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Posts Tagged ‘mystery

“There is nothing more tentative, nothing more empirical (superficially, at least) than the process of establishing an order among things; nothing that demands a sharper eye or a surer, better-articulated language”*

James Vincent on the emergence of earliest writing and its impact on culture, with special attention to the phenomenon of the “list” and its role in the birth of metrology…

Measurement was a crucial organizing principle in ancient Egypt, but metrology itself does not begin with nilometers. To understand its place in human culture, we have to trace its roots back further, to the invention of writing itself. For without writing, no measures can be recorded. The best evidence suggests that the written word was created independently thousands of years ago by a number of different cultures scattered around the world: in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, China, and Egypt. But it’s in Mesopotamia—present-day Iraq—where the practice is thought to have been invented first.

There’s some debate over whether this invention of writing enabled the first states to emerge, giving their rulers the ability to oversee and allocate resources, or whether it was the demands of the early states that in turn led to the invention of writing. Either way, the scribal arts offered dramatic new ways to process knowledge, allowing for not only superior organization, but also superior thinking. Some scholars argue that the splitting of noun and number on clay tablets didn’t just allow kings to better track their taxes but was tantamount to a cognitive revolution: a leap forward that allowed humans to abstract and categorize the world around them like never before.

Lists may not seem like cognitive dynamite, but their proliferation appears to have helped develop new modes of thought in early societies, encouraging us to think analytically about the world. “The list relies on discontinuity rather than continuity,” writes anthropologist Jack Goody. “[I]t encourages the ordering of the items, by number, by initial sound, by category, etc. And the existence of boundaries, external and internal, brings greater visibility to categories, at the same time as making them more abstract.”…

More at: “What If… Listicles Are Actually an Ancient Form of Writing and Narrative?” from @jjvincent in @lithub

* Michel Foucault


As we organize, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that the Mary Celeste (often erroneously referred to as Marie Celeste, per a Conan Doyle short story about the ship), an American-registered merchant brigantine, was discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores Islands.

The Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia found her in a dishevelled but seaworthy condition under partial sail and with her lifeboat missing. The last entry in her log was dated ten days earlier. She had left New York City for Genoa on November 7 and was still amply provisioned when found. Her cargo of alcohol was intact, and the captain’s and crew’s personal belongings were undisturbed. None of those who had been on board were ever seen or heard from again.

At the salvage hearings in Gibraltar following her recovery, the court’s officers considered various possibilities of foul play, including mutiny by Mary Celeste‘s crew, piracy by the Dei Gratia crew or others, and conspiracy to carry out insurance or salvage fraud. No convincing evidence supported these theories, but unresolved suspicions led to a relatively low salvage award.

The inconclusive nature of the hearings fostered continued speculation as to the nature of the mystery. Hypotheses that have been advanced include the effects on the crew of alcohol fumes rising from the cargo, submarine earthquakes, waterspouts, attack by a giant squid, and paranormal intervention.

After the Gibraltar hearings, Mary Celeste continued in service under new owners. In 1885, her captain deliberately wrecked her off the coast of Haiti as part of an attempted insurance fraud.

The ship in 1861 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 4, 2022 at 1:00 am

“My work consists of two parts; that presented here plus all I have not written. It is this second part that is important.”*…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wooden cabin in Skjolden, Norway

On the occasion of it centenary, Peter Salmon considers the history, context, and lasting significance of Wittgenstein‘s revolutionary first work…

One hundred years ago, a slim volume of philosophy was published by the then unknown Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The book was as curious as its title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Running to only 75 pages, it was in the form of a series of propositions, the gnomic quality of the first as baffling to the newcomer today as it was then.

1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is a totality of facts not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

And so on, through six propositions, 526 numbered statements, equally emphatic and enigmatic, until the seventh and final proposition, which stands alone at the end of the text: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

The book’s influence was to be dramatic and far-reaching. Wittgenstein believed he had found a “solution” to how language and the world relate, that they shared a logical form. This also set a limit as to what questions could be meaningfully asked. Any question which could not be verified was, in philosophical terms, nonsense.

Written in the First World War trenches, Tractatus is, in many ways, a work of mysticism…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is as brilliant and baffling today as it was on its publication a century ago: “The logical mystic,” from @petesalmon in @NewHumanist.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein


As we wrestle with reason and reality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon— likely a favorite of Wittgenstein’s— was published. In 1990 the novel ranked 10th in Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the Crime Writer’s Association. Five years later, in a similar list by Mystery Writers of America, the novel was ranked third.


