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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024


My favourite reading pre-teens was The Patchwork Book, edited by Marghanita Laski (I say, jolly nice-looking wasn't she?), and I suppose this is similarly motivated. But what other title could I bestow upon it?

“Oddities” sounded too much like the Three-Headed Monkey, the Bearded Lady, and so on, in an old-fashioned fairground.

I nearly settled for “Curiosities” as there are many aspects of the world around me that baffled me at school, some of which I've resolved, at least to my own satisfaction, and some that I'm still curious about.

“Gallimaufrey” is now common currency, and gets muddled with Doctor Who anyway.

So it's 'Oddments'.



Please click here, then click 'up chevron (^)' followed by 'Open'

To terminate, please click 'End Show' at lower LHS.

Acquired helplessness

This very perceptive extract from A A Milne's Now We Are Six puts me in mind of my own indecisiveness when confronted by household matters that need urgent attention, and I find some displacement activity, or even better inactivity, instead.

In fact this new sub-option is itself a displacement activity, as I really ought to be finishing The Third Expedition instead.


Extracted from Fun, 5 Feb 1870

[NB Until 1898, a clergyman could buy for himself a life estate in the advowson, and would appoint himself as soon as the church became empty; he would then hold it until his death.]


by W S Gilbert (William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911), aka 'Bab')

A rich advowson, highly prized,
For private sale was advertised;
And many a parson made a bid;

He sought the agent's: "Agent, I
Have come prepared at once to buy
(If your demand is not too big)
The Cure of Otium-cum-Digge."

"Ah!" said the agent, "there's a berth--
The snuggest vicarage on earth;
No sort of duty (so I hear)
And fifteen hundred Pounds a year!

"If on the price we should agree,
The living soon will vacant be:
The good incumbent's ninety-five,
And cannot very long survive.

"See--here's his photograph--you see,
He's in his dotage." "Ah, dear me!
Poor soul!" said Simon. "His decease
Would be a merciful release!"

The agent laughed--the agent blinked--
The agent blew his nose and winked
And poked the parson's ribs in play--
It was that agent's vulgar way.

The REVEREND SIMON frowned: "I grieve
This light demeanour to perceive;
It's scarcely comme il faut, I think:
Now--pray oblige me--do not wink.

"Don't dig my waistcoat into holes--
Your mission is to sell the souls
Of human sheep and human kids
To that divine who highest bids.

"Do well in this, and on your head
Unnumbered honours will be shed."
The agent said, "Well, truth to tell,
I have been doing pretty well."

"You should," said SIMON, "at your age;
But now about the parsonage.
How many rooms does it contain?
Show me the photograph again."

A poor apostle's humble house
Must not be too luxurious;
No stately halls with oaken floor--
It should be decent and no more.

"No billiard-rooms--no stately trees--
No croquet-grounds or pineries."
"Ah!" sighed the agent, "very true:
This property won't do for you.

"All these about the house you'll find"--
"Well," said the parson, "never mind;
I'll manage to submit to these
Luxurious superfluities.

"A clergyman who does not shirk
The various calls of Christian work,
Will have no leisure to employ
These 'common forms' of worldly joy.

"To preach three times on Sabbath days--
To wean the lost from wicked ways--
The sick to soothe--the sane to wed--
The poor to feed with meat and bread;

"These are the various wholesome ways
In which I'll spend my nights and days:
My zeal will have no time to cool
At croquet, archery, or pool."

The agent said, "From what I hear,
This living will not suit, I fear--
There are no poor, no sick at all;
For services there is no call."

The reverend gent looked grave. "Dear me!
Then there is no 'society'?--
I mean, of course, no sinners there
Whose souls will be my special care?"

The cunning agent shook his head,
"No, none--except"--(the agent said)--
"The DUKE OF A., the EARL OF B.,

"But you will not be quite alone,
For, though they've chaplains of their own,
Of course this noble well-bred clan
Receive the parish clergyman."

