Miscellany Comedy

Gioachino Rossini was known to possess strong opinions about other composers. “Wagner has some fine moments,” he estimated, “but some bad quarters of an hour.” After hearing Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, he remarked, “What a good thing it isn’t music.”

Miscellany States of Mind

John Florio’s 1603 translation of Michel de Montaigne’s essays contains an early instance of the word emotion being used to refer to feelings distinct from reasoning. Unsure of the word’s merits, Florio included it on a list of “uncouth termes” he apologized to readers for introducing into English from the French.

Miscellany The Future

While on his deathbed in 1849, the Japanese artist Hokusai said to those gathered around him that he wished he could live another ten years. He paused, and went on: “If I had another five years, even, I could have become a real painter.” Then he died, at the age of eighty-nine.

Miscellany Disaster

Hatches of Rocky Mountain locusts (Melanoplus spretus) in 1874 and 1875 brought swarms up to 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide across the Great Plains. Numbers were estimated in the trillions. Farmers risked starvation. The swarm is believed to have been the largest mass of living insects ever witnessed by modern man—but within thirty years the species disappeared. “I can’t believe M. spretus is extinct,” said ecologist Dan Otte in 2014. “But where to look for it?”

Miscellany Swindle & Fraud

In Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, published in 1843, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “What philosophers say about actuality is often just as disappointing as it is when one reads on a sign in a secondhand shop: pressing done here. If a person were to bring his clothes to be pressed, he would be duped, for the sign is merely for sale.”​

Miscellany Rivalry & Feud

Afridi tribesmen agreed not to engage in traditional blood feuds on a road through the Khyber Pass after it was seized by the British Raj in 1879. One result, the writer E.F. Benson later reported, was that Afridis would travel through clandestine tunnels to the road to “smile at each other.” Then, “having taken the air,” he wrote, “they rabbit it into their fortresses again.”

Miscellany Disaster

Astrologers of the Ayyubid Empire predicted in 1186 that the world would end September 16 of that year; a dust storm, stirred up by planetary alignment, would scour the earth of life. Sultan Saladin criticized the “feeble minds” of believers and planned an open-air, candlelit party for that evening. “We never saw a night as calm as that,” an attendee later remarked.

Miscellany Family

Yemen’s parliament passed a law setting the minimum age for marriage at seventeen in 2009, having been spurred by the national attention given to the story of ten-year-old Nujood Ali, who was granted a divorce from a thirty-year-old man. The child-marriage legislation passed in parliament but was put on hold by conservative members, citing potential inconsistencies with Sharia law.

Miscellany Night

A study of sixty-two mammalian species found that animals around the world have shifted into more nocturnal lives. “Humans are now this ubiquitous, terrifying force on the planet,” said lead author Kaitlyn Gaynor, “and we are driving all the other mammals back into the night-time.” The Southeast Asian sun bear, formerly diurnal, now spends as much as 70 percent more time awake at night to avoid humans.

Miscellany Discovery

Hero of Alexandria invented the aeolipile, a primitive steam engine, in the first century. A hollow sphere with elbow-shaped tubes mounted on an axle and suspended over a cauldron of boiling water, the engine likely could not have powered anything. “It should probably be remembered,” wrote historian William Rosen, “as the first in a line of engineering dead ends.”

Miscellany Swindle & Fraud

At the end of his American lecture tour in 1882, Oscar Wilde was given money by a young man who claimed to be the son of a Wall Street banker and who invited him to then play in a game of dice. Wilde ended up losing over $1,000, writing three checks to cover the expense. “I’ve just made a damned fool of myself,” Wilde later confessed to a police captain, having stopped payment of the checks. From a series of mug shots, Wilde identified the swindler: it was notorious banco scammer Hungry Joe Lewis.

Miscellany Comedy

Shortly before Ezra Pound was indicted for treason for his anti-American broadcasts on Benito Mussolini’s Radio Rome, Ernest Hemingway wrote to poet Archibald MacLeish, “If Ezra has any sense he should shoot himself. Personally I think he should have shot himself somewhere along after the twelfth canto, although maybe earlier.”

Miscellany Philanthropy

In 1956 a shelter run by Catholic social worker Dorothy Day was ordered closed by New York City for being a firetrap. Day was fined $250. On her way to court, she passed a group of needy-looking men, one of whom gave her a check and said, “I want to help out a little bit toward the fine. Here’s two-fifty.” Based on the man’s shabby dress, Day assumed he had given $2.50; later she noticed the check was for the full amount and signed by W.H. Auden, who had read about her case and come to help. “Poets do look a bit unpressed, don’t they?” Day said.

Miscellany Night

Astronomers theorizing the existence of small moons orbiting larger moons have proposed calling them “moonmoons.” The planet Kepler-1625b, which has a Neptune-sized moon distantly orbiting it, was cited as “sort of the best-case scenario for a moonmoon.”

Miscellany Luck

A twelfth-century-BC Chinese king consulted an oracle and was told his lucky charm would not be a tiger, dragon, bear, or leopard but rather a wise counselor. He soon came upon a sagacious old man fishing in the river and conscripted him into service. It is said the man’s virtue was such that he fished not with a hook but with a straight piece of iron; acknowledging his integrity, fish impaled themselves voluntarily.