A Thawing Drawing

Image: Flickr

In 1917, railroad engineers at Nenana, Alaska, held a contest to guess when the Tanana River would break up. The winner won $800.

That contest has grown into an annual fundraising event. For $2.50 any Alaskan can enter; sometime in April or May a tripod will founder in the melting ice and stop a clock, and the guess that proves most accurate will win a prize. Last year the prize amounted to $279,030; in all, more than $11 million has been paid out during the contest’s 94 years.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center monitors the breakup dates as one measure of climate change in the region.

A Strolling Musician


Otto Funk left New York City on June 28, 1928. He arrived in San Francisco on July 25, 1929. In the interval he walked 4,165 miles, fiddling every step of the way.

Oh, and defying death. “While traveling through Arizona Funk was struck by a rattlesnake,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Unperturbed, the aged fiddler slew the snake, snipped off the rattles as souvenirs, cut open the wound and sucked out the blood and poison. He continued walking until he came to a doctor’s office.”

“I have seen God’s country, every foot of it that I walked over,” Funk said afterward. “You can’t see it right from a car or a train. Sole leather express is the only way.”



English scholar Richard Porson (1759-1808) may have had the most prodigious memory of the 18th century. “He knew almost the whole of Homer, Horace, Cicero, Virgil and Livy,” recounts Henry H. Fuller in The Art of Memory (1898). “He could repeat whole plays from Shakespeare and complete books from Paradise Lost, scenes from Foote, and scores of pages from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, or Rapin’s works. He knew by heart the whole of Mortal Tale of the Dean of Badajos, and Edgeworth’s Essays on Irish Bulls, and could repeat from beginning to end Smollett’s Roderick Random and other noted English novels. He could recite a newspaper page after one reading, and said that he would undertake to repeat the entire contents of a week’s issues of the London Morning Chronicle.”

Eliezer Cogan recalls that one day Porson called on a friend who asked him the meaning of a word in Thucydides. Without looking at the book, Porson repeated the passage. His friend asked how he knew which passage he’d been reading. “Because,” Porson replied, “the word occurs only twice in Thucydides, once on the right-hand page in the edition which are using, and once on the left. I observed on which side you looked, and accordingly knew to which passage you referred.”

It Begins

Image: Flickr

Moscow’s stray dogs have begun using the city’s subway system. Zoologist Andrey Poyarkov of the Moscow Ecology and Evolution Institute, who has been studying the city’s 35,000 strays for 30 years, says some dogs scavenge downtown during the day and board trains in the evening to travel to industrial complexes in the suburbs, where they sleep.

“Because the best scavenging for food is in the city center,” Poyarkov told the Sun, “the dogs had to learn how to travel on the subway — to get to the center in the morning, then back home in the evening, just like people.”

This seems to be a sinister trend:

  • In 2006 a Jack Russell terrier named Ratty began taking the Number 10 bus from his farm in Dunnington, North Yorkshire, to a pub five miles away, where regulars would feed him sausages. When barred from one pub he switched to another nearby.
  • In 2007 a cat nicknamed Macavity began boarding the Number 331 bus in Wolverhampton, riding 400 meters, and alighting near a fish-and-chip shop. “He sat at the front of the bus, waited patiently for the next stop and then got off,” passenger Paul Brennan told the Daily Mail. “It was was quite strange at first, but now it just seems normal.”
  • In 2009 the BBC reported that a cat named Casper was boarding buses in Plymouth, Devon, and sitting in a favorite seat for the entire 11-mile trip through the city center. The driver would let him off when they returned to the bus stop opposite his house.
  • This year a ginger cat named Dodger began hopping onto buses near his home in Bridport, Dorset. “I hadn’t seen him all morning until my daughter Emily told me one of her friends had just seen him on the bus at Charmouth,” five miles away, owner Fee Jeanes told the Telegraph. “I couldn’t believe it and panicked. I got into my car to go off and look for him, and then at that moment the bus pulled up near our house, and lo and behold he got off.”