"Oh, silence, sir!" said SIMON M.,
"Dukes----earls! What should I care for them?
These worldly ranks I scorn and flout!"
"Of course," the agent said, " no doubt."

"Yet I might show these men of birth
The hollowness of rank on earth."
The agent answered, " Very true--
But I should not, if I were you."

"Who sells this rich advowson, pray?
"The agent winked--it was his way--
"His name is HART; 'twixt me and you
He is, I'm griev'd to say, a Jew!"

"A Jew?" said SIMON, "happy find!
I purchase this advowson, mind.
My life shall be devoted to
Converting that unhappy Jew!"


Camp Coffee with Chicory

The Guardian, Tuesday 12 September 2006 – Tim Dowling

Posted on 17 Jul 2020

Major-General Sir Hector McDonald (born 1853), the son of a crofter, enlisted with the Gordon Highlanders and worked his way up through the ranks, serving with distinction in the Afghan war and in India. He became known as “Fighting Mac” for his exploits at the Battle of Omdurman, was wounded in the second Boer war and later given command of the troops in Ceylon, where charges of homosexuality were brought against him. He shot himself in a Paris hotel in 1903, after reading about his impending court martial in the New York Times.

He's also the guy on the Camp coffee bottle, the one sitting on a cushion outside a tent, with a Sikh servant standing by with a tray. Actually, they got rid of the tray decades ago, either because it seemed too servile or because it had a bottle of Camp Coffee on it, which presented a troublesome conundrum: how could the scene on the label possibly be depicted on the bottle in the scene? And what about the bottle on the label on the bottle in the scene? These are the sorts of questions that occupy the very stoned. No doubt there were letters of complaint from freaked-out consumers.

In any case, the Sikh guy was left standing there as if he didn't know what to do with his free hand, which was clenched into an anxious little fist. Recently, allegedly in response to complaints from Asian shopkeepers, the label was amended further, so that the Sikh and the general now sit side by side, with a cup of coffee each. This change has been described by the Tory MSP David Davidson as “political correctness gone mad”.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but it's also apparent that Davidson needs to get out more. This is not even an example of political correctness gone slightly giddy. Perhaps if the servant were sitting in the general's lap (and I think this is where we're heading, albeit with excruciating slowness) it might be described as “historical accuracy gone frank”, but the story so far – Sikh brings disgusting coffee-and-chicory-flavoured beverage, stands around for 60 years, puts down tray, stands around for another 30 years before deciding to take a load off – is hardly characteristic of the ruthless revisionism normally employed by the PC brigade in order to torture Daily Mail readers. We're talking about a few minor changes, introduced with exceeding caution over a very long period, to the label of a Victorian product that has improbably survived into the 21st century. Complaints about the label's “racism” go back at least six years. The sitting Sikh has been on the shelves for months without anyone taking much notice.

All labels change to suit the perceived tastes of customers; even the ones that seem to have stayed the same for generations have been subtly adjusted. Old-fashioned packaging makes consumers think of botulism, not of Empire. The original Camp label may be preferable to the sort of people who despise all forms of improvement – only they could still be drinking Camp coffee – but as far as I'm concerned the changes aren't happening fast enough. At this rate I may not live to see the Sikh and McDonald's first kiss.


Ironic anagrams

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Scottish Soldier


Secrets of Scots soldier who taught Peter the Great

07 May 2009

He left Scotland to become a soldier of fortune and ended up as a general in the Russian army and the right-hand man of Peter the Great.

The Tsar who revolutionised the Russian state is said to have wept by his faithful Scots servant's deathbed before closing his eyes with his own hand.

Now the extraordinary story of Patrick Gordon, who schooled the famous Russian leader in warfare, is to be told in full for the first time with the publication of his diary. "Gordon was a truly remarkable man and the diary is an outstanding historical source," said Professor Paul Dukes, who worked with the AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen to bring about its publication.

Gordon's diary previously surfaced in German and Russian versions but has never been published in full in its original English, leaving his exploits relatively overlooked in the land of his birth.

