Sunday, 28 October 2007

Stick or Twist

The average human nose contains enough mucus to provide the glue for sixty two postage stamps or forty four large Christmas stamps.
Little Star

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The starfish may strike you as an odd beast, but mathematically it truly is the most odd creature. Whereas most animals are driven by symmetry and evenness, the starfish stays in the realms of oddness. It has five arms (sometimes seven), one foot, one eye, three kidneys, three mouths, eleven pairs of chromosomes, fifteen nerve rings and there are two hundred and three known species. When a new species was isolated in 2004, experts believed the number had become even, but the 'new' starfish (the Javanese sea star) turned out to be two separate new species, keeping the number odd.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Wish You Weren't

Travel company Openworld carried out a recent survey of 3000 customers to find out what they liked most and least about their holidays. Most of the positive comments were predictably to do with sun, sea, sights, food and drink. The negative comments were more disparate and Openworld reported the most unusual gripes from holidaymakers, which were as follows:

1 No one in Hungary could pronounce my name.
2 I got a Gloria Estefan song in my head the first morning and it never went away!
3 If I want corn beef I can get it at home, thank you very much Florida.
4 The Little Mermaid is far too little. It made our Hailey cry.
5 The beetles hatching from my nipple was the worst moment.
6 I'd say Canada is over rated. Things should improve when global warming comes in.
7 No one that lives in France speaks English proper - its outrageous.
8 Wondrous! Only the dysentery spoiled it. Oh, and the mugging and the jellyfish stings.
9 The twins were angels, but I wish we had never had Jonathan!
10 In Mexico, the weather is hot, the food is hot, but the women are like ice.

Monday, 24 September 2007


On the 18th of July this year, Tim Stevens of Toronto made a post to his blog, delighted to share the news of the birth of his third daughter Jillian Emma. As is often the case, he was asked to copy a 'word verification' code before his post could be made. The code given was 'tmlvsjll'. 'I know it was just a coincidence,' he told his local newspaper, who printed a photo Tim had taken of the screen of his laptop, 'I'm a math teacher, so I don't believe in mystical stuff, but as coincidences go, it was a pretty darn cool one!'
Sounds Unlikely

Taylorism is an old name for an ear condition, now called pressure-bonded tinnitus, which leads sufferers to hear sudden sounds which are not real. These noises are low and guttural and can sound like waves, cars or growling creatures. The condition is notable since the sounds sometimes trigger phantom sight phenomena - sufferers can momentarily see a wave or car lunge towards them.

Although the condition is not named after him, its most prominent victim was James Taylor Markham, an explorer and financier who travelled extensively in Southern Africa in the late 19th century. Markham had come to terms with his disability and had conditioned himself not to jolt or run when he heard or saw something unexpected. In 1902, he was charged and gored to death by a rhino in what is now Botswana.

Thursday, 30 August 2007


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

As a child, US president William H Taft had a habit of mispronouncing words, with the letter S being a real problem. When he became governor of the Phillipines, he was given a course of what we would now call 'speech therapy', but he continued to say certain words wrongly, often not realising he was doing so. In particular, throughout his life he said 'snossage' instead of sausage, which was a problem since Taft was fond of the foodstuff, and was occasionally nicknamed 'Bolony Bill'! All aides who worked with Taft during his term in the White House were warned of his occasional lexical idiosyncrasies and strictly ordered not to snigger.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Change Will Do You Good

Artists Tom Mannion and Joel Smith spent a weekend trawling the pubs and bars of North London this summer, picking up the small change they found on the floor. Starting at midday on a Friday and ending when the bars closed at 11pm on the Sunday night, they collected an astonishing £469.17 (c $900). Most of the haul was in one, two and five pence pieces. The average amount found per bar was 67 pence.

Smith commented, "In one bar in ten, we found a banknote of some sort on the floor, which brought the average up. Mostly, you are picking up a handful of pennies and 5p pieces from the floor around the bar, plus change discarded on or around the gambling machines. But we found nearly £75 each, every day, which for many people in the UK is more than they make a day after tax. It's way better than the minimum wage."

