Not sure what has moved me to resurrect this old post,  but here are two letters I sent to the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism from May 2010 and then May 2014 on a fragment of medical advice from the distant past:

‘Eels, being put into wine or beer, and suffered to die in it, he that drinks it will never endure that sort of liquor again’



In which I discover Mavis Beacon Isn’t Real

You can learn something new every day. Years ago, I learnt touch typing and sporadically honed what skill I have with Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. I always vaguely assumed there was a real touch typing expert called Mavis Beacon behind it all – perhaps owner of a successful chain of secretarial colleges in New York State or some such .

However she isn’t, being created from whole cloth.  This near 20-year old New York Times article discusses this phenomenon, including her significance as a female African-American role model.

Aristotle’s Illusion (via Tim Hunkin and Lord Kilmarnock)

A while back I was reading the entertainingly gothic ghost story Ferelith by Lord Kilmarnock,  and came across this passage:

At last, after four years of waiting, I stumbled on the opportunity I sought, but as is so often the case with the realisation of human desires, my touchstone proved an illusion. I grasped what had so long eluded me, but it showed me nothing—or next to nothing. It did indeed confirm my theory, but it threw little light on the subject, and gave me no inspiration for my guidance in the future. Jean was in one of her usual trances, I had almost given up the attempt to witness her awakening. I was sitting by her side musing vaguely on the why and wherefore of human existence, and idly turning over the eternal riddle which has no answer. Suddenly I attained Nirvana—that state of double consciousness, of separated sensibility, when the eyes become fixed on a point and yet see nothing. The sensation recalls that produced by crossing two fingers of one hand and passing them down the nose: one feels two slightly indefinite noses, though perfectly aware of the fact that there is but one. Most people have at times been in this state, but for those who have not, the illustration may be useful. The mind is represented by the crossed fingers, the two noses are the detached existences of which that mind becomes conscious. The feeling is not uncommon, though it touches on the borderland of the incomprehensible.

Feeling two noses by using crossed fingers is something I have done quite a lot ever since reading about this in Tim Hunkin’s Almost Everything There is To Know back around 1988. It turns out that this was first described by no less that Aristotle and is known as Aristotle’s Illusion:

A tactile illusion that is created when the eyes are closed, two fingers of one hand are crossed, and a small object such as an acorn is pressed (especially by another person) into the cleft between the tips of the crossed fingers. The sensation is that of touching two objects rather than one. The first written account of it was given by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322bc) in the essay On Dreams in the Parva Naturalia: ‘When the fingers are crossed, one object seems to be two; but yet we deny that it is two; for sight is more authoritative than touch. Yet, if touch stood alone, we should actually have pronounced the one object to be two’ (Chapter 2). Aristotle mentioned it also in Metaphysics: ‘Touch says there are two objects when we cross our fingers, while sight says there is one’ (Book 4, Chapter 6). The explanation for the illusion, apparently overlooked by Aristotle, is that when the fingers are crossed the outsides of two fingers are touched simultaneously, and in ordinary circumstances and past experience that requires stimulation by two separate objects. This explanation was first advanced in Problems, a spurious work often attributed to Aristotle, probably written by one of his followers: ‘When we hold the hand in its natural position, we cannot touch an object with the outer sides of two fingers’ (Book 35, Chapter 10). Further references to the illusion are to be found in Book 31, Chapters 11 and 17 of Problems. Also called Aristotle’s experiment. See also diplaesthesia

Did Captain Molesworth lose his bet?

From Andrew Ward’s Golf’s Strangest Rounds:

“At 5.20a.m. on a September morning Captain Molesworth set out for a busy day at the Royal North Devon Golf Course. To win his match, he had to walk 3 miles (4.8km) to the links and play six rounds of golf under 660 strokes.

In the 1870s it was fairly common for sportsmen to bet on such feats of stamina. One of the most famous was W.G. Bloxsam’s attempt to play 12 rounds of the Aberdeen Links and walk 10 miles (16km) home to Schoolhill within 24 hours. He won his bet between 6a.m. on Tuesday 6 July 1875 and 1.15a.m. the following morning. ‘During the day he kept up his strength by copious libations of Liebig’s Extract of Meat in a liquid state’, we learn from the Aberdeen Golf Club minutes.

Captain Molesworth’s match, first agreed at the Whitsun meeting, was a focus for much talk and betting. His opponents were cheered by the moisture in the air that September morning. Having successfully walked ‘to work’, Molesworth was faced with a thick dew when he started playing at 6.10a.m. The conditions were as difficult as playing in heavy rain. The dew not only handicapped his first-round scoring – a 14 at the ninth hole, for instance – but also ruined his wooden clubs. The face of his driver dropped to pieces at the twelfth hole, and he was forced to rely on irons and his putter. His score of 120 was a brave one in the conditions, but it promised little for his supporters, who knew he needed to average less than 110 for his six rounds. He played his second round immediately, relying solely on iron clubs. He was lifted by a score of 105, but the third round was miserable. A 15 at the ninth hole led to a disastrous score of 122, and Captain Molesworth took his first rest (five minutes) at the end of the round. Scores of 108 (fourth round) and 102 (fifth) brought him back into contention. He had now played five rounds in 557 strokes, and a second consecutive round of 102 would complete six rounds in the required figure. His sixth-round score was 105. 662. Three over. Had he lost his bet?

