Ho Ho Ho

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Every Christmas for more than 30 years, someone has decorated this 20-foot juniper tree in the median of Interstate 17 about 55 miles north of downtown Phoenix, Arizona.

The decorations, the same ones every year, go up before Thanksgiving, and they’re taken down after New Year’s Day.

“I know who started it, but I’m not going to go into that,” former transportation department employee Tom Foster told the Arizona Daily Courier in 2009. “I heard there’s some elves that got to looking at how bleak we were … and people weren’t celebrating Christmas very well. They thought [the decorations] are a good way to brighten the drive between here and Phoenix.”

“But don’t stop on the road. That’s not what Santa wants.”

A Very Bad Day

In September 1914, three ships from Britain’s 7th Cruiser Squadron were on patrol in the North Sea to prevent the Imperial German Navy from entering the English Channel to interrupt supply lines between England and France.

Fifteen-year-old midshipman Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave was aboard HMS Aboukir when the German U-boat U-9 attacked. His sister recalled in 2003:

“He went overboard when the Aboukir was going down and he swam like mad to get away from the suction. He was then just getting on board the Hogue and she was torpedoed. He then went and swam to the Cressy and she was also torpedoed. He eventually found a bit of driftwood, became unconscious and was eventually picked up by a Dutch trawler.”

U-9 had sunk all three cruisers, killing 1,500 men. Wykeham-Musgrave was eventually rescued by a Dutch trawler.

Dried Cats

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In order to protect new structures from harm, or to bring good luck, some European cultures used to conceal the bodies of cats on the premises, inside hollow walls, under floorboards, or in attics. The two shown here were discovered in the Stag Inn in Hastings, East Sussex, which was built in the 16th century. Sometimes the animals have been posed with prey, as here, but happily it appears that they weren’t walled in while still alive; in some cases they’ve been found in places that they couldn’t possibly have reached on their own.

I wonder if this practice explains a couple other instances that I’ve come across over the years. The Guildhall Library has some further examples.

All Together Now

Tomorrow’s date will be written as an eight-digit palindrome around the world, the first time this has happened in 900 years.

The coincidence is rare because countries use differing conventions. February 2, 2020, is a palindrome whether expressed as day/month/year (02/02/2020), month/day/year (02/02/2020), or year/month/day (2020/02/02).

This happened last on November 11, 1111, and it won’t happen again until March 3, 3030.

02/01/2020 UPDATE: A number of readers have pointed out that 12/12/2121 works fine too, and it’s barely more than a century away.

Longplayer

In 1999, ex-Pogues banjoist Jem Finer composed a piece of music that will take 1,000 years to perform. It’s been playing continuously at Bow Creek Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf on the north bank of the Thames since midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, and will continue until Dec. 31, 2999. (Shown here is an excerpt of 1,000 minutes performed live in 2009 at the Roundhouse in London.)

The piece is essentially a computer-administered series of variations on a core composition that’s 20 minutes and 20 seconds long; the current rendition is played on Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, but in principle it might be played on any instrument and indeed by any means; the conclusion of the piece might be mediated by technologies, and certainly will be by people, that don’t exist today.

It can be heard at various listening stations around the United Kingdom, and a mobile app is available that plays a version synchronized with the Trinity Buoy Wharf performance.

See Larghissimo.

Buried Treasure

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1959 autobiography contains an odd passage: “If a thousand years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America. The sphinxes they will find were buried when we had finished with them and dismantled our huge set of the gates of Pharaoh’s city.”

He was referring to his 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments — after shooting was finished, he’d had the massive sets buried where they’d been built, in California’s Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. It’s not clear why — possibly he lacked the funds to remove them and didn’t want other filmmakers to use them. The sets included four Pharaoh statues 35 feet tall, 21 sphinxes, and gates 110 feet high, forming an ersatz Egyptian civilization for modern archaeologists to uncover.

Their time is limited. “It was like working with a hollow chocolate rabbit,” Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, told the Los Angeles Times of one dig in 2014. “These were built to last two months during filming in 1923, and these statues have been sitting out in the elements since then.”

False Fronts

Numbers 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, London, are not the terraced houses they appear to be. Their façades match their neighbors’, with columned porches and windows and balustraded balconies, but the doors have no knobs or letter boxes.

In fact the whole expanse is false, only a façade 5 feet thick. Behind it is a section of uncovered railway track. When a tube line was built through the neighborhood in 1863, the steam engines that hauled the trains needed a section of uncovered track to let off smoke and steam. To preserve appearances for the surrounding residents, the railway company built these frontages, and they remain to this day.

Writes Stuart Barton in Monumental Follies, “It is unfortunate that more sham facades like this are not built to conceal some of the eye-sores that scar our cities today.”

Snug

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

There’s not much to say about this, but it’s wonderfully picturesque: Standing near the village of Plougrescant on the coast of Brittany is Castel Meur, “the house between the rocks.”

Constructed in 1861, it’s situated between granite rocks to protect it from storms.

01/28/2020 UPDATES:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Casa do Penedo, in northern Portugal, has boulders for its foundation, walls, and ceiling. (Thanks, Rui.)

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Wickhams department store planned an imposing new edifice in London’s East End in 1923, but the Spiegelhalter family refused to sell its jewelry shop, so the Wickhams facade had to be built “around” it. The “Spiegelhalter gap” was never closed — the department store closed in the 1960s, while the jewelers’ held out until 1982. (Thanks, Nick.)

st. govan's chapel

St. Govan’s Chapel in Pembrokeshire, Wales, is built into the side of a limestone cliff — visitors must climb down a flight of 52 stairs to reach it. (Thanks, Chris.)

The Minister’s Treehouse

In 1993, Tennessee minister Horace Burgess was praying when God told him, “If you build a treehouse, I’ll see that you never run out of material.” He set to work and spent the next 12 years building a house 97 feet tall, unofficially the largest in the world.

The house was closed in 2012 because it didn’t follow building and fire safety codes, and last October it burned to the ground. Burgess told the New York Times that in some ways this was a relief. Though it had been important to him for decades, “It’s always been a pain,” he said.

A Planned And

Martin Gardner offered this curiosity in the August 1998 issue of Word Ways: Roll two six-sided dice. If they show a total of 6 or 8, roll them again. Otherwise, go to the chapter of Genesis (the King James version) that corresponds to the total on the dice. Now turn both dice upside down and go to the verse whose number is now displayed. The first word of that verse will always be And.

(Martin Gardner, “Mysterious Precognitions,” Word Ways 31:3 [August 1998], 175-177.)