Oddities

Mail Room

In the ‘London Times’ of 1841 a lady advertised in the columns of that newspaper for duplicates, which she put to a more curious use than most people. The advertisement said:– ‘A young lady being desirous of covering her dressing room with cancelled postage stamps, has been so far encouraged in her wish by private friends as to have succeeded in collecting 16,008. These, however, being insufficient, she will be greatly obliged if any good natured persons who may have these (otherwise useless) little articles at their disposal, would assist her whimsical project. Address, E.D., Mr Butt’s, Glover, Leadenhall Street, or Marshall’s, Jeweller, Hackney.’

American Philatelist, Feb. 1, 1919

Singing Sand

In the summarized proceedings of the September 1884 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Trinity College chemist H. Carrington Bolton and Columbia College geologist Alexis A. Julien reported on the “musical sand” at Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.:

“The character of the sounds obtained by friction on the beach is decidedly musical and we have been able to indicate the exact notes on a musical staff. The shrillness and lowness of note depend chiefly on the quantity of sand disturbed; by plunging both hands into the sand and bringing them together quickly with a swoop a large quantity of the sand vibrates and we hear a tone of which the dominant note is:”

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

“By stroking the sand nearer the surface and with less force very high notes are heard somewhat confused. The following were heard at different times.”

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

“By rubbing firmly and briskly a double handful of the sand several notes on a rising scale are heard, the notes rising as the quantity of sand between the hands diminishes. We do not hear each note of the scale separately, but the ear receives an impression something like that formed by sliding a finger up a violin string at the same time that the bow is drawn.”

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

“The range is very remarkable and decided.”

Bolton and Julien found that “sonorous sand” was “of very common occurrence and widely distributed” — 65 of the 85 U.S. life-saving stations with which they corresponded reported that they knew of such sand. “The number is constantly increasing as the reports from keepers of life saving stations arrive.”

Overdue

In May 1919, Canadian flying ace Mansell Richard James won an air race from Atlantic City to Boston in a $1,000 competition sponsored by the Boston Globe.

At 11 a.m. on May 29 he departed Boston to return to Atlantic City.

At 12:30 p.m. a group of picknicking schoolchildren saw his Sopwith Camel flying smoothly southward over Hancock, Ct., at an altitude of about 5,000 feet.

He was never seen again. Despite numerous rewards and extensive searching, no trace of James has ever been found.

“A Dry Quicksand”

In the southwestern corner of the desert of southern Arabia, north of the western end of Hadramaut, and approached from the little village of Sawa, is a very remarkable spot described by Wrede from his visit in 1843, whose description is reproduced in a recent number of the Revue coloniale internationale. There are here, in the waste of yellow sand, several spots covered by a grayish white dust, which swallow up every object thrown into them. One of these spots, described by Wrede, is about two miles long and a little less in breadth. It sinks gradually toward the middle and is apparently due to the work of the wind. Wrede approached it with the greatest care and sounded it with his staff. The edge is stony and falls away suddenly. When the staff was thrust into the fine material beyond the edge, almost no resistance was felt and it was as if the staff had been thrust into water. When it was passed through the fine dust lengthwise the resistance was almost imperceptible. A stone of two pounds weight or more was fastened to a cord sixty fathoms long and thrown in as far as possible. It sank at once and with increasing velocity so that at the end of five minutes the end of the cord had disappeared. The presence of Bedouins prevented any more observations. The natives believe that great treasures are buried here and are watched over by genii who pull down into the depths the unwary treasure-seeker.

American Meteorological Journal, May 1886

Ruin Marble

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ruinmarble.png

This brecciated limestone, quarried near Florence, has a curious property: When it’s polished it produces the image of an ancient city.