“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”*…

John French owns what is believed to be the world’s only moist towelette museum, located at the Michigan State University’s Abrams Planetarium

It started as a joke: a small collection of moist towelettes jammed into a box in an office drawer, at a Pittsburgh planetarium in the 1990s.

John French says he and a friend were amazed at the strange collections he found online in the early days of the internet. But he couldn’t find any moist towelette collections or websites — so he started one… He never imagined his collection would grow to more than 1,000 and travel from Pennsylvania to Texas and then Michigan with him, gathering momentum…

He now runs his mini-museum out of a corner of his office at the Abrams Planetarium in Lansing, Mich. There he displays hundreds of individually wrapped moist towelettes from every continent, except Antarctica…

Towelettes have been marketed to clean everything from fingers to, well, private parts. They were invented in 1958, when American Arthur Julius came up with the idea that became a trademark of the Kentucky Fried Chicken meal.

Over the years it was sold alongside everything from messy meals to popcorn at movie releases. People have donated to French’s museum — which consists of a corner shelving unit — from all over the world…

More at: “Meet the man who runs a moist towelette museum out of a planetarium,” @jsfrench. Visit the museum online here.

* John Wesley


As we disinfect our digits, we might we might send dirk birthday greetings to poet, author, and critic Edgar Allan Poe, born on this date in 1809 in Boston.  In the late 1830’s, after the first chapters of a short but extraordinarily eventful life, Poe (by this time married to his cousin and living in Philadelphia) began to publish the horror tales (“The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and the mysteries (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”) that have earned him the title of “father” of both genres.  Poe died in Baltimore (in what were surely karmically-appropriately mysterious circumstances) in 1849.

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Edgar Allan Poe at 39, the year before his death


“Anonymity is the fame of the future”*…

So… late last spring, a strange, beguiling novel began arriving, in installments, in the mail, addressed to writer Adam Dalva at his parents’ apartment. Who had written it?…

It arrived at the height of the pandemic, in a brown envelope with no return address and too many stamps, none of which had been marked by the post office. It was addressed to me at my parents’ New York City apartment, where I haven’t lived in more than a decade. My mother used the envelope as a notepad for a few weeks, then handed it off to me in July; it was the first time I’d seen her after months of quarantine. Inside the envelope was a small, stapled book—a pamphlet, really—titled “Foodie or The Capitalist Monsoon that is Mississippi,” by a writer named Stokes Prickett. On the cover, there was a photograph of a burrito truck and a notice that read “Advance Promotional Copy: Do Not Read.” The book began with a Cide Hamete Benengeli-style introduction attributed to a Professor Sherbert Taylor. Then a fifty-five-page bildungsroman written in short sections with boldface titles. The prose reminded me a bit of Richard Brautigan.

Because I write book reviews, dozens of unsolicited books are sent to my house every month. Many of them, I confess, barely catch my attention before they’re added to a stack on the floor. But I sat down and read this one all the way through. The narrator of “Foodie” is Rusty, who thinks back on his days in high school, when he worked as a thumbtack-maker’s apprentice, then in a floor-mat factory. Rusty meets another kid from school, an idealist called Foodie whose real name is Gourmand, and whom Rusty describes as “a tetherball champ, a king of the taco stands,” in a town “at the edge of the 8-track suburbs.” Foodie, Rusty says, “was the kindest werewolf on the warfront, and I was his hairdresser.” They start spending time with a hulking, ruthless classmate named Dale, who is “right-handed and immoral as parchment,” and fated to die young because he has a white-collar job that causes him to move through time more quickly than his friends do. After Dale’s death, Foodie and Rusty part ways.

The book was good. But who was Stokes Prickett, and how did this person get my parents’ address?…

A most marvelous mystery, solved by @adalva: “On the Trail of a Mysterious, Pseudonymous Author.”

John Boyle O’Reilly


As we get to the bottom of it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1901 that William Sydney Porter was released (on good behavior) after serving three years in the Ohio Penitentiary for bank fraud and embezzlement; a licensed pharmacist, he had worked in the prison’s infirmary.  But on his release, he turned to what had been a pastime, writing.  Over the next several years he wrote 381 short stories under the pen name by which we know him, “O. Henry,” including a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine.