It gets worse: Poyarkov’s graduate student Alexei Vereshchagin says that stray dogs in Moscow have been observed obeying traffic lights.

Nine Lives Left


I don’t know what to make of this — on Sept. 7, 1950, the London Times reported that a 10-month-old kitten had climbed the Matterhorn.

The story, “from our correspondent,” claims that the black-and-white kitten lived in the Hotel Belvedere at 10,820 feet, where he would watch departing alpinists as they left for the summit. One morning, apparently, he decided to follow them. “After a long and lonely climb” he reached the Solway hut at 12,556 feet, and the next day “bivouacked in a couloir above the shoulder.” A climbing party passed him on the third day, and he caught them up at the summit (14,780 feet), “miauing and tail up,” and was rewarded with a share of their meal. He was carried back down in a rucksack.

This is all reported very earnestly, and there’s even a photograph of the cat, but I can’t find a corroborating account anywhere. Both The Canadian Nurse and The Veterinary Record picked up the story, but they both credit the Times. The Guinness Book of World Records cited the cat for its feat, but presumably they’re relying on the same account.

Is this preposterous? Do I overestimate the Matterhorn? Do I underestimate kittens? Can anyone shed any light on this?

If You Build It …


Green River, Wyo., is certainly neighborly: In 1994, when NASA determined that up to six meteors might strike Jupiter, Green River’s city council designated an airstrip south of town as the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport. They asked NASA to broadcast the news to any fleeing Jovians and warned residents to “prepare themselves to make welcome any refugees who might cast themselves upon our mercy.”

Mayor George Eckman told the Rock Springs Rocket-Miner, “I feel it is a gesture that could be made and should be made by someone on the planet Earth to fellow citizens of the solar system.”

The two council members who opposed the resolution pointed out that the region already has a problem with illegal aliens and noted the local housing shortage. But the mile-long runway remains open.

The Montauk Monster


In July 2008 an unrecognizable creature washed up on a beach on Long Island. Local resident Jenna Hewitt took this photo, which appeared in the local newspaper The Independent. What is it? No explanation quite adds up:

  • Its proportions don’t match those of a raccoon.
  • Sea turtles don’t have teeth.
  • It lacks the large incisors of a rodent.
  • A dog or coyote would have a more prominent eye ridge.

Some speculate that the animal was an escapee from the nearby Plum Island Animal Disease Center. William Wise, director of Stony Brook University’s Living Marine Resources Institute, flatly calls it a fake, the product of “someone who got very creative with latex.” The carcass has since been lost, so we’ll never know for sure.

Divine Recall

One of the most marvelous feats of recent times was performed in August, 1897, at Sondrio, capital of the Valtellina district, in the northern part of Italy, by Signor Edoe, professor in the Institution di Lorenzo, who, on a wager, repeated from memory, and without making a single mistake, the whole of Dante’s immortal poem, ‘Divina Commedia,’ which consists of nearly one hundred cantos, an amount of matter about equal to the number of words contained in the New Testament. The feat occupied about twenty-four hours in its accomplishment, lasting from 6 p.m. on one day until 2 p.m. the following day. It was achieved in the presence of a committee of associate professors and literary men, who, at about midnight, divided into two parties, alternately sleeping and listening until the recitation was finished, the text being carefully followed by prompters during the whole time, all in order that there might be no question as to the genuineness of the performance. This feat was accomplished after a preparation that was comparatively short, considering the great length of the poem, and is perhaps the most wonderful exhibition of verbal recollection in recent times.

— Henry H. Fuller, The Art of Memory, 1898

For What It’s Worth


The longest nose in history, 7.5 inches, belonged to Thomas Wedders, who was exhibited throughout Yorkshire in the 1770s.

In Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1901), George Milbry Gould writes, “This man expired as he had lived, in a condition of mind best described as the most abject idiocy.”

“The accompanying illustration is taken from a reproduction of an old print and is supposed to be a true likeness of this unfortunate individual.”