They concentrated on bars in thriving areas such as King's Cross, Camden and Tufnell Park, visiting around 50 each per day, and working for just six hours daily, making for a 'pre-tax' equivalent of around £16 an hour, the average UK wage for head wine waiters, upholsterers and police dog handlers. "You could only do this in big cities," added Mannion, "and you need to be unobtrusive and smartly dressed. In a couple of bars, we got odd glances, picking up pennies, but to be honest, most of the time, no one looked twice."

Monday, 6 August 2007


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Certain quirky, recurring features of cartoons of the past have entered the collective consciousness. If you want to know about bashed heads turning into anvil shapes, dust rising from the spot where a coyote has just fallen from a cliff, or the ability to shrink and run through a fallen log, then Joseph Johnson is probably your man. His dissertation looked at these memes and tropes of animation. As part of his research, Joseph watched all 680 Tom and Jerry cartoons still in existence and watched for moments of hunger when images of food appeared in the eyes of hungry characters. The breakdown for Tom was as follows:

Depictions of food appearing in eyes of Tom character:

steak (raw): 13
variety of foods, eg stacked on table: 10
steak (cooked usu. with fries etc):8
fish (whole): 6
string of sausages: 3
hot dog: 3
fish (bones): 3
hamburger: 2
lobster dinner: 1
roast mouse (with apple in mouth): 1
bowl of fruit: 1

Friday, 3 August 2007

Quite a Flap

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

In his recent biography, former rugby star Laurent Dumoulin recounted a tale which briefly astounded France in the mid 1970s. Dumoulin, aged eight at the time, was one of over twenty people who were sitting in a garden area outside a restaurant in his home city of Avignon when a crow flew down and perched on a wall. Nothing unusual in that, except that all the witnesses agreed that the crow was around four or five feet long, several times the size of an average crow. In all other ways, it seemed a normal crow. Dumoulin recalls, "It was the size of a large dog. I did not realise it was strange, because I had seen birds such as cranes and knew birds could be large, but the adults were all pointing and some of them seemed scared. Then it flew away."

There are no other known sightings of crows larger than c60-70 cm in length. Either the crow was an anomaly, or there was some sort of collective hallucination. Newspapers at the time reported the story jokily, suggesting the diners had had one too many glasses of red. "I certainly was not intoxicated,' says Dumoulin, "not at eight years old!"

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Pie Vs Guy

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Gentlemen out there, you may think you are looking hot today, but sadly, research shows that women prefer to ogle pastry. Recent advances in the area of brain chemistry depict very different workings in male and female brains when it comes to visual responses. Heterosexual men and women shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex react differently - the brains of both are stimulated, but men will keep looking (at faces in particular) long after women have become bored.

Meanwhile, another recent study suggests women are far more likely to meet the gaze of a sausage roll than a hunk. Dr Fliss James of the University of London conducted a long series of experiments, using cameras and observation to see what catches the eyes of women. She sent 'a Brad Pitt lookalike' walking up and down station platforms in central London, and also 'an average looking man' (actually the scientist's brother!), eating a sausage roll or apple turnover. James recorded that a woman was on average four times more likely to look at a man who was eating. When 'Brad' walked down the platform, eating a pastry product, he too was eyeballed by four times as many women as when not eating. The same men, holding other things to their mouths (a phone or apple) were not noticed any more than average.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Everything Has a Name...

A proper and correct name that is. Anyone who has reached the age where they can read (that's you, reader) will know there are two distinct ways to stub one's toe. The first hurts like hell for ten seconds or so, then the pain quickly goes. The other begins with a sort of nauseous yet painless numbness which soon gives way to screeching agony which lasts for minutes or more.

These conditions have proper jargon to describe them. The first is 'neuroreactive digital stubbage', the second is 'suspended digitalgia or digital staving' which can be more serious as the lack of initial pain can sometimes indicate a broken toe.