“One is amused,” wrote Parisian naturalist Cyprien Prosper Brard, “to observe in it kinds of ruins; there it presents a Gothic castle half destroyed; here ruined walls; in another place, old bastions; and what still adds to the delusion is, that in these natural paintings there exists a kind of ærial perspective, very sensibly perceptible. The lower part, or what forms the first plane, has a warm, and bold tone; the second follows it, and weakens as it increases in distance; the third becomes still fainter, while the upper part presents in the distance, a whitish zone, and finally, as it reaches the top, blends itself, as it were, with the clouds.”

In his 1832 Introduction to Mineralogy, John Comstock wrote, “At a certain distance, slabs of this marble so nearly represent drawings done in bistre, on a ground of yellowish brown, that it would be difficult to convince one to the contrary.”

Better Late

On Dec. 7, 1968, Richard Dodd of Winamac, Ind., returned a book to the University of Cincinnati medical library, noting that it was overdue.

It certainly was. The book, Medical Reports of Effects of Water — Cold and Warm — as a Remedy in Fever and Febrile Diseases, Whether Applied to the Surface of the Body or Used Internally, had been checked out by Dodd’s great-grandfather in 1823. It was 145 years late.

Dodd, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had both attended medical school at Cincinnati, had received the book as part of an inheritance. The library decided not to fine him, which is a good thing — librarian Cathy Hufford calculated that the fee would have come to $22,646.

Jerome

On Sept. 8, 1863, two boys discovered a legless man struggling on the beach at Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia. Coughing violently and suffering from exposure, he appeared to be in his late teens or early 20s, and he seemed unable or unwilling to respond to their inquiries.

As the villagers nursed him back to health they found him angry and gloomy by nature, keeping his identity to himself. Rumors began to circulate: He was a Civil War veteran, a pirate, a spy, an exiled Habsburg, a murderer, a mutineer. His soft hands seemed to suggest high birth, but he had been found with only a tin box of hardtack and a jug of water, and he spoke neither English, Spanish, French, Italian, nor Latin. His legs had apparently been amputated by a skilled surgeon. As all attempts to communicate with him were unsuccessful, he came to be known simply as Jerome, after a response he had mumbled when asked his name.

That’s the whole story. For the next 50 years Jerome was lodged with various local families, maintaining his silence despite endless inquiries from curiosity seekers. His identity was never discovered. When he died, finally, on April 15, 1912, the Halifax Morning Chronicle wrote, “The people in this vicinity have given up the solving of the great mystery that closed today in death, thus ending one of the greatest secrets that ever occurred on this continent.”

See The Somerton Man.

Recalled to Life

In August 1857, 13-year-old Narcisse Pelletier left Marseilles as a cabin boy aboard the Saint-Paul, a three-masted ship bound for Sydney. The ship struck a reef in Papua New Guinea, and Pelletier was feared dead. His parents mourned him for 17 years, until July 21, 1875, when they received this letter:

papa mama i am not dead i am living narcisse I was on board the saint paul of bordeaux I had been shipwrecked in the rock of the savage of the island the chinese in the island stayed and died killed I came in a little boat to an island of savages I had looked for water to drink the captain left in the little boat I looked for water in the woods I stayed in the woods I then see the savages who live on its coast come who had found me the savage gave food and drink he did not kill I give my hand he did not hurt me I stayed in the wood for a very long time I was almost dead I had o great hunger and great drink I was in a lot of pain

Pelletier explained that after the sinking he, the captain, and the surviving crew had crossed the Coral Sea in an open boat to Cape York in northern Australia, where Pelletier was somehow left behind and discovered by a community of aborigines, with whom he lived until he was discovered that year by a landing party from pearling boat. He returned to France, where his thanksgiving mass was celebrated by the same priest who had baptized him 32 years earlier. He married and lived quietly as a lighthouse-keeper until his death in 1894.

Always Home

The largest privately owned residential yacht on earth is The World, a private floating community conceived in 1997 by Norwegian shipping magnate Knut Kloster. The ship is owned jointly by its residents, 130 families from 19 countries, who spend an average of four months on board each year, and it circumnavigates the globe continuously on an itinerary that they choose.

Since its launch in 2002, the ship has visited 800 ports in 140 countries. It has 165 bespoke apartments, including a six-bedroom penthouse suite, a 7,000-square-foot spa, four major restaurants, three cafes, six bars, two swimming pools, a full-size tennis court, a driving range, an art gallery, a night club, a 12,000-bottle wine cellar, and a theater. The average resident is 64, and 35 percent are under 50.

The original inventory of units sold out in 2006, but “there are a select number of Residences available for resale.”

Difficult Music

faerie's aire and death waltz

Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz, by composer John Stump, includes the directions “Add bicycle,” “Duck,” and “Cool timpani with small fan.” The piece fills a single page.

To perform Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett you’ll need four helicopters and a string quartet. A moderator introduces the musicians, each of whom boards a helicopter, and the four perform the piece while circling the auditorium at a distance of 6 kilometers. The audience watches and listens via audio and video monitors. At the end, the helicopters land and the musicians re-enter the hall to the sound of slowing rotor blades.

Marc-André Hamelin composed Circus Galop for player piano — it’s impossible for a human to play, as up to 21 notes are struck simultaneously.

Foul Play

On Aug. 17, 1957, in a game against the New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn hit a foul ball into the stands and hit Alice Roth, the wife of Philadelphia Bulletin sports editor Earl Roth.

The game was stopped, and Roth received emergency medical treatment for a broken nose.

As she was being carried out on a stretcher, Ashburn hit a second foul — and hit her again.

Extended Tour

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

In 1938, 18-year-old Korean soldier Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted into the Japanese army to fight against the Soviet Union.

He was captured by the Red Army, which pressed him into fighting the Nazis on the eastern front.

In 1943 he was captured by the Germans, who forced him to fight the invading Allies at Normandy.

There he was captured by American paratroopers in June 1944.

This means he fought for three different armies during World War II, and was captured each time. He died in Illinois in 1992.

The Indiana Pi Bill

In 1894, Indiana physician Edwin J. Goodwin published a one-page article in the American Mathematical Monthly claiming to have found a method of squaring the circle — that is, of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle using only a compass and straightedge, a task known to be impossible. He proposed a bill to state representative Taylor I. Record, laying out the “new mathematical truth” and offering it “as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the legislature of 1897.”

Apparently flummoxed, the House referred the bill to its Committee on Swamp Lands, which transferred it to the Committee on Education … which approved it. Whereupon the whole house passed it unanimously.

The bill, which the Indianapolis Journal was already calling “the strangest bill that has ever passed an Indiana Assembly,” moved on to the senate, which referred it the Committee on Temperance. (Chronicler Will E. Edington writes, “One wonders whether this was done intentionally, for certainly the bill could have been referred to no committee more appropriately named.”) Equally flummoxed, the committee recommended that it pass.

The bill might have achieved full passage had not Purdue mathematics professor C.A. Waldo happened to be visiting the House that day. “A member … showed the writer a copy of the bill just passed and asked him if he would like an introduction to the learned doctor,” Waldo later recalled in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. “He declined the courtesy with thanks, remarking that he was acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know.”

That did it. “Representative Record’s mathematical bill legalizing a formula for squaring the circle was brought up and made fun of,” reported by Indianapolis News on Feb. 13. “The Senators made bad puns about it, ridiculed it and laughed over it. The fun lasted half an hour. Senator Hubbell said that it was not meet for the Senate, which was costing the State $250 a day, to waste its time in such frivolity.”

“Senator Hubbell characterized the bill as utter folly,” added the Indianapolis Journal. “The Senate might as well try to legislate water to run up hill as to establish mathematical truth by law.”

Trinity

In 1959, psychologist Milton Rokeach assembled three mentally ill patients each of whom believed he was Jesus Christ:

Leon: “People can use the same Bible but some of them will worship Jesus Christ instead of worshiping God through Jesus Christ.”

Clyde: “We worship both.”

Leon: “I don’t worship you. I worship God Almighty through you, and through him, and him.”

