Il Était Une Fois …

Top 10 most translated authors in the world as of January 2006, according to UNESCO’s “Index Translationum”:

  1. Walt Disney Productions
  2. Agatha Christie
  3. Jules Verne
  4. Vladimir Lenin
  5. Enid Blyton
  6. Barbara Cartland
  7. William Shakespeare
  8. Danielle Steele
  9. Hans Christian Andersen
  10. Stephen King

Each has been translated more than 1,500 times.

Mary the Elephant

1916 came to a black end for Sparks World Famous Shows, a circus that was traveling through the American South. In Kingsport, Tenn., an amateur trainer named Red Eldridge was leading a 5-ton Asian elephant to a local pond when she stopped to nibble a watermelon rind. He grew impatient and prodded her behind the ear. She flung him against a drink stand and stepped on his head.

What followed can only be described as a lynching. A crowd began to chant, “Kill the elephant!” A local blacksmith fired two dozen rounds into Mary, with little effect. The local sheriff impounded her, newspapers reported (falsely) that she had killed several workers in the past, and nearby towns threatened to boycott the show. By most accounts Mary had calmed down after killing Eldridge, but that didn’t seem to matter.

So on Sept. 13, owner Charlie Sparks took Mary to a local railroad yard and hanged her from an industrial crane in front of 2,500 people, including most of the town’s children. The chain snapped on the first attempt, causing Mary to fall and break her hip. The second attempt killed her, and she was buried beside the tracks.

“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself,” wrote George Eliot. “It only requires opportunity.”

In a Word

n. a collector of beer mats

Dudeney Numbers

Only six numbers have this curious property:

1 = 1; 13 = 1
8 = 5 + 1 + 2; 83 = 512
17 = 4 + 9 + 1 + 3; 173 = 4913
18 = 5 + 8 + 3 + 2; 183 = 5832
26 = 1 + 7 + 5 + 7 + 6; 263 = 17576
27 = 1 + 9 + 6 + 8 + 3; 273 = 19683

They’re called Dudeney numbers, after the English author and mathematician who discovered them. (Regular readers know I’m something of a fan.)

Group Portrait

This is the largest gathering of human beings in the history of the world — in January 2001, 70 million Hindu pilgrims met in Prayaga, India, for a religious festival called the Kumbh Mela.

Three years later, 30 million met in Ujjain.

A War in the Sky

At sunrise on April 14, 1561, the citizens of Nuremberg, Germany, witnessed a strange aerial spectacle. According to a contemporary broadsheet, large numbers of red, blue and black “globes” or “plates” appeared near the sun, “some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.” Two great tubes also appeared, “in which three, four and more globes were to be seen. They then all began to fight one another.”

After an hour, “they all fell … from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if everything were on fire, then it slowly faded away on the earth, producing a lot of steam.”

Strangely, the same thing happened five years later in Basel, Switzerland. On Aug. 7, 1566, also at sunrise, “many large black globes were seen in the air, moving before the sun with great speed, and turning against each other as if fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards faded and went out.”

Turnspit Dogs

Well, here’s a cheery scene. Laughing children, a bright fire, and … wait a minute, is that a dog on a treadmill?

Once common, turnspit dogs were specially bred to run on wheels and turn meat. Typically they were kept in pairs so they could take turns at the hot and unpleasant work, which largely went unappreciated. In Of English Dogs (1576) they’re described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.”

Perhaps fortunately, the breed is extinct now, made obsolete by the mechanized kitchen.


Add counterfeiting to Kim Jong-il’s other crimes. Since the late 1980s, North Korea has been quietly making “superdollars,” nearly perfect forgeries of U.S. banknotes, painstakingly re-creating all the necessary inks, threads, fibers, and watermarks. They’re doing a good job — experts have to study the notes closely to detect the forgery. In fact, when a defector brought one to South Korean intelligence officials, they refused to believe it was fake.

Reportedly the Koreans print the currency in Pyongsong and spread it via diplomats and the British criminal underworld. Apparently they’re doing it for income and to undermine the U.S. economy. The North Koreans call these accusations “sheer lies” and claim that the U.S. itself is manufacturing the bills as a pretext for war. A crackdown has been underway since 2004, so this may come to a head soon.


“Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men. The other 999 follow women.” — Groucho Marx


Isaac Asimov proposed a simple way to distinguish chemists from non-chemists: Ask them to read aloud the word unionized.

Non-chemists will pronounce it “union-ized”, he said — and chemists will pronounce it “un-ionized.”