I propose to post what transpired on Thursday 6th September. Feel free to speculate / discuss in the comments. No Googling orDuck Duck Going!

Beshoff’s Chip Shop Founder was Last Survivor of Potemkin Mutiny

From his 1987 New York Times obituary:

Ivan Beshoff, the last survivor of the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin, a harbinger of the Russian Revolution, died Sunday, his family said today. His birth certificate said he was 102 years old, but he contended he was 104.

Born near the Black Sea port of Odessa, Mr. Beshoff abandoned chemistry studies and joined the navy, serving in the engine room of the Potemkin.

The mutiny over poor food was the first mass expression of discontent in Czar Nicholas II’s military and later came to be seen as a prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The mutineers killed the captain and several officers. The entire Black Sea fleet was ordered to suppress the rebellion, but crews refused to fire on the battleship, and it sailed for 11 days before surrendering.

Mr. Beshoff had said he fled through Turkey to London, where he met Lenin. He settled in Ireland in 1913, saying he had tired of the sea.

Mr. Beshoff worked for a Soviet oil distribution company and was twice arrested as a Soviet spy, but became a beloved figure in the Irish community.

After World War II, he opened a fish and chips shop in Dublin. His sons opened branches elsewhere in the city.

Weirdly (to my mind) Beshoff’s don’t mention this on their website… although we do have this historical tidbit:

Grandfather Ivan Beshoff came to Ireland from Russia in 1913 and lived to 104 years. His father lived to 108 and his grandfather to 115 – enough said about the goodness of fish.

”the most sane fringe phenomena.”

The current New Yorker features a piece by Brooke Jarvis on the maybe-extinct, maybe-not Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine.

About fifteen years ago I had a cryptozoological phase, with occasional relapses. However, I can rarely get past the minimum viable population problem. Jarvis’ article is a witty and rather wise piece. The Tasmanian tiger’s continued existence is not that unlikely, and Jarvis cites the many examples of Lazarus species:

Tiger enthusiasts are quick to bring up Lazarus species—animals that were considered lost but then found—which in Australia include the mountain pygmy possum (known from fossils dating from the Pleistocene and long thought to be extinct, it was found in a ski lodge in 1966); the Adelaide pygmy blue-tongue skink (rediscovered in a snake’s stomach in 1992); and the bridled nailtail wallaby, which was resurrected in 1973, after a fence-builder read about its extinction in a magazine article and told researchers that he knew where some lived. In 2013, a photographer captured seventeen seconds of footage of the night parrot, whose continued existence had been rumored but unproven for almost a century. Sean Dooley, the editor of the magazine BirdLife, called the rediscovery “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse.” The parrots have since been found from one side of the continent to the other. Is it more foolish to chase what may be a figment, or to assume that our planet has no secrets left?

But there is also something to be said for the impatience expressed by Anna Povey here:

But some people erupted in frustration at the mention of the tiger. “We killed them off a hundred years ago and now, belatedly, we’re proud of the thylacine!” Anna Povey, who works in land conservation, nearly shouted. She wanted to know why the government fetishizes the tiger’s image when other animals, such as the eastern quoll—cute, fluffy, definitely alive, and definitely endangered—could still make use of the attention. I couldn’t help thinking of all the purported thylacine videos that are dismissed as “just” a quoll. “It does piss us off!” Povey said. “It’s about time to appreciate the things we have, Australia, my God! We still treat this place as if it was the time of the thylacines—as if it was a frontier and we can carry on taking over.”

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens, expands on this;

In the nineteen-seventies, Bob Brown, later a leader of the Australian Greens, a political party, spent two years as a member of a thylacine search team. He told me that although he’d like to think the fascination with thylacines is motivated by remorse and a desire for restitution, people’s guilt doesn’t seem to be reflected in the policies that they actually support. Logging and mining are major industries in Tasmania, and land clearing is rampant; even the forest where Naarding saw his tiger is gone. Throughout Australia, the dire extinction rate is expected to worsen. It is a problem of the human psyche, Brown said, that we seem to get interested in animals only as they slide toward oblivion

The whole thing is worth reading – it is a classic of a kind of New Yorker piece; erudite, witty, slightly detached but unexpectedly moving.

Escher on video and in Lego form

Escher on video and in Lego form

The Escher Museum in the Hague have a page with lots of Escher videos

Here is an excerpt from a National Film Board of Canada film which elegantly animates Escher’s work:

Here is what is apparently the only surviving film of Escher at work:

Part 1 of a 2 part documentary on Escher with Roger Penrose:

I long to attempt some of these Lego versions of Escher images.

Firstly, via the website of Andrew Lipson, here is Ascending and Descending (the ever-rising staircase)


Again via Andrew Lipson, here is “Relativity”:



And again via Lipson, here is “Waterfall”:


Here is a gallery featuring the above images, and other Escher-based Lego creations by Lipson and his collaborator Daniel Shiu, with the originals for comparison.

Here is a Daily Mail article from 2011 on Lipson’s Lego work.