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A Bad Night

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Sanfranciscoearthquake1906.jpg

San Francisco reporter James Hopper got to bed at 3 a.m. on April 18, 1906, after a night at the opera. After two hours of sleep he felt himself suddenly shaken “like a fish in a frying-pan”:

I got up and walked to the window. I started to open it, but the pane obligingly fell outward and I poked my head out, the floor like a geyser beneath my feet. Then I heard the roar of bricks coming down in cataracts and the groaning of twisted girders all over the city, and at the same time I saw the moon, a calm, pale crescent in the green sky of dawn. Below it the skeleton frame of an unfinished sky-scraper was swaying from side to side with a swing as exaggerated and absurd as that of a palm in a stage tempest.

Just then the quake, with a sound as of a snarl, rose to its climax of rage, and the back wall of my building for three stories above me fell. I saw the mass pass across my vision swift as a shadow. It struck some little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs and the bricks pass through the roof as through tissue paper.

The vibrations ceased and I began to dress. Then I noted the great silence. Throughout the long quaking, in this great house full of people I had not heard a cry, not a sound, not a sob, not a whisper. And now, when the roar of crumbling buildings was over and only a brick was falling here and there like the trickle of a spent rain, this silence continued, and it was an awful thing. But now in the alley someone began to groan. It was a woman’s groan, soft and low.

Jacob Levinson, a director of Fireman’s Fund, weathered the quake with his family at 2420 Pacific Avenue. He wrote later, “I am frequently asked whether I was badly frightened by the shaking, to which I invariably reply that I had passed the point of being frightened, exactly as one might on a sinking vessel in mid-ocean when fully alive to the inevitable. My only thought was to get the family together so that when the house went down we should all go together.”

Dead Bargain

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On my deathbed I exact a promise from you. Then I die, and you ignore the promise. Most of us would feel that this is wrong, but why? If I no longer exist, then who is wronged by your omission?

Similarly, it seems wrong to disparage the dead, or to mistreat a corpse. But why? Can we have a moral obligation to a person who doesn’t exist? Do the dead have rights?

“The dead, if they exist at all, are so much dust,” writes philosopher George Pitcher. “How is it possible for so much dust to be wronged?”

Spray Ain’t

http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=AmolAAAAEBAJ

Henry Hunt’s “graffiti prevention apparatus,” patented in 1997, offers a novel way to keep city walls clean: Paint manufacturers would mix magnetic material into their products, and a sensor near each building would sense when a vandal was near.

“When a proximity sensor on, or in the vicinity of, the structure is triggered by an approaching intruder, a magnetic field created along the targeting surface acts to repel the spray of marking media directed at it.”

Alternatively, the sensor would direct a signal to the spray-paint can, turning the nozzle away from the wall or shutting off the flow of paint. But I guess the spray-paint manufacturers would all have to participate … and vandals may be their biggest market.

Open and Shut

In 1917 Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim agreed to debate one another before a Chicago literary society. They chose the topic “Resolved: That People Who Attend Literary Debates Are Imbeciles.”

Hecht took the podium, surveyed the crowd, and said, “The affirmative rests.”

Bodenheim rose and said, “You win.”

Words and Numbers

If the English names of the natural numbers are spelled out consecutively, what letter occurs most frequently? In 1981 Frank Rubin showed that I never overtakes E in this race. When we reach NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, the letter E has appeared 3,130 times, while I has appeared only 1,310. After NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE, each of the names ONE through NINE HUNDRED NINETY-NINE has appeared 1,000 times to the left of the word THOUSAND and 999 times to the right, so at the ONE MILLION mark I has appeared 2,620,000 times and E 6,260,000.

When we reach ONE BILLION, I has had a bit of a boost by appearing 1,998,000,000 times in the word MILLION, but it’s not enough: At this point E has appeared 9,390,000,000 times and I only 5,928,000,000.

The gap is never closed. It narrows if an -illion word has two or more Is and no Es, but if E also appears (SEXTILLION, SEPTILLION) then it widens. I makes its closest approach at ONE SEXTILLION, when we’ve racked up 2.0159 × 1022 Is and 2.191 × 1022 Es.

In fact, the only letters that ever surpass E, anywhere in the sequence, are O at the end of TWO and T before THREE is spelled out.

(“Colloquy,” Word Ways, November 1981)

Power Clubs

http://books.google.com/books?id=X-0vAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA81

From the Strand, January 1900: As a novel entertainment, George W. Patterson of Chicago fitted a pair of Indian clubs with electric lights powered by a custom-built 35-pound battery. “To give a display the room is darkened, and Mr. Patterson, taking his stand in front of the audience, turns on the current and swings the clubs with the most wonderful results.” The time of these exposures is 5-10 seconds:

http://books.google.com/books?id=X-0vAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA81

“We notice two distinct ‘O’s,’ with a very thick outer circle or ring. This larger circle is produced by a thirty-two candle-power, fifty volt lamp which is usually run on 110 volts, fixed to the tip of each club. Some idea of the power of these two lights, which are necessary to make the figures, may be gauged from the fact that they are too dazzling for the naked eye when lighted and stationary, and are so powerful that they are capable of illuminating an entire church or public hall of average size.”

http://books.google.com/books?id=X-0vAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA81

“A pretty design produced by lighted clubs in a darkened hall is seen in our third photograph. The clubs are always swung to music, so that the effect to the audience is still more pleasing. The patterns or figures which may be obtained by the swinging of the clubs are almost infinite in variety. The lights on the clubs are under the control of an operator behind the scenes, who turns on and off the lights of both clubs by means of a switchboard.”

http://books.google.com/books?id=X-0vAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA81

“In order to produce such a charming picture as seen in our next photograph, the clubs, of course, have to be swung fairly rapidly. Indeed, it would be impossible to obtain so many circles with one pair of clubs unless they are swung quickly, while the grace and style of the whole effect speak volumes for Mr. Patterson’s ability as a club-swinger. His club swinging has rightly been termed ‘poetry in motion.’”

http://books.google.com/books?id=X-0vAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA81

“A complication” and a “running figure.” “Although this kind of electrical display with Indian clubs is entirely new so far as the public is concerned, Mr. Patterson has given much time and thought to the subject, and his entertainments have not reached their present high degree of excellence and novelty without a great deal of patient study of that vast and marvellous subject which we call electricity.”

Fair Enough

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Asked why he was riding naked in the rain, American eccentric Hugh Henry Brackenridge pointed to the clothes folded under his saddle.

“The storm, you know, would spoil the clothes,” he said, “but it couldn’t spoil me.”

Purple Mountains

Excerpts from an Independence Day oration by Nashville attorney Edwin H. Tenney to the Young Men’s Association of Great Bend, Tenn., July 4, 1858:

  • “Venerable, my Fellow Citizens, on the brilliant calendar of American Independence, is the day we celebrate. Venerable as the revolving epoch in our anniversaries of freedom is this avalanche of time. Venerable as the abacus on the citadel of greatness, thou well-spring of hope. Homestead of Liberty, we venerate thy habitation. Monument of immortality, we adorate thy worth.”
  • “To those veterans eulogy is preposterous and monuments unavailing, but a heart soaking with gratitude is never bleak nor serene. Cold calumny may chill it and life’s icicles freeze it, but when thawed by recollections blood leaps through its veins. Could we learn from immortality their fame or presage their memory, the priceless league — the serried rank — the siren yell — the solemn march — the cracking bone — the flying flesh — the clinic pang — the grilling wail — the quenchless sigh and the clattering footsteps of that army welding sympathy to ages and liberty to life, will float like the dying groans of Calvary down the rapids of mortality, and whistling salvation along the whirlpool of nations, they will enter like their fathers a sea of bliss.”
  • “Such a theme needs no epitasis. It needs no amphitheatre with its Ignatius irritating the lions to accelerate his glory. It needs not the inflexibility of a Laurentius — or the suavity of a Pionius for its apodosis.”
  • “Some of our ladies find this romance ‘mid flounces and ostentation — ‘mid luxury and expense — ‘mid smatterers of French peppered with Latin; of Latin salted with Greek; or of Greek hashed with German. To petrify their brains with problems or dishes would be blowing up the ramparts of beauty and fortune; pillaging the flower pots of geranium magnificence, and insulting the bounties of a benevolent God.”
  • “”Would you remove these Senacheribs from Amaranthus — then become Malanchthons in reforms not Catalines of your country. Better banish — like Lycurgus — politician and poet rather than not tear from our wheels this drag-chain of Romance which is the pabulum of fancy and nursery of woe.”

“What does he mean by ‘blowing up the ramparts of beauty?’” wondered the Daily Alta California afterward. “The obscurity can’t be in the writer, and must therefore lie in our own ignorance. Still we ask — what are the ramparts of beauty?”

Unquote

“I wrote somewhere once that the third-rate mind was only happy when it was thinking with the majority, the second-rate mind was only happy when it was thinking with the minority, and the first-rate mind was only happy when it was thinking.” — A.A. Milne

Fish Story

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antelope_Island_Buffalo_Point_2005.jpg

Here’s an imaginative newspaper hoax from the American West — James Wickham, a “scientific English gentleman,” was said to have released two 35-foot whales in the Great Salt Lake in 1873:

Mr. Wickham came from London in person to superintend the ‘planting’ of his leviathan pets. He selected a small bay near the mouth of Bear River connected with the main water by a shallow strait half a mile wide. Across this strait he built a wide fence, and inside the pen so formed he turned the whales loose. After a few minutes inactivity they disported themselves in a lively manner, spouting water as in mid-ocean, but as if taking in by instinct or intention the cramped character of their new home, they suddenly made a bee line for deep water and shot through the wire fence as if it had been made of threads. In twenty minutes they were out of sight, and the chagrined Mr. Wickham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water.

If Great Salt lake were in Asia it would be called a sea. It is seventy-five miles long and from thirty to forty wide, so it is easy to perceive how readily the whales could vanish from sight. Though the enterprising owner was of course, disappointed and doubtful of the results, he left an agent behind him to look after his floating property.

Six months later Mr. Wickham’s representative came upon the whales fifty miles from the bay where they had broken away, and from that time to the present they have been observed at intervals by him and the watermen who ply the lake, spouting and playing.

Within the last few days, however, Mr. Wickham cabled directions to make careful inspection and report the developments, and the agent followed the whales for five successive days and nights, discovering that the original pair are now sixty feet in length, and followed about by a school of several hundred young, varying in length from three to fifteen feet. The scheme is a surprising and complete success, and Mr. Wickham has earned the thanks of mankind.

I’m not sure when it first appeared. The earliest publication I can find is in the Salt Lake Herald of June 27, 1890, which noted that the article was “again going the rounds” and reprinted it “merely to show that while great interest is taken by the country generally in that wonderful body of water known as the Great Salt lake, there is also great ignorance shown by outside people who endeavor to explain its beauties and advantages.”

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