Meanwhile, I was having a discussion (as you do) about those red ribbons which are a feature of fancy books, and which help you keep your page. What are they properly called? Well, it seems us Brits are rather unadventurous on this front, the common term being 'page ribbon'. In the US publishing industry, however, they are known as 'pause strands' which is somewhat more poetic, but still not on a par with France, where the term is 'fil de sang' or blood-thread.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Ashes to Ashes

When retired statistician Emlyn Evans died in Pennsylvania in 1995, his sons discovered over 200 notebooks in which Evans had carefully recorded falls and patterns of dust in his home and surrounding outbuildings. A college professor friend of Emlyn Evans Jr was so impressed by the beauty and strangeness of the writing, he arranged for selections to be printed in a limited edition, under the title A Localised Study of Dry Precipitation. The book has become a cult read among poets. Evans Sr moved to the US from Wales in his 20s and lived alone after the death of his wife in the early 1980s. His sons knew he had obsessive interests (he made tapestries depicting weather phenomena and owned 1800 books on fungi) but knew nothing of his fascination for dust.
Hold On

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Texas Hold'Em Poker, a natty name for a version of the gamblers' favourite card game has nothing to do with holding cards, whether they are 'em or not. The name derives from entrepreneur Jack Oldham who promoted this version of the game in his Dallas gaming club in the 1900s and 1910s.

Misheard card game names are nothing new: pontoon is a clumsy reworking of the French vingt-et-un, while the business of saying 'snap' when a double comes up in the simple card game derives from the Prussian 'schnaf' meaning a forfeit, which was collected when a player claimed a double.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Roll Over On Your Side

As anyone with a grounding in infowispology knows, only 7% of cats snore. Ours (see picture a few entries below) is one of those. Dogs are more common snorers, with over 20% of pooches prone to it. Badgers are thought to be the worst culprits - nearly all badgers are loud snorers. Naturalists used to believe that other animals and birds refused to nest near badgers due to their smell, but it appears their snoring is the real reason. For some reason, female dromedaries mostly snore, but males never do. Birds are not generally snorers, but Ophelia, an ostrich at Antwerp Zoo had to be moved in 1990, as her snoring was disrupting the zebras in a neighbouring compound.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Down The Pony and Trap

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Pub goers in England will, from tomorrow, no longer have to stare at one another through a haze of tobacco smoke. However, one of the most hated aspects of British pub life - the ridiculous, manufactured bar name - still continues to be a menace, if not quite as bad as in the 80s and 90s. Well-loved traditional bar names such as The Black Bull, The Grapes and The Laughing Sailor have fallen out of favour, replaced by marketing myrmidons with ridiculous and supposedly eye-catching names, often composed of two disparate creatures or objects joined by an 'and' eg The Porcupine and Pogo Stick. One campaigning group recently voted for their most irritating pub names of this sort in England, which were as follows:

1 The Blancmange and Gravy (Redditch)
2 The Aardvark and Anorak (Leeds)
3 The Deckchair and Spanner (Torquay)
4 The Yeti and His Breeches (London)*
5 The Old Seadog and Dancing Kittens (Millton, Cumbria)**
6 The Blindfold and Bandages (Manchester)
7 The Grasshopper and Gherkin (London)

*was previously The Yuppie and His Braces
**I quite like that one!

Monday, 25 June 2007


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Caldwell's Standard Scale is a way of measuring a language's level of eccentricity (or inventiveness, if you prefer) by the terms given to knots. The neutral standard is English knottery, which has names like 'stockgrower's lash', 'icicle hitch' and 'moist mutton kink' but which mainly consists of prosaic names like 'farmer's loop' and 'gentleman's tie-over'.

Canadian linguist GD Caldwell developed the scale for the 3rd Biennial Catachrestic Symposium in San Diego in 1989. The lowest rated (metaphorically simplest) languages include Arabic and Icelandic (in which most knots are given numbers); the highest rated include Thai (very long names), Farsi (poetic names) and the top rated language is Xhosa. Though largely untranslateable, Xhosa knots include 'pulsing tongue of stars', 'skid round a hut', 'what were you thinking yesterday, grandfather' and 'beer spilling on the fire'.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

I Fought the Law

Anyone with an interest in trivia will know that there are lots of obscure and unusual laws in the world, which have remained on statutes long after they were relevant, or which defy the rational mind as to why they ever entered the legislation in the first place: it is illegal to walk with only one shoe on in Budapest after midnight; all parrot owners in Ulan Bator must wear purple badges on their left lapel. Of course, I have made these ones up, but many 'real' laws are just as esoteric, and all countries have them.

