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The AMAZING HISTORY and HIDDEN WONDER all around us. Some other neat stuff, too.
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    My sons and I were on the trail that day because of a quest. This wasn’t about exercise or stress relief or forest bathing. We were on a mission, to summit Wright and Algonquin. Two more peaks to add to our list.

    The main trunkline out of Heart Lake, a north-south highway through the center of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, is like Roman road: trod by so many booted feet that it is sunken, beaten into the earth, the banks of the trail often waist and shoulder high. It was a brilliant late summer day, and at the lower elevations the purple-tipped maples matched the purple granite of the mountains in a brief moment of cohesion. But as we climbed, the hardwoods retreated, and only the spruce and pine remained, until even they were driven out by the cold and the wind, leaving nothing but trampled rock and pockets of moss and wildflowers.

    A few hikers passed us on the way up, including one woman in heavy-duty boots accompanied by her tongue-lolling dog and clearly miserable boyfriend. The happy calico mutt was wearing a harness covered in patches indicating peaks and their elevations.

    “Well, she is a Forty-Sixer,” the young woman said, as explanation.

    “All of you are?” I asked; my sons and I want to be Forty-Sixers too.

    “No, just me and her,” she said proudly, then stuck a thumb towards the noob boyfriend. “He’s on number two.”

    And that made us feel good, because we were on number nine, and no longer noobs ourselves.

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    The Adirondacks in New York are the largest protected park in the continental United States—bigger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon combined—and within that boundary, 46 peaks rise over 4,000 feet of elevation. Anyone that climbs them all—in any order, over any number of years—becomes a Forty-Sixer. Among hikers in the know, it is a prestigious accomplishment, many marathons worth of trail-work. Some of the peaks lie within easy range of a parking lot, but most require multi-day excursions, to valley-floor base camps below each massif. That dog had done the work to earn those patches.

    On that sunny day, my sons and I had chosen two of the more-accessible peaks. It was only three-and-a-half miles from our campsite up to the first summit, through forest that lay in a thick carpet. We were like mites passing among the bristles. But that relatively short path concealed 2,500 feet of elevation gain, and we were panting hard by the end. My youngest son, only eight years old, got vertigo near the end. We had left the trees behind, the trail became all bare rock marked by cairns, and while no steeper than earlier sections, the view was dizzying. For a while, my boy lay flat on his stomach so he couldn’t fall off the mountain.

    Wright Peak was worth all the effort, though. And so we added one more of the 46 to our list, our tenth. The rest of that list, in order of completion: Phelps, Porter, Cascade, Giant, Couchsachraga, Santanoni, Panther, Nye, Street. Only 36 more to go.

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    The Adirondack Mountains feel higher and more remote than they really are, lying only a few hours drive from the major East Coast metros, Montreal, and the upstate Rust Belt. This sense of isolation is partially a matter of climate, as it can snow on the summits even in summer. But it is also related to their natural history: the southernmost outpost of the Canadian Shield, a stand-alone dome scraped clean by the glaciers, exposing rock so ancient it predates multi-cellular life. On the flanks of the Adirondack peaks, the tiny stunted trees, brutalized all winter into the twisted husks of krummholz, can be hundreds of years old. And the lichen, sedge, and flowering grasses clinging to the exposed summits form a genuine alpine zone, remnants of the last ice age, a pin head’s worth of Greenland transposed south and made accessible to average vacationers.

    These natural resources have long attracted holiday-hikers and mountaineers alike. The Adirondacks are home to over 100,000 permanent residents, some living in ski towns and lumber hubs, and others in the poshest Gilded Age digs imaginable. They serve as an ex-urb for those fleeing other refuges closer to New York and Boston; when Concord and the Hudson Valley got too crowded, Emerson and the Vanderbilts moved north.

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    Bob and George Marshall were children of just such privilege, and in the 1910s and 1920s, summered at a Great Camp near the Saranac Lakes, in the heart of the park. With their guide and family friend Herb Clark, the brothers began hiking the high peaks when they were teenagers. By 1925, when Bob was 24 and George was just 21, the three men had already summited all 46 peaks believed to be over 4,000 feet, the treeline threshold for many of the mountains. Very few had established trails, though, and the matter might have remained there if Bob Marshall did not write a how-to guide, The High Peaks of the Adirondacks, in 1922.

    Both Marshall brothers would go on to become environmental leaders. Bob founded the Wilderness Society. George served as president of that non-profit after his brother’s death, and ran the Sierra Club for a while. But within the Adirondacks, the men’s greatest contribution, arguably, is serving as the inspiration for hundreds of thousands of hikers that would attempt to trace their steps.

