Miscellany Music

Researchers working with the Tsimané of the Amazon found that tribe members could tell the difference between consonance and dissonance but took them to be equally pleasant, giving credence to the idea that Western preference for consonance is not biological. “The Greeks were really into ratios,” speculated the lead researcher. “It’s possible they started making music that way and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.”

Miscellany Fear

Greek geographer Strabo wrote around 20 BC that, to deal with “a crowd of women” or “any promiscuous mob,” one cannot use reason but rather must exert control using myths and marvels. “For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus lances—arms of the gods—are myths,” he wrote. “The founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simpleminded.”

Miscellany Politics

The first ruler of a unified Chinese empire and father of the Great Wall, Emperor Shihuangdi commissioned a twenty-square-mile mausoleum, which took around 700,000 laborers more than thirty-five years to complete. Inside, there were about eight thousand terracotta soldiers, seventy burial sites, a zoo, and weapons triggered to go off in case of robbers. The chief craftsmen, it is believed, were also buried there to prevent them from betraying construction secrets.

Miscellany Home

Pantagruelian feasts, common at Gallo-Roman villas, followed the Gallic custom of eating around a table rather than the Roman method of doing so while lying down supported by one elbow. After one banquet, it was recorded that all “remained seated on their benches. They had drunk so much wine and had so gorged themselves that the slaves and the guests lay drunk in every corner of the house, wherever they happened to stumble.” 

Miscellany Discovery

Before Sally Ride spent a week aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1983 and became the first American woman in space, NASA engineers asked her if she wanted a hundred tampons in her flight kit. “No,” she later recalled responding, “that would not be the right number.” They said they wanted to be safe. “Well,” she assured them, “you can cut that in half with no problem at all.”

Miscellany Spies

To send a confidential note to Cyrus the Great along heavily guarded roads, sixth-century-BC Median noble Harpagus inserted a paper message into a dead hare’s belly and ordered a servant to pose as a hunter to deliver the corpse. 

Miscellany The Sea

“Just opposite, an island of the sea, / There came enchantment with the shifting wind, / That did both drown and keep alive my ears,” wrote John Keats in Hyperion. It was published in a collection of poems in 1820; Keats died the following year. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelley, returning from a visit to Lord Byron, drowned after his schooner, the Don Juan, capsized. His body washed up on the Tuscan shore a few days later. In his pocket was a copy of Keats’ poems.

Miscellany Magic Shows

In his third-century Interpretation of Dreams, Artemidorus lauded the soothsaying accuracy of Aristander, to whom Alexander the Great, while besieging the city of Tyre, Tyros in Greek, reported that he had dreamed of a satyr dancing on his shield. Aristander said that “satyr,” satyros in Greek, could be broken into “sa” and “Tyros,” meaning “Tyros is yours,” and encouraged Alexander to redouble his attacks. The Macedonian did, and he took the city.

Miscellany Death

Crested ducks are known to perform acts of cannibalism, mallards acts of necrophilia.

Miscellany Spies

Seventh-century Persian king Khosrow II is said to have tested the loyalty of courtiers whom he believed were becoming too close. Telling one of his decision to execute the other, he would swear the man to secrecy and then watch the friend’s behavior. If it went unchanged, he knew the first man was loyal and had kept silent; if different, he was a traitor and dealt with accordingly. 

Miscellany Youth

Discussing the “secret and more adult” appeal of Shirley Temple, Graham Greene wrote in his review of Wee Willie Winkie in 1937, “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialog drops between their intelligence and their desire.” He also noted her “neat and well-developed rump” and “dimpled depravity.” Twentieth Century Fox sued for libel, Greene fled to Mexico, and a court ordered

Miscellany Food

The G8 met in Hokkaido, Japan, in July 2008 to address the global food crisis. Over an eighteen-course meal—including truffles, caviar, conger eel, Kyoto beef, and champagne—prepared by sixty chefs, the world leaders came to a consensus: “We are deeply concerned that the steep rise in global food prices coupled with availability problems in a number of developing countries is threatening global food security.”

Miscellany Water

Valhalla, the mythical hall for slain Norse warriors, is said to cater a nightly feast of boar meat but to offer no water to wash it down. According to the chief speaker of Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning, the warriors would have received a disappointing reward for their agonizing deaths in battle if served merely water. The menu instead includes mead supplied from the udder of a she-goat named Heidrun.

Miscellany The Future

Responding to William F. Buckley’s question as to whether or not he was free the last week in June 1975, the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “That week I’ll be teaching at the University of Moscow.” Buckley replied, “Oh? What do you have left to teach them?”

Miscellany Discovery

In the Arabian Nights, Shahrazad tells of a merman who guides a fisherman around the ocean floor, where underwater societies shun clothing, commerce, and religious restrictions. “I have seen enough,” the fisherman says after eighty days, “for I am getting tired of eating fish.”