During a visit to a club in 1775, Samuel Johnson was observed to put several Seville oranges into his pocket after squeezing their juice into a drink he’d made for himself. The friends who saw this “seemed to think that he had a strange unwillingness to be discovered.” Visiting Johnson the next morning and seeing the orange peels scraped and cut into pieces on a table, James Boswell asked about them:

JOHNSON. ‘I have a great love for them.’

BOSWELL. ‘And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them it seems, very neatly, and what next?’

JOHNSON. ‘Let them dry, Sir.’

BOSWELL. ‘And what next?’

JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.’

BOSWELL. ‘Then the world must be left in the dark. It must be said (assuming a mock solemnity) he scraped them, and let them dry, but what he did with them next he never could be prevailed upon to tell.’

JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, you should say it more emphatically:–he could not be prevailed upon, even by his dearest friends, to tell.’

I don’t think this has ever been fully explained, but Boswell notes that, in a letter to Mrs. Piozzi, Johnson had once recommended “‘dried orange-peel, finely powdered,’ as a medicine.”

More Dream Poetry


Lewis Carroll and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, became improbable acquaintances in the 1850s, a few years before Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The young author sent a letter to his cousin, May 11, 1859, after one memorable visit to the laureate:

Tennyson told us that often on going to bed after being engaged on composition he had dreamed long passages of poetry (‘You, I suppose,’ turning to me, ‘dream photographs?’) which he liked very much at the time, but forgot entirely when he woke. One was an enormously long one on fairies, where the lines from being very long at first gradually got shorter and shorter, till it ended with fifty or sixty lines of two syllables each! The only bit he ever remembered enough to write down was one he dreamed at ten years old, which you may like to possess as a genuine unpublished fragment of the Laureate, though I think you will agree with me that it gives very little indication of his future poetic powers:—

May a cock-sparrow
Write to a barrow?
I hope you’ll excuse
My infantine muse.

(Lewis Carroll, “A Visit to Tennyson,” Strand, June 1901. See Pillow Verse and Night Work.)

Maps and Symbols

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This map shows mountain symbols above a river symbol. Suppose that, in the part of the world that the map represents, there really are mountains in the location that the map indicates. But suppose that there are also mountains on the other side of the river — where no mountains are indicated on the map. Would we say that the map is inaccurate?

People tend to say yes — in general, if a marker appears on a map, then we tend to think that the absence of the marker reflects an absence of that feature from the corresponding location.

But this is very different from linguistic representation. “After all,” writes Rutgers philosopher Ben Bronner, “if I say that there are mountains north of the river, the accuracy of my assertion doesn’t depend on whether there are mountains south of the river.”

And suppose I drew a map on which some national capitals were indicated, but not all. We wouldn’t take this to mean that the absent capitals don’t exist, merely that the map is incomplete. So how can we make sense of the intuition?

(Ben Bronner, “Maps and Absent Symbols,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 93:1 [2015], pp. 43-59.)


Image: Wikimedia Commons

The town of Bozouls in the south of France sits at the edge of a horseshoe-shaped canyon 300 feet deep, the product of 2 million years of erosion of the region’s limestone plateau by rivers and glaciers.

Because the outcrop at the center of the horseshoe is accessible only from the south, it makes an ideally defensible position, and a castle was built there in the 9th century, of which only ruins remain. In medieval times guards in towers monitored the approach 24 hours a day.

One historic building still survives: The 12th-century St. Faustus church sits right on the edge of the cliff, looking over the river.

The Oxen Railroad

This sounds apocryphal, but it’s interesting. According to Texas lore, John Higginson, owner of the Memphis, El Paso & Pacific Railroad, faced a problem in the 1860s. He had committed to serve the route between Marshall, Texas, and Shreveport, La., but the Civil War had reduced his stock to three boxcars. How could he maintain regular service between two cities 40 miles apart with no engine?

He did it (the story goes) by loading a team of oxen into the first boxcar; freight and passengers into the second car; and the train’s crew and management into the third car. At Marshall, Higginson would start the train coasting down a long descending grade, and at the bottom they’d unload the oxen, hitch them to the front of the train, and drive them until they reached the top of the next hill. Then they’d load the oxen into the first car again and ride down the hill. At Shreveport they’d turn around and use the same method to get home.

In The Humor and Drama of Early Texas (2002), George U. Hubbard writes, “With gravity for the downgrades and oxen for the level areas and the upgrades, the little railroad managed to operate in both directions on a timely and consistent schedule.” With no competition on the Marshall-Shreveport line, Higginson (supposedly) maintained a profitable railroad with no engine at all.

Hubbard cites B.A. Botkin’s A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, from 1953. I find that the Southwestern Historical Quarterly ran an item giving essentially the same details in the early 1950s, citing a Texas newspaper of 1918, and Railway World mentioned it in 1911, quoting the Fort Worth Record (which calls it an “old railroad story”). I can’t find any corroboration beyond that. Good story, though!