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    Among the first to catch the high-peak fever were the pastor and parishioners of Grace Methodist Church in Troy, near Albany, New York. Reverend Ernest Ryder was the seventh to summit the rotation, and would coin the term “Forty-Sixer.” Ed Hudowalski made a hiking club out of his Sunday school class, and started leading trips. His wife Grace finished the circuit in 1937, the first woman and ninth overall to do so. As a courtesy, she began to record the names and dates of everyone who finished the 46, and when a new club, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, held its first meeting near Heart Lake in the spring of 1948, they elected Grace the first President. She would also become the first historian, a job she did for 59 years.

    Grace Hudowalski’s list of Forty-Sixers grew and grew, and she made a point of corresponding with each aspirant, asking for their stories. After her death in 2004, others took over but could barely keep up with the volume of inquires. The current co-chairs of the Office of the Historian are a husband-and-wife team, Lee Nesbitt and Siobhan Carney-Nesbitt. Over email, Lee said that there is no one kind of Forty-Sixer—“children, college kids, people who are unemployed, self-employed, blue collar, white collar”—but that the trails are busy, and over the last decade “there definitely is more people out there.”

    The numbers are astounding in their growth. Most hikers take years to complete the 46. The current roster is 10,136, and while still exclusive, it is multiplying rapidly. In 2008, about 180 people were added to the rolls. The classes have increased every year since, to more than 700 in 2016. As many names have been added in the last 10 years as the first 72.

    It is no coincidence, to most observers, that this Forty-Sixer popularity coincides with the growth of social media. “It used to be people sharing photo slides and other people begrudgingly putting up with viewing them,” Lee said. “Nowadays people love sharing and viewing people's trips and in return more people get interested in doing it themselves.”

    The Adirondacks are particularly photo-ready. They contain five essential elements for the perfect varied natural scene: water, rock, sky, vegetation, elevation. This is not just my opinion; check out #46er.

    A post shared by Peter Gnade (@peter.gnade) on

    Among many outdoor enthusiasts, this whole process—seeking out summits only because they are on some arbitrary list, and then recording every hike—is sometimes derisively known as peak-bagging. Purists hold the exercise in poor regard for its emphasis on stamp-collecting and train-spotting, rather than the natural experience itself. The extreme version of peak-bagging involves racing the circuit, trying to beat the records for each FKT (fastest known time), a stat diligently tracked on an international message board.

    Between 2000 and 2004, a man calling himself Cave Dog set a number of speed records, including the 46. Starting with the Colorado 14,000-footers—in jean shorts, no less—he also knocked off the New Hampshire 4,000-footers, the 35-over-3,500 in the Catskills, the 6,000-footers in Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Vermont Long Trail.

    Cave Dog, also known (perhaps more appropriately) as Teddy Keizer, was from Oregon, and he beat the 46 record, long held by locals, by a full day. “Not everyone liked an outsider cruising through like that,” say Jan Wellford, another speed hiker. Wellford was from southern Massachusetts, but had family in the Adirondacks’ Keane Valley, and visited regularly. He decided to make a run at it, and reclaim the title for the locals.

    Wellford set out on June 24, 2008. His wife drove him between trailheads, and he slept a few hours at a time, when his body gave out. He says the challenge is not the total distance, a relatively short 155 miles, but the elevation: over 60,000 feet. Wellford finished three days, 17 hours, and 14 minutes later. He beat Cave Dog by an hour.

    Wellford now guides parties of inexperienced hikers to popular summits. He said he understands the purists, but disagrees with them. “If it takes a list to get people to come back to the mountains, I’m all for it,” he says, adding that social media explains much of the recent popularity.

    In the middle of his own FKT run, he took a selfie on the top of Wright, the handsome hulk of Algonquin in the background.

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    It turns out that the original geological survey of 1897, the one the Marshalls utilized in their hikes, wasn’t quite right. Forty-Sixers still go by the traditional list, but modern methods have shown four of the 46 are actually below the threshold.

    Most hikers today could do without those four: the shortest, only 3,820 feet, is Couchsachraga, an Algonquin word for “dismal wilderness.” It lives up to the name because somehow, seemingly against the rules of hydrology that state water must drain away, a primordial swamp guards the summit.

    But my kids and I have done Couchsachraga—miserable as it was, and no, I’m never going back—because we’re completists and collectors and ultimately, agree with Wellford. If it takes a list and a goal to get father and sons out on the trail together for days at a time, then so be it.

