On Questionnaires

‘Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?’

– Currently, one of the questions on document I-94W of the Visa Waiver Program for people visiting the United States of America.

20/iii mmxiii

The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born in 1685, the same year as Handel and Scarlatti. He was the father of 20 children.

George Frideric Handel, born in the same year ...

Thomas Hudson’s 1749 painting of George Frideric Handel, born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti

The English word Growler may refer to: a pseudonym of singer Errol Duke, a size of iceberg, a sound-powered telephone used on US Navy ships, a type of beer bottle, a type of horse-drawn cab, a Yorkshire artisan pork pie, an electrical device for testing electric motors, an internally transportable vehicle, a horse-drawn carriage known as a Clarence, it is the nickname of a jet fighter known as the EA-18 Growler, it is also slang for a hot dog and vagina.

Torschlusspanik is a German word meaning ‘the fear of diminishing opportunities as one grows older’.

In 1999 The German Language Society, based in Wiesbaden, nominated Rind­fleisch­eti­ket­tie­rungs­über­wachungs­auf­ga­ben­über­tra­gungs­ge­setzas its Word of The Year. It came tenth in the national contest. The winner was Millennium.

Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman. Zimmerman is German for carpenter. For his début album, Bob Dylan (1962) Dylan recorded the song House Carpenter but it was not included on the album and he never sang it again in public.

See other: Quite Interesting Facts

Apotropaic Striptease

In his encyclopaedic Natural History, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus 23 AD – August 25, 79 AD) wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn. Even when not menstruating, a nude woman can still lull a storm out at sea by stripping.

In Ireland and China, women have been known to lift up their skirts to chase off enemies. A story from The Irish Times (September 23, 1977) reported a potentially violent incident involving several men, that was averted by a woman exposing her genitals to the attackers.

According to Balkan folklore, when it rained too much, women would run into the fields and lift their skirts to scare the gods and end the rain. In Jean de La Fontaine’s Nouveaux Contes (1674), a demon is repulsed by the sight of a woman lifting her skirt.

These examples of women exposing their breasts or genitals had a so-called apotropaic function: ritual nudity was supposed to ward off malevolent influences or evil spirits.

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The Tsar’s Finger

It’s 1841, and Russia is attempting one of its great leaps forward to catch up with the rest of Europe. Railways are all the rage out west. So the Empire would like to lay some track of its own . There’s more than prestige at stake: the new transport technology might just be what the vast, badly connected country needs.

The Transsiberian Railway will form the backbone of Russian, and later Soviet dominance in northern Asia, connecting Moscow with the Pacific port of Vladivostok. It will be inaugurated in 1890 by Tsar Alexander II, and completed in 1916, on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

But at this point, the project seems at a standstill. There’s only one single stretch of railtrack in the entire country: the line connecting the Imperial capital of St Petersburg with Tsarskoye Selo, the Imperial summer residence 15 miles further south.

1884 map of the railtrack between St Petersburg and Moscow

Tsar Nicholas I’s glorious vision – a railway connecting St Petersburg with the Empire’s second city, Moscow – is held back by the bickering of engineers. Unable to agree on the best route of the future railway line, they test the patience of the Russian autocrat until it snaps. In exasperation, Nicholas snatches the map from the dithering technicians, grabs a ruler and draws a straight line between both cities:

Gentlemen, there’s your route!

In Imperial Russia, the Tsar’s will is the law. So his engineers have no choice but to lay down the tracks exactly as he has determined: in a straight line. Except for one curious deviation. Near Verebye, the straight track is abandoned for a semicircular deviation known officially as the Verebinsky Bypass.

The anomaly is also known as the Tsar’s Finger, because the story goes that Nicholas I stuck out a finger over the ruler, and in his furious impatience, simply drew around it. Since nobody dares to correct a Tsar, especially not an angry one, the railway was built exactly like Nicholas had demanded, bypass included.

Even if you don’t read Russian, you won’t need long to locate Verebye on this 1884 map of what then was known as the Nikolayevskaya Zheleznaya Doroga (‘Nicolas’s Iron Road’). It’s that little nick in the line just northeast of Novgorod (the only large city on this section of the map). Looking at this map, it’s easy to believe the story of the Tsar’s Finger. Unfortunately, it’s too good to be true: the Moscow-St Petersburg Railway was completed in 1851, four years before Nicholas died of pneumonia. The curve in the otherwise remarkably (but not entirely) straight railway line wasn’t built until 1877.

The line took 9 years to complete, and required the building of 184 bridges (one across the Volga). In 1923, the railway was renamed from Nikolayevskaya to Oktyabrskaya, to honour the October Revolution of 1917. Since 2009, the new high-speed Sapsan trains have reduced the travel time between Moscow and St Petersburg to 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Close-up of the track at at Verebye known as the Tsar’s finger

The bypass fixed a problem plaguing the line since its opening. Nowhere else was the gradient of the railway as steep as at Verebye. Trains coming from St Petersburg rushed down the incline at such a speed that they couldn’t stop at the next station; trains coming from the other direction needed four locomotives to make the climb. By constructing a curve that gradually overcame the height difference, the problem was overcome.

The Tsar’s Finger was in use for almost 125 years; advances in locomotive technology had long since rendered the detour unnecessary before the track was restored to its original, straight course in 2001. The trip between Moscow and St Petersburg was shortened by 3 miles, to 404 miles.

While there is no literal truth in the story ‘explaining’ the Verebinsky Bypass, like many other urban legends, it resonates with out perception of the subject. In this case, the relationship between Russia and its ruler – pun intended. From the Tsars through Stalin to Putin, Russia is eternally in need of a strong leader, who can bash heads together and get things done. Without these strongmen, Russia is condemned to bureaucratic dithering, counterrevolution, or capitalist chaos – respectively.

The Soldier

‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’

– Rupert Brooke


Finnish and Estonian have a grammatical aspect contrast of telicity between telic and atelic.

Telic sentences signal that the intended goal of an action is achieved. Atelic sentences do not signal whether any such goal has been achieved. The aspect is indicated by the case of the object: accusative is telic and partitive is atelic.

For example, the (implicit) purpose of shooting is to kill, such that:

  • Ammuin karhun meaning “I shot the bear (succeeded; it is done)” i.e., “I shot the bear dead”. = Telic.
  • Ammuin karhua meaning “I shot at the bear” i.e., “I shot the bear (and I am not telling if it died)”. = Atelic.

Sometimes, corresponding telic and atelic forms have as little to do with each other semantically as “take” has with “take off”.

For example, naida means “to marry” when telic, but “to have sex with” when atelic.

See other: Admin’s Choice Posts