Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's back!

Atlas Obscura is here. Atlas Obscura is here! ATLAS OBSCURA IS HERE!

This is the spiritual successor to, operated by the same people. It appears to be more oriented on curiosities that can be pinned on a globe, so I figure it won't have things like Vegetable Animals, the Kaye effect or Prince Rupert's drops.

Anyhow, while I was laboring under misapprehension that the Kircher Society was wholly defunct, Joshua Foer was operating Curious Expeditions, which is like and Atlas Obscura, but more informal and sassy. I've got a lot of reading to do.

Point is, I think we're done. There isn't a need for I Miss Kircher Society Dot Org Dot Blogspot Dot Com anymore.

The Cynosphere

The cynosphere, a French tricycle powered by dogs, built in 1875.

[Taken verbatim from the original]

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Linnaeus' Flower Clock


Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, divided the flowering plants into three groups: the meteorici, which change their opening and closing times according to the weather conditions; the tropici, which change their opening and closing times according to the length of the day; and the aequinoctales, which have fixed opening and closing times, regardless of weather or season.

Linnaeus noted in his Philosophia Botanica that if one possessed a sufficiently large variety of aequinoctal species, it would be possible to tell time simply by observing the daily opening and closing of flowers. Though Linneaus seems never actually to have planted an horologium florae, or flower clock, his plan was taken up with great passion by many 19th-century gardeners, who often arranged a dozen or more species in the manner of a circular clock face. Below, the approximate opening and closing times of aequinoctal flowers that can be used in an horologium florae:

0200 – Night blooming cereus closes
0500 – Morning glories, wild roses
0600 – Spotted cat’s ear, catmint
0700 – African marigold, orange hawkweed, dandelions
0800 – Mouse-ear hawkweed, African daisies
0900 – Field marigold, gentians, prickly sowthistle closes
1000 – Helichrysum, Californium poppy, common nipplewort closes
1100 – Star of Bethlehem
1200 – Passion flower, goatsbeard, morning glory closes
1300 – Chiding pink closes
1400 – Scarlet pimpernel closes
1500 – Hawkbit closes
1600 – ‘Four o’clock’ plant opens, small bindweed closes, Californian poppy closes
1700 – White waterlily closes
1800 – Evening primrose, moonflower
2000 – Daylilies and dandelions close
2100 – Flowering tobacco
2200 – Night blooming cereus

[Taken verbatim from the original]

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Arrow Stork of Mecklenburg

Until the 19th century, the sudden annual disappearance of white storks each fall had been a profound mystery to European bird-watchers. Aristotle thought the storks went into hibernation with the other disappearing avian species, perhaps at the bottom of the sea. According to some fanciful accounts, "flocks of swallows were allegedly seen congregating in marshes until their accumulated weight bent the reeds into the water, submerging the birds, which apparently then settled down for a long winter’s nap." A 1703 pamphlet titled "An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming," argued that the disappearing birds flew to the moon for the winter.

On May 21, 1822, a stunning piece of evidence came to light, which suggested a less miraculous, if no less wondrous, solution to the quandary of the disappearing birds. A white stork, shot on the Bothmer Estate near Mecklenburg, was discovered with an 80 cm long Central African spear embedded in its neck. The stork had flown the entire migratory journey from its equatorial wintering grounds in this impaled state. The Arrow-Stork, or Pfeilstorch, can now be found, stuffed, in the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock. It is not alone. Since 1822, some 25 separate cases of pfeilstorches have been recorded.

[Taken verbatim from the original]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Capgras Syndrome – "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!"

Capgras Syndrome, or the Capgras Delusion, is a form of mental illness which leads sufferers to believe their family and friends are being replaced by inexact imitations. This delusion may be permanent, or it could come and go in bursts, such as seeing one's spouse, looking down, looking up, and seeing a facsimile-spouse in that same place. From the September 11, 2007 issue of the New York Times comes a good introduction to the disorder.

The disorder was first described in 1923 by the French psychiatrists Joseph Capgras and Jean Reboul-Lachaux. They treated a 53-year-old who believed that her husband, her children, her neighbors and even she had been replaced by exact “doubles” in a plot to steal her property.

