Good Boy

Elisabeth Mann Borgese taught her dog to type. In her book The Language Barrier she explains that her English setter, Arli, developed a vocabulary of 60 words and 17 letters, though “He isn’t an especially bright dog.” “[Arli] could write under dictation short words, three-letter words, four-letter words, two-letter words: ‘good dog; go; bad.’ And he would type it out. There were more letters but I never got him to use more than 17.”

She began in October 1962 by training all four of her dogs to distinguish 18 designs printed on saucers; Arli showed the most promise, so she focused on him. By January 1963 he could count to 4 and distinguish CAT from DOG. Eventually she gave him a modified typewriter with enlarged keys, which she taught him to nose mechanically by rewarding him with hamburger. “No meaning at all was associated with the words,” she writes, though he did seem to associate meaning with words that excited him. “When asked, ‘Arli, where do you want to go?’ he will unfailingly write CAR, except that his excitement is such that the ‘dance’ around the word becomes a real ‘stammering’ on the typewriter. ACCACCAAARR he will write. GGOGO CAARR.”

(And it’s always tempting to discover meaning where there is none. Once while suffering intestinal problems after a long flight Arli ignored his work when she tried to get him to type GOOD DOG GET BONE, and then he stretched, yawned, and typed A BAD A BAD DOOG. This was probably just a familiar phrase that he’d chosen at random; Borgese estimated its likelihood at 1 in 12.)

Arli did earn at least one human fan — at one point Borgese showed his output to a “well-known critic of modern poetry,” who responded, “I think he has a definite affinity with the ‘concretist’ groups in Brazil, Scotland, and Germany [and an unnamed young American poet] who is also writing poetry of this type at present.”

Near and Far

Designed by Baroque architect Francesco Borromini in 1632, this gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Spada is a masterpiece of forced perspective — though it appears to be 37 meters long, in fact it’s only 8. The effect is produced by diminishing columns and a rising floor; the sculpture at the end, which Borromini contrived to appear life size, is only 60 centimeters high.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marine Warfare

Humans tend to abuse sea creatures, so digital artist Neil Mendoza gave them a way to fight back. As Smashie the fish swims around his aquatic habitat, he takes aim at the human habitat outside; the hammer drops periodically when a rotating cam releases it.

Mendoza created the project through Autodesk’s artist-in-residence program. You can build your own “fish hammer actuation device” with the instructions here.

Twice Missed

Union general Joseph Hooker had an eventful day at the Battle of Chancellorsville:

I was standing on this step of the portico on the Sunday morning of the 3d of May, and was giving direction to the battle, which was now raging with great fury, the cannon-balls reaching me from both the east and the west, when a solid shot struck the pillar near me, splitting it in two, and throwing one-half longitudinally against me, striking my whole right side, which soon turned livid. For a few moments I was senseless, and the report spread that I had been killed. But I soon revived, and to correct the misapprehension, I insisted on being lifted upon my horse, and rode back towards the white house, which subsequently became the center of my new position. Just before reaching it, the pain from my hurt became so intense, that I was likely to fall, when I was assisted to dismount, and was laid upon a blanket spread out upon the ground, and was given some brandy. This revived me, and I was assisted to remount. Scarcely was I off the blanket, when a solid shot, fired by the enemy at Hazel Grove, struck in the very center of that blanket, where I had a moment before been lying, and tore up the earth in a savage way.

In Strange Tales of the Civil War, Michael Sanders writes, “In this way, Joseph Hooker avoided being instantly killed by two cannon balls within minutes of each other.”

Good Girl,_veden%C3%AD_nevidom%C3%A9ho.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Four years ago, the city was making extensive repairs for a number of blocks along our main thoroughfare here in Pasadena, putting in a complete new set of pipes. After two weeks, the day came when I was to have my hair done. I heard machinery in the distance, but decided to go on.

I soon found myself right in the midst of the work which was plenty noisy. Rene was on the outside, the side of the machinery, but aside from slowing up a little, she kept steadily on her way. One of the workmen shouted that the dog was doing fine, but I noticed that she kept pushing me very close to the buildings, almost against them. When I reached the shop and mentioned the way we had come, everyone was simply horrified. All along the block where Rene had kept me so close the buildings was just a narrow strip of sidewalk. The rest was a great hole where pipes were being laid.