His wit, characterization, and plot twists– as evidenced in stories like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief”– were adored by his readers but often panned by critics… though academic opinion has since come around: O. Henry is now considered by many to be America’s answer to Guy de Maupassant.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 24, 2021 at 1:00 am

“In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists”*…

But what is it for?…

In the first episode of Buck Rogers, the 1980s television series about an astronaut from the present marooned in the 25th century, our hero visits a museum of the future. A staff member brandishes a mid-20th-century hair dryer. “Early hand laser,” he opines. As an observation of how common knowledge gets lost over time, it’s both funny and poignant. Because our museums also stock items from the past that completely baffle the experts.

Few are as intriguing as the hundred or so Roman dodecahedrons that we have found… In 1739, a strange, twelve-sided hollow object from Roman times was discovered in England. Since then, more than a hundred dodecahedrons have been unearthed.. We know next to nothing about these mysterious objects — so little, in fact, that the various theories about their meaning and function are themselves a source of entertainment.

So, what do we know?

Roman dodecahedrons — or more properly called Gallo-Roman dodecahedrons — are twelve-sided hollow objects, each side pentagonal in shape and almost always contain a hole. The outer edges generally feature rounded protrusions.

Most of the objects are made from bronze, but some are in stone and don’t have holes or knobs. The dodecahedrons are often fist-sized yet can vary in height from 4 to 11 cm (about 1.5 to 4.5 in). The size of the holes also varies, from 6 to 40 mm (0.2 to 1.5 in). Two opposing holes typically are of differing sizes.

Objects of this type were unknown until the first one was found in 1739 in Aston, Hertfordshire. In all, 116 have been dug up from sites as far apart as northern England and Hungary. But most have been found in Gaul, particularly in the Rhine basin, in what is now Switzerland, eastern France, southern Germany, and the Low Countries. Some were found in coin hoards, indicating their owners considered them valuable. Most can be dated to the 2nd and 3rd century AD.

No mention of the dodecahedrons from Roman times has survived. Any theory as to their function is based solely on speculation. Some suggestions:

• A specific type of dice for a game since lost to history. 

• A magical object, possibly from the Celtic religion. A similar small, hollow object with protrusions was recovered from Pompeii in a box with either jewellery or items for magic.

• A toy for children.

• A weight for fishing nets.

• The head of a chieftain’s scepter. 

• A kind of musical instrument. 

• A tool to estimate distances and survey land, especially for military purposes.

• An instrument to estimate the size of and distance to objects on the battlefield for the benefit of the artillery.

• A device for detecting counterfeit coins.

• A calendar for determining the spring and autumn equinoxes and/or the optimal date for sowing wheat.

• A candle holder. (Wax residue was found in one or two of the objects recovered.)

• A connector for metal or wooden poles. 

• A knitting tool specifically for gloves. (That would explain why no dodecahedrons were found in the warmer regions of the Empire.)

• A gauge to calibrate water pipes.

• A base for eagle standards. (Each Roman legion carried a symbolic bird on a staff into battle.) 

• An astrological device used for fortune-telling. (Inscribed on a dodecahedron found in Geneva in 1982 were the Latin names for the 12 signs of the zodiac.) 

The geographic spread of the dodecahedrons we know of is particular: they were all found in territories administered by Rome, inhabited by Celts. That enhances the theory that they were specific to Gallo-Roman culture, which emerged from the contact between the Celtic peoples of Gaul and their Roman conquerors.

Intriguingly, archaeologists in the 1960s have found similar objects along the Maritime Silk Road in Southeast Asia, except smaller and made of gold. They do not appear to predate the Gallo-Roman artefacts and may be evidence of Roman influence on the ancient Indochinese kingdom of Funan…

The first of many was unearthed almost three centuries ago, and we still don’t know what they were for: “Mysterious dodecahedrons of the Roman Empire.”

* Jhumpa Lahiri


As we ponder the puzzle, we might send compressed birthday greetings to Aaron “Bunny” Lapin; he was born on this date in 1914.  In 1948, Lapin invented Reddi-Wip, the pioneering whipped cream dessert topping dispensed from a spray can.   First sold by milkmen in St. Louis, the product rode the post-World War Two convenience craze to national success; in 1998, it was named by Time one of the century’s “100 great consumer items”– along with the pop-top can and Spam.  Lapin became known as the Whipped Cream King; but his legacy is broader:  in 1955, he patented a special valve to control the flow of Reddi-Wip from the can, and formed The Clayton Corporation to manufacture it.  Reddi-Wip is now a Con-Agra brand; but Clayton goes strong, now making industrial valves, closures, caulk, adhesives and foamed plastic products (like insulation and cushioning materials).



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