A Literary Voyage

A striking detail from the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1860: On a wager, poet John Taylor (1578–1653) once engaged to row from London to Queenborough in a paper boat with two stockfish tied to canes for oars. He partnered with a vintner named Roger Bird, and the two

Took ship vpon the vigill of Saint Iames
And boldly ventur’d down the Riuer Thames,
Lauing and cutting through each raging billow,
(In such a Boat which neuer had a fellow)
Hauing no kinde of mettall or no wood
To helpe vs eyther in our Ebbe or Flood:
For as our boat was paper, so our Oares
Where Stock-fish, caught neere to the Island shores.

The boat began to leak and founder, and Taylor contrived to hold it up by attaching eight inflatable bullocks’ bladders to its sides. After two miserable days, he and Bird reached their goal and were feted by the mayor of Queenborough while the people tore the boat to scraps, “Wearing the reliques in their hats and caps.” They rode home on horseback.



The cover of Wolfgang Haug’s 1986 book Critique of Commodity Aesthetics bears a striking photo — when corn was strategically spread in in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, hundreds of feasting pigeons produced an impromptu advertisement for Coca-Cola.

Evidently Coke had borrowed the idea from Assicurazioni Generali, a Venetian insurance company with headquarters in the piazza. The insurers would coax the pigeons to form the letters A G.

I’m not sure when the Coke ad was made. In The Postmodern Arts: An Introductory Reader (1995), Nigel Wheale says the ad could be seen on the walls of Italian bars and restaurants in the late 1960s, but possibly the photo had been taken earlier.

Balancing Act

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Devil’s Table is a startling rock formation 14 meters high in Germany’s Palatine Forest. A layer of hard siliceous sandstone was deposited atop a softer sediment that then weathered away, leaving a “tabletop” that protects its pillar from further erosion. It was classified as a National Geotope in 2006.

In a Word


n. a lighthouse

n. the act of biting

n. salutation on meeting

adj. stately-sounding

In 1900, a collie on Wood Island in Saco Bay, Maine, gained international fame for ringing the lighthouse’s fog bell to greet passing ships. “When ‘Sailor,’ for that is what he is called, sees a vessel passing the lighthouse he runs to the bell, and with a quick, sharp bark seizes the short rope between his teeth and rings several times,” wrote a correspondent to the Strand.

“As the years have passed ‘Sailor’ has kept on ringing salutes to passing vessels and steamers,” observed the Boston Herald. “Indeed, he feels hurt if not permitted to give the customary salute to passing craft, while skippers whose course takes them often past Wood Island are accustomed to see ‘Sailor’ tugging viciously at the bell rope. They reply with a will on their ship’s bell or horn, and in case of steamers a hearty triple blast is sent back to the watcher of Wood Island, who gives a new meaning to the good old sea term of ‘dog watch.'”

(Thanks, Frank.)

No Time Like the Present


In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis points out a phenomenon he calls “chronological snobbery,” “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

“History does not always repeat itself,” wrote John W. Campbell. “Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.”

The Unexpected Gift

In one variation of a popular paradox, a friend tells you that she’ll give you a present sometime next week, but that you won’t be able to predict the day on which you’ll receive it.

This is puzzling. If she waits until Saturday, the end of the week, it will be obvious that you must receive the gift on that day, as no other day remains possible. But if we exclude Saturday then the same argument could be used to exclude Friday, and so on back to Sunday. It seems that the friend’s declaration can’t be true — her gift can’t be unexpected.

David Morice offers one possibility that he called “Zeno’s solution”: Your friend, wearing a precision wristwatch, presents the gift in the moment precisely between Friday and Saturday. No reasoning has led you to expect this, so you’re surprised.

(David Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 27:2 [May 1994], 106-116.) (See the link — Morice offers three other solutions as well, “but I expect that each is logically flawed.”)


Doubtless time travel will raise a host of legal difficulties, e.g., should a time traveler who punches his younger self (or vice versa) be charged with assault? Should the time traveler who murders someone and then flees into the past for sanctuary be tried in the past for his crime committed in the future? If he marries in the past can he be tried for bigamy even though his other wife will not be born for almost 5000 years? Etc., etc. I leave such questions for lawyers and writers of ethics textbooks to solve.

— Larry Dwyer, “Time Travel and Some Alleged Logical Asymmetries Between Past and Future,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8:1 (March 1978), 15-38

Bad News


In Three Men in a Boat (1889), the narrator reads a medical textbook and is stricken with the certainty that he has every condition described there:

I came to typhoid fever — read the symptoms — discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it — wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance — found, as I expected, that I had that too … I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

This is a recognized phenomenon. In 1908, Boston neurologist George Lincoln Walton reported:

Medical instructors are continually consulted by students who fear that they have the diseases they are studying. The knowledge that pneumonia produces pain in a certain spot leads to a concentration of attention upon that region which causes any sensation there to give alarm. The mere knowledge of the location of the appendix transforms the most harmless sensations in that region into symptoms of serious menace.

In 2004 University of Toronto psychiatrist Brian Hodges noted that “medical students’ disease” is said to afflict 70 to 80 percent of students, often invading their dreams. Walton wrote, “The sensible student learns to quiet these fears, but the victim of ‘hypos’ returns again and again for examination, and perhaps finally reaches the point of imparting, instead of obtaining, information, like the patient in a recent anecdote from the Youth’s Companion:”

It seems that a man who was constantly changing physicians at last called in a young doctor who was just beginning his practice.

‘I lose my breath when I climb a hill or a steep flight of stairs,’ said the patient. ‘If I hurry, I often get a sharp pain in my side. Those are the symptoms of a serious heart trouble.’

‘Not necessarily, sir,’ began the physician, but he was interrupted.

‘I beg your pardon!’ said the patient irritably. ‘It isn’t for a young physician like you to disagree with an old and experienced invalid like me, sir!’

The Werewolf of Bedburg


In 1589, German farmer Peter Stumpp confessed that the devil had given him a belt that would give him “the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws.”

Over the course of 25 years, he said, he had killed and eaten 14 children, two pregnant women, and their fetuses.

The confession was extracted on the rack, but the magistrate didn’t care: Stumpp was broken, hobbled, beheaded, and burned.

(The Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer, 1590.)