Futility Closet book ad

Oddities

Plant Food

man-eating tree

Exploring a tabooed piece of land on Mindanao, Mississippian planter W.C. Bryant discovered a 35-foot tree surrounded by bones and the smell of carrion. He was entering the circle to examine a skull when his guide suddenly pinioned his arms and pulled him backward “with the strength of a maniac.” Bryant followed the man’s gaze and saw that “the tree was reaching for him”:

The whole thing had changed shape and was horribly alive and alert. The dull, heavy leaves had sprung from their compact formation and were coming at him from all directions, advancing on the ends of long vine-like stems which stretched across like the necks of innumerable geese and, now that the old man had stopped his screaming, the air was full of hissing sounds.

The leaves did not move straight at their target, but with a graceful, side-to-side sway, like a cobra about to strike. From the far side, the distant leaves were peeping and swaying on their journey around the trunk and even the tree top was bending down to join in the attack. The bending of the trunk was spasmodic and accompanied by sharp cracks.

The effect of this advancing and swaying mass of green objects was hypnotic, like the charm movements of a snake. Bryant could not move, though the nearest leaf was within an inch of his face. He could see that it was armed with sharp spines on which a liquid was forming. He saw the heavy leaf curve like a green-mittened hand, and as it brushed his eyebrows in passing he got the smell of it — the same animal smell that hung in the surrounding air. Another instant and the thing would have had his eyes in its sticky, prickly grasp, but either his weakness or the brown man’s strength threw them both on their backs.

The charm was broken. They crawled out of the circle of death and lay panting in the grass while the malignant plant, cracking and hissing, yearned and stretched and thrashed to get at them.

That’s from “Escaped From the Embrace of the Man-Eating Tree,” in the American Weekly, Jan. 4, 1925. Interestingly, naturalist Williard Clute tracked down the author and published a followup in American Botanist that April:

“The author of this tale, having been questioned, replies under date of January 8, 1925, that ‘the tree is there and in the main the account is true. The circle at the foot of the tree was about 80 maybe 100 feet in diameter. The tree looked nothing like the drawings [in the paper]. It was round as a smoke stack — the trunk, I mean, and dark gray or ash-color. The whole tree was symmetrical and the tree and ground under it, was very inviting to a storm-beset or sun-depressed traveller. The clucking and hissing was, I judged, from a gluey consistency of, or on, the leaves. My impression was that if it reached me, it would fasten and hold me, thus it had done to apes, birds, and animals.’” Stay out of the Philippines, I guess.

Ill Will

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kreul_Krankenbesuch_1832.jpg

A person with Münchausen syndrome feigns illness to get attention. In order to get this diagnosis, she must be faking symptoms of a condition that she doesn’t really have. But any such faked symptoms are an authentic sign of Münchausen syndrome. Does this mean it’s impossible to have the disorder?

(By Washington University philosopher Roy Sorensen.)

“The Man With the Golden Arm”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%94%D0%B6%D0%B5%D0%B9%D0%BC%D1%81_%D0%A5%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%80%D0%B8%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%BD.jpg

When James Harrison had chest surgery at age 13, he resolved to begin donating blood to help others in need. When he did so, doctors realized that he carries a rare immune globulin that can prevent unborn babies from suffering attacks by their mothers’ antibodies, a condition known as Rhesus disease.

In the 59 years since this was discovered, Harrison has given blood more than 1,000 times, an average of once every three weeks for five decades, and his donations have saved an estimated 2.4 million babies.

This has earned Harrison a spot in Guinness World Records. He calls this “the only record that I hope is broken.”

Nose Knowledge

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/698003

Seeing a rose seems to give me information about a flower out there in the world. But smelling it, blindfold, is a curiously internal experience: I can suppose, even confidently, that it’s a rose I’m smelling, but this feels like a surmise, and one based only on an impression in my mind. The visual world seems to be made up of independent objects with observable properties, but the world of smell seems to exist only in our consciousness.

If there were no creatures here to observe them, roses would still be red. But would they still smell sweet?

Far From Home

In 1954, archaeologists excavating an eighth-century Viking settlement on Helgö Island in Sweden turned up a 10-centimeter statuette of the Buddha.

