“This gentleman had an idea that he could fly by the aid of this ingenious machinery. You will see that his wings are arranged so that they are moved by his legs, and also by cords attached to his arms. The umbrella over his head is not intended to ward off the rain or the sun, but is to act as a sort of parachute, to keep him from falling while he is making his strokes. The basket, which hangs down low enough to be out of the way of his feet, is filled with provisions, which he expects to need in the course of his journey.
“That journey lasted exactly as long as it took him to fall from the top of a high rock to the ground below.”
– Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910
Every so often someone finds a bunch of rats whose tails are knotted together. It’s called a rat king. (This one, with 32 rats, was found in a German miller’s fireplace in 1828.)
The rats are usually dead when they’re discovered, and no one has suggested a natural cause, so presumably humans are involved somehow.
Typically the rats are fully grown adults, so they’re not born this way, and their tails are often broken and callused, which means they’ve survived in this state for some time, fed by humans or by other rats.
Why would anyone do this? Who knows?
Are we getting smarter? IQ scores around the world have been going up by about three IQ points per decade.
Suggested reasons include improved nutrition, smaller families, better education, and the stimulating modern environment, but no one really knows what’s causing it.
It’s called the Flynn effect, after New Zealand political scientist who discovered it.
Kailashgiri Brahmachari is carrying his mother across India. They left the northern village of Piparia eight years ago and hope to reach Varanasi in 2013.
He says it’s the will of God.
“He is a nice son, but I am getting tired,” his mother told the BBC. “I sometimes feel like ending the journey and getting back home.”
In 1920 two English cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced a series of photos that seemed to show them cavorting with fairies and gnomes.
The images were published in The Strand and convinced Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he wrote: “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.”
But see Fairies Unmasked.
Blue Peacock was the sexy code name of a secret British plan to salt the Rhine with nuclear mines in the 1950s, in case of war.
Less sexily, they planned to put a live chicken in each one, to keep the electronics from getting cold.
When the file was declassified on April 1, 2004, this was taken to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s true. Fortunately, the project was canceled.
Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Key West, Fla., contains a colony of six-toed cats.
The author had a sailor’s love of polydactyl cats — their extra toes are considering good luck at sea, giving them superior abilities to climb and to hunt shipboard rodents.
So when Hemingway received a six-toed cat from a ship’s captain, he provided for its descendants in his will. There are currently about 60 cats at the Key West house, and about half of them have extra toes.
The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic is decorated with 40,000 human skeletons.
“If life must not be taken too seriously,” wrote Samuel Butler, “then so neither must death.”
In October 2003, a couple hiking in the mountains of northern Sweden came upon 70 pairs of shoes, all filled with butter.
No one knows who put them there, or why.
“Twenty young men chase a cheese off a cliff and tumble 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.”
That’s a typical description of the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake, held each May at Cooper’s Hill near Gloucester, England. The participants run downhill after a Double Gloucester cheese, which the winner gets to keep. Theoretically they’re trying to catch the cheese, but it rapidly gets up to 70 mph (knocking over a spectator in 1997) and this rarely happens.
The racers themselves get sprained ankles, broken bones and concussions, and the first-aid services are getting stretched as the race grows in popularity. Last year they ran out of ambulances.
Winnipeg resident Jim Sulkers lay dead in his apartment for two years before his body was discovered.
Sulkers was estranged from his family, and automated banking processed his disability checks and paid his bills.
When police finally climbed through the window in August 2004, they found his mummified body in the bed, spoiled food in the refrigerator, and a wall calendar that was two years out of date. Everything else was in perfect order.
If you live on the Atlantic coast, keep your eyes peeled for rubber ducks. In 1992, 29,000 bathtub toys were washed from a container ship into the North Pacific. For 14 years they’ve been working their way through the arctic, and they’re beginning to appear in the U.S. and Europe. The First Years, the U.S. company that made the ducks, is offering $100 in savings bonds to anyone who finds one — call 1-800-317-3194.
A masochist’s lunch menu:
- Casu marzu is a Sardinian cheese riddled with live insect larvae that can jump up to 6 inches. Wear goggles.
- Kopi luwak, sometimes described as “cat poop coffee,” is a Sumatran beverage made from berries that have passed through a civet’s digestive tract.
- Lutefisk is a Nordic dish made by soaking whitefish in lye. It is the only food refused by Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything: “Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction.”
- “Stinky tofu,” a favorite of Mao Zedong, is marinated for months in a brine of fermented vegetables. Reportedly it tastes like blue cheese, but its smell has been compared to sewage, horse manure, and “a used tampon baking in the desert.”
Mark Twain wrote, “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”
Here’s one way to beat temptation: file a lawsuit. In 1971, Gerald Mayo sued “Satan and his staff” in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. He alleged that “Satan has on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff’s downfall” and had therefore “deprived him of his constitutional rights,” a violation of the U.S. Code.
The court noted that jurisdiction was uncertain; legally the devil might count as a foreign prince. Also, Mayo’s claim seemed appropriate for a class action suit, and it wasn’t clear that Mayo could represent all of humanity. Finally, no one was sure how the U.S. Marshal could serve process on Satan.