— Genevieve Wiley on her dog Rene, from Peter Brock Putnam, Love in the Lead: The Fifty-Year Miracle of the Seeing Eye Dog, 1979


Canada’s René-Levasseur Island is larger than the lake that surrounds it.

The island occupies 2,020 square kilometers, while the surrounding Lake Manicouagan covers 1,942.

Visible from space, the feature is sometimes called the Eye of Quebec.

The Liszt Fragment

On April 10, 1886, Edward Elgar visited the Crystal Palace to attend a performance in honor of 75-year-old Franz Liszt, who was visiting England after an absence of many years. In the margin of his program Elgar made a cryptic notation:

liszt fragment 1

What does it mean? Anthony Thorley suggested that it was a cipher representing the words GETS YOU TO JOY, AND HYSTERIOUS, where the last word is a portmanteau combining hysteria and mysterious. But that seems contrived, and in any case “this doesn’t fit!” writes Craig Bauer in Unsolved!, his history of ciphers. “Not only do repeated letters fail to line up with the same squiggles each time, but we don’t even have the right number of squiggles. The last six letters of the proposed decipherment have nothing to line up with.”

liszt fragment 2

If Thorley is mistaken, then this fragment remains unsolved, like Elgar’s Dorabella cipher of 11 years later. Are the two messages related?

An Ear for Geography

Is it possible for someone who has had no musical training whatsoever, and who has never learned the names of the notes, to be known by others to have absolute pitch? The answer is YES! I knew a police officer who was totally unmusical, and never knew the names of the notes, who nevertheless was known to have absolute pitch. How? Well, this was eighty-five years ago, when police stations emitted radio signals, each station having its own individual frequency. The police officer in question was the only one among his fellow officers who upon hearing the radio signal could identify the police station!

— Raymond Smullyan, Reflections, 2015


1931 architects' ball

At a 1931 costume ball, seven New York architects appeared as their own buildings. Left to right: A. Stewart Walker as the Fuller Building; Leonard Schultze as the Waldorf-Astoria; Ely Jacques Kahn as the Squibb Building; William Van Alen as the Chrysler Building; Ralph Walker as One Wall Street; D.E. Ward as the Metropolitan Tower; and Joseph H. Freedlander as the Museum of the City of New York.

That’s from Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, 1994. Some compromises: Freedlander had never designed a skyscraper, so he put the museum on his head. Schultze had to represent the twin-towered Waldorf Astoria with a single headdress. And “The elegant top of A. Stewart Walker’s Fuller Building has so few openings that faithfulness to its design now condemns its designer to temporary blindness.”

William Van Alen, in the center, went bananas with the Chrysler Building: The headpiece is an exact facsimile of the top of the building; the cape, puttees, and cuffs are made of flexible wood selected from trees in India, Australia, the Philippines, South America, Africa, Honduras, and North America; the cape matches the design of the first floor elevator doors, using the correct woods; the front is a replica of the elevator doors on the upper floors of the building; and the shoulder ornaments are the eagles’ heads that appear at the building’s 61st-floor setback.

One marvel I couldn’t find a photo of: Thomas Gillespie “dressed as a void to represent an unnamed subway station.”

A Vertical Forest

Milan skyscrapers Bosco Verticale were named Best Tall Building Worldwide in 2015 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, beating out 120 other contenders.

The two towers, 111 and 76 meters tall, are covered top to bottom with more than 900 trees, which attenuate noise, produce oxygen, and regulate temperature: During the summer, the leaves shade the apartments, and during the winter the leaves drop, allowing sunlight in. The building’s irrigation system directs water onto the porches to sustain the plants.

Each tree had to be pruned to fit within its balcony, a process that took two years. If all of them were transplated to the ground they’d make a forest of nearly two acres.

And “The Vertical Forest increases biodiversity,” architect Boeri Studio told Arch Daily. “It promotes the formation of an urban ecosystem where various plant types create a separate vertical environment, but which works within the existing network, able to be inhabited by birds and insects (with an initial estimate of 1,600 specimens of birds and butterflies). In this way, it constitutes a spontaneous factor for repopulating the city’s flora and fauna.”