It’s thought to have originated in northwestern India around 600. How it made its way to Sweden is unknown.

Outreach

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Moon_Art_Scale_Fingers.jpg

There’s a museum on the moon. As Apollo 12 prepared to depart in 1969, New York sculptor Forrest Myers commissioned drawings from six prominent artists and had them engraved on a ceramic wafer, then arranged for a Grumman engineer to smuggle it onto the lunar lander.

Two days before launch he received a telegram confirming that the engineer had been successful. If he was, then the tiny museum is still up there, bearing drawings by Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Forrest Myers, and Andy Warhol. Perhaps they’ll attract some patrons.

Misterioso

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1174328

One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.

– G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning, 1903

“Bees Invited to Funerals”

At Bradfield, a primitive village on the edge of the moors, in the parish of Ecclesfield, I was informed by a person of much intelligence, that a custom as obtained in the district from time immemorial — ‘for hundreds of years’ was the expression used — of inviting bees to funerals; and that an instance could be produced of the superstition having been practised even within the last year. What is done is this. When a death occurs, a person is appointed to call the neighbours to the funeral, who delivers the invitations in one form of words: ‘You are invited to the funeral of A.B., which is to take place at such an hour, on such a day; and there will be dinner on table at — o’clock.’ And if it should happen that bees were kept in the garden of the house where the corpse lies (not an unlikely thing near moors), the messenger is instructed to address the same invitation to the bees in their hives; because it is considered that, if this compliment be omitted, the bees will die.

– Alfred Gatty, Notes & Queries, Oct. 25, 1851

Jeannot’s Knife

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1197069

A French tradition asks: If the handle of a certain knife is replaced whenever it is worn out, and its blade is replaced whenever it becomes worthless, does the knife itself become immortal?

In his 1872 short story “Dr. Ox’s Experiment,” Jules Verne mentions a curious tradition of marriage within the Van Tricasse family:

From 1340 it had invariably happened that a Van Tricasse, when left a widower, had remarried a Van Tricasse younger than himself; who, becoming in turn a widow, had married again a Van Tricasse younger than herself; and so on, without a break in the continuity, from generation to generation. Each died in his or her turn with mechanical regularity. Thus the worthy Madame Brigitte Van Tricasse had now her second husband; and, unless she violated her every duty, would precede her spouse — he being ten years younger than herself — to the other world, to make room for a new Madame Van Tricasse.

Is this a series of distinct marriages — or one immortal union?

Cheers

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tate_Britain_(5822081512)_(2).jpg

In 1985, workers renovating London’s Tate Britain art gallery discovered a handwritten message behind a wall in the rotunda dome:

This was placed here on the fourth of June, 1897 Jubilee year, by the Plasterers working on the job hoping when this is found that the Plasterers Association may be still flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so as we can drink your Health.

It was signed “W. Gallop, F. Wilkins, H. Sainsbury, J. Chester, A. Pickernell, Secretary.”

The Leisure Class

A sort of mania for gambling overtook White’s, a gentlemen’s club in London, in the 18th century. Excerpts from its betting book:

  • “January the 14th, 1747/8. Mr. Fanshawe wagers Lord Dalkeith one guinea, that his peruke is better than his Lordship’s, to be judged of by the majority of members the next time they both shall meet.”
  • “Lord Ravensworth betts Ld. Leicester & Ld. Coke ten guineas each, that the General Post Office is not three miles distant from Lord Gower’s house in Upper Brooke Street.”
  • “Feb. 10th, 1748-9. Mr. Fanshawe betts Dr. Wm. Stanhope twenty guineas, that there was not a play acted at Covent Garden Play house twenty years ago.”
  • “Ap. 2nd, 1761. Mr. Fanshawe wagers Mr. Gauquier one Guinea that if Mr. Harley comes to the House of Commons the first day of sitting, he comes in a red gown.”
  • “Mr. Talbot bets Lord Frederick Bentinck five guineas, that destroying a horse by poison is not a capital offence by Act of Parliament.”
  • “Mr. Talbot bets Mr. Blackford one guinea, that the play of Julius Cæsar is acted within six weeks from this day. Feby. 15th, 1812.”
  • “Sir G. Talbot bets Sir Watkin W. Wynn five guineas, that he Sir W. does not drink a bottle of claret on French ground before the expiration of this month of March. March 6th, 1814.”
  • “Col. Cooke bets Ld. Clanwilliam thirty-five guineas, that if a person understood between them ever fights a duel, he kills his man.”