All except one that is. In the 1990s, Uruguay became aware of the number of odd and conflicting local laws which had built up over time in its regional legal systems, many of them unusual to say the least. To avoid any unwanted international attention on their bizarre laws, the government passed an act (Ley Orgánica sobre la abolición de los reglamentos anticuados, obsoletos y desnecesarios) which now means that the strangest law in Uruguay is probably the law banning strange laws!

Saturday, 16 June 2007

A Fistful of Dollars

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The record for the most money in coins held in one hand is $73 and 80 cents. This feat (using 179 coins) was set by Fred Quayle of Jersey City in 2005. When it was pointed out to Mr Quayle that if he held 179 British coins, it would be worth nearly twice as much in dollars, he refused the challenge, saying, "My stepmother was British and she was a mean old crow!"

Friday, 15 June 2007

For Art's Sake

Which artist holds the record for the world's most expensive painting? Picasso? Monet? Van Gogh? None of these. In April 2007, an untitled oil painting by Russian artist Nataliya Korovin sold for the equivalent of $220 million, beating the record held by a Jackson Pollock piece. The buyer was her husband Alexei, one of Russia's richest businessmen. Critics have suggested the sale was made for tax reasons, but Alexei explained, 'I believe my wife to be one one of Russia's most gifted artists. This sale confirms her as a painter of great substance.'
Heart of Glass

To mark the forthcoming ban on smoking in public places in England, Corby, the midlands town which has the country's highest proportion of smoking-related deaths has commissioned a piece of public art. In early July, local artist Andrena Strang will collect all the glass ashtrays from local bars and restaurants (an estimated 20,000) and will melt them down and produce a glass statue of a human heart which will be exhibited outside the town's Sir Billy Bremner Leisure Centre.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Secret in the Vault

A red-footed wallaby kicked off one of the most mysterious stories in recent Australian history. Bank manager David Sloane was killed instantly when a wallaby jumped in front of his car at dusk causing him to crash on May 12th 2002. A few weeks after his death, Sloane's grieving wife Laura confessed to two close friends that David had an apparent secret. His bank in Preston, Northern Territory had just 1600 customer accounts, but in its vault lay an item which could rewrite the accepted archaeological history of Australia - a large silver vessel judged to date from 900-1000 AD.

Mrs Sloane had listened to her husband talk about the treasure on many occasions, but had feared he was the victim of a fraud. Word of the story leaked, and Mrs Sloane went AWOL as the newspapers and television treated the story with a mixture of seriousness and derision. The bank steadfastly refused to comment. However, the reports were said to have been taken seriously enough to be the subject of four private meetings called by the Australian Parliament in January and February 2003, the details of which will not be made public till at least 2028.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Diamond Geezers

You may have heard of Coco Crisp, Boof Bonser and Dick Pole - all current stars of baseball, but the annals of the sport throw up some more unlikely names. All of the following are listed in Garland's Baseball Compendium and were apparently the players' real names, not nicknames!

Phil Bagges
James Batter*
Thursday Callahan
Hallelujah Dawson
Daryl Farrell
Igloo Jones Sr
Stevenson Jonsson-Wilson
Heavy Rain
Jeffry K Rottweiler
JD Salinger
Smith Smith
Caribou Strange
Willard S Triangle
Ink Urk

*Batter was in fact a pitcher

Friday, 8 June 2007

A Gay Old Time

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Fred Flintstone only exists thanks to a game of dice. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon series developed by programme planners Joe Dunstan and Ernest Gemmler in 1953 was to have been called The Rockafellahs (the lead couple named Rudy and Rita). Then Dunstan and Gemmler went out on a friend's birthday bash, had a few gimlets too many and ended up falling out over a post-midnight game of craps (and a $200 bet). They never spoke again. To avoid legal problems, Gemmler, who was senior to Dunstan, changed the names of all the show characters and the name of the location (Stone City became Bedrock). The rest is prehistory!

