Oddities

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

Identity Crisis

This notice appeared in Dublin in July 1781:

This is to certify that I, Daniel O’Flannaghan, am not the Person that was tarred and feathered by the Liberty Mob, on Tuesday last; and I am ready to give 20 Guineas to any one that will lay me 50, that I am the other Man who goes by my Name.
Witness my Hand, this 30th July.
Daniel O’Flannaghan.

Wrote Henry Sampson, “A man who can afford to lay seventy guineas to thirty that he is himself, and nobody else, deserves credit for his boldness, if not for his ingenuity.”

Rock Music

The stones of Pennsylvania’s Ringing Rocks Park chime like bells when struck with a hammer.

The rocks are a volcanic basalt, but the mechanism of their ringing is not completely understood.

See The Musical Stones of Skiddaw.