In 1816 Lord Alvanley and a friend bet £3,000 as to which of two raindrops would be the first to reach the bottom of a windowpane. In a 1750 letter, Horace Walpole wrote, “They have put in the papers a good story made on White’s; a man dropped down dead at the door, was carried in; the club immediately made bets whether he was dead or not, and when they were going to bleed him, the wagerers for his death interposed, and said it would affect the fairness of the bet.”

Noted

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

Letter to the Times, June 15, 1962:

Sir,

All thrushes (not only those in this neck of the Glyndebourne woods) sooner or later sing the tune of the first subject of Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K. 550) — and, what’s more, phrase it a sight better than most conductors. The tempo is always dead right and there is no suggestion of an unauthorized accent on the ninth note of the phrase.

Yours, &c.,

Spike Hughes

See Bird Songs.

A Time Machine

In an April 1773 letter to Jacques Dubourg, Benjamin Franklin makes a curious observation:

I have seen an instance of common flies preserved in a manner somewhat similar. They had been drowned in Madeira wine, apparently about the time when it was bottled in Virginia, to be sent hither (to London). At the opening of one of the bottles, at the house of a friend where I then was, three drowned flies fell into the first glass which was filled. Having heard it remarked, that drowned flies were capable of being revived by the rays of the sun, I proposed making the experiment upon these: They were therefore exposed to the sun upon a sieve, which had been employed to strain them out of the wine. In less than three hours two of them began by degrees to recover life. They commenced by some convulsive motions in the thighs, and at length they raised themselves upon their legs, wiped their eyes with their fore feet, beat and brushed their wings with their hind feet, and soon after began to fly, finding themselves in Old England without knowing how they came hither. The third continued lifeless till sun-set, when, losing all hopes of him, he was thrown away.

He added, “I wish it were possible, from this instance, to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for, having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America an hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, the being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine, with a few friends, till that time, to be then recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But since in all probability we live in an age too early and too near the infancy of science to hope to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection, I must for the present content myself with the treat which you are so kind as to promise me, of the resurrection of a fowl or a turkeycock.”

Surface Mail

On Christmas night 1945, Army serviceman Frank Hayostek tossed a bottle over the rail of the troopship that was carrying him home from France. It contained this message:

Dear Finder,

I am an American soldier … 21 years old … just a plain American of no wealth, but just enough to get along with. This is my third Christmas from home. … God bless you.

In September 1946, he received a letter from Ireland:

I have found your bottle and note. I will tell you the whole story.

I live on a farm at the southwest coast of Ireland. On Friday, Aug. 23, 1946, I drove the cows to the fields beside the sea and then went for walk on the strand called The Beal. It is an inlet of Dingle Bay.

Well, my dog was running before me and I saw him stop and sniff something light on the sand, and then he went off in pursuit of sea gulls. I found the object was a brown bottle. … The cork … crumbled in my fingers. How the note kept dry, nobody can understand. … I sat there on the beach and read it.

I thought at first I was dreaming. This is just a little common Irish village where nothing strange ever occurs, and this is something for the farmers to talk about while they cut the oats and bring the hay into the barn. Well, imagine, the bottle has been on the sea for eight months. … Who knows where it has been? It may have traveled around the world. How did it escape being broken on the rocks? If you had only seen where I got it! It’s all a mess of rocks. The hand of Providence must surely have guided it.

Well, I hope to hear from you soon. … You mention offering no reward to the finder of the bottle. Well, I ask no reward, as it was a very pleasant surprise. Wishing you very good luck, your loving friend,

Breda O’Sullivan

Hayostek and O’Sullivan exchanged 70 letters over the next seven years. She was a farm girl in the village of Lispole in County Kerry, and he found work as a welder in Johnstown, Pa., saving $80 a month in order to visit her.

In August 1952 Hayostek flew to Ireland, where both were besieged by reporters.

“It’s in the hands of God,” he said. “She’s very nice.”