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

By a Whisker

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Although the veneration of cats is more associated with Ancient Egypt, cats were also symbolically important to the tlatoani - the Aztec rulers of the pre-Hispanic era. Chimalpopoca (died 1427) ordered his scribes to record the lives and deaths of some 300 pet cats, all of which were named after local flowers and plants. The most common cause of feline death is given as 'fatigue' (131 cats), while some of the more unusual reasons for visiting the dirtbox in the sky include the following: 'collapsed while praying' (8 cats), 'jumped from a boat' (3), 'struck down by wildfire' (3), 'rolled into the unknown', 'ate ricaqli pods till burst' and 'pecked by the oracle's geese' (one each).
Hell is a Place on Earth

Office workers on Queen Victoria Street in Central London are often perplexed to find groups of Japanese tourists crouched down on the pavement peering into a small hole in the ground, screaming and running away. One of Japan's major tourist guides to London lists the unusual sightseeing spot, right after the entry on nearby St Paul's Cathedral.

Although the concept of Hell is not central to Shinto and other Japanese belief systems, there is an idea of an Underworld full of flickering green lights, where unsettled souls go to contemplate their mistakes on Earth. The hole in the pavement is actually a small electrical vent, right above a 'covalent signalling bolt' belonging to London Underground - hence all the flashing green lights which scare those tourists!

Friday, 1 June 2007

E=mC Not Square

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

As anyone who has seen this famous photograph will attest, Einstein was not lacking in a sense of humour. Among the great thinker's lesser-known papers is one based on the lyrics of 1920s novelty song 'When It's Night Time In Italy, It's Wednesday Over Here'. What started as a spoof of scientific jargon, written to amuse his pupil Cristobal Snarfi, became a month's work, as Einstein started to look at possibilities of actual logic in the nonsense lyrics of the ditty. One section of the essay, titled 'How High is up?' later became the inspiration for the dissertation of subsequent Nobel prize nominee physicist Charles Bartram Phillips.
Rhubarb Rhubarb

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The Hungarian composer Antal Borsos (1916-1979) was known for works of a traditional nature until the early 1960s, when he began to dabble with the avant garde. He was particularly interested in incorporating organic noises and envisioned a symphony developed from the 'music' produced by plants (creaking trees, snapping buds etc). His Fugue in C major (No.50) used a recording he made of rhubarb growing inside metal bins (forced rhubarb famously grows so quickly that it can be heard expanding). His wife Ilona, who did not share his interest in the experimental, teased him remorselessly about his 'silly musical fruits'. Eventually they divorced - probably a mistake on her part. Within a year, she was remarried to her dentist, who murdered her on their honeymoon.
Much Ado

Among the many mysteries about Shakespeare is the derivation of his surname. Were his ancestors men who shook spears? Facile, but true in part! Thomas Shakespeare, elder brother of William's grandfather was one of a number of men arraigned and fined for a disturbance outside St Botolph's Church in Warwick in 1460 (the reason for the protest is lost in time). Thomas and his cohorts were said to have shouted profanities and waved weapons in the air, including hayforks, catapults and spears.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Man in the Moon

Many know of Li Po, the 8th century Chinese poet who is supposed to have drowned while reaching from his boat for the reflection of the moon. However, a later Chinese poet and philosopher Cho Ha (c1150-c1200) went farther, actually claiming to live on the moon. He maintained that each day he travelled to the moon, where he wrote down his thoughts before voyaging back at dusk to dine with his three cats. Constantly irritated when he was disbelieved, Cho Ha went to the extent of having his tomb sculpted years before his death: it read 'Proud Citizen of Yunnan Province and The Moon'. Cho Ha is still remembered in China for some of his intense musings, which include:

When the wind blows, the tree moves.

To go up a hill, a man must walk upwards.

A cat who smells of fish has recently eaten fish.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

An old and dubious saying has it that in London, you are never more than ten yards from a rat. Not true. However, statisticians have, for reasons which remain unexplained, claimed that in London, you are never more than twenty-five yards from a postage stamp (new or used).
Bad News for Buddha

Earlier this decade, pharmaceutical giant Gristler Hahn developed a radical medication for dissolving surplus body fat. Clinical tests on the treatment were encouraging but, despite the obvious financial implications, the trials were abandoned. The problem was that the fat drains internally, and uncontrollably, meaning those undergoing treatment need to wear a nappy for up to a month.
eXTReMe Tracker