“Rock ‘n’ roll is phony and false, and sung, written, and played for the most part by cretinous goons.” — Frank Sinatra, 1957
The Eiffel Tower has been getting some alarming press lately: Its nighttime image has been copyrighted, and Islamists admitted they’d planned an attack on the Paris landmark in 2002. But these still can’t compete with the most outrageous episode in the tower’s history, when a Bohemian con man sold the whole thing for scrap — twice.
The tower was built for the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and by 1925 its upkeep was becoming a burden. So Victor Lustig posed as a government official and summoned six scrap dealers to a secret meeting, where he told them the city wanted to dismantle it. He led a convincing tour of the site, and even induced one eager dealer to “bribe” him for the job.
Lustig fled to Vienna with the cash, and the embarrassed scrap dealer never called the cops. So the con man came back six months later and ran the same scam again, with six new dealers. This time the suspicious mark went to the police, but Lustig still escaped.
An even more successful salesman was at work elsewhere in the early 1920s: Arthur Ferguson sold Nelson’s Column, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, then sailed to America and marketed the White House and the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes the best salesmen are the most audacious ones.
Obscure light-bulb jokes:
Q: How many existentialists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Two: One to screw it in and one to observe how the light bulb itself symbolizes a single incandescent beacon of subjective reality in a netherworld of endless absurdity reaching out toward a maudlin cosmos of nothingness.
Q: How many Welsh mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: “Don’t worry dearie, I’ll just sit here in the dark, alone.”
Q: How many Marxists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None: The light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.
Q: How many Greek Orthodox priests does it take to change a light bulb?
A: What do you mean, “change”!?
Q: How many Spaniards does it take to change a light bulb?
Q: How many Zen masters does it take to change a light bulb?
A: A tree in a golden forest.
Q: How many postmodernists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: In a Derridaist reading, wherein light is a social construct, there is a dialectic between Darkness as a reality and reality as a mode.
Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
In 1900 the Ladies Home Journal made 29 predictions about the year 2000. Sample:
There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. Some will transport men and goods. Others will be used by scientists making observations at great heights above the earth.
These prophecies reveal as much about the nature of science fiction as about the nature of science. They’re often utopian, or naive extrapolations of existing knowledge. And change is accelerating. I’m sure the world of 2100 is literally unimaginable to us today. It’s not even worth trying.
Wearing a Beard.
— Leominster, Mass., 1873
— Cripple Creek, Colo., c. 1875
Unmarried as yet
— Wimbledon, England, c. 1900
The children of Israel wanted bread,
And the Lord he sent them manna,
Old Clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil he sent him Anna.
— Ribbesford, England, c. 1770
Here lies my wife,
Here lies she,
— Ulverston, England, c. 1750
Sacred to the Memory of Mr.
Jared Bates who Died Aug. the 6th
1800. His Widow aged 24 who mourns
as one who can be comforted lives
at 7 Elm Street this village
and possesses every qualification
for a good wife.
— Lincoln, Maine, 1800
Even the pristine hinterlands aren’t pristine anymore. In the early 1990s, British zoologist Tim Benton took a walk along a mile of shoreline on Ducie Island, a speck of land 4,970 miles east of Australia. Here’s what he found:
- 268 unidentifiable pieces of plastic
- 171 glass bottles
- 74 bottle tops
- 71 plastic bottles
- 67 small buoys
- 66 buoy fragments
- 46 large buoys
- 44 pieces of rope
- 29 segments of plastic pipe
- 25 shoes
- 18 jars
- 14 crates
- 8 pieces of copper sheeting
- 7 aerosol cans
- 7 food and drink cans
- 6 fluorescent tubes
- 6 light bulbs
- 4 jerry cans
- 3 cigarette lighters
- 2 pen tops
- 2 dolls’ heads
- 2 gloves (a pair)
- 1 asthma inhaler
- 1 construction worker’s hat
- 1 football (punctured)
- 1 glue syringe
- 1 truck tire
- 1 plastic coat hanger
- 1 plastic foot mat
- 1 plastic skittle
- 1 small gas cylinder
- 1 tea strainer
- 1 tinned meat pie
- 1 toy soldier
And “0.5 toy airplane.” That’s 953 items of debris altogether, on an island of 2.5 square miles, in the least populous country in the world.
William Topaz McGonagall is renowned as the worst poet in the English language. Sample:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
He didn’t even get the facts right here — 75 died.
In the opening to his Poetic Gems, McGonagall wrote, “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet.” Millions agreed. Stephen Pile, in The Book of Heroic Failures, calls him “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius”; his temperance speeches were wildly popular with “poet-baiters” in Dundee, who pelted him with eggs and vegetables, and he was allowed to play Macbeth only if he paid in advance.
When Tennyson died, McGonagall visited Balmoral to ask if he might become poet laureate. He was told the queen was not at home.
Contact Sheet takes the drudgery out of ransom notes.
The Incompatible Food Triad is a culinary puzzle: Name three foods such that any two of them go together, but all three do not.
The puzzle originated with University of Pittsburgh philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, and some notable thinkers have taken a crack at it. Physicist Richard Feynman thought he’d stumbled onto a solution when he accidentally asked for milk and lemon in his tea (ick), but this doesn’t quite work, as one of the “good” pairs (milk and lemon) is bad.
Best attempts so far: salted cucumbers, sugar, yogurt; orange juice, gin, tonic. Honorable mention: “Get pregnant, and you can eat anything.”
Si bene te tua laus taxat sua laute tenebis
If you are considered praiseworthy, you, elegant man, will keep your own property.
Et necat eger amor non Roma rege tacente,
Roma reges una non anus eger amor
And sick love kills, not from Rome, while the king is silent,
Rome, you will rule together, an old woman is not your sick love.
A favorite among Roman lawyers was Si nummi immunis, which means “Give me my fee, and I’ll warrant you free.”