Lorina Bulwer


When 55-year-old Lorina Bulwer was placed in the Great Yarmouth Workhouse in 1893, she embroidered protests into long pieces of patchwork fabric, ranting in unpunctuated capitals:


Much of the invective is directed against E Bulwer and Queen Victoria, apparently trying to connect Bulwer’s family to prominent families of the time and possibly referring to sexual abuse in a scandal of 1859. But her reasons for making the samplers aren’t entirely understood.

Ruth Burwood, adult learning officer for Norwich Museums, told the Eastern Daily Press, “In very basic terms there isn’t anything like them in the world, they’re just absolutely extraordinary; the fact she was a woman in a lunatic ward in Great Yarmouth workhouse and was somehow able to produce these embroideries. Workhouse inmates did do sewing but this is almost like she’s been allowed to do this as therapy.”

Choice Blindness

In a 2005 experiment, psychologist Petter Johansson and his colleagues presented each subject with two photographs of women’s faces and asked which they found more attractive. In each case the experimenter then presented the “chosen” photograph and asked the subject to explain their choice. But in fact, using sleight of hand, the experimenter had exchanged the photos and was presenting the one that the subject hadn’t picked.

Only 13 percent of the subjects noticed the change; the rest went on to confabulate an explanation justifying a choice they hadn’t made. And yet, in post-test interviews, 84 percent of the subjects said that they would have detected such a switch if one had been made.

A subsequent experiment involving supermarket taste tests of jam showed the same effect: Subjects indicated an initial preference and then (after the samples had been surreptitiously swapped) failed to recognize that they were now tasting the rejected variety and went on to justify that choice.

Johansson and his colleagues called this choice blindness. “We do not doubt that humans can form very specific and detailed prior intentions,” they wrote, “but as the phenomenon of choice blindness demonstrates, this is not something that should be taken for granted in everyday decision tasks.”

(Petter Johansson et al., “Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task,” Science 310:5745 [Oct. 7, 2005], 116-119.) (Thanks, Colin.)

Fredkin’s Paradox

The more similar two options are, the more difficult it is to decide between them, and the less consequential the decision becomes. A rational decider might find herself spending the most time on the least important decisions.

Philosopher Edward Fredkin writes, “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them — no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.”

To avoid this, the decider might resolve to apportion her decision-making time by the importance of the decision. But this requires assessing the importance of every decision, which requires evaluating the means she’s using to make those assessments, and so on.

Psychologist Gary Klein writes, “[[I]f I want to optimize, I must also determine the effort it will take me to optimize; however, the subtask of determining this effort will itself take effort, and so forth into the tangle that self-referential activities create.”

All Wet


In her 1929 autobiography Cradle of the Deep, silent film star Joan Lowell revealed a dramatic childhood aboard her father’s trading vessel: She’d seen a man eaten by sharks, performed an amputation, and, when the ship caught fire and sank, swum three miles to the Australian coast with “drenched kittens” clinging to her shoulders:

I was conscious of only the pain caused by the salt water on my bleeding cuts and scratches. Each stroke I took was like a knife cut, and I couldn’t shake the drowning kittens off. Perhaps to those cats I owe my life, for the pain made me so mad I fought on and on, toward the lightship which seemed to go farther away instead of closer.

When it was published, sailing writer Lincoln Colcord identified 50 inaccuracies and called her to account. It turned out she’d made the whole thing up: Her father had worked on the boat for about a year, and she’d made one trip on it. Simon & Schuster reclassified the book as fiction and released a statement saying it had been “published in good faith, not as a literal autobiography but as a teeming yarn, fundamentally a true narrative but inevitably … embroidered with some romanticized threads.”

So Ordered

From the minutes of the city council of Deer Park, Texas, Aug. 31, 1965:

After some discussion, it was moved by Councilman Black and seconded by Councilman Young that we publish our intentions of annexation of the Planet Venus as required by law. The motion passed 7 to 0.

In July, when the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation had sought funds to pay for a scale model of the moon, the Oklahoma City council had annexed all 9 billion acres of Earth’s satellite and Mayor George Shirk had turned them over to the foundation.

Inspired, Lee Bishop, president of the Deer Park Chamber of Commerce, had convinced his local council to annex Venus so that they could sell lots as a fundraiser. The scheme helped the city produce a promotional film; Bishop said, “People have heard of Deer Park who probably never would have. The publicity, even though it was in jest, helped.”

When the U.S.S.R. sent a probe to Venus in 1967 without asking Deer Park’s permission, Bishop considered lodging a protest with the Soviet embassy. He decided against it to preserve international relations.

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

Boxing Day

In 2002, Melbourne friends Hoss Siegel and Ross Koger were battling with pool noodles and imagined a war fought in the same style. Months later they witnessed two kids beating each other up with cardboard boxes, and they married the two ideas.

The result is Box Wars, an annual free-for-all among combatants bearing weapons and armor made of cardboard. The pastime is now international, with extensions in Japan, the United States, Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia, and Canada.

“The suits,” says Koger, “have gotten more elaborate, as have the crowds, and it’s funny that something which spawned from a stupid idea at a party has become so big.”

Uncombable Hair Syndrome

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This rare condition, also known as “spun-glass hair” and cheveux incoiffables, normally arises between the ages of 3 months and 12 years. It’s well named — patients develop dry, wiry, frizzy hair that’s impossible to comb. The cause is genetic, and the symptoms tend to resolve by adolescence.

The condition is also known as Struwwelpeter syndrome, after the 19th-century German children’s book Der Struwwelpeter, whose title character is “Shock-Headed Peter.”

In a Word

Image: Meridianos

adj. having great weight

n. an unsightly object, an eyesore

n. the action of making something good or better

adj. accompanied by a smile

In 1959, a cement mixer rolled off a road in northeastern Oklahoma. The owners retrieved the truck, but the mixer held tons of concrete and was too heavy to move. Plans to bury it on the spot were eventually abandoned, and the disused mixer lay for decades beside Winganon Road. In 2008 Heather Thomas and her husband, Barry, decided to celebrate their fifth anniversary by finally attending to the matter — they disguised in as a space capsule.

(Thanks, Colin.)

Dicto Simpliciter

A gentleman had ordered a roasted stork for dinner, and as the legs were deemed the most savory part, he was greatly exasperated when the bird came upon the table with only one leg. The cook, it seems, had a sweetheart, and she had cut off one for him. However, when her master called her to account, she boldly asserted that storks had but one leg. To prove this, she proposed that they should repair to the bank of the river on the following morning, and settle the question by ocular demonstration. They went accordingly, and behold, there were a dozen storks, showing but one leg. ‘Hoo!’ said the master, upon which each stork showed his other leg. ‘There!’ said the gentleman, ‘you see those storks have two legs.’ ‘Yes,’ said the cook, ‘but you cried “hoo!” at them: I pray you to remember that you did not cry “hoo!” to the one I cooked yesterday.’

— Boccaccio