Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe, and a cheers to the Poe Toaster

Poe would be 210 if he was alive today, which would be a surprising development for all concerned. And presumably today will see the appearance of the Poe Toaster at Poe’s Baltimore grave. Alas, this is a revival of the original mysterious decades-long toaster:


Poe Toaster is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from sometime in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son”.[1] Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster,[2] nor has he appeared any year since, signaling an end to the 75-year tradition.[3][4]

Pleasingly, the revival since 2016 has maintained the anonymity aspect:


In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to select a new individual to resurrect the annual tribute in a modified, tourism-friendly form. The new Toaster—who will also remain anonymous—made his first appearance during the daylight hours of January 16, 2016 (a Saturday, three days before Poe’s birthday), wearing the traditional garb and playing Saint-Saëns‘ Danse macabre on a violin. After raising the traditional cognac toast and placing the roses, he intoned, “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“Glory paid to one’s ashes comes too late”, from an epigram by the Roman poet Martial), and departed.[25]


The mysterious number 6174

6174. Does not seem, at first glance, an interesting number. Maybe paradoxically uninteresting? Or maybe not, for as Yutaka Nishiyama wrote back in 2006 here, 6174 pops up in a rather interesting manner:

In 1949 the mathematician D. R. Kaprekar from Devlali, India, devised a process now known as Kaprekar’s operation. First choose a four digit number where the digits are not all the same (that is not 1111, 2222,…). Then rearrange the digits to get the largest and smallest numbers these digits can make. Finally, subtract the smallest number from the largest to get a new number, and carry on repeating the operation for each new number.

It is a simple operation, but Kaprekar discovered it led to a surprising result. Let’s try it out, starting with the number 2005, the digits of last year. The maximum number we can make with these digits is 5200, and the minimum is 0025 or 25 (if one or more of the digits is zero, embed these in the left hand side of the minimum number). The subtractions are:

5200 – 0025 = 5175
7551 – 1557 = 5994
9954 – 4599 = 5355
5553 – 3555 = 1998
9981 – 1899 = 8082
8820 – 0288 = 8532
8532 – 2358 = 6174
7641 – 1467 = 6174

When we reach 6174 the operation repeats itself, returning 6174 every time. We call the number 6174 a kernel of this operation. So 6174 is a kernel for Kaprekar’s operation, but is this as special as 6174 gets? Well not only is 6174 the only kernel for the operation, it also has one more surprise up its sleeve. Let’s try again starting with a different number, say 1789.

9871 – 1789 = 8082
8820 – 0288 = 8532
8532 – 2358 = 6174

We reached 6174 again!

And you reach it again and again. For three digit numbers, 495 occupies a similar role.


Don’t trust Alexa Crazy Fact: the name “Wendy” wasn’t invented for Peter Pan (and pig orgasms don’t quite last as long as all that)

One of the skills of Amazon’s Alexa is Crazy Fact. This skills allows Alexa to pop up with a fact which is a little unusual or offbeat. From this, I learnt that in space, no-one can hear you snore.

Recently Crazy Fact informed me that the name “Wendy” was invented by J M Barrie for Peter Pan and didn’t exist before this.

It sounded dubious, and a few seconds of web searching revealed that it is not true:

But we have absolute proof that there were earlier Wendys, thanks to the just-released 1880 U.S. Census and the 1881 British Census (available here). These documents show that the name Wendy, while not common, was indeed used in both the U.S. and Great Britain throughout the 1800s. I had no trouble finding twenty females with the first name Wendy in the United States, the earliest being Wendy Gram of Ohio (born in 1828). If you include such spelling variations as Windy, Wendi, Wenda, and Wandy the number triples.

So there you go. Crazy Fact also claims that pigs’ orgasms last 30 minutes.

This is largely not true, so to speak:


There is one final rumour that has to be addressed: the oft-repeated “fact” that male pigs can orgasm for 30 minutes.

According to observations of males with real sows, copulation duration is typically 4-5 minutes, but can last up to 20 minutes

The first thing to say is that we don’t know what sensations the males – or the females for that matter – experience when they mate, so any talk of orgasms is speculative.

But based on the ubiquitous “gloved hand” method used to coax sperm from male pigs, ejaculation does appear to last a very long time. In a 2012 study of “high performance boars”, the average duration of ejaculation was around 6 minutes. But there was considerable variation, with one male apparently yielding semen continuously for 31 minutes.