Bad Seafood

In 1993, Greenland issued a 7.25-krone stamp depicting a locally fished crab that it labeled Chionoecetes oiliqo. The stamps were issued first in sheet form, but when they were reissued five months later in an eight-stamp booklet pane, collectors noticed something odd: The crabs’ Latin name had changed to Chionoecetes opilio.

What had happened? It turns out that the second name is correct; apparently during production the species name opilio had been mirror-reversed by accident. By a very unlikely coincidence, in the sans-serif typeface used all of its letters reversed into valid counterparts, producing a meaningless word that looked plausibly Latin and got past the inspectors.

The original stamps are now collectors’ items.

(Jim Puder, “OILIQO, The Looking-Glass Crab,” Word Ways 36:4 [November 2003], 243-246.)

In a Word

adj. engaged in flight

n. impish or playful behaviour; mischief

adj. pertaining to leave-taking or departing

n. publicity or notoriety

In 1953, 61-year-old British ace Christopher Draper flew an Auster monoplane under 15 of the 18 bridges on the Thames, negotiating 50-foot arches at 90 mph.

“I did it for the publicity,” he told the press. “For 14 months I have been out of a job, and I’m broke. I wanted to prove that I am still fit, useful and worth employing. … It was my last-ever flight — I meant it as a spectacular swan song.” He was fined 10 guineas.

Night Life


Suppose that your dream-life underwent a remarkable change. Suppose that on going to bed at home and falling asleep, you found yourself to all appearances waking up in a hut raised on poles at the edge of a lake. A dusky woman, whom you realize to be your wife, tells you to go out and catch some fish. The dream continues with the apparent length of an ordinary human day, replete with an appropriate and causally coherent variety of tropical incident. At last you climb up the rope ladder to your hut and fall asleep. At once you find yourself awaking at home, to the world of normal responsibilities and expectations. The next night life by the side of the tropical lake continues in a coherent and natural way from the point at which it left off. Your wife says, ‘You were very restless last night. What were you dreaming about?’ and you find yourself giving her a condensed version of your English day. And so it goes on. Injuries given in England leave scars in England, insults given at the lakeside complicate lakeside personal relations. One day in England, after a heavy lunch, you fall asleep in your armchair and dream of yourself, or find yourself, waking up in the middle of the night beside the lake. Things get too much for you at the lakeside, your wife has departed with all the cooking-pots, and you suspect that she is urging the villagers to sacrifice you to the moon. So you fall on your fish-spear and from that moment on your English slumbers are disturbed no more than in the old pre-lakeside days.

— Anthony Quinton, Thoughts and Thinkers, 1982

“Is such a two-space reality conceivable?” asks Peg Tittle in What If…: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (2016). “That is, is it conceivable that we could live in two different but real spaces?”

See Figure and Ground.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Set into the corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village is a triangular plaque reading PROPERTY OF THE HESS ESTATE WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN DEDICATED FOR PUBLIC PURPOSES. The “Hess triangle” is a remnant from a property dispute that unfolded here 100 years ago: The city was claiming eminent domain in order to demolish hundreds of buildings and expand the subway, but surveyors overlooked this 65-centimeter triangle, owned by Philadelphia landlord David Hess. Hess, outraged at the loss of his five-story apartment building, refused to donate the triangle to the public and added the plaque as a sort of existential revenge. In 1938 it was sold to the adjacent cigar store, and today it’s owned by a local realty corporation, the smallest plot of land in New York City.

Related: In 1973, artist Gordon Matta-Clark bought 13 unused pieces of land that were left over when property lines were redrawn in the borough of Queens. He paid between $25 and $75 for each. The sites are often irregular or isolated, located where other properties meet in a block, some measuring as little as 2×3 feet.

“When I bought those properties at the New York City Auction, the description of them that always excited me the most was ‘inaccessible’,” he said. “They were a group of fifteen micro-panels of land in Queens, leftover properties from an architect’s drawing. One or two of the prize ones were a foot strip down somebody’s driveway and a square foot of sidewalk. And the others were kerbstone and gutterspace. What I basically wanted to do was to designate spaces that wouldn’t be seen and certainly not occupied. Buying them was my own take on the strangeness of existing property demarcation lines. Property is so all-pervasive. Everyone’s notion of ownership is determined by the use factor.”

(Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land & Environmental Art, 2005.)

The Watlington White Mark


In 1764 Oxfordshire squire Edward Horne decided that the parish church of St Leonard on Watlington Hill would look more impressive with a spire. So he gave it one: By cutting a narrow mark 270 feet long into the chalk soil beyond the building, he was able to perch a foreshortened triangle atop the church when it was viewed in perspective from his house. Local residents maintain the mark to this day.