Image: Wikimedia Commons

Drive east on Canusa Street and you’re in the United States, drive west and you’re in Canada. That’s because the street, part of Quebec Route 247, runs along the border — the yellow line dividing its lanes follows the 45th parallel.

Families who live on the south side are in Vermont, and those in the north are in Quebec — they can see one another but must present themselves at a border post before crossing the street.

But residents of both countries can freely visit the Haskell Free Library — where the main entrance is in America but the books are in Canada.

Man of the World

Names of the Mad Hatter in various translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

  • the Hatmaker
  • the Maker of Hats
  • the Hatman
  • the Man Who Made Head Protection
  • Mr. Tophat
  • Owl
  • Master Hats
  • Marble Mason
  • Stockman
  • Blockhead
  • Baboon
  • Fellow With Hats
  • Cap-Wearing Person
  • Kynedyr Wyllt mab Hettwn Tal Aryant

That last one’s in Middle Welsh. Though Lewis Carroll’s novel abounds in wordplay, rhymes, quotations, nonsense, homophones, logical twists, and Victorian allusions, it’s found its way into 174 languages and more than 9,000 editions around the world. Zongxin Feng of Tsinghua University in Beijing wrote, “Of all Western literary masterpieces introduced into China in the twentieth century, no other work has enjoyed such popularity.”

In an 1866 letter, Carroll had written, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.”

(Jon A. Lindseth, ed., Alice in a World of Wonderlands, 2015.)


  • The Dutch word for cease-fire negotiations is wapenstilstandsonderhandelingen.
  • Rearrange the letters in ONE THOUSAND KILOS and you get OH, SOUNDS LIKE A TON! (Hans-Peter Reich)
  • 1167882 + 3211682 = 116788321168
  • The Irish for chess, ficheall, derives from the Old Irish fidchell, “wood intelligence.”
  • “Life is a school of probability.” — Walter Bagehot

A tiny detail that I hope is true: In Time in World History (2019), historian Peter Stearns writes that before watches became affordable, some European soldiers “took their own roosters with them so they would wake up on time.”


Composer and bandleader Sun Ra insisted that he wasn’t Herman Blount of Birmingham, Alabama, but an alien from Saturn. In a visionary experience in 1936, he said, he’d learned that “I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”

The story became part of his mystique. Late in life, filling out a hospital admission form, he listed Saturn as his place of birth. When worried nurses summoned help, the psychiatrist said, “This is Sun Ra — of course he’s from Saturn!”

(Ian Simmons, “Mothership Connections,” Fortean Times 244 [January 2009], 30–35, cited in Andrew May, The Science of Sci-Fi Music, 2020.)


“Politeness and a sense of honor have this advantage: we bestow them on others without losing a thing.” — Baltasar Gracián

“Be not niggardly of what costs thee nothing, as courtesy, counsel, & countenance.” — Ben Franklin

Some Enchanted Evening

pask colloquy of mobiles

For the 1968 exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in London, inventor Gordon Pask created a society of mobiles, two “males” and three “females” that had to learn to communicate, cooperate, and compete in order to satisfy their drives. The males could project light beams, and the females could, if they chose, reflect a beam back to the sending male, which he desired. The males had to compete with one another to find cooperative females, and the females competed to find males projecting suitably colored light.

Male I sends out an intermittent directional visual signal which serves to identify it as ‘male I’ and its desire as ‘O [orange] satisfaction.’ … Should the directional signal fall on the receptor of a female who is trying to cooperate, she produces an identifying sound in synchrony with the intermittent light signal. Male I detects the correlation between the female and his light signal and stops his motion (unless he is prevented from doing so by male II). At this point he triggers off an autonomous energetic event which consists in shining an intense orange light for at least a minimum interval in the direction of the located female. The immediate result is an increase of the O drive. However, male I anticipates reinforcement (which he will achieve if the female behaves appropriately and if the moving part, C, is appropriately positioned during at least some of this behaviour). Reinforcement, which substantially reduces the O drive, is obtained if the O goal is satisfied; that is if orange light falls on receptor C. Supposing reinforcement occurs, male I emits an identifying sound signal which is received by the cooperating female, the autonomous energetic event is prolonged and the O drive is decreased.

“The cooperative encounter terminates after a short time if reinforcement does not occur, or if it is externally disrupted. Otherwise it continues until the drive state of male I is modified so that he aims for a different goal.”

Pask stressed that the mobiles needed to learn from experience in order to satisfy their drives. The females had to learn how to position their reflectors to attract males, but the system encouraged them to find different strategies so that not all males demanded stimulation of the same receptor. Pask said, “Some may like O light on D and P [puce] light on C. She can learn that trick also.”

(From Paul Brown, et al., eds., White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, 2008.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

After several delusional episodes, seamstress Agnes Richter was institutionalized at the University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic in 1893, at age 49. While performing the needlework expected of female patients, she sewed a diary of sorts into a remarkable jacket pieced together of wool and linen. “Writing” in a now-obsolete German script, she recorded brief, enigmatic expressions reflecting life in a psychiatric hospital: I wish to read, I am not big, I plunge headlong into disaster. Her laundry number, 583, appears several times, apparently to ensure that the jacket was not lost during cleaning.

Another patient, Mary Lieb, institutionalized periodically at Heidelberg for mania, would sometimes decorate the floors of various rooms with patterns of cloth strips. The warders found some of these remarkable enough to photograph (below). Physician Hans Prinzhorn included some of the photographs in his collection of the art of the insane, and the images have survived to the present day as strangely vivid marks of an inscrutable self-expression.

“The patterns are extraordinary, comprising rows of starbursts (or perhaps flowers), letters, crosses, geometric patterns, and sometimes intricate curved figures,” writes Lyle Rexer in How to Look at Outsider Art. “Their purpose and organization are unclear, but like much outsider art, the work appears to be a combination of decoration and communication, an attempt to reorder the space ‘from the ground up,’ visually transform it, and invest it with new significance.” What it means only Lieb knew.
Image: Wikimedia Commons


In the 13th century, in England’s Worcester Priory, an anonymous scribe worked at inserting interlinear notations into Old English manuscripts. Though his identity has been lost, his shaky, leftward-sloping handwriting is so distinctive that he’s noted among scholars more than 700 years later. He’s known as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester.

The cause of the tremor is uncertain, but its identifiable character has shed light on the evolution of the language and on the ability to read Old English in this period. “For us at least,” writes literary scholar Christine Franzen, “his infirmity was fortuitous — if his hand had remained steady and unchanged throughout his glossing career, it might have been impossible to distinguish the layers of glossing, but as it is, we can watch his methods and knowledge develop along with his tremble.”

(Christine Franzen, The Tremulous Hand of Worcester, 1991.)

“The Unlucky Hatter”

From The Book of 500 Curious Puzzles, 1859:

A blackleg passing through a town in Ohio, bought a hat for $8 and gave in payment a $50 bill. The hatter called on a merchant near by, who changed the note for him, and the blackleg having received his $42 change went his way. The next day the merchant discovered the note to be a counterfeit, and called upon the hatter, who was compelled forthwith to borrow $50 of another friend to redeem it with; but on turning to search for the blackleg he had left town, so that the note was useless on the hatter’s hands. The question is, what did he lose — was it $50 besides the hat, or was it $50 including the hat?

This is not so much a puzzle as a perplexity. “[I]n almost every case the first impression is, that the hatter lost $50 besides the hat, though it is evident he was paid for the hat, and had he kept the $8 he needed only to have borrowed $42 additional to redeem the note.”