Now all six volumes of the Scots soldier's thoughts and accounts of derring-do will be published exactly as he first wrote them down. The launch of the first volume is marked today (Thursday, May 7) with a gathering of Scots and Russian scholars at the University of Aberdeen for a two-day Patrick Gordon conference.

Professor Dukes said: "Gordon was born in Auchleuchries, just outside Ellon, and was a proud Scot who always hoped to return to the North-east of Scotland, where he intended to retire and be buried. Sadly, it was not to be, and he breathed his last in 1699 in Moscow, where a monument still stands to his memory.

"Throughout his life Gordon remained faithful to the Jacobite cause and tried to persuade Tsar Peter to support it. His other great conviction in life was Roman Catholicism, and his legacy includes gaining permission for the construction of the church's first chapel in Moscow."

But Gordon's greatest hour arguably came in 1698, shortly before his death, when he suppressed a military revolt aimed at removing Peter from the throne. Almost a decade earlier he had thwarted another attempted coup, this time by Peter's scheming half-sister, Sophia.

"Gordon educated the young Tsar Peter in military and naval matters and became a great confidant of the man who helped turn Russia from a relatively inward-looking country into a European power of huge lands and resource," added Professor Dukes. "He was a fascinating and very accomplished character resembling many before and after him, who left Scotland to make their way in life and had a profound effect on the history of their adopted land. Now, with the publication of his diary in Scotland, and in his own tongue at that, he has at last come home."


Boris and Dorries Bonkers of Dollis Hill

For slightly (Slightly? Ed.) older readers of Private Eye, who supported Neasden FC under the management of ashen-faced supremo Ron Knee (59) in the halcyon 1960's and 70's.


Men are just happier people

What do you expect from such simple creatures? Your last name stays put. The garage is all yours. Wedding plans take care of themselves. Chocolate is just another snack. You can never be pregnant. You can wear a white T-shirt to a water park. You can wear NO shirt to a water park. Car mechanics tell you the truth. The world is your urinal. You never have to drive to another gas station restroom because this one is just too icky. You don't have to stop and think of which way to turn a nut on a bolt. Same work, more pay. Wrinkles add character. Wedding dress £5,000. Tux rental-£100. People never stare at your chest when you're talking to them. New shoes don't cut, blister, or mangle your feet. One mood all the time. Phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat. You know stuff about tanks.

A five-day vacation requires only one suitcase. You can open all your own jars. You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness. If someone forgets to invite you, he or she can still be your friend. Your underwear is £8.95 for a three-pack. Two pairs of shoes are more than enough. You almost never have strap problems in public. You are unable to see wrinkles in your clothes. Everything on your face stays its original colour. The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe decades. You only have to shave your face and neck.

You can play with toys all your life. One wallet and one pair of shoes one colour for all seasons. You can wear shorts no matter how your legs look. You can 'do' your nails with a pocket knife. You have freedom of choice concerning growing a moustache. You can do Christmas shopping for 25 relatives On December 24 in 25 minutes. No wonder men are happier.


• When the bill arrives, Mike, Dave and John will each throw in £20, even though it's only for £32.50. None of them will have anything smaller and none will actually admit they want change back.

• When the girls get their bill, out come the pocket calculators.


• A man will pay £2 for a £1 item he needs.

• A woman will pay £1 for a £2 item that she doesn't need but it's on sale.


• A man has six items in his bathroom: toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving cream, razor, a bar of soap, and a towel.

• The average number of items in the typical woman's bathroom is 337.

• A man would not be able to identify more than 20 of these items.


• A woman has the last word in any argument.

• Anything a man says after that is the beginning of a new argument.


• A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband.

• A man never worries about the future until he gets a wife.


• A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn't.

• A man marries a woman expecting that she won't change, but she does.


• A woman will dress up to go shopping, water the plants, empty the trash, answer the phone, read a book, and get the mail.

• A man will dress up for weddings and funerals.


• Men wake up as good-looking as they went to bed.

• Women somehow deteriorate during the night.