“After all,” she said, “we only met a few hours ago. Up to then, he was only a man in a bottle.”

But after two weeks O’Sullivan announced, “There is no romance and there will be no wedding. We will remain good pen pals.” She continued to correspond with Hayostek until 1959, when she married a local man. “If I had known that I would get all that publicity by answering the letter,” she told a reporter later, “I would have left the bottle lying there.”

Hayostek may have felt differently. His gravestone reads: “Frank L Hayostek, June 11, 1924-November 15, 2009: Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O’Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before.”

Inner Space

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

In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.

Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:

Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.

Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.

Table Talk

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prince_Christian_of_Schleswig-Holstein.jpg

[Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg] was unfortunate enough to lose an eye in a shooting accident. When conversation flagged at a dinner-party, as happened so often when he was the host, he would bid the footman bring him a tray containing his collection of glass eyes, which he would exhibit to his embarrassed guests, explaining at great length the peculiarities of each one — ‘and this one, you see, is blood-shot, I wear it when I have a cold.’

– Georgina Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra, 1969

Till Death

At 1 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1910, West Virginia peach grower Charles Twigg called on his fiancee, Grace Elosser, at her home in Cumberland, Md. The two were to be married the following day. They closed themselves in the parlor and remained undisturbed until 2:30, when Grace’s mother looked in with a question. She found Charles sitting in a corner of the divan, with Grace leaning against him. Both were dead.

A post-mortem suggested traces of cyanide in their stomachs, but no container was found on the bodies or in the room. If it was not suicide, was it murder? The couple had led uneventful lives, and only Grace’s family had had access to the parlor. A jury returned a verdict of cyanide poisoning “at the hands of person or persons to us unknown.”

The matter remained at an impasse until Jan. 28, when, as an experiment, doctors J.R. Littlefield and A.H. Hawkins left two cats in baskets on the parlor divan, lighted the stove, and closed the door for an hour. Both cats died. The lovers’ bodies were exhumed, and an examination showed that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The flue had been choked with soot, and the odorless gas had overwhelmed the couple.

The Elossers cleaned the flue and moved out the house, but nearly the same tragedy befell the two women who succeeded them. On Feb. 21, 1913, a neighbor happened to call and found both women unconscious in their chairs. It was discovered that two bricks had been placed in the flue to reduce its draft, and soot had again choked the narrowed opening.

Wallflower

In 1989 a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution detected an unusually high-pitched whale call in the Pacific. Where most whales sing in the range 15–20 hertz, this one sang at 52 hertz, just above the lowest note of a tuba. The song has recurred most years since then, ranging between Alaska and California but not following the migration pattern of any known filter feeder. The whale seems to be healthy and maturing, but it remains the only one of its kind.

Because it sings and travels alone, the animal has been called “the loneliest whale in the world.” Whale biologists suspect that it may be malformed, or possibly a hybrid of two different species.

“He’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here,’” Kate Stafford of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory told the New York Times in 2004. “Well, nobody is phoning home.”

(Thanks, Kendal.)

Metaphysical Necessity

In the early 1770s a writer signing himself Junius published a series of letters in the Public Advertiser, criticizing the British government. His identity was the matter of much speculation, so much so that Samuel Parr jokingly wrote to Jane Morsingale, “Madam, You are a very charming woman, and I should be happy to obtain you as a wife. If you accept my proposal I will tell you who was the author of Junius.”

The writer’s identity was never discovered, but suppose he was Sir Philip Francis, as is widely suspected. We would say that Junius necessarily is Francis. But this seems an odd kind of necessity: There’s no logical contradiction in the sentence “Junius is not Francis,” and the laws of physics don’t prevent the two from being distinct.

“There is a kind of necessity that is neither logical nor physical, namely metaphysical necessity,” writes Robin Le Poidevin in Travels in Four Dimensions. “When we say that something is metaphysically necessary, we do not imply that in denying it, one would commit oneself to a logical contradiction. Nor are we saying that it is required by the laws of nature. But we are saying that, in some fundamental sense, matters could not be otherwise.”

