Oddities

Nice Going

Four light aircraft have been flown under the St. Louis arch.

In 1980, Kenneth Swyers tried to parachute onto the span, hoping to jump back off and land on the ground. He slid all the way down one leg and died.

“Against stupidity,” wrote Schiller, “the gods themselves contend in vain.”

Jack Lalanne

Six appalling facts about fitness expert Jack Lalanne:

  1. At age 40, he did 100 handstand push-ups in under six minutes and 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes.
  2. In the same year he swam between Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf while handcuffed, and swam underwater the length of the Golden Gate Bridge with air tanks but no fins, towing a 2,000-pound boat. Seriously.
  3. In his sixties, he began to swim with shackles as well as handcuffs. For the bicentennial he towed 13 boats across a Southern California bay, and in the year he qualified for Social Security he towed 6,500 pounds of wood pulp across a Japanese lake.
  4. At age 69, his chest still measured 47 inches, his waist 27 inches.
  5. At 70, he towed 70 boats across Long Beach Harbor.
  6. LaLanne is now 91 years old, but he still gets up at 5:30 every morning to spend two hours working out in the weight room and the pool.

“I can’t afford to die,” he says. “It will ruin my image.”

Honk If You Love Megaliths

Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge constructed of vintage American automobiles spray-painted gray. The heel stone is a 1962 Cadillac.

Who says Americans have no taste?

The Mary Celeste

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Celeste_as_Amazon_in_1861.jpg

Passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste, a 103-foot brigantine that left New York for Genoa on Nov. 7, 1872:

  • Benjamin S. Briggs, 37, captain
  • Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, 30, captain’s wife
  • Sophia Matilda Briggs, 2, captain’s daughter
  • Albert C. Richardson, 28, mate
  • Andrew Gilling, 25, second mate
  • Edward W. Head, 23, steward and cook
  • Volkert Lorenson, 29, seaman
  • Arian Martens, 35, seaman
  • Boy Lorenson, 23, seaman
  • Gotlieb Gondeschall, 23, seaman

A month after she sailed, the ship was found abandoned off the coast of Portugal. Her cargo was intact, and she carried a six-month supply of food and water. The sextant, chronometer and lifeboat were missing, suggesting that the ship had been deliberately abandoned.

No survivors were ever found. The mystery has never been solved.

In Other Words

Twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy were severely neglected by their San Diego parents, attended minimally by a German-speaking grandmother. They saw no other children, rarely played outdoors, and did not go to school.

They were 8 years old when a speech therapist realized they had invented their own language:

GRACE: Cabengo, padem manibadu peeta.
VIRGINIA: Doan nee bada tengkmatt, Poto.

It was apparently a mix of English and German, with some original words and grammatical oddities.

Their father soon forbade their speaking it, saying, “You live in a society, you got to speak the language.” They learned English, but they still bear the emotional scars of their neglect: Virginia works on an assembly line, and Grace mops floors at a fast-food restaurant.

The Chaocipher

Somewhere, J.F. Byrne is laughing at all of us.

A friend of James Joyce (he was the basis for Cranley in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Byrne announced in 1918 that he had devised a simple and unbreakable code system, called the “Chaocipher,” that would fit into a cigar box:

I had, and still have in mind, the universal use of my machine and method by husband, wife, or lover. My machine would be on hire, as typewriter machines now are, in hotels, steamships, and, maybe even on trains and airlines, available for anyone anywhere and at any time. And I believe, too, the time will come — and come soon — when my system will be used in the publication of pamphlets and books written in cipher which will be unreadable except by those who are specially initiated.

Unfortunately, no one was interested. The U.S. Signal Corps, the State Department, the Department of the Navy, AT&T — all turned him down.

Finally, Byrne published a lengthy coded message in his autobiography, offering $5,000 to anyone who could decipher it. A few years later, he quietly died, taking the secret with him.

The cipher has never been solved.

01/29/2014 UPDATE: In 2010 Byrne’s family donated his papers to the National Cryptological Museum, so the algorithm is now known. (Thanks, Peter.)

Great Serpent Mound

Created by Native Americans at least 1,000 years ago, Ohio’s Serpent Mound is a double mystery.

First, while there are several burial mounds nearby, the serpent itself doesn’t contain any human remains. It’s just a giant earthen snake, 1,330 feet long.

Second, the site on which it’s built shows faulted and folded bedrock, meaning that a huge cataclysm, a meteorite or a volcanic explosion, happened here in the ancient past.

Is that why the serpent was built there? We may never know.

The Mars Effect

When French psychologist Michel Gauquelin set out to determine whether astrology was valid, he found a curious anomaly.

His analysis showed that sports champions are more likely to be born when Mars is in the fourth quadrant. Examples include Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Venus Williams.

It’s called “the Mars effect.”

Caveat Emptor

French forger Vrain Denis-Lucas must have had a golden touch. His customers bought “manuscripts” from all of the following authors:

  • Robert Boyle
  • Isaac Newton
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Cleopatra
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Pontius Pilate
  • Joan of Arc
  • Cicero
  • Dante Alighieri

… even though all of them were written in contemporary French. All told, Denis-Lucas sold 27,000 manuscripts before the French Academy of Science realized something was wrong. He spent two years in prison and then disappeared.

Walking Tall

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Humanzee2.jpg

“Man is the noblest work of God!” roared Mark Twain. “Well now, who found that out?”

Consider the case of Oliver the chimpanzee. Oliver liked to stand upright instead of knucklewalking like his peers, and his keepers noticed that his face was flatter than other chimps’, who tended to avoid him.

