Mermaid

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:1921MermaidLegs.jpg

Encounter with a Newfoundland mermaid, recorded by Richard Whitbourne, 1610:

“Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which I espied verie swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerefully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire, downe to the Necke (but certainly it was haire) for I beheld it long, and another of my companie also, yet living, that was not then farre from me; and seeing the same comming so swiftly towards mee, I stepped backe, for it was come within the length of a long Pike.

“Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the backe of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boate; whereat they were afraid; and one of them strooke it a full blow on the head; whereat it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the Harbour; the men in them, for feare fled to land: This (I suppose) was a Mermaide.”

Wilhelm Scream

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The next time you see Star Wars, watch for the scene when a Death Star stormtrooper falls into a chasm before Luke and Leia swing across it. That stormtrooper’s scream is more than 50 years old — and a time-honored in-joke among Hollywood sound designers.

The “Wilhelm scream” was originally recorded for the feature Distant Drums in 1951. From there it went into the studio’s sound effects library, where it was rediscovered in 1977 by Star Wars sound editor Ben Burtt. Burtt adopted it as his personal signature, and he enlisted a group of like-minded Hollywood sound-effects people to keep it alive.

You can hear the scream in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Beauty and the Beast, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Spider-Man … more than 100 features, including this summer’s Revenge of the Sith.

It’s called the “Wilhelm scream” because that’s the name of the original screamer, a man who’s dragged underwater by an alligator in Distant Drums. Remember that when Buzz Lightyear is knocked out of the bedroom window in Toy Story — it’s the same sound.

The First Blast of the Trumpet

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) may be the most misogynistic screed ever written:

For who can denie but it is repugneth to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to leade and conduct such as do see? That the weake, the sicke and impotent persons shall norishe and kepe the hole and strong? And finallie, that the foolishe, madde and phrenetike shal governe the discrete and give counsel to such as be sober of mind. And such be al women, compared unto man in bearing of authoritie. For their sight in civile regiment is but blindness; their strength, weaknes; their counsel, foolishnes; and judgment, phrensie, if it be rightlie considered.

That’s ironic, because the author’s real beef was religious: John Knox opposed female sovereigns like Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary Tudor because of their Catholicism. When Elizabeth Tudor succeeded Mary, his plan backfired — she was sympathetic to his cause, but offended at his words. Hell hath no fury.

The Great Gadsby

Gadsby is a 50,000-word novel that doesn’t use the letter E:

“But a man has to think of that, Allan. And you will, as you grow up. My two big sons just put off on that big troop train. I don’t know how long Bill and Julius will stay away. Your big cannon might go Boom! and hit Bill or Julius. Do you know Frank Morgan, Paul Johnson and John Smith? All right; that big cannon might hit that trio, too. Nobody can say who a cannon will hit, Allan. Now, you go right on through Grammar School, and grow up into a big strong man, and don’t think about war;” and Gadsby, standing and gazing far off to Branton Hills’ charming hill district, thought: “I think that will bust up a wild young ambition!”

The author, Ernest Vincent Wright, notes that he could mention no numbers between 6 and 30. And “When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?”

Extreme Ironing

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Extreme_ironing.jpg

Extreme Ironing is an outdoor activity that combines the danger and excitement of an ‘extreme’ sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.”

The sport reportedly started in Phil Shaw’s backyard in Leicester, England, but his promotional tour quickly attracted followers in Australia, Austria, and Germany, and the 2002 world championship drew 80 teams from 10 countries. Following the 2004 Summer Olympics, British rowing champion Sir Steve Redgrave backed high-stakes ironing to become an Olympic sport.

“Ironists” have performed atop Mount Kilimanjaro, 100 meters underwater off the Egyptian coast, during the London marathon, and in a David-Blaine-style box 20 meters above Christmas shoppers in Leicester. And like any noble calling, this one has inspired others, including downhill vacuuming, inner-city clothes drying, and “apocalypse dishwashing.” Helen Keller wrote, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

Underground Cinema

In September 2004, French police discovered a hidden chamber in the catacombs under Paris. It contained a full-sized movie screen, projection equipment, a bar, a pressure cooker for making couscous, a professionally installed electricity system, and at least three phone lines. Movies ranged from 1950s noir classics to recent thrillers.

When the police returned three days later, the phone and power lines had been cut and there was a note on the floor: “Do not try to find us.”

01/25/2012 The likely explanation. (Thanks, Nina.)

Voynich Manuscript

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Voynich.png

Some writers seem to crave anonymity. None more so than the author of the Voynich manuscript, who invented a mysterious language and an unknown alphabet that has been defying scholars for 500 years.

To judge from the illustrations, the text deals with astronomy, biology, cosmology, herbs, and recipes. Handwriting experts say that the glyphs were written with speed and care, as if the author were facile with them. Statistical analysis seems to show that it’s a natural language, but the vocabulary is unusually small, and in some ways it seems to resemble Arabic more than European languages.

Because no one knows precisely what the 240-page book is, it’s hard to guess who wrote it. Suspects include a who’s who of Europe in the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon and John Dee among them. The cipher has resisted even the National Security Agency, leading some to think it’s a hoax, but even that is hard to prove conclusively.

There’s a great irony at the bottom of this. The mysterious author was one of the most successful cryptologists in history — so successful, in fact, that we may never know who he was.

Big-Band Propaganda

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The biggest trouble with diabolical schemes is the quality control.

Case in point: Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once actually put together his own big band, plotting to use “degenerate” swing music to hypnotize decadent Americans.

“Charlie and His Orchestra” were broadcast to the United States, Canada and England, playing popular tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “Stardust,” and “The Sheik Of Araby.”

About halfway through each song, when he had the audience’s attention, “Charlie” (Karl Schwendler) would leave off singing and launch into a Nazi tirade about war, privation, death, pain, and the master race. Unfortunately, Schwendler’s snarling is not on a par with his bandleading, so he comes off sounding like Colonel Klink in fourth grade:

Thanks for the memories/It gives us strength to fight/For freedom and for right/It might give you a headache, England/That the Germans know how to fight/And hurt you so much …

It’s said that the act picked up its own following in Germany after the war. The band is actually not bad, but whoever wrote the propaganda probably raised American morale.

Easy Street

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

Don’t laugh, you don’t have to mow it.

Baldwin Street, in Dunedin, New Zealand, is thought to be the steepest public street in the world. It has a grade of 38 percent; San Francisco’s steepest are 31.5 percent.

There’s a sign warning motorists not to attempt it, but that hasn’t discouraged runners, who gather each summer for the “Baldwin Street Gutbuster.” In the first event, serious runners climb to the top, then, even harder, try to get down again. In the second, skaters, skateboarders, and pram-pushers try to cover the same 400-meter circuit. One guy actually succeeded on a unicycle.

There’s also a charity event each July in which contestants roll candies down the hill. No injuries have been reported.

Rubber-Stamp Poetry

“Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” a poem by Zhao Yuanren, in English:

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o’clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.

… and in Hanyu Pinyin:

Shishi shishi Shi Shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi.
Shi shishi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi Shi Shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi.