Accord

Squeeze six circles into a larger circle so that each is tangent to its two neighbors. Now the three lines drawn through opposite points of tangency will pass through the same point.

Remarkably, this wasn’t discovered until 1974.

Lost Hope

A gruesome detail from the siege of Leningrad, from the diary of ballet teacher Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, April 1942:

And there, across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.

With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’

  1. without his knapsack
  2. without his rags
  3. in his underwear
  4. naked
  5. a skeleton with ripped-out entrails

They took him away in May.

That’s from Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina, Writing the Siege of Leningrad, 2002. They add, “The man was apparently heading for the Finland Station in the hope of getting out of Leningrad on Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life.'”

Housewife Sof’ia Nikolaevna Buriakova remembered, “Having grown numb from work, having lost a sense of what was permissible, the gravediggers stooped to all sorts of disgusting jokes, even blatantly violating the deceased. On the road leading to the communal grave a tall corpse had been stood with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. His frozen, iced-over arm pointed the way to the trench graves.”

Good Boy

An epitaph in the Pine Forest cemetery in Wilmington, N.C., reads:

“JIP” JONES
BORN SEPT. 24, 1894
DIED MAY 18, 1904

THIS WAS THE ONLY DOG WE EVER KNEW
THAT ATTENDED CHURCH EVERY SUNDAY

Actually, dogs commonly attended services in former times. Indeed, until the 19th century, they could be so numerous that churches employed “dog whippers” to remove unruly dogs during services. The Great Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands, contains a carving of the hondenslager at work (above).

The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus used to attend mass with his dog Pompe. Linnaeus always left after an hour, regardless of whether the sermon was finished. It’s said that when he was sick Pompe would arrive at the service alone, stay for the customary hour, and depart.

“Heaven goes by favor,” wrote Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

Book Talk

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sarony,_Napoleon_(1821-1896)_-_Trollope,_Anthony_(1815-1882).jpg

A bizarre episode from Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, 1872:

I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City. I called upon him, sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an introduction, and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. ‘I guess you’re a miner,’ said he. I again assured him that I was not. ‘Then how do you earn your bread?’ I told him I did so by writing books. ‘I’m sure you’re a miner,’ said he. Then he turned upon his heel, went back into the house, and closed the door.

“I was properly punished,” Trollope conceded, “as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name.”

Moonlight Towers

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LeveeAtNightNewOrleans1883.jpg

When electricity became widely available in the late 19th century, some American cities put it to its fullest use: They replaced the moon.

Fitted with powerful carbon arc lamps, “moonlight towers” could illuminate a city’s streets “brightly enough to read a watch from as far away as 1,500 feet.” At first they were greeted as symbols of progress: A visitor declared the citizens of Aurora, Ill., to be “in a state of delighted enthusiasm over the splendid practical results,” and one Detroit resident reported that “the foliage is weird and beautiful. All places within the scope of light are bathed in the faint but fairy-like illumination of the moon in its first quarter.”

But in time residents found that simple streetlights provided better illumination and eliminated the disorienting shadows cast by an artificial moon. Most of the old installations have been dismantled, but 17 of the original 31 towers in Austin, Texas, are still in use — the 165-foot landmarks have stood since 1895, and have been listed since 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Unquote

“All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates.” — Woody Allen

Parting Orders

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FusilamientoNey.JPG

Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:

“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”

Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.

Eccentric Cricket

http://books.google.com/books?id=iq4vAAAAMAAJ

From Edmund Fillingham King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860:

On the 9th of August, 1796, a cricket match was played by eleven Greenwich pensioners with one leg, against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new cricket ground, Montpelier gardens, Walworth. At nine o’clock the men arrived in three Greenwich stages; about twelve the wickets were pitched, and they commenced. Those with but one leg had the first innings, and got 93 runs; those with but one arm got but 42 runs during their innings. The one-leg commenced their second innings, and six were bowled out after they had got 60 runs; so that they left off one hundred and eleven more than those with one arm. Next morning the match was played out; and the men with one leg beat the one-arms by one hundred and three runs. After the match was finished the eleven one-legged men ran a sweep-stakes of one hundred yards distance for twenty guineas, and the three had first prizes.

From Henry Colburn’s London “calendar of amusements,” 1840:

http://books.google.com/books?id=6eE-AAAAYAAJ

From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:

A few winters ago, when a fine stretch of water in Sheffield Park was frozen over, his lordship [the Earl of Sheffield] organized a match on the ice, in which several of his house guests appeared. All the players used skates, the wicket-keeper, as might be imagined, having no little difficulty to keep still, and the bowlers being continually no-balled for running, or rather skating, over the crease. The beauty of ice-cricket lies in the fact that the batsman may score half-a-dozen runs while the fieldsman is endeavouring to regain his feet and pick up the ball, which may be lodged in a bank of snow.

http://books.google.com/books?id=iq4vAAAAMAAJ

Character Studies

In contrast to the usual lugubrious tombstones, the “merry cemetery” in Săpânța, Romania, fills hundreds of colorful markers with darkly humorous biographies of the town’s residents:

Here I rest
Pop Grigore is my name
My tractor was my joy
Drowned my sorrow in my wine
I lived a troubled life
For my father left me young
Such my fate was
That I should leave life
Death, you took me early
I was only 33.

Here I appear as well
On my father-in-law’s cross
Pop Grigore is my name
And I want to tell you all
That I learned in school
Finished high school
I was an accountant
And helped the state
The cuckoo sang my song
To die in Sighetu
And I left this life when I
Was 35 years old.

One more thing I loved very much,
To sit at a table in a bar
Next to someone else’s wife.

Death with ugly name
Swiftly you took me away
You did not feel sorry for me
I must see my girls
And son get married
Build them beautiful house
And give them good advice
On how to live in this world
Marie, my wife
You remained as a host
To be their mom and dad
Marry them well
And raise Irina with care
I cannot join you anymore
For I have stepped on foreign lands
I have nothing more to say
From this other world I am in.

The tradition was started by local carpenter Stan Ioan Pătraș, who in 1935 began carving candid epitaphs for the town’s residents, like a Romanian Edgar Lee Masters. Pătraș died in 1977 and left the business to his apprentice, Dumitru Pop, who says that in 30 years no one has ever complained about the tradition. “It’s the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that … There’s no hiding in a small town … The families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross.”

“The people here don’t react to death as though it were a tragedy,” the town’s Orthodox priest told the New York Times. “Death is just a passage to another life.”

No Man’s Lands

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mitchell_Map-06full2.jpg

Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.

Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guinea_from_Milner%27s_Atlas.jpg

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