That’s all the impetus they needed. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Oliver was paraded through a succession of theme parks, zoos and promotions, billed as a missing link or even a “humanzee,” or human-chimp hybrid, and confined for seven years in a cage that measured only 7 by 5 feet.

It all came to nothing. In 1996, when Oliver was old, blind, and arthritic, University of Chicago geneticist David Ledbetter checked his chromosomes and discovered he was just an ordinary ape, albeit one who preferred to walk upright.

It’s still possible that Oliver belongs to a rare subspecies of chimps who resemble humans … but after that treatment, would he take that as a compliment?

All Clear

Lloyd’s of London does not charge higher insurance rates for ships passing through the Bermuda Triangle. It says the area is no more dangerous than any other high-traffic piece of ocean.

The U.S. Coast Guard agrees.

Some Secrets Last Forever

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Great-Zimbabwe-2.jpg

This conical tower, part of the Great Zimbabwe ruins of sub-Saharan Africa, has stood for a thousand years, and we may never learn what lies inside: The tower is 30 feet tall and has no windows or doors.

Man-Made Lightning

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Flames conduct electricity. Forest fires near high-voltage transmission lines can actually discharge them to the ground.

A Superhero Monk

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The Loch Ness monster is not only shy, he’s old. The Life of St. Columba, by the 7th-century Scottish abbot Adomnan of Iona, contains an account of the monster attacking a Pict in 565, and being fought off by the courageous saint:

[He] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

CSS Shenandoah

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:CSSShenandoah.jpg

The Civil War didn’t quite end with Lee’s surrender. The Confederate man-of-war CSS Shenandoah was in the Arctic Ocean at the time, and kept attacking Union ships for four more months.

By the time it stopped, the Shenandoah had carried the Confederate flag completely around the world. It sank or captured 38 ships, two-thirds of them after the war ended, and took close to a thousand prisoners. Oops.

Sealand

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

Behold the Principality of Sealand, a self-declared “micronation” on an old sea fort in the North Sea.

Its population is only five, but it has its own government (“Their Royal Highnesses Prince Roy and Princess Joan of Sealand”), constitution, government bureaus, senate, postage stamps, and currency.

And, now, it has an official athlete: In 2003 Darren Blackburn of Oakville, Ontario, Canada, started representing Sealand in local marathons and off-trail races. Presumably short ones.

Shergar

Kidnappers don’t always target humans. On Feb. 8, 1983, a group of men abducted the Irish racehorse Shergar, winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby.

A local radio station received a ransom demand for £1.5 million, but the horse was never recovered, and to this day his fate is still unknown.

Hopping Center

Wallabies aren’t unique to Australia — not anymore. There’s a been a colony of wild red-necked wallabies living in England’s Peak District since World War II, descended from animals in a private zoo.

The wild colony numbered as many as 50 at one time, but a severe winter in 1962-63 cut them down. Some believe the last one died in the late 1990s, but then a sighting was a claimed in 2000. Keep your eyes peeled.

“A Battle on Stilts”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17582/17582-h/17582-h.htm

“In the year 1748 the great Marshal Saxe, who was travelling through the Low Countries, came to the town of Namur in Belgium. There the citizens did everything in their power to make his stay pleasant and to do him honor, and among other things they got up a battle on stilts. These inhabitants of Namur were well used to stilts, for their town, which has a river on each side of it, lay very low, and was subject to overflows, when the people were obliged to use stilts in order to walk about the streets. In this way they became very expert in the use of these slim, wooden legs, and to make their stilts amusing as well as useful they used to have stilt-battles on all holidays and great occasions. …

“Things are different in this country. It is said that in 1859 a man walked across the rapids of the Niagara river on stilts, but I never heard of any of his taxes being remitted on that account.”

— Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910

“Georges Le Gloupier”

Victims of Belgian “entarteur” Noël Godin, who flings cream pies at the self-important:

  • Microsoft CEO Bill Gates
  • French novelist Marguerite Duras
  • Choreographer Maurice Bejart
  • French anchorman Patrick Poivre d’Arvor
  • French politician Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard
  • Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy

Godin told The New York Times he’s trying “to function in the service of the capitalist status quo, without really using his intelligence or his imagination.” Touché.

Ambitious Cryptid

For an imaginary creature, the Popo Bawa of Zanzibar seems pretty eager for publicity. According to legend, the creature — described as a one-eyed dwarf with batlike wings and sharp talons — seeks out men who deny its existence, sodomizing them for up to an hour and threatening longer, and repeated, attacks unless they tell their friends and neighbors about the experience.

Strangely, the creature’s attacks are said to rise and fall with the local election cycle. Maybe it’s campaigning.

Beauty and the Beast

Last year Sharon Tendler married a bottle-nosed dolphin.

Tendler, 41, first became captivated with the animal during a dolphinarium show in Eilat, Israel. She visited him regularly for 15 years (“The peace and tranquility under water, and his love, would calm me down”) and finally approached the trainer for permission for an unofficial ceremony.

On Dec. 28, 2005, Tendler walked down the dock in a white silk dress, kissed the dolphin, and whispered “I love you” into his blowhole (video). They had to make some concessions, of course: Instead of rice, the crowd threw mackerel.

Surviving Mammoths

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Baby_Mammoth_-_Luzern%2C_Switzerland.JPG

Mammoths generally died out with the last ice age, but some survived on Russia’s Wrangel Island until 1500 B.C., around the same time Stonehenge was built.

Reportedly the Soviet Air Force spotted a group of mammoths in Siberia during World War II but subsequently lost them.

Over Easy

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Madagascar’s elephant bird died out around Shakespeare’s time.

So it’s a little weird that two eggs were found in Western Australia in 1930 and 1993.

Did they float there? No one knows.