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet, “written by the automaton of Maillardet.” The automaton’s creator was not Johann Maelzel but the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet — and this fact had been remembered only because he had taught the machine to write his name.

Subsequent research showed that Maillardet had created the automaton in the 1700s and exhibited it throughout Europe and Russia. How it came to America is not known. It’s on display today at the Franklin Institute, which demonstrates its talents publicly several times a year.

Bygones

The epilogue of The Time Machine contains this strange passage:

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now — if I may use the phrase — be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age.

What indeed can “now” mean in this context? If the Time Traveller’s life ended on a prehistoric beach, argues philosopher Donald C. Williams, then surely this became an established fact on the day that it happened. If the concept of time is to have any coherence, then history is a tapestry that is eternal and unchanging; to say that it can be changed “at” some future moment seems to be a flat contradiction. “At” where?

“Time travel,” Williams writes, “is analyzable either as the banality that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one we occupied before, or the contradiction that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one which we are then occupying — that five minutes from now, for example, I may be a hundred years from now.”

(Donald C. Williams, “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy, July 1951.)

“Curious Sculpture”

http://books.google.com/books?id=FNA6AQAAMAAJ

A letter from W.C. Trevelyan to John Adamson, secretary of the Antiquarian Society of Newcastle, Jan. 20, 1825:

In the autumn of 1823, I visited the interesting Church at Bridlington [Yorkshire] (founded about 1114, by Gilbert de Gant). On examining a tomb stone with an inscription and date of 1587, standing on two low pillars of masonry near the font, I found some appearances of sculpture on the under side of it, and having obtained leave to turn it over, the curious sculpture represented in the etching herewith sent, was discovered.

Its meaning, or date, I cannot attempt to explain. Can it have any reference to the building of the church? You will perceive both the circular and pointed arch (though the latter is probably only accidental, the space being limited).

The roof, I think, resembles some of the Roman buildings of the lower empire of which I have seen engravings.

The tiles, in shape, correspond exactly with those which were found among the remains of a Roman villa discovered a few years since at Stonesfield, near Oxford. The upper figures are very like some on Bridekirk Font (of the 10th century).

The figures of the Fox and Dove remind one of Æsop’s fable of the Fox and the Stork.

The society published the plate in its Archæologia Æliana. The best guess I can find is that it’s a 12th-century coffin lid that had been appropriated as a tombstone in 1587. But the meaning of the figures is unclear.

Bartitsu

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Copy_of_Montage.jpg

When engineer E.W. Barton-Wright returned to England after three years in Japan, he brought with him a new discipline: Bartitsu, a martial art of his own devising that combined jujutsu, judo, boxing, and stick fighting. He listed its essential principles in an article in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1899:

1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
3. If necessary to subject the joints of any part of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strain which they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

The combination of systems, he wrote, “can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent. One of its greatest advantages is that the exponent need not necessarily be a strong man, or in training, or even a specially active man in order to paralyse a very formidable opponent, and it is equally applicable to a man who attacks you with a knife, or a stick, or against a boxer; in fact, it can be considered a class of self-defence designed to meet every possible kind of attack, whether armed or otherwise.”

In 1899 Barton-Wright established an academy in London to promote the new art, but he proved an indifferent promoter and the school closed its doors within three years. His eccentric fighting style might have been forgotten entirely but for one immortal mention: In The Adventure of the Empty House, when asked how he defeated Professor Moriarty in their climactic struggle at the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes credits “baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”

Constellation

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Circling the earth aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, John Glenn had an odd encounter:

