The Earth Moved

The New Madrid Compendium collects eyewitness descriptions of the worst earthquake in American history. The Richter scale hadn’t been invented in 1811, but this quake would have measured 8.0:

The vibration of the earth shook down trees, thousands of willows were swept off like a pipe stem, about waist high, and the swamps became high ground, and the high land became low ground, and two islands in the river were so shaken, washed away and sunk, as not to be found.

The kicker: This happened in Missouri, rocking the state hard enough to ring bells in Boston. Seismologists say there’s a 90 percent chance of a magnitude 6.0 to 7.0 quake in the same area before 2040, affecting as much as 20 times the area of a West Coast quake. I wonder if their insurance rates reflect this?

A Great Big Hand

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polydactyly_01_Lhand_AP.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Once thought to be a sign of witchcraft, extra digits are actually the most common developmental abnormality found at birth. About two children in a thousand have extra fingers or toes.

They’re even more common among the Amish, probably due to the “founder effect” — because the original settlers were few, their genetic legacy is amplified among their descendants, and apparently one of them had an extra finger.

If it’s so common, why does it creep people out? Fictional villains from Hannibal Lecter to Count Rugen have been given extra digits, to make them seem alien and somehow menacing.

They’re actually in quite good company. Marilyn Monroe didn’t have extra digits, urban legends notwithstanding, but Anne Boleyn and Winston Churchill both did. And Atlanta Braves pitcher Antonio “The Octopus” Alfonseca was born with six fingers and six toes. I’d like to hear him play the piano.

City Lights

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Earth’s city lights, seen by satellite. You can make out major transportation networks: the American interstate highway system, the trans-Siberian railroad, the Nile. 100 years after the invention of electric light, only Antarctica is entirely dark.

Jack the Ripper

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FromHellLetter.jpgThis is the “From Hell” letter, sent by Jack the Ripper to the president of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee that was pursuing him. He included a bloody fragment to prove his identity:

“I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman and prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer”

Whoever he was, Jack certainly had a flair for dramatic horror. But much of his fame is really due to newspapers, which were becoming popular at the time. His crimes, which combined sex, violence, mystery, class warfare and police ineptitude, were tailor-made for cheap sensation. (In fact, it was probably a journalist who invented the “Ripper” nickname.)

Casebook: Jack the Ripper has gathered examples of lurid accounts from as far away as Poland, Jamaica, and Mexico. “All London is ringing with the horror of the thing,” writes one New Zealand editor. “The woman who reads, with hair standing on end, the details of some fresh outrage to-night cannot feel sure that on the morrow she may not be the next victim.” The whole episode is a low point for responsible journalism.

BTW, today the Ripper’s story has spawned a rather unwholesome fanbase, with concentration games, crossword puzzles, and fan fiction. Somehow time can make even serial murder seem quaint.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur is a series of Java-based puzzles in which you have to escape a maze without getting mashed by a computerized monster that moves predictably. There are 14 levels, and I can’t get past level 4.

The interesting thing is that the puzzles were designed by a computer, and they’re now being used in AI experiments at the National University of Ireland. So computers are now solving puzzles designed by other computers.

Origins of Band Names

And here’s a list of the origins of band names:

  • Spandau Ballet was a Nazi guards’ term for the contortions of Jewish prisoners being gassed to death. There was a large gas chamber in the city of Spandau.
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers were originally called Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem.
  • Pantera is Portuguese for “panther.”
  • Oingo Boingo is Swahili for “thinking while dancing.”
  • The Eagles were originally going to call themselves Teen King and the Emergencies.
  • Def Leppard got its name from Joe Elliot’s drawing of a leopard with no ears.

I always wondered about that last one. What a stupid name.