So the devil got away. Mayo’s case has been cited several times, and has never been overturned or contradicted.
Except for the beds, Sweden’s Ice Hotel is made completely of ice blocks — 60 rooms and suites, a bar, a reception area and a chapel, 30,000 square feet in all. Even the glasses in the bar are made of ice. You can book a room for about $400, but hurry — it melts in May.
Its alter ego is the Uyuni Salt Hotel, in Bolivia, where everything — including the beds — is made of salt. (Photo (c)2005 Tom Corser, www.tomcorser.com.)
Until 2000, calling 760-733-9969 would connect you to a single phone booth in the Mojave desert, 15 miles from the nearest interstate and miles from any building.
Tired of vandalism, Pacific Bell finally took down the booth. Fans put up a headstone, but they took that down too. Killjoys.
Necessity is the mother of invention. In the 1840s, when Army horses and mules were failing in the American Southwest, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, same guy) allocated $30,000 for “the purchase of camels and the importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.” The Navy sent a ship to North Africa, and in 1856 33 confused camels arrived in Indianola, Texas.
They did pretty well. After a survey expedition to California, an enthusiastic Col. Edward Beale declared, “I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted … with this economical and noble brute.”
The Civil War put an end to the project, but there’s a strange postscript. Some of the camels escaped into the Texas desert, where apparently they adapted to life in the wild. The last feral camel was sighted in 1941. There’s a movie in here somewhere.
In the 15th century, among the Ojibwa people of Lake Superior, a prophet dreamed of “men who had come across the great water … their skins are white like snow, and on their faces long hair grows. These people have come … in wonderfully large canoes which have great white wings like those of a giant bird. The men have long and sharp knives, and they have long black tubes which they point at birds and animals. The tubes make a smoke that rises into the air … from them come fire and … a terrific noise.”
After this prophecy was made, a group of Ojibwa traveled down the St. Lawrence waterway to investigate and made their first contact with white men, possibly a party from John Cabot’s (1497) or Jacques Cartier’s (1535) expedition.
If you visit the Edinburgh Zoo, be prepared to salute — in August a penguin named Nils Olav was promoted to colonel-in-chief of the Royal Norwegian Guard.
Apparently penguins are pretty active in the Guard — since 1982 they’ve held the ranks of lance corporal, sergeant, and regimental sergeant major. They’re certainly dressed for it.
From Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle, 1896:
The following case illustrative of the tenacity of virulence of snake-venom was reported by Mr. Temple, Chief Justice of Honduras, and quoted by a London authority.
While working at some wood-cutting a man was struck on a heavy boot by a snake, which he killed with an axe. He imagined that he had been efficiently protected by the boot, and he thought little of the incident. Shortly afterward he began to feel ill, sank into a stupor, and succumbed.
His boots were sold after his death, as they were quite well made and a luxury in that country. In a few hours the purchaser of the boots was a corpse, and every one attributed his death to apoplexy or some similar cause.
The boots were again sold, and the next unfortunate owner died in an equally short time.
It was then thought wise to examine the boots, and in one of them was found, firmly embedded, the fang of the serpent. It was supposed that in pulling on the boots each of the subsequent owners had scratched himself and became fatally inoculated with the venom, which was unsuspected and not combated.
“The case is so strange as to appear hypothetic, but the authority seems reliable.”
Born in 1849, “Blind Tom” Wiggins found himself with three burdens and a gift: He was blind, he was mentally challenged, he was a slave, and he was a musical prodigy.
He was playing piano by ear at age 4, before he could speak. At 5 he composed a tune and found he could reproduce perfectly any piece from memory. His vocabulary was only about 100 words, and he spoke of himself in the third person (“Tom is pleased to meet you”), but in time he learned 7,000 piano pieces, mostly classics.
At age 8 a successful concert in Columbus, Ga., led to a tour. He played for James Buchanan and Mark Twain, accepting challenges to repeat original compositions to show there was no trickery. By age 16, he was touring the world.
He retired in 1883 but returned briefly for a series of New York concerts in 1904. He died in 1908.
In 1844, Sir David Brewster discovered an iron nail in a block of stone in Scotland’s Kingoodie Quarry. The nail was embedded in a Cretaceous block from the Mesozoic era; in 1985, the British Geological Survey dated the bed at between 360 and 408 million years old.
An iron nail has no business in the Mesozoic era, and no ordinary nail could avoid oxidation for more than 400 million years.
So how’d it get there? No one knows.
In 1973, over Ivory Coast, an aircraft collided with a Ruppell’s griffon, a kind of vulture.
It had been flying at 37,000 feet — that’s seven miles high.
Dioniso Pulido must have angered the gods.
On Feb. 20, 1943, the Mexican farmer watched a volcanic fissure open in the middle of his cornfield. Within 24 hours the cone was 50 meters high; within a week it was twice that. By August his whole town was buried in lava and ash.
The new volcano, called Paricutin, eventually grew to be 10,000 feet high, and it didn’t go quiet until 1952.
And the gods got their due. No one died in the eruption — but three people were killed by associated lightning strikes.