Long Distance


Suppose I pour poison in the water tank of a space ship while it stands on earth. My purpose is to kill the space traveller, and I succeed: when he reaches Mars he takes a drink and dies. Two events are easy to distinguish: my pouring of the poison, and the death of the traveller. One precedes the other, and causes it. But where does the event of my killing the traveller come in? The most usual answer is that my killing the traveller is identical with my pouring the poison. In that case, the killing is over when the pouring is. We are driven to the conclusion that I have killed the traveller long before he dies.

— Donald Davidson, “The Individuation of Events,” in N. Rescher et al., eds., Essays in Honor of Carl G. Hempel, 1969

Nob’s Impossible Ledge

nob's impossible ledge

This wooden model was created by the late Japanese puzzle inventor Nob Yoshigahara. It appears “impossible only from this one viewpoint,” notes Caltech neuroscientist Al Seckel, who presented it in his 2006 book Optical Illusions. “This time we won’t reveal the solution. We want you to think about it!”

Love, Honor, and Obey


In 1769, inspired by Rousseau’s Émile, British author Thomas Day set out to train the perfect wife. He adopted foundlings of 11 and 12 years old, named them Sabrina and Lucretia, and took them to France, where he tried to rear them in isolation.

This went well at first — under Day’s direction, Sabrina wrote to one of his friends: “I love Mr. Day dearly and Lucretia. I am learning to write. … I hope I shall have more sense against I come to England. I know the cause of night and day, winter and summer. I love Mr. Day best in the world, Mr. Bicknell next, and you next.”

But it fell apart within 18 months. When the girls began to quarrel and tease him, he returned to England, placed Lucretia with a chamber milliner, and concentrated on Sabrina. But she screamed when he fired pistols at her petticoats (trying, at Rousseau’s suggestion, to accustom her to “détonations les plus terribles”), and she winced unheroically when he dropped sealing wax on her arms. Finally he released her to a boarding school, where in time she grew up to be “an elegant and amiable woman.”

In 1780, Day finally did find a wife who “often wept but never repined” at his “frequent experiments upon her temper and attachment.” But even that didn’t last — he died, ironically, while trying to break a horse.

A Dedicated Theme

Written by German composer Peter Cornelius in 1854, “Ein Ton” has a single note for a melody — the note B is repeated 80 times in 42 bars.

I hear a tone so wondrous sweet
In heart and spirit of repeat.
Is it that breath that from thee fled,
The last faint breath e’er thou wert dead?

Nicolas Slonimsky writes, “Of course, there are constant modulations so that harmonic changes make up for monotony.”



On Feb. 29, 1868, London’s Langham Hotel sponsored a “horseflesh dinner” to see whether the popular prejudice against the eating of horses might be overcome in English society. About 150 influential Londoners dined on “saucissons de cheval,” “aloyau de de cheval farci,” and “gelée de pied de cheval au Marasquin.”

“Men looked at each other curiously while eating, and each course ran the gauntlet of puns and satire,” reported Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round.

But the consensus was negative. “There are, no doubt, numerous proofs that the flesh of the horse is, at any rate, a wholesome food, and indeed there seems no reason why it should not be,” opined the Medical Times and Gazette. “The dishes we tasted … were all palatable. … [But] horseflesh leaves a pungency on the palate that is not agreeable — a pungency that reminds one of what one has been eating for some time after the meal is over.”

“I came back from it a wiser and a sadder man,” reported zoologist Francis Trevelyan Buckland. “In my opinion, hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country; for, firstly, it has to fight against prejudice, and, secondly, the meat is not good.”

Also: “During the dinner, photographs of the horses which we were eating were handed round, and the appearance of one of these was, I think, the turning point of the argument.”

United Nations

I don’t know who first observed this — the design of Norway’s flag contains those of six other countries:

norway flag

The similarities are apparently accidental — designer Fredrik Meltzer had chosen the Nordic cross to reflect his nation’s ties with Denmark and Sweden and the tricolor to evoke the liberal ideals of France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

(Thanks, Nic.)

“Music and Baldness”

An English statistician has recently been engaged in an original task, that of studying the influence of music on the hair. … While stringed instruments prevent and check the falling out of the hair, brass instruments have the most injurious effects upon it. The piano and the violin, especially the piano, have an undoubted preserving influence. The violoncello, the harp, and the double bass participate in the hair-preserving qualities of the piano. But the hautboy, the clarinet, and the Mute have only a very feeble effect. Their action is not more than a fiftieth part as strong. On the contrary, the brass instruments have results that are deplorable.

Scientific American, Aug. 29, 1896

(Summarizing the same study, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal reported that “brass instruments have a fatal influence on the growth of the hair, notably the cornet, the French horn, and the trombone, which apparently will depilate a player’s scalp in less than five years. … The baldness which prevails among members of regimental bands has been given the name of ‘trumpet baldness,’ calvitié des fanfares.”)

Beef Tack

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, five European scientists announced that cattle and deer around the world align their bodies in roughly a north-south direction when grazing or resting.

German zoologist Sabine Begall studied thousands of Google Earth images and discovered that both types of animals appear to align their bodies with magnetic north. The conclusion “appears to be quite clear-cut from the data,” observed ornithologist Wolfgang Wiltschko.

“It boggles the mind that no one — herdsman, rancher, or hunter — had noticed this before,” writes ethologist Jonathan Balcombe. “What else are we failing to notice?”

(Begall, S., et al. “Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer.” PNAS 105(36) (2008): 134510-13455.)


Dashrath Manjhi

When his wife grew ill in the early 1960s, Indian farmhand Dashrath Manjhi took her from their home in Gelaur to the hospital in the neighboring town of Wazirganj. Unfortunately, this meant a journey of 19 kilometers, as a hillock of solid rock lay between the two villages.

When he returned to Gelaur, Manjhi resolved to improve matters. Working alone with a hammer and chisel, he spent 22 years cutting a passage through a solid mass of rock 360 feet long, 25 feet high, and 30 feet wide. When he finished in the 1980s, he had reduced the route from 19 kilometers to six and the travel time from six hours to one.

When Dasrath died in 2007, the Indian state of Bihar gave him a state funeral. He is remembered today in Gelaur as “the man who moved a mountain.”

See A for Effort.

(Thanks, Jebadiah.)

Post Haste


In 2002 a Russian student emailed her postal address to a friend in France so that she could send her a Harry Potter book. Unfortunately the French friend’s email program was not set up to display Cyrillic characters; instead, it produced diacritics from the Western character set. Apparently not realizing the error, the French girl copied them down and mailed the package. Postal employees realized what had happened, deciphered the address, and delivered the book successfully. (Thanks, Nicholas.)

Readers of the Strand seemed to delight in torturing the post office. In 1908 one mailed this card, which was delivered successfully, though postal officials said it took them 20 minutes to decipher it:


The address reads “Hemhigheses Hemhayary Achhighelel, Teaarhehentea Veehayelelwhy, Oheldee Esteahayteahighhohen Achohyoueshe, Elhighseaachefhighhehelldee, Esteahayefefes.” “The puzzle … is quite an easy matter once the clue is obtained.”

This American letter was mailed late one Sunday night in 1902:


It was delivered correctly the next morning to Alfred Craven of Chattanooga, Tenn., who remarked, “I think it shows the efficiency of our postal service.” The profile is made up of the letters A. CRAVEN.