    On our latest hike, on that late-summer day, our goal, after Wright Peak, was Algonquin, a classic hike and, at 5,114 feet, the second highest of the 46. The whole path was visible from the summit of Wright: the drop into the thickly-forested saddle between the mountains, the steep climb out, the exposed slickrock that dotted the slope like islands in a green sea.

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    On our way off Wright, we detoured to a memorial that looks out over the valley. A small plaque was driven into the stone face, and along the ledge, the well-preserved crash remains of a B-47, the U.S. Air Force’s first modern bomber. In 1962, an aircrew of four men was on a training mission out of Plattsburgh, a base on Lake Champlain 40 miles to the northeast. A storm rolled in unexpectedly, and high winds blew them off course. Unable to see, First Lieutenant Rodney D. Bloomgren, the aircraft’s pilot, drove the plane directly into the broadside of the mountain. No one survived.

    How many of the peak-baggers stop and notice this, I wondered? Only for a moment, though, because then we pushed on too.

    Algonquin’s approach proved more precarious than its final push to the summit. Hiking with children, I’ve learned chocolate cures all sorts of aches, pains, and bad attitudes, but it was hardly required as we scampered the cliff faces, some well-suited for a climbing gym. And then, all of sudden, we poked through the trees and stood in the alpine meadows of club moss and diapensia. The last half mile was joy. Number 11.

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    Standing at the top, next to the old rusting survey spike, was a young man with a long wizard beard, wispy like a frayed cloud. He introduced himself as the summit steward, and said it was his job to mind the top of Algonquin five days a week.

    “Basically, I tell people to stay off the grass,” he said.

    "This place gets a lot of traffic,” I said. “How many are doing the Forty-Six?"

    "Too many. That's why most of these people are here," he said. Around us, young couples and middle-aged men in compression socks were busy on their smart phones, taking photos. We agreed it was a bit like Pokémon Go, trying to catch every high peak.

    “I've done more than 46 peaks,” the summit steward went on, “but I haven't done the 46, if you know what I mean. If I do it, I probably won't even register."

    “Not me,” said an older gentleman behind us. “I’ve already registered with the Forty-Sixers, and this is my second peak. I’m going to do them all.”


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    Most people wouldn’t choose to make a coffee table from art belonging to a bloodthirsty, tyrannical, sex-crazed Roman Emperor. But antiques dealer Helen Fioratti had no idea that the mosaic that sat in her living room for decades once belonged to Caligula, she told NBC News, until police showed up to take it away.

    Fioratti acquired the striking piece 45 years ago, from a family of aristocrats. The mosaic, they told her, had been found in Lake Nemi, nearby the family's home, in the 19th century. She spent thousands of dollars to buy it from them, shipped it to New York, and had it turned into a coffee table, which sat in her Upper East Side apartment for years.

    In the past months, though, the Italian military police's Art Recovery Unit and New York’s district attorney office have been working to repatriate stolen Italian art, and the mosaic caught their attention. (It’s not clear exactly how.) The piece, according to the Italian unit, came from a elaborately decorated ceremonial ship from the reign of Caligula in the first century A.D.

    Caligula’s rule only lasted four short years and ended in his assassination, after which the ships were sunk in Lake Nemi. In the 1920s, they were excavated, and the mosaic flooring brought to the Ships of Nemi Museum in 1936. That museum was used as a bomb shelter in World War II, and few of the antiquities survived, making the mosaic that much more valuable.

    Now, it’s being returned to Italy, along with other recently rediscovered art. Fioratti told NBC News that she had no idea that it was stolen and was sad to see it go.


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    Anyone who’s ever heard the expression “it’s turtles all the way down” is probably familiar with the image of the world being carried on the back of a giant turtle. While that philosophical one-liner is of relatively modern vintage, the cosmic turtle mytheme has appeared in disparate cultures across the globe for millennia. In honor of everyone’s favorite intellectual quandary, let’s take a moment to celebrate the tortoises that hold up the world.

    In his book Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, the turn-of-the-20th-century anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor writes that the world turtle concept likely first appeared in Hindu mythology. In one Vedic story, the form of the god Vishnu’s second avatar, Kurma, is a great turtle, which provides a celestial foundation upon which a mountain is balanced.

    Over in China, part of the traditional creation mythology involves a giant turtle named Ao, although the image in this case is a but different. According to the legend, the creator goddess cut off the legs of the cosmic turtle and used them to prop up the heavens, which had been