Clyde: “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!”

Leon: “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts.”

Clyde: “I’m living my life. You don’t wake up! You can’t wake up!”

Joseph: “No two men are Jesus Christs.”

Leon: “You hear mechanical voices.”

Clyde: “You don’t get it right. I don’t care what you call it. I hear natural voices. I hear to heaven. I hear all over.”

Joseph: “I’m going back to England.”

Leon: “Sir, if the good Lord wills only.”

Joseph: “Good Lord! I’m the good Lord!”

Leon: “That’s your belief, sir.”

Rokeach intended the study as an inquiry into the nature of identity: If there is only one son of God, how would these men react on encountering one another? He found that they explained the disagreement by calling one another crazy, duped, or disingenuous, but that the conflict was less damaging psychologically than might have been supposed. In his 1964 account of the experiment, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, Rokeach writes, “We have learned that even when a summit of three is composed of paranoid men, deadlocked over the ultimate in human contradiction, they prefer to seek ways to live with one another in peace rather than destroy one another.”

Witchery

wingdings bell book and candle

In the Wingdings font, characters 0x25, 0x26, and 0x27 are a bell, a book, and a candle.

(Thanks, Malcolm.)

Cameo

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

I beg to send you the enclosed photo, as a contribution to your ‘Curiosity’ pages. A brother of mine tried to step through a long window, thinking it was open. He found it was closed, but succeeded in opening part of it, leaving the profile of Sir Wm. Harcourt in the gap. This is just as the glass remained when the noise subsided. — Mr. Arthur R. Mills, 38, Billing Road, Northampton

Strand, February 1902

Reflected Glory

The town of Viganella in the Italian Alps receives no direct sun for 83 days each year. So in 2006 mayor Pierfranco Midali commissioned a 26-by-16-foot mirror to be placed on a nearby mountainside at 3,600 feet. Tracking the sun with computer-controlled motors, the mirror throws light into the town square for six hours each day.

The illuminated area measures 300 square yards. “I can already see my little old ladies coming out of the church after mass and just standing there, enjoying a bit of sun,” Midali said.

The Candy Desk

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

In 1965, California senator George Murphy began keeping sweets in his desk on the Senate floor, and he offered them to colleagues who passed by. Because Murphy sat near a busy entrance, the “candy desk” became well known, and when Murphy left the Senate after one term the tradition was maintained. In the ensuing years Slade Gorton, John McCain, George Voinovich, and Rick Santorum have all sat at the candy desk, each stocking it with confections from his home state. (In Santorum’s case, this was a bonanza — Hershey shipped more than 400 pounds of chocolate each year from its Pennsylvania headquarters.) The seat is currently occupied by Illinois senator Mark Kirk, who stocks it with Wrigley’s gum, Garrett’s popcorn, Tootsie Rolls and Jelly Bellys.

Though by tradition the candy desk is always occupied by a Republican senator, the physical desk that’s used may vary. The current desk was once occupied by Barack Obama.

Handiwork

In a 1965 story on the accidental death of a local millworker, Charlotte News police reporter Joseph Flanders wrote, “It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.”

This struck Flanders’ fellow reporters as hilariously purple, and they founded the Order of the Occult Hand to immortalize him by sneaking the phrase into as many stories as possible. This has evolved into an in-joke among American journalists:

  • “It was as if an occult hand had somehow palmed the film.” — Deborah Caulfield, “Disney Pulls ‘Wolf’ From Mann in Dispute,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7, 1983.
  • “As the show wears on, your eyelids may slam shut, as if tugged by an occult hand.” — Jay Sharbutt, “FBI’s Untold Stories Told, James Earl Jones Seeks A Few Laughs,” Associated Press, Sept. 26, 1991.
  • “It was as if an occult hand was at work, or maybe a screenwriter for one of Mel Brooks’ slapstick comedies.” — Paul Greenberg, “Warren G. Clinton’s Bad Week,” Tulsa World, May 28, 1993.
  • “One morning last week, while pondering the daily question of khakis vs. jeans, it was as if an occult hand reached down and plucked the baggy green pants from the hanger and thrust them at me.” — Dennis Rogers, “Snug Fat Clothes and Other Realities of Pre-Boomers,” Raleigh News & Observer, Aug. 3, 1993.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had pointed you out to each other.” — Florence Shinkle, “Fated Attractions: How Our Minds (and Our Glands) Make Us Fall in Love,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 14, 1994.
  • “Nails, screws, small tools and thingamajigs accumulate and then relocate as if moved by an occult hand to some new hiding spot.” — M.R. Montgomery, “A Place for Everything,” Boston Globe, July 6, 1995.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had guided the black sphere down the narrow lane and into the triangle of pins.” — Linton Weeks, “Spares and Strikes,” Washington Post, June 5, 1997.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had reached down to throw beleaguered Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. a wee crumb on an otherwise bleak night.” — Sean Scully, “Barry vs. Plotkin,” Washington Times, Nov. 7, 1997.
  • “When he plays the blues, it is as if some occult hand is guiding his hand over the guitar, channeling the essence of the blues through Clapton.” — Eric Fidler, “Sound Bites: ‘Pilgrim’ (Reprise) – Eric Clapton,” Associated Press, March 23, 1998.
  • “We like to think we have earned success, after all, and discount the occult hand of fate.” — David Mehegan, “The Story of E,” Boston Globe, May 14, 2000.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had taken Chuck Klosterman’s radio, tuned away from the Top 40 ear candy of Duran Duran and the Stray Cats, and tuned into the satanic debauchery of Motley Crue.” — Eric Hanson, “These Books Rock: ‘Fargo Rock City’ Lauds Metal as Refuge for Teens,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 15, 2001.
  • “It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities,” John Skoyles, “The ‘Hermit’ Emerges in Calvino’s Writings,” Associated Press, April 21, 2003.

“It’s a phrase that has that sense of journalese about it, sort of a campy phrase,” Greenberg told James Janega of the Chicago Tribune in 2004. He holds a Pulitzer and has used the phrase at least six times, “just to keep my standing in good order.”

But Montgomery told Janega that in the modern era the occult hand might be coming to an end. “There’s so much bad writing and so much pretentious writing,” he said, “I’m afraid it would get lost.”

Lies Within Lies

A singer sings this song:

I’m a stockman to my trade, and they call me Ugly Dave.
I’m old and gray and only got one eye.
In a yard I’m good, of course, but just put me on a horse,
And I’ll go where lots of young-uns daren’t try.

He goes on to brag of his skill in riding, whipping, branding, shearing: “In fact, I’m duke of every blasted thing.”

There are two fictions here: The singer is pretending to be Ugly Dave, and Ugly Dave is telling boastful lies. But why doesn’t this collapse? How are we able to tell that the fictional Ugly Dave is lying (which is essential to the song’s meaning), rather than telling the truth?

“We must distinguish pretending to pretend from really pretending,” writes David Lewis in Philosophical Papers. “Intuitively it seems that we can make this distinction, but how is it to be analyzed?”

Pigeon Puzzle

In 1982, 74-year-old David Martin found the skeleton of a carrier pigeon in the chimney of his house in Bletchingley, Surrey. Attached to its leg was an encrypted message believed to have been sent from France on D-Day, June 6, 1944:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC
RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX
PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH
NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ
WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH
LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ
KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

What does it mean? No one knows — the message still hasn’t been deciphered.

“Although it is disappointing that we cannot yet read the message brought back by a brave carrier pigeon,” announced Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters last November, “it is a tribute to the skills of the wartime code makers that, despite working under severe pressure, they devised a code that was undecipherable both then and now.”

