“When hungry, eat your rice; when tired, close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.” — Lin-Chi
The Hoover Dam contains a star map depicting the sky of the Northern Hemisphere as it appeared at the moment that Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the dam. Artist Oskar Hansen imagined that the massive structure might outlive our civilization, and that the map could help future astronomers to calculate the date of its creation. The center star on the map, Alcyone, is the brightest star in the Pleiades, and our sun occupies a position at the center of a flagpole. The whole map traces a complete sidereal revolution of the equinox, a period of 25,694 of our years, and marks the point of the dam’s dedication in that period.
“Man has always sought to express and preserve the magnitude of his exploits in symbols,” Hansen said in 1935. “The written words are symbols arranged so as to preserve in objectified form the thought of man and to record his variant states, both mental and physical. All other arts are similar as to their symbolic significance. They take their place among the category of human endeavor simply as the interpreter of life to itself. They serve as an outer object typifying the inner process. They form the connecting link between the spiritual and the material world. They are the shadows cast by the realities of the soul.”
When Canada introduced its 1-dollar coin in 1987, it became known as the “loonie” for the loon on its back.
When the Royal Canadian Mint introduced the 2-dollar coin in 1996, Canadians tried hard to find a comparable nickname. Though “toonie” or “twoonie” eventually won out, the list of failed suggestions included “doubloonie,” “doozie,” and the charming “moonie.”
Why moonie? Because the coin depicts the queen “with a bear behind.”
- Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
- After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
- If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
- Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
- “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand
No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.
In short my dear Friend you and I have been indefatigable Labourers through our whole Lives for a Cause which will be thrown away in the next generation, upon the Vanity and Foppery of Persons of whom we do not now know the Names perhaps. — The War that is now breaking out will render our Country, whether she is forced into it, or not, rich, great and powerful in comparison of what she now is, and Riches Grandeur and Power will have the same effect upon American as it has upon European minds.
— John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, Oct. 9, 1787
n. a small cannon fired from the back of a camel
On June 29, 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined a subject he knew only as a “gentlewoman”:
In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. … This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force — sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. … In analyzing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power.
The subject was Charlotte Brontë. She had attended the reading with George Smith, presenting themselves as “Mr. and Miss Fraser.” Phrenology was fashionable at the time, and Charlotte, like many others, was willing to overlook its failures to appreciate its successes. Smith’s reading said, “He is an admirer of the fair sex. He is very kind to children. … Is active and practical though not hustling or contentious.” Smith found this “not so happy,” but Charlotte said, “It is a sort of miracle — like — like — like as the very life itself.”
Another of these dreams he had used as a basis for ‘Pickman’s Model,’ while still another formed the nucleus for ‘The Call of Cthulhu.’ I referred to this story one day, pronouncing the strange word as though it were spelled K-Thool-Hoo. Lovecraft looked blank for an instant, then corrected me firmly, informing me that the word was pronounced, as nearly as I can put it down in print, K-Lütl-Lütl. I was surprised, and asked why he didn’t spell it that way if such was the pronunciation. He replied in all seriousness that the word was originated by the denizens of his story and that he had only recorded their own way of spelling it. Lovecraft’s own invention had assumed an actual reality in his mind.
— Donald Wandrei, “Lovecraft in Providence,” in Peter Cannon, ed., Lovecraft Remembered, 1998
You toss 6 fair coins, and I toss 5 fair coins. What is the probability that you get more heads than I do?
Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them.
We’ll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union’s domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium.
Favell Lee Mortimer’s travel books for children are all available online:
In 2005 Todd Pruzan published a collection of the most xenophobic passages, titled The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.
Fast Company has an article about the breeding of friendly foxes by Russian researchers.
And National Geographic goes into greater depth regarding the genetics and evolutionary aspects of domestication in this 2011 article.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
Thanks for listening!