In Capgras, there is an uncoupling of perception and recognition that leads many investigators to theorize that there may be a neurological, organic cause that remains unknown. Psychoanalysts have seen Capgras as an unusual form of displacement in which the patient rejects the loved one whenever negative features have to be attributed.

Apparently, in some cases it even leads a sufferer to believe he or she is being replaced. An in-depth case study (PDF) relays a transcript between an experimenter and a patient, named DS:

E (Pointing to a photograph of DS from two years ago when he had a moustache): 'Whose picture is this?'
P: 'That is another DS who looks identical to me but he isn't me—he has a moustache.'

Of course, all this does is make me think of The Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime". Same as it ever was.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Alphabet agates

In May 2007, the original wrote about the sale of a collection of alphabet agates:

These agates, from the island of Java, are colored by deposits of iron oxide. Gem-cutters of incredible skill make a few preliminary cuts to try and determine the nature of the reddish-brown ribbons. This is difficult, because the agate is totally opaque, so any cut will be based on an educated guess at best. From there, they cut the stone into a cabochon (oval or spheroidal shape) and, if the gem-cutter is lucky, the ribbon of colored agate will behave as predicted, and a pretty shape will reveal itself. Letters appear to be the most popular cabochon pattern, and the most common letter agates are the simple cross shapes, like X and T. R is allegedly the most difficult to find. According to this website, which is selling a complete set of alphabet agates for over eleven thousasand USD, there are only eight known complete sets in the world.

I have a hunch that the only reason these collections are so rare and expensive is that the production is done in rural Indonesia with a technique that is steeped in tradition and mystery. I say that there must be some way to x-ray the agate prior to cutting into it, so that we may fully map out where the coloration is. Then, we can run some program to identify where a desired pattern will appear with a certain level of accuracy. This would probably be a lot easier if we didn't restrict the final output to the convex cabochon shape.

If that works (which it might!) it would led to a whole field of custom agates, in shapes far more complex than letters of the alphabet. I know exactly what I would want...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

El Silbo Gomero (The Gomeran Whistle)

Imagine for a moment that it's 1679. You're living on a sparsely-populated island, one with steep mountains and rocky valleys separating everything.

Imagine you're a shepherd, and, more importantly, you need to borrow some knives or something from your neighbor. The only problem is that your neighbor is also a shepherd, and there are about a thousand places he could be. You could spend all night yelling and not find him! Moreover, to even get close to him would mean descending a long footpath, ascending another one, and then wandering around his pastureland for an hour or so. And whether you find him or not, you'll have to go all the way back before your sheep do something stupid, like knock over a lamp or join a cult or whatever.

This was what the residents of La Gomera faced in their daily lives. To compensate, they developed a powerful solution, a system of instantaneous long-distance communication: el Silbo Gomero (Literally, "Gomeran Whistle"), a fully functional whistled dialect of Spanish. And it's awesome.

El Silbo has a well-known history. The original inhabitants of La Gomera were believed to be immigrants from part of what is now Mauritania, and they spoke a tonal language. Tones were so important to the phonology of the language that one could speak simple sentences with just the tones and not lose meaning. This rudimentary system evolved to include glides and stops to imitate consonants, which let whistlers convey more complex phrases. In the 16th century, when the Spaniards conquered the island, the natives were driven to extinction. But the Guanches, Spanish immigrants, adapted the Gomeran whistle to their native Spanish. Spanish does not have phonologically significant tones, so pitch variations are used to represent vowels. The system worked great for the shepherds and farmers. In the 1990's, when modernization brought the number of whistlers to a dangerous nadir, the government of La Gomera made el Silbo a mandatory subject for elementary students, which successfully sparked a whistling renaissance.

Now, this isn't the only whistled language. There are literally hundreds more. Most, if not all, arose as a means of addressing the problem of communicating over long distances, where yelling was no longer viable. Whistled languages were prevalent in three different types of land:
  • Mountains, where steep slopes or heavy snows left people physically isolated even if they could see each other. Some examples of mountain whistle languages are Aas, from the French Pyrenees (which went extinct in the 70's); Chepang, from the Nepalese side of the Himalayas; and yes, Silbo Gomero.

