Oddities

Tilt Shift

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.

Introspection

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Symmes_Hole.jpg

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.

The Leaning Tower Illusion

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.

Notice

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

This Earth of Majesty

Letter to the Times, May 2, 1940:

Sir,

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.

Yours faithfully,

J.R.B. Branson

The Earthquake Rose

http://www.earthquakerose.com/

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.”

Pirouette

Is this woman spinning clockwise or counterclockwise?

Death Takes a Holiday

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

Three Tales

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 New Outlook

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

Bird Songs

http://books.google.com/books?id=UeIvAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

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:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_symphony_5_opening.svg

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.

Riddling Letters

http://books.google.com/books?id=9OEvAAAAMAAJ

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:

http://books.google.com/books?id=9OEvAAAAMAAJ

This one:

http://books.google.com/books?id=9OEvAAAAMAAJ

… 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:

http://books.google.com/books?id=9OEvAAAAMAAJ

“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.”

The Clipperton Survivors

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SobrevivientesClipperton.jpg

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.”

Burrowed Time

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:

http://blog.modernmechanix.com/tunnel-digging-as-a-hobby/

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.”

(Thanks, Allyson.)

Pain Puzzles

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.”

The End of Me

How very intimate the bodily sense is can be seen by performing a little experiment in your imagination. Think first of swallowing the saliva in your mouth, or do so. Then imagine expectorating it into a tumbler and drinking it! What seemed natural and ‘mine’ suddenly becomes disgusting and alien. Or picture yourself sucking blood from a prick in your finger; then imagine sucking blood from a bandage around your finger! What I perceive as belonging intimately to my body is warm and welcome; what I perceive as separate from my body becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, cold and foreign.

— Gordon W. Allport, Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, 1960

“Extraordinary Occurrence”

exeter mail coach lion attack

The Exeter mail coach was making its way past Salisbury on the night of Oct. 20, 1816, when it met with a rare adventure. From the Edinburgh Annual Register:

At the moment when the coachman pulled up to deliver his bags, one of the leaders was suddenly seized by a ferocious animal. This produced great confusion and alarm; two passengers who were inside the mail got out, ran into the house, and locked themselves up in a room above stairs; the horses kicked and plunged violently, and it was with difficulty the coachman could prevent the carriage from being overturned. It was soon perceived by the coachman and guard, by the light of the lamps, that the animal which had seized the horse was a huge lioness. A large mastiff dog came up, and attacked her fiercely, on which she quitted the horse, and turned upon him. The dog fled, but was pursued and killed by the lioness within about 40 yards of the place.

The creature had escaped from a caravan on its way to Salisbury fair. She was hunted into a hovel under a granary, where “her howlings were heard to the distance of half a mile,” and the caravan’s owner eventually appeared and led her back to her cage. “The horse, when first attacked, fought with great spirit, and if at liberty, would probably have beaten down his antagonist with his fore feet, but in plunging he embarrassed himself in the harness. … The ferocious animal missed the throat, and the jugular vein, but the horse is so dreadfully torn he is not expected to survive.”

World Cuisine

This would be incredible if it weren’t so well documented — in the early 19th century a Frenchman known as Tarrare became famous as a “polyphagist,” an eater of everything. From the London Medical and Physical Journal, September 1819:

He would eat dogs and cats. One day, in the presence of the chief physician of the army, Dr. Lorence, he seized by the neck and paws a large living cat, tore open its belly with his teeth, sucked its blood, and devoured it, leaving no part of it but the bare skeleton: half an hour afterwards he threw up the hairs of the cat, just as birds of prey, and other carnivorous animals, do. Tarrare liked the flesh of serpents; he managed them familiarly, and ate alive the largest snakes (couleuvres) without leaving any part of them. He swallowed a large eel alive without chewing it, but we thought we perceived him crush its head between his teeth. He ate, in a few instants, the dinner prepared for fifteen German labourers: this repast was composed of four bowls of curdled milk, and two enormous hard puddings. After this the belly of Tarrare, commonly lank and wrinkled, was distended like a balloon: he went away, and slept until the next day, and was not incommoded by it. M. Comville, the surgeon-major of the hospital where Tarrare then was, made him swallow a wooden case, enclosing a sheet of white paper: he voided it the following day by the anus, and the paper was uninjured. The general-in-chief had him brought before him; and, after having devoured in his presence nearly thirty pounds of raw liver and lights, Tarrare again swallowed the wooden case, in which was placed a letter to a French officer, who was a prisoner to the enemy. Tarrare set out, was taken, flogged, imprisoned; voided the wooden case, which he had retained thirty hours, and had the address to swallow it again, to conceal the knowledge of its contents from the enemy. They tried to cure him of this insatiable hunger, by the use of acids, preparations of opium, and pills of tobacco; but nothing diminished his appetite and his gluttony. He went about the slaughter-houses and bye-places, to dispute with dogs and wolves the most disgusting aliments. The servants of the hospital surprised him drinking the blood of patients who had been bled, and in the dead-room devouring the bodies. A child fourteen months old disappeared suddenly; fearful suspicions fell on Tarrare; they drove him from the hospital. M. Percy lost sight of him for four years: at the end of this time he saw Tarrare at the civil hospital at Versailles, where he was perishing in a tabid state.

“He shortly died, and his body almost immediately became a mass of putridity,” wrote Perceval Barton Lord in his 1839 Popular Physiology. “On being opened, his stomach was found to be of an immense size, and, as well as all the intestines, in a state of suppuration.”