It is difficult to know whether this kind of protracted ejaculation can occur in the absence of the “gloved hand”, but it is certainly a possibility. According to observations of males with real sows, copulation duration is typically 4-5 minutes, but can last up to 20 minutes.

Whatever the truth about orgasms, an online primer on how to artificially inseminate pigs warns practitioners not to interrupt the male before he’s done, unless they want a very angry pig on their hands. “If you let loose too soon, be prepared for a challenge.”

I’ll say.

“The Menace From Ennis”, a lost classic from Sonny Knowles

The singer Sonny Knowles “known as The Window Cleaner to his fans,”, a staple of the Irish showband scene, has died.

Via Wikipedia I came across this, which I screenshotted in case the uncited reference to two 1966 masterworks got deleted:

I can’t find online recordings of either “Chuaigh Mé Suas Don Chluiche Mór” (I went up to the big match”) or “The Menace From Ennis” However their existence is partly verified by the the Wikipedia page for Ireland’s selection process for the 1966 Eurovision. I note a 20 year old Dickie Rock took part.


From “The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names” by John Wright


It may sound extraordinary, but until recently the shrew had a most fearsome reputation. The creature’s bite was likened to that of a spider – araneus in Latin. Both Aristotle and Pliny wrote of its venomous nature, and this belief continued down the centuries, gaining momentum as time went by.


The general feeling was summed up neatly by the Reverend Topsell in his seventeenth-century History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents: ‘It is a ravening beast, feigning itself gentle and tame, but, being touched, it biteth deep, and poisoneth deadly. It beareth a cruel minde, desiring to hurt anything, neither is there any creature that it loveth, or it loveth him, because it is feared of all.’

Not that an actual bite was considered necessary for the shrew to do its evil work. Elyot in 1538 wrote: ‘Mus Araneus, a kynde of myse called a shrew, whyche yf it goo ouer a beastes backe, he shall be lame in the chyne’. ‘Chyne’ here means ‘spine’, so it would have been a calamity if it were true, which, of course, it was not. Horses were considered particularly vulnerable, but it was not just dumb beasts that were at risk.

Although there is much to be feared in the modern world, one threat at least is no longer a burden, and anyone attending the doctor’s surgery complaining of being ‘shrewstruck’ would not be received sympathetically. This fictitious condition was the result of having a shrew ‘goo ouer’ some part of your body, causing pain and even paralysis. Fortunately such imaginary ailments respond well to imaginary remedies.

Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne reported the destruction by a pious vicar of a much-venerated ash tree. The tree – a ‘shrew ash’ – was relied upon as a cure by the village people, who pleaded in vain for its survival. To make such a tree, a hole was drilled into the trunk, then a live (and very unlucky) shrew was placed into the hole and incarcerated there with a wooden plug, to the accompaniment of appropriately dramatic incantations (sadly lost to history). The branches were then available to be ‘applied’ as a cure, although precisely what this entailed is not recorded. With so many fine details forgotten, should you ever imagine that you have been ‘shrewstruck’, you will be in no position to imagine that you are cured.

A 8½ mile putt

From “Golf’s Strangest Rounds: Extraordinary but True stories from over a Century of Golf” by Andrew Ward



If a golfer putts a ball 8½ miles (13.7km) in 23 seconds, where is the golfer playing? This may sound like a question from a Golf Studies examination paper but it was one that people were asking in September 1997. The answer was ‘on a Concorde flight from New York to Malaga’. The United States Ryder Cup team were en route to Malaga, preparing to meet the Europeans at Valderrama, when they were challenged by the pilot to break the record for Concorde’s longest putt. The previous best was 100ft (30.5m).

The coaching manual suggests that you putt as slowly as possible and give Concorde the maximum amount of time to travel at 1,330mph (2,140km/h) while the ball is still rolling.

On his second attempt, Brad Faxon rolled a 120ft (36.6m) putt all the way along the centre aisle and into a porcelain tea-cup, which was lying on its side. His ball was travelling for 23 seconds. Therefore the ball must have travelled 8½ miles (plus an extra 40 yards (36.6m) for the length of the putt). You might wonder why the golfers needed some distraction. After all Concorde was only in the air for 3 hours 25 minutes. Nobody knew whether the omens were good or bad for the Ryder Cup. In fact they were not that good for Faxon. He lost two of his three matches and the United States lost by 14½ –13½.