The strangest sight of all came with the very first ray of sunrise as I was crossing the Pacific toward the U.S. I was checking the instrument panel and when I looked back out the window I thought for a minute that I must have tumbled upside-down and was looking up at a new field of stars. I checked my instruments to make sure I was right-side-up. Then I looked again. There, spread as far as I could see, were literally thousands of tiny luminous objects that glowed in the black sky like fireflies. I was riding slowly through them, and the sensation was like walking backwards through a pasture where someone had waved a wand and made all the fireflies stop right where they were and glow steadily. They were greenish yellow in color, and they appeared to be about six to 10 feet apart. I seemed to be passing through them at a speed of from three to five miles an hour. They were all around me, and those nearest the capsule would occasionally move across the window as if I had slightly interrupted their flow. On the next pass I turned the capsule around so that I was looking right into the flow, and though I could see far fewer of them in the light of the rising sun, they were still there. Watching them come toward me, I felt certain they were not caused by anything emanating from the capsule. I thought perhaps I’d stumbled into the lost batch of needles the Air Force had tried to set up in orbit for communications purposes. But I could think of no reason why needles should glow like fireflies, nor did they look like needles. As far as I know, the true identity of these particles is still a mystery.

They seem to have been ice crystals, flakes of frost shed by the capsule and illuminated by the sun. Scott Carpenter saw a similar display on the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, a few months later.

(John Glenn, “If You’re Shook Up, You Shouldn’t Be There,” Life, March 9, 1962.)

The Peace Arch

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peacearch-usside.jpg

The border between the United States and Canada blurs a bit between Blaine, Wash., and Surrey, B.C. There stands the Peace Arch, a 20-meter monument to amity between the two nations commissioned by railroad executive Sam Hill in 1921.

The arch stands precisely on the border, at the center of an international park: Citizens of either nation can pass without passport or visa into the other nation’s territory, provided they don’t stray beyond a dedicated area.

The U.S. side of the arch bears the inscription “Children of a common mother,” and the Canadian side reads “Brethren dwelling together in unity.” An iron gate stands open on either side, and an inscription above reads “May these gates never be closed.”

Full Circle

For 88 years the Memorial Bridge carried traffic across the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.

At its opening in 1923, 5-year-old Eileen Foley cut the ribbon.

In 2011, Foley, now 93, tied a ribbon at the closing ceremony.

In the interval she had served several terms as mayor of Portsmouth. “Thank you very much for this afternoon,” she said. “I will never forget it.”

(Thanks, Zach.)

A Reunion

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chassepot.jpg

In 1892 Frederic Martyn was fighting in West Africa with the French Foreign Legion when he met with an incident “so remarkable that I hesitate to mention it, as it is pretty certain to be regarded as a mere traveller’s tale”:

A Dahomeyan warrior was killed while in the act of levelling his gun, from behind a cotton tree, at Captain Battreau of the Legion, at point-blank range, and as he fell his rifle clattered down at the officer’s feet. Captain Battreau, seeing that it was an old Chassepot, picked it up out of curiosity, and suddenly became very much interested in it. He examined it very carefully, and then exclaimed, with a gasp of astonishment, ‘Well, this is something like a miracle! Here is the very rifle I used in 1870 during the war with Germany! See that hole in the butt? That was made by a Prussian bullet at Saint-Privat. I could tell that gun from among a million by that mark alone; but here’s my number stamped on it as well, which is evidence enough for anybody. Who would have thought it possible that I could pick up in Africa, as a captain, a rifle that I used in France, as a sergeant, twenty-two years ago? It is incredible!’

Martyn writes, “The sceptical reader will probably think that the captain was ‘pulling our legs’ a bit; but this explanation is inconsistent with the fact that the officer asked for and obtained special permission to keep the rifle as personal property on account of its associations, and he was hardly likely to have done this unless he could prove that it was, in fact, the identical rifle he had formerly used.”

(From Martyn’s 1911 memoir Life in the Legion. Thanks, Kevin.)

Second Chances

On June 30, 1960, a thunderstorm struck the Columbia, Missouri, area and made time not only stand still, but go backward. The Columbia Missourian reported that Mr. C.W. Brenton looked at his electrical clock at 7:55 P.M. and was startled to see that the clock was running backward. During the storm a surge of lightning had entered his home along the power lines and fused some of the wiring in the clock. This apparently reversed the magnetic field of the motor, causing the hands to turn in the wrong direction.

— Peter Viemeister, The Lightning Book, 1961