• Ah, children. A woman knows all about her children. She knows about dentist appointments and romances, best friends, favourite foods, secret fears and hopes and dreams, wedding anniversaries, birth dates.

• A man is vaguely aware of some short people living in the house.


• A married man should forget his mistakes. There's no use in two people remembering the same thing!


Prof Challenger

There is no evidence that Challenger is actually a professor, teaching students whether eager or intimidated. He is an independent scholar, as we now say, supported in his research by a series of inventions, and later by a rubber millionaire who leaves Challenger his fortune for the pursuit of science.

George Challenger, physician and scientist, was introduced in the April 1912 Strand Magazine where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World was serialized.

Our first impression of Challenger — apart from learning that he'd broken the skull of a reporter from the Telegraph — is a summary of his professional achievements, read to anxious London Gazette reporter Ned Malone by his editor:

'Challenger, George Edward. Born: Largs, N. B. [North Britain], 1863. Educ.: Largs Academy; Edinburgh University. British Museum Assistant, 1892. Assistant-Keeper of Comparative Anthropology Department, 1893. Resigned after acrimonious correspondence same year. Winner of Crayston Medal for Zoological Research. Foreign Member of' — well, quite a lot of things, about two inches of small type —'Societe Belge, American Academy of Sciences, La Plata, etc., etc. Ex-President Palaeontological Society. Section H, British Association' — so on, so on! —'Publications: “Some Observations Upon a Series of Kalmuck Skulls”; “Outlines of Vertebrate Evolution”; and numerous papers, including “The underlying fallacy of Weissmannism,” which caused heated discussion at the Zoological Congress of Vienna. Recreations: Walking, Alpine climbing. Address: Enmore Park, Kensington, W.'

And we soon learn that Challenger possesses, in entertainingly exaggerated degree, all the stereotypical traits of the dogmatic academic: irascible, combative, aggressively self-assured, and antisocial.

Yet there is no evidence that Challenger is actually a professor, teaching students whether eager or intimidated. He is an independent scholar, as we now say, supported in his research by a series of inventions, and later by a rubber millionaire who leaves Challenger his fortune for the pursuit of science. Indeed, as a professional iconoclast it would have been difficult for Challenger to navigate the often nasty, if petty, politics of academic life, and his Professorship seems to have been purely honorary.

Worse yet, Challenger's physical appearance suggests nothing so much as a huge, hairy ape, as Malone describes:

'It was his size which took one's breath away — his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes were blue-gray under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, and very masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like a barrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table, save for two enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression of the notorious Professor Challenger.'

Yet despite this inauspicious introduction, Challenger ultimately emerges as a sympathetic character, a favorite of his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and one his daughter Dame Jean called “strangely endearing.” Challenger displays a tender streak early on in The Lost World through his love for his wife, and in affections later revealed more fully in his concern for his companions in exploration — including, in a sequel to The Lost World, his heroic efforts to save them from the “Poison Belt” he believed threatening all life on earth. In Challenger, as with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle displayed his genius for drawing compelling, complex figures whose distinctive flaws and faults are counterbalanced by endearing and admirable qualities, becoming heroic by overcoming those flaws and succeeding despite those faults.

And it helps that Challenger takes obvious delight in his own cantankerous antics, a wink at readers who are invited to play along. In The Lost World, Challenger's belief that dinosaurs survive on a remote plateau in South America is ridiculed by his colleagues in London. One of them, Professor Summerlee, leads an expedition to South America to test Challenger's claim. Challenger joins the expedition, which locates the plateau, does encounter living dinosaurs, and after a series of adventures returns to London to report the discovery. When his critics remain skeptical, Challenger unleashes a baby pterodactyl in the Queen's Hall that panics the assembled Zoological Institute. He is vindicated, though the pterodactyl escapes and Ned Malone loses the girl he'd intended to impress by taking part in the expedition.

Conan Doyle's Lost World adventure story drew inspiration from sources ranging from the literary, such as H. Rider Haggard's novels, to the nonfictional exploits of the explorer Percy Fawcett, as well as the mania for fossils and fossil-hunting that gripped gentlemen-scientists and bone-hunters (including Conan Doyle) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Challenger was modelled in large part on Edinburgh University's William Rutherford, who Sir Arthur had known when a medical student (calling Rutherford “a ruthless vivisector” in his autobiography Memories and Adventures); and whose “peculiarities,” including physical appearance, Conan Doyle incorporated into his fictional Challenger, whose barrel chest, huge head, and Assyrian beard were, Conan Doyle later wrote, taken directly from Rutherford.

It also seems likely that Sir Arthur recalled Sir Charles Wyville Thompson, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh from 1870. In 1876, just a few months before Conan Doyle began his studies at that university, Thompson had returned from a well-publicized three-year, round-the-world voyage of exploration and collecting — on the ship HMS Challenger. But other scientists known to Conan Doyle have also been proposed as models, and it may be simply that Conan Doyle intended Challenger to embody a range of stereotypical features of scientists and academics of the day. All the possibilities have been ably explored in The Annotated Lost World (1996) by Alvin E. Rodin M.D. and Roy Pilot.

Apart from these models and inspirations, Professor Challenger was also an alter-ego for Conan Doyle, a figure through whom the author could indulge his passion for science, travel, and invention while allowing Challenger to be unhindered by the conventions of polite society. He described Challenger as “a character who has always amused me more than any other which I have invented.” In fact Conan Doyle disguised himself as Professor Challenger for a series of photos used in the book publication of The Lost World, relishing the charade.

Conan Doyle returned to Professor Challenger in two more novels, The Poison Belt (1913) and The Land of Mist (1926), and two short stories, When the World Screamed (1928) and The Disintegration Machine (1929). The Land of Mist opens with Challenger's forceful rejection of Spiritualism, but he is ultimately converted to the reality of the spirit world, a cause for which Conan Doyle was active in the 1920s. The Lost World has never been out of print, and has inspired movies, TV shows, and radio adaptations. For the first movie version, a silent released in 1925, the need to create life-like dinosaurs led movie director Willis O'Brien to new heights of technical perfection with stop-motion prehistoric creatures that would lead to his King Kong in 1933 as well. In 1922, Conan Doyle brought early Lost World footage to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, in order to astonish men who'd been trying to debunk his beliefs in Spiritualism. Upon release in February 1925, the movie, starring Wallace Beery, was an immediate hit, and became the first in-flight movie entertainment in history, on an Imperial Airway flight from London to Paris that April.

At least six additional movie versions of the novel have been produced, and two TV series. A number of other writers have been inspired by The Lost World to create their own versions of the classic story, including Tarzan-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1916 The Land That Time Forgot, and Michael Crichton's 1990 Jurassic Park and 1995 The Lost World. The combination of adventure, a lost world, and, of course, the irascibly loveable Professor Challenger, continues to entertain and inspire more than 100 years later.

Written by Professor Donald K. Pollock, who like Professor Challenger, trained in both medicine and anthropology. He is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at SUNY/Buffalo, Director of the program in Medical Anthropology, and Adjunct Professor of Geographic Medicine. And like Professor Challenger, he has traveled extensively in the Amazon, most notably for several years' research among the Kulina Indians of Western Brazil, where, sadly, he discovered no dinosaurs. He lives in Niagara Falls, New York.


Algorist vs Abacist

Magic Square
Melencolia, 1514

See also

Hieronymus im Gehäus, 1514
Ritter, Tod und Teufel, 1513

The Birthday Paradox
(click here for pdf)

Clock Calculations
(click here for pdf)

Spherical pi
(click here for pdf)

Pythagoras revisited
(click here for pdf)

Horse-shoe nails
(click here for pdf)

Water and wine
(click here for pdf)

i'th root of i
(click here for pdf)

(click here for pdfs)

The Newcomb-Benford Law
(click here for pdfs)

Monty Hall problem
(click here for pdf)