A related puzzle: Charles Dodgson made this entry in his diary on Nov. 8, 1897:

A letter came, addressed to ‘L. Carroll, Christ Church, Oxford.’ So many such now come, that I have decided to refuse them, and gave it, unopened, to Telling, to return to the Post Office. All such will now go back to the writers, through the Dead Letter Office, with endorsement ‘not known.’

If Charles Dodgson explicitly disavows being Lewis Carroll — then who is Lewis Carroll?

So There

The eccentric Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, erected a “useless” 100-foot tower on his property in 1935.

He added a notice: MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC COMMITTING SUICIDE FROM THIS TOWER DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK.

(At the opening, guests were invited to bring up to six effigies of enemies to be thrown on a bonfire; one complained that this was “most inadequate.”)

“Atmosphere Never Dark on a Windy Night”

Several years since, when travelling by night in the mail coach, in the depth of winter and during the absence of the moon, I was surprised to observe, that, though dense clouds covered every part of the horizon, and not a single star could be seen, yet the night was far from being dark, and large objects near the road were easily discerned. On expressing my surprise to the driver, he replied, ‘The wind is very high, and during a great many years that I have been upon the road, I never knew it to be dark on a windy night.’ The observation was at that time new to me; but subsequent experience has convinced me that it was true.

– B. Hampstead, in The Magazine of Natural History, May 1831

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that this seems to be true — the darkest nights are calm, regardless of cloud cover. Why?

“Extraordinary Wave in the Channel”

The Weymouth and Channel Islands Steam Packet Company’s mail steamer Aquila left Weymouth at midnight on Friday for Guernsey and Jersey. On her passage across Channel, the weather was calm and clear, and the sea was smooth. When about one hour out, 1 a.m., 31st March, 1883, the steamer was struck violently by mountainous seas, which sent her on her beam ends and swept her decks from stem to stern. The water immediately flooded the cabins and engine room, entering through the skylights, the thick glass of which was smashed. As the decks became clear of water, the bulwarks were found to be broken in several places, one of the paddle boxes was considerably damaged, the iron rail on the bridge was completely twisted, the pump was broken and rendered useless, the skylight of the ladies’ cabin was completely gone, and the saloon skylight was smashed to atoms. The cabins were baled out with buckets, while tarpaulins were placed over the skylights for protection. Five minutes after the waves had struck the steamer, the sea became perfectly calm. Several of the crew were knocked about, but no one was seriously injured.

Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine, April 1883

Ice Route

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

The largest gem-quality diamond ever found was discovered in a South African mine in 1905. The so-called Cullinan diamond weighed 3,106 carats, or about 1-1/3 pounds.

The Transvaal government purchased the stone and offered it to Edward VII on his 66th birthday, but the problem remained how to transport such a valuable object safely to England. Amid great publicity and heavy security, an ocean liner set out carefully for London.

It was carrying a decoy stone — the real diamond was sent by parcel post. It arrived safely.

(Thanks, Ross.)

Hell’s Kitchen

Probably you’ll want to skip this one — a recipe “to rost a Goose alive,” from Johann Wecker’s Secrets of Nature, 1582:

Let it be a Duck or Goose, or some such lively Creature, but a Goose is best of all for this purpose, leaving his neck, pull of all the Feather from his body, then make a fire round about him, not too wide, for that will not rost him: within the place set here and there small pots full of water, with Salt and Honey mixed therewith, and let there be dishes set full of rosted Apples, and cut in pieces in the dish, and let the Goose be basted with Butter all over, and Larded to make him better meat, and he may rost the better, put fire to it; do not make too much haste, when he begins to rost, walking about, and striving to flye away, the fire stops him in, and he will fall to drink water to quench his thirst; this will cool his heart and the other parts of his body, and by this medicament he looseneth his belly, and grows empty. And when he rosteth and consumes inwardly, alwayes wet his head and heart with a wet Sponge: but when you see him run madding and stumble, his heart wants moysture, take him away, set him before your Guests, and he will cry as you cut off any part from him, and will be almost eaten up before he be dead, it is very pleasant to behold.

Wecker credits this to a cook named Mizald. William Kitchiner calls it “diabolically cruel”; he quotes another commentator who says “We suppose Mr. Mizald stole this receipt from the kitchen of his Infernal Majesty: probably it might have been one of the dishes the devil ordered when he invited Nero and Caligula to a feast.”