Straight and Narrow

English philanthropist Lady Jane Stanley financed footpaths through her native Knutsford with an odd proviso:

For some unknown reason Lady Jane disliked to see men and women linked together, i.e. walking arm in arm; and in her donations for the pavement of the town, provided that a single flag in breadth should be the limit of her generosity,– but she did not specify how broad the single flag was to be, and I fear her wishes are evaded, and the disapproved linking together often indulged in: the chief security for her order being observed is the disagreeable fact that in many places the streets and consequently the raised pavements are too narrow to allow of more than a very slender foot-path, so that if the lasses occupy the flags, the swains must either walk behind, or pick their way in the channel.

Never married, she composed her own epitaph:

A maid I lived,– a maid I died,–
I never was asked,– and never denied.

(From Henry Green, Knutsford, Its Traditions and History, 1859.)

The Mysterious Melody

University of California psychologist Diana Deutsch discovered this phenomenon in 1972. When the tones of a familiar melody are distributed among three different octaves, people find it difficult to identify. But once the underlying melody has been revealed to them, they can hear it more readily in the distributed version. Knowing what to listen for makes the tune easier to follow.

Something Else

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein_blackboard.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a visit to Oxford in May 1931, Albert Einstein gave a brief lecture on cosmology, and afterward the blackboard was preserved along with Einstein’s ephemeral writing. It now resides in the university’s Museum of the History of Science.

Harvard historian of science Jean-François Gauvin argues that this makes it a “mutant object”: It’s no longer fulfilling the essential function of a blackboard, to store information temporarily — it’s become something else, a socially created object linked to the great scientist. The board’s original essence could be restored by wiping it clean, but that would destroy its current identity.

“The sociological metamorphosis at the origin of this celebrated artifact has completely destroyed its intrinsic nature,” Gauvin writes. “Einstein’s blackboard has become an object of memory, an object of collection modified at the ontological level by a social desire to celebrate the achievement of a great man.”

Going Up

The world’s largest vertical maze is the Al Rostamani Maze Tower in Dubai. Designed by Adrian Fisher, it rises 57 stories from the entrance at the bottom to the goal at the top.

The facade of the 12-story car park presents a second maze.

In a Word

belua
n. a huge or monstrous creature or beast

pervagate
v. to wander through (a place)

cibation
n. taking food, feeding

epichoric
adj. characteristic of or peculiar to a particular country or district

From October to December, a herd of elephants walks through the lobby of Zambia’s Mfuwe Lodge to reach the fruit of a wild mango tree.

At least three generations of one family has returned to the lodge to visit the tree.

Heavens

https://books.google.com/books?id=94oXAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA440

In 1770 Scottish sexologist James Graham moved to America and offered the “celestial bed,” a 12-foot “wonder-working edifice” in which “everything is done to assist the ethereal, magnetic, musical and electric influences, and to make the lady look as lovely as possible in the eyes of her husband and he, in hers”:

“On the utmost summit of the dome are placed two exquisite figures of Cupid and Psyche, with a figure of Hymen behind, with his torch flaming with electrical fire in one hand and with the other, supporting a celestial crown, sparkling over a pair of living turtle doves, on a little bed of roses.

“The other elegant group of figures which sport on the top of the dome, having each of them musical instruments in their hands, which by the most expensive mechanism, breathe forth sound corresponding to their instruments, flutes, guitars, violins, clarinets, trumpets, horns, oboes, kettle drums, etc.

“At the head of the bed appears sparkling with electrical fire a great first commandment: ‘BE FRUITFUL, MULTIPLY AND REPLENISH THE EARTH’. Under that is an elegant sweet-toned organ in front of which is a fine landscape of moving figures, priest and bride’s procession entering the Temple of Hymen.”

For 50 guineas a childless couple could occupy the bed for one night; it would “infallibly produce a genial and happy issue.”

He quickly ran out of money, sold most of his belongings, and decamped back to Edinburgh.

(From Roy Porter, Health for Sale: Quackery in England, 1660-1850, 1989.)

Hoary-Headed Frosts

https://hairfreezingcontest.com/

The 2019/2020 Takhini Hot Springs Hair Freezing Contest attracted 288 contestants to the natural hot springs north of Whitehorse, Yukon. Air temperatures below -20°C will freeze all wet hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes — entrants ring a bell near the pool entrance to summon staff to take a photo, and then judges choose among the season’s entries.

Each winner gets $2,000.

The Curse of Billy Penn

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Williampennfront.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For years, under a “gentleman’s agreement,” the Philadelphia Art Commission would approve no new structure that rose higher than the statue of William Penn atop city hall. Then, in March 1987, it approved One Liberty Place, a steel-and-glass skyscraper that rose 121 meters above Penn’s head.

In the next 22 years no major professional sports team based in Philadelphia won a championship.

Finally, in 2007, during the completion of the 297-meter Comcast Center downtown, workers John Joyce and Dan Ginion attached a small figurine of Penn to its topmost beam. The following year, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

In 2017 another Penn statuette was placed atop the newly completed 342-meter Comcast Technology Center. “They did not want to take the chance and wait for the jinx,” said the building’s construction manager. A few months later, the Eagles won the Super Bowl.

Podcast Episode 316: A Malaysian Mystery

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moonlight_bungalow.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, Jim Thompson left his silk business in Thailand for a Malaysian holiday with three friends. On the last day, he disappeared from the cottage in which they were staying. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the many theories behind Thompson’s disappearance, which has never been explained.

We’ll also borrow John Barrymore’s corpse and puzzle over a teddy bear’s significance.

See full show notes …