Quick Thinking

A singular incident occurred in the last run of the Fitzwilliam Hounds, which affords another illustration of the cunning of the fox, and which placed the pack in considerable peril. The ‘find’ took place at Wadworth-wood, and the fox after heading for Rossington Station at a rattling pace, suddenly turned in the direction of Loversall village, where he sought concealment in a bed of rushes near the Carrs. He was, however, speedily compelled to quit his hiding place, and then made again for the railway, where he deliberately lay down on the permanent way and refused to budge. An express train was rapidly approaching, and the pack, being in imminent danger of getting upon the line and being cut to pieces, the huntsman reluctantly and with considerable difficulty drew off the hounds. The fox maintained his position until the express got within a short distance and then quietly made off.

Times, Dec. 24, 1884

Benham’s Top

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benham%27s_Disc.svg

Cut out this disc, pierce it with a pencil, and spin it like a top. The colors that appear are not entirely understood; it’s thought that they arise due to the different rates of stimulation of color receptors in the retina. The effect was discovered by the French monk Benedict Prévost in 1826, and then rediscovered 12 times, most famously by the toy maker Charles E. Benham, who marketed an “artificial spectrum top” in 1894. Nature remarked on it that November: “If the direction of rotation is reversed, the order of these tints is also reversed. The cause of these appearances does not appear to have been exactly worked out.”

Instant Romance

This will confuse archaeologists someday: In 1750 Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, commissioned a ruined medieval castle for the grounds of Wimpole Hall, his country house near Cambridge. The earl’s friend Lord Lyttleton described the project to architect Sanderson Miller:

[H]e wants no House or even Room in it, but mearly the Walls and Semblance of an Old castle to make an object from his house. At most he only desires to have a staircase carried up one of the Towers, and a leaded gallery half round it to stand in, and view the Prospect. It will have a fine Wood of Firrs for a backing behind it and will stand on an Eminence at a proper distance from his House. I ventured to promise that you should draw one for his Lordship that would be fitt for his Purpose. … I know that these works are an Amusement to you.

More than 30 sham ruins of castles and abbeys appeared in English landscape gardens in this period; Sanderson acquired a reputation as the “grand master of gothic.” Perhaps some of the ruins we ourselves have unearthed were planted there by ancient artists?

Progress

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39869/39869-h/39869-h.htm

Ordinarily plowing merely turns over the same old soil year after year, and constant decrease in crops is only prevented by rotation or expensive fertilizing.

With ‘Red Cross’ Dynamite you can break up the ground all over the field to a depth of two or three feet, for less than the cost of adequate fertilizing, and with better results. Fertilizing only improves the top soil. Dynamiting renders available all the moisture and elements of growth throughout the entire depth of the blast.

In an article by J.H. Caldwell, of Spartanburg, S.C., in the September, 1910, Technical World Magazine, he states that before the ground was broken up with dynamite, he planted his corn with stalks 18 inches apart in rows 4 feet apart and raised 90 bushels to the acre. After the ground was blasted, it was able to nourish stalks 6 inches apart in rows the same distance apart, and to produce over 250 bushels to the acre. This means an increase of about 160 bushels to the acre, every year, for an original expense of $40 an acre for labor and explosives.

F.G. Moughon, of Walton County, Georgia, reports that he has been raising crops of watermelons, weighing from 50 to 60 pounds each, on land blasted by exploding charges of about 3 ounces of dynamite in holes 2-½ to 3 feet deep, spaced 8 to 10 feet apart.

— From Farming With Dynamite, published by the E.I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Co., 1910

A Long Night

Our Geneva Correspondent writes: — ‘A few days since two schoolmasters from Morzine, a Savoyard village near the Swiss frontier, made an excursion to the Col de Coux, not far from Champéry, in the Valais. As they were descending the mountain, late in the afternoon, they thought they heard cries of distress. After a long search they perceived a man holding on to a bush, or small tree, which had struck its roots into the face of the precipice. As the precipice was nearly perpendicular and the man was some 1,200 ft. below them, and the foot of the precipice quite as far below him, they found it impossible to give the poor fellow any help. All they could do was to tell him to stay where he was — if he could — until they came back, and hurry off to Morzine for help. Though it was night when they arrived thither, a dozen bold mountaineers, equipped with ropes, started forthwith for the rescue. After a walk of 12 miles they reached the Col de la Golèse, but it being impossible to scale the rocks in the dark they remained there until the sun rose. As soon as there was sufficient light they climbed by a roundabout path to the top of the precipice. The man was still holding on to the bush. Three of the rescue party, fastened together with cords, were then lowered to a ledge about 600 feet below. From this coign of vantage two of the three lowered the third to the bush. He found the man, who had been seated astride his precarious perch a day and a night, between life and death. It was a wonder how he had been able to hold on so long, for besides suffering from hunger and cold he had been hurt in the fall from the height above. He was a reserve man belonging to Saméons, on his way thither from Lausanne, where he had been working, to be present at a muster. Losing his way on the mountains between Thonon and Saméons, he had missed his footing and rolled over the precipice. He had the presence of mind to cling to the bush, which broke his fall, but if the two schoolmasters had not heard his cries he must have perished miserably. Hoisting him to the top of the precipice was a difficult and perilous undertaking, but it was safely accomplished. None of the man’s hurts were dangerous, and after a long rest and a hearty meal or two he was pronounced fit to continue his journey and report himself at the muster.’

Times, July 12, 1882

Right and Wrong

Can objects have preferences? The rattleback is a top that seems to prefer spinning in a certain direction — when spun clockwise, this one arrests its motion, shakes itself peevishly, and then sweeps grandly counterclockwise as if forgiving an insult.

There’s no trick here — the reversal arises due to a coupling of instabilities in the top’s other axes of rotation — but prehistoric peoples have attributed it to magic.

See Right Side Up.