Image: Wikimedia Commons

The malicious spirit Kuchisake-onna of Japanese folklore wears a mask and carries a sharp object. When you meet her, she asks whether you think she is beautiful. If you answer no, she kills you. If you answer yes, she removes her mask to reveal that the corners of her mouth have been slit open to her ears.

Then she repeats her question. If again you answer no, she kills you. If you answer yes, she cuts your mouth to resemble her own.

Happily, there are at least two ways to escape: describe her appearance as average, or throw hard candies to distract her.

Local Materials
Image: Wikimedia Commons

After a national competition in 1938, the hamlet of Monsanto became known as “the most Portuguese village in Portugal.”

That’s an odd epithet, because it’s one of the most distinctive towns in the country — its architecture incorporates enormous boulders from the surrounding landscape.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

New Zealand has a wizard. Born in London in 1932, Ian Channell invented the role at the University of New South Wales when a teaching fellowship ended. “I’ve invented a wizard out of nowhere,” he told CNN. “There were no wizards when I arrived in the world, except in books.”

After a stint as an unpaid “cosmologer, living work of art, and shaman” at Melbourne University, he settled in Christchurch in the 1970s and began speaking on a ladder in Cathedral Square. The city council opposed him at first, but his profile rose. In 1982, the New Zealand Art Gallery Directors Association declared him a living work of art; in 1988 he performed a rain dance in the town of Waimate to break a drought; and in 1990 Prime Minister Mike Moore invited him to become Wizard of New Zealand (“No doubt there will be implications in the area of spells, blessings, curses, and other supernatural matters that are beyond the competence of mere Prime Ministers”).

In 1998 the Christchurch City Council engaged him to “provide acts of wizardry and other wizard-like-services as part of promotional work for the city of Christchurch” for 16,000 New Zealand dollars a year. He helps to promote local events and tourism and welcome dignitaries and delegations to the city. In 2009 he received the Queen’s Service Medal, one of the country’s highest honors (“I couldn’t believe it, I thought it would never happen”).

Now 88 years old, Channell is cultivating an apprentice, Ari Freeman, who may take over when he steps down. “I want the wizard phenomenon to continue,” Freeman said, “and I will totally fulfill that role.”

Growing Room

On April 6, 1966, to celebrate 100 years of the city’s incorporation, 35 citizens of Geneva, Ohio, signed a “Declaration of Lunar Ownership”:

When in the course of human events and space-age accomplishments, the destiny of mankind becomes influenced … [by] the presence of a particular controversial Celestial Body unclaimed and unregulated … it should be advisable and honorable … to lay definitive and prior claim to the entire physical mass and any and all aura, aspect, imaginative or otherwise, of … the Moon.

Geneva assumed “full possession and complete responsibility” of the Moon, yielding “to no man or State in its sovereign right so to do.” The declaration asserted the city’s claim as “positive, supreme, permanent and sovereign,” transcending and voiding “all other claims both real and fancied … previously made for the possession of all or any part of the Moon.” It permitted all humans “to enjoy and to behold and bask” in moonlight but disclaimed responsibility for “any mental, physical, or spiritual influences … [or] for any advantages or disadvantages from tidal phenomena.” Space explorers would be charged per hour for “landings and close fly bys of the visible acreage of the Moon,” and any activities on the far side required “the express consent of the official Councils of the City of Geneva.” And the declaration provided for the sale, rent, or lease of the visible lunar face “to desirable applicants upon a two-thirds vote of the entire population of Geneva,” granting the United States government “prior option to this privilege.”

For the year 1966, the document allowed the sale of 100 deeds “for the sum of $100 describing 100 acres from Mare Imbrium”; “the possessor of this deed shall have it to hold, his heirs and assigns forever and unencumbered.” Whether any were sold I can’t tell.

(From Virgiliu Pop, Who Owns the Moon?: Extraterrestrial Aspects of Land and Mineral Resources Ownership, 2008.)

Meno’s Paradox

“[A] man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.” — Socrates

The Billups Neon Crossing Signal

After numerous accidents where the Illinois Central Railroad crossed Highway 7 near Grenada, Mississippi, in the 1930s, inventor Alonzo Billups came up with a one-of-a-kind solution. When a train approached the crossing, motorists were confronted with a lighted skull and crossbones, the glowing words “Stop-DEATH-Stop,” flashing neon arrows indicating the train’s direction, and an air raid siren.

The video here is a simulation; the actual gantry was removed due to a scarcity of neon in the war years. But two photographs survive.

Away From It All
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, in the little Swiss town of Teufen, conceptual artists Frank and Patrik Riklin converted a 1980s-era nuclear fallout shelter to the “Null Stern Hotel,” an underground facility that accommodates 14 guests in a concrete bunker fitted with blast doors nearly two feet thick.

“We kept the internal structure of the shelter intact — the concrete and the ductwork — and then we added the warmth of antique beds and furniture,” Patrik told the Guardian. “For us it’s an art installation before it’s a hotel — a place where people can think about their surroundings.” There are no windows, only a CCTV camera displaying the outside world, and they retained the institutional paint scheme of pastel blue and yellow.

The site was nominated for best innovation of the year in the 2009 Worldwide Hospitality Awards, and GEO magazine ranked it among the Top 100 hotels in Europe the following year. In 2010 the proprietors were seeking to expand the franchise, but to date no hotel has opened beyond Teufen.


I send you a photo of myself for ‘Curiosities’ studying Virgil in a peculiar position. It was taken by my brother in the country a few weeks ago. It was not a snap-shot, but a time exposure.

— Charles E. Williams of Rock Ferry, Cheshire, in Strand, September 1905

Slow Burn

Australia’s Mount Wingen has been burning for 6,000 years. A lightning strike or brush fire ignited a coal seam there around 4000 B.C., and it’s been smoldering ever since.

“Smoldering fires, the slow, low-temperature, flameless form of combustion, are an important phenomena in the Earth system, and the most persistent type of combustion,” University of Edinburgh fire scientist Guillermo Rein told the New York Times. “The most important fuels involved in smoldering fires are coal and peat. Once ignited, these fires are particularly difficult to extinguish despite extensive rains, weather changes or firefighting attempts, and can persist for long periods of time (months, years), spreading deep (5 meters) and over extensive areas of forest subsurface. Indeed, smoldering fires are the longest continuously burning fires on Earth.”

The Mount Wingen fire holds the Guinness record for the longest-burning fire in the world.