  • Jungles, where the dense flora restricted sound propagation. For hunting groups, good communication is vital, and whistles can travel over six times farther than hollers while still remaining coherent. Examples of jungle whistled languages are Pirahã, Gasup from Papua New Guinea, and the Mazatecan languages of Central America. I have a completely unfounded hunch that being descended from a whistling culture is the reason why seemingly everyone in Oaxaca today is a master whistler.

  • Deserts. Specifically, West Africa. This same region is also known for the talking drum. Also, they may be descended from the same tribes that were the first to colonize (and whistle on) La Gomera. Examples of desert whistled languages—well, when I said above that there were literally hundreds of whistled languages, I didn't mention that most of them are from West Africa. There are too many for me to even begin.

  • There's also the village of Kuşköy in Turkey. I don't actually know the lay of the land around there, so I don't know if it even fits into one of the above categories. Regardless, it's probably the second-most thoroughly documented whistled language after el Silbo, so I feel it deserves a mention.

Jeff Brent has the most complete English collection of resources on the language, including a self published book and a handful of authorized translations. The government of La Gomera offers a bunch of educational resources on el Silbo (in Spanish, natch). They have a set of three videos that they offer to universities. In winter of 2007-2008, I went to great lengths to convince them to a copy to me, a high school punk. A few weeks later, I received a slightly grainy PAL VHS, which I promptly converted to DVD. As far as I know, this is the only digital version of these videos in existence. I am presently debating whether or not to put them online. Those pictures you see above are stills from parte uno, which makes them an I Miss Kircher Society Dot Org Dot Blogspot Dot Com Exclusive (IMKSDODBDCE)!

And yes, I did originally learn about el Silbo from the old

Monday, June 8, 2009

Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines

Can someone in NYC please go see this for me? This new play, "Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines", is a straight-up homage to the world of amateur inventors, the tinkerers with their visions of spring-loaded time savers 'round every corner of the home.

And there's no behind-the-scenes trickery here! When one of those Rube Goldberg devices gets stuck (and they do), there are no stagehands in the shadows to nudge it along. No, the actors have to go and fix it themselves, perhaps with a snarky aside to the audience. That's nice. Bravo, "Machines" creators, for acknowledging that failure is integral to the field of crazy contraptions. Now, because quoting other people is so easy, here is the description from the host theater, HERE Arts Center:

machines machines machines machines machines machines machines explodes the world of garage tinkers and backyard engineers in a ridiculous theatre piece featuring the world's most complicated machines set to perform the simplest tasks. Following the formula, "the most of amount of effort for the least amount of gain," three chowderhead geniuses reach for the heights of mechanical ingenuity to reveal the depths of human idiocy.

Machines x 7 focuses on a trio of fretful men (Rainpan co-founders Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford along with Pig Iron's Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel) who may or may not be brothers living in what may or may not be a postapocalyptic world. In constant fear of an unnamed and unseen enemy, they grow increasingly paranoid and wire their bunker with an enormous array of machines constructed from debris.

Oh man you guys you cannot deny that that sounds awesome.

Addendum: Oh, check it out! The New York Times likes the show too.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Balkan Brouhaha and some new "old" pyramids

From Joshua Foer, former curator of

"An amateur archaeologist's discovery of ancient pyramids under the hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina has kicked off an exuberant national celebration and a massive dig that's drawing tourists by the thousands. There's just one problem: There aren't any pyramids. But why let that stop the party?"

Go here to learn about Semir Osmanagic, the man whose delirium was humored by the locals and nurtured by government financiers into a regional cash cow that draws hippies and new-agers from across Europe. The article was written in 2007, but the website suggests the pyramania continues, much to the chagrin of geologists, archaeologists, and associated -ologists.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Pirahã Tribe

The Pirahã are an Amazonian tribe that has baffled ethnographers for decades. Their culture has no complete perception of color, quantity, or time. They can recall events from, at most, one or two weeks prior, and the idea of planning for the future is wholly foreign to them.