UPDATE: Gord Young of Peterborough, Ontario, claimed to have cracked the code last month using a World War I code book that he had inherited from his great-uncle. He believes the report was written by 27-year-old Lancashire Fusilier William Stott, who had been dropped into Normandy to report on German positions. Stott was killed a few weeks after the report. Here’s Young’s solution:

AOAKN – Artillery Observer At “K” Sector, Normandy
HVPKD – Have Panzers Know Directions
FNFJW – Final Note [confirming] Found Jerry’s Whereabouts
DJHFP – Determined Jerry’s Headquarters Front Posts
CMPNW – Counter Measures [against] Panzers Not Working
PABLIZ – Panzer Attack – Blitz
KLDTS – Know [where] Local Dispatch Station
27 / 1526 / 6 – June 27th, 1526 hours

Young say that the portions that remain undeciphered may have been inserted deliberately in order to confuse Germans who intercepted the message. “We stand by our statement of 22 November 2012 that without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, the message will remain impossible to decrypt,” a GCHQ spokesman told the BBC on Dec. 16. But he said they would be happy to look at Young’s proposed solution.

(Thanks, John and Ivan.)

The Swallows Return

Swimming in the Nile at age 10, Hadji Ali discovered he could ingest large amounts of water and bring it up again without ill effect. He parlayed this talent into a career as a “regurgitation act” in music halls and carnivals around the world, playing even to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace in 1914.

The performance above, from Laurel and Hardy’s 1931 Spanish-language film Politiquerias, includes Ali’s famous closing stunt, in which he ingests both water and kerosene and then upchucks them variously onto an open flame.

All of this was received with surprising tolerance by the era’s audiences — Judy Garland named Ali her favorite vaudevillian — but at least one club cut short an engagement when they found it was “killing their supper shows.”

Showoff

Dr. S.V. Clevenger, in the Alienist and Neurologist for July 1890, describes an infant prodigy, Oscar Moore. Two little colored children were reciting the multiplication table at their home, in a little cabin in Texas, as they had repeatedly done before, and one of them asserted that four times twelve was fifty-eight, whereupon a thirteen months old baby, Oscar Moore, who had never spoken before, corrected the error by exclaiming, ‘Four times twelve are forty-eight!’ There was consternation in that humble home until the family became reconciled to the freak. Oscar was born in Waco, Texas, in 1885; his father is an emancipated slave, his mother is a mulatto. He was born blind; the other senses are unusually acute; his memory is the most remarkable peculiarity. He is intelligent and manifests great inquisitiveness; his memory is not parrot-like. When less than two years of age he would recite all he heard his sister read while conning her lessons. He sings and counts in different languages, has mastered an appalling array of statistics, and is greatly attracted by music. The writer concludes that Oscar is not mentally defective, but may possess extraordinary mental powers.

Science, June 26, 1891

Sympathy

A most singular circumstance has recently occurred in Louisville. One Robert Sadler being arraigned on a writ of lunatico inquirendo, the following appeared in testimony: It was allegated that in the night time he would alarm his family and his neighbors with screams as if in severe pain, exclaiming that he felt the pain inflicted upon persons at a distance, by amputation or other causes. Mr. Sadler was said to be of good character and incapable of wilfully feigning what he did not feel, and therefore was supposed by his friends to be insane. In consequence of this belief a writ was issued to make the proper legal inquiry and to decide the question. The jury however could not agree to call him insane and he was discharged. It was proved that he uttered his cries and expressions of pain at the precise time that those with whose sufferings he claimed to be in sympathy, were actually undergoing the operations, which would cause similar pain; and this under circumstances which precluded the belief that he could have been aware, by external means, of the time or place at which such operations were to take place. The length of time during which he had displayed this morbid sensibility had been so prolonged, that if he had really been practicing a deception it could scarcely have failed to be discovered. In his conversation, and in all other particulars except the one we have described, Mr. Sadler gave no evidence of anything except the most perfect sanity. The case seems to be well authenticated, and if the truth of the details can be relied upon is altogether a very remarkable one.

Scientific American, Dec. 16, 1868