Easy Street

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Don’t laugh, you don’t have to mow it.

Baldwin Street, in Dunedin, New Zealand, is thought to be the steepest public street in the world. It has a grade of 38 percent; San Francisco’s steepest are 31.5 percent.

There’s a sign warning motorists not to attempt it, but that hasn’t discouraged runners, who gather each summer for the “Baldwin Street Gutbuster.” In the first event, serious runners climb to the top, then, even harder, try to get down again. In the second, skaters, skateboarders, and pram-pushers try to cover the same 400-meter circuit. One guy actually succeeded on a unicycle.

There’s also a charity event each July in which contestants roll candies down the hill. No injuries have been reported.

“I Find You to Be the Only Fool!”

Excerpt from The Eye of Argon, a famously bad fantasy novella written by Jim Theis in 1970:

Utilizing the silence and stealth aquired in the untamed climbs of his childhood, Grignr slink through twisting corridors, and winding stairways, lighting his way with the confisticated torch of his dispatched guardian. Knowing where his steps were leading to, Grignr meandered aimlessly in search of an exit from the chateau’s dim confines. The wild blood coarsing through his veins yearned for the undefiled freedom of the livid wilderness lands.

At science fiction conventions, fans try to read it aloud with a straight face. The “grandmaster challenge” is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium.

Rubber-Stamp Poetry

“Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” a poem by Zhao Yuanren, in English:

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o’clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.

… and in Hanyu Pinyin:

Shishi shishi Shi Shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi.
Shi shishi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi Shi Shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi.

Nude, Descending

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Goya’s La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida. In 19th-century Europe, it was common to have two paintings of the same subject, swapping them out depending on who’d be visiting. Still, the Inquisition confiscated both of these as obscene.

Said the Duchess of Alba to Goya,
“Do some pictures to hang in my foyer”;
So he painted her twice —
In the nude to look nice,
And then in her clothes to annoy ‘er.

— Cyril Bibby

Globetrotters

When you’re a traveling pig, you need a good phrasebook. Estonian pigs go rui, French groin, Polish chrum, and Czech, improbably, chro. English pigs have been oinking only since 1940. And in Rome, presumably, they speak Pig Latin.

Mr. Versatile

Whose resume is this?

  • Received four write-in votes in the mayoral election in Boise, Idaho, 1985
  • Spokesperson, the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout, 1987
  • Received the Presidential Sports Award from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, 1992
  • Threw out first pitch at Wrigley Field, 2000
  • Named official ambassador for the Rhode Island State Tourism Board, 2000
  • Likeness rendered as 85-foot hot-air balloon, 2001
  • Rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, 2002

Answer: Mr. Potato Head.

I Think …

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Squashed Philosophers is like Reader’s Digest with a Ph.D. Glyn Hughes takes the high-calorie tomes of 41 world-class thinkers, from Plato to Popper, and squeezes them into tasty little capsules, without losing the flavor of the originals.

René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, for instance, fits into 6,488 words — or even, in the “very squashed” version, into six simple assertions — but they’re all stated in the author’s own words, and nothing essential seems to have been lost.

That’s a tribute to Hughes’ editing skill, but it’s also a pretty scary commentary on the original works. Kant is notoriously unreadable in the original, but Hughes estimates that his 5,700-word condensation of the Critiques of Pure & Practical Reason can be read and understood in 23 minutes. If that’s true — if that’s even close to true — then I don’t see how Kant’s original can be called a great book.

Musaeum Clausum

Imaginary pictures “cataloged” in Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum of 1684:

  • “A Moon Piece, describing that notable Battel between Axalla, General of Tamerlane, and Camares the Persian, fought by the light of the Moon.”
  • “A Snow Piece, of Land and Trees covered with Snow and Ice, and Mountains of Ice floating in the Sea, with Bears, Seals, Foxes, and variety of rare Fowls upon them.”
  • “Pieces and Draughts in Caricatura, of Princes, Cardinals and famous men; wherein, among others, the Painter hath singularly hit the signatures of a Lion and a Fox in the face of Pope Leo the Tenth.”
  • “Some Pieces A la ventura, or Rare Chance Pieces, either drawn at random, and happening to be like some person, or drawn for some and happening to be more like another; while the Face, mistaken by the Painter, proves a tolerable Picture of one he never saw.”

Borges wrote, “To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed.”