Their language (also called Pirahã) is unique as well. It has very few phonemes—eleven for men, ten for women—and complex digraphs. It is a tonal language, with the interesting feature that it can be sung or whistled and still convey as much information as if spoken.

A handful of daring individuals have been analyzing the culture and their language. The most prominent ones have been husband-and-wife linguistic team Daniel and Keren Everett, who have been living off-and-on with the Pirahã since 1987.

It is difficult to summarize all the peculiar things about this tribe! Lots of other people have written fascinating articles. Read this one. Read this one. Here's Wikipedia's article on the tribe. Here's Wikipedia's article on the language.

We plan to have a post in the near future about another whistled language, El Silbo Gomero. Stay tuned for that.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Charles Bonnet Syndrome is characterized by intense visual hallucination, brought on by deterioration of vision accompanied by old age (i.e. cataracts, astigmatism, the prodding fingers of dirty grandchildren, etc). Basically, lucid, sound-minded old people (the first recorded case being Bonnet's grandfather Charles Lullin) just start seeing things. They aren't just peripheral anomalies or pattern-shifting; they are full-on level three visuals:

"Lullin’s hallucinations of “women” were neatly dressed
and coiffured ladies carrying caskets or inverted tables on
their heads, or young girls approximately 8 to 10 years old
who danced around the room dressed in yellow silks with
rose-colored ribbons, pearl collars, golden buckles, and
diamond pendants. His hallucination of a “carriage,” a
coach complete with drivers and horses, expanded in
correct proportion to the size of a house." (Current Psychiatry Reports 2005, 7:168-179)

The Journal of Psycholinguistic Research has a good article summarizing early studies and categorization of the condition, and and Psychogeriatrics has some interesting case studies. In my opinion, CBS is most interesting due to it's complete lack of other symptoms associated with dementia/senility; the afflicted are fully aware that what they see is not actually there.

Artificial islands

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of the artificial islands being constructed on the coast of Dubai. Less well known is that man-made islands have existed for centuries. The Uros islands are perhaps the oldest, massive reed rafts (the smallest of which are about the length of a football field) on Lake Titicaca in Peru. Shown above is Fadiout, a Senegalese island made of clamshells.

World of Technology has a rather impressive compendium of artificial islands, old and new.

Via Private Islands Online.

A Minor History of Giant Spheres

Cabinet Magazine published a fascinating timeline of twenty-two important spheres. Shown above is the independent micronation of Kugelmugel. From the author's description:

"After a dispute with the Austrian government over the construction of his spherical house, Austrian artist Edwin Lipburger declares his property an independent nation and renames it the Republic of Kugelmugel. Lipburger is sentenced to jail for his refusal to pay taxes and insistence on printing his own stamps. However, a pardon from the Austrian president saves him from serving time."

Via the original

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Kaye Effect

The Kaye effect is a phenomenon that occurs in thin streams of viscous fluid. Tall jets of the fluid will occasionally shoot out with seemingly no provocation. High-speed macro photography provides a definitive explanation for the Kaye effect for the first time.

Via the old

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Peruvian Gothic: The story of Don Benigno Añazco

From Outside Magazine, November 1996. Says author Kate Wheeler, "Don Benigno Añazco carved his way 36 years deep into the green heart of the Andean forest, founded 14 settlements, abandoned his wife and many children, married his daughter, slew his son-in-law, fought drug peddlers, tamed the wilderness, and reclaimed, as best he could, the Inca Empire. And now I was going to find him."

Read the article here. Via the old


Okay. There used to be a website for the Athanasius Kircher Society. stopped updating in late 2007, and presently redirects to a "Coming Soon..." page. We'll see what happens with that.

In the meantime, however, there is no website to fill the void left by There are no collections of weird histories, obscure languages, amazing people. You'll get an idea of the kinds of stories that were posted if you browse these fragmented offsite archives for a little bit.

If all goes according to plan, I will post a Kircherian link every few days, along with an abstract, as would Some of these will be things that were once featured on Others will be things I feel would have fit the theme on

I'll start sometime tomorrow, I think. If you have any suggestions, please please comment.