Uneasy Bedfellows


I cannot help thinking that the difference which he [Matthew Arnold] makes between Washington and Lincoln is due to the fact that the one lived a century ago, and the other in our own time. A hundred years ago Englishmen would have laughed at the praise he gives to Washington. Fifty years ago they would have still considered it extravagant. To-day, they think it just. So will it be with Lincoln. Compare what was said of him in his lifetime with what is said of him even now, and we shall be able to form some idea of the verdict of the future.

— Theodore Roosevelt, commenting in Murray’s Magazine, quoted in Patrick Maxwell, Pribbles and Prabbles, 1906

The Visby Lenses

In 1997, three scientists examined 10 rock crystal lenses discovered in a Viking grave on Sweden’s Gotland Island. Made in the 12th century, the lenses had been thought to be simple ornaments, but examination showed they had been crafted with the ideal focusing lens shape 500 years before Descartes could calculate it mathematically.

“It seems that the elliptical lens design was invented much earlier that we thought and then the knowledge was lost,” researcher Olaf Schmidt told the BBC. Scientists speculate that the lenses were used to start fires or perhaps even to form a crude telescope.

Who made them? Not Vikings — probably a group of craftsmen in Byzantium or Eastern Europe, possibly even a single talented artisan. Whoever it was, he knew even more about applied optics than scientists at the time.

Infinite Egress


Leinbach had discovered a proof that there really is no death. It is beyond question, he had declared, that not only at the moment of drowning, but at all the moments of death of any nature, one lives over again his past life with a rapidity inconceivable to others. This remembered life must also have a last moment, and this last moment its own last moment, and so on, and hence, dying is itself eternity, and hence, in accordance with the theory of limits, one may approach death but can never reach it.

— Arthur Schnitzler, Flight Into Darkness, 1931

Thou Whoreson Zed!

What’s unique about this poem?

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.

It’s the only one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet.

Con Proofing

John von Neumann suggested a way to flip a suspect coin and produce fair results: Flip it twice.

Tails-heads decides in favor of one party, heads-tails the other. The two results are equally likely, even with a biased coin. (If it comes up heads-heads or tails-tails, flip it twice again.)

Birds of a Feather


The 14th Lord Berners, Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson (1883-1950), was either eccentric or poetic-minded — he used to dye the pigeons at his Faringdon manor house so that when released they became, in Nancy Mitford’s phrase, “a cloud of confetti in the sky.”

Berners also kept a giraffe, installed a piano in his Rolls Royce, and once received Penelope Betjeman’s horse into his drawing room for tea. When a Miss Lobb complained that a tower erected on his Oxfordshire estate would invite suicides, he nailed up a notice: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”

What’s In a Name?

Puritans in the 1600s gave their kids some memorably pious names — here’s a sample from a Sussex jury roll circa 1650:

  • Accepted Trevor, of Norsham
  • Redeemed Compton, of Battle
  • Kill-Sin Pimple, of Witham
  • Fly-Fornication Richardson, of Waldron
  • Search-The-Scriptures Moreton, of Salehurst
  • The-Peace-Of-God Knight, of Burwash
  • Stand-Fast-On-High Stringer, of Crowhurst
  • Fight-The-Good-Fight-Of-Faith White, of Ewhurst

Taken to extremes these could get unwieldy. Charles Bombaugh (1890) claims that “A Puritan maiden, who was asked for her baptismal name, replied, ‘Through-Much-Tribulation-We-Enter-The-Kingdom-Of-Heaven, but for short they call me Tribby.'”

In the late 17th century a member of the British parliament was named Praise-God Barebone, with brothers and sons named Fear-God Barebone, Jesus-Christ-Came-Into-The-World-To-Save Barebone, and If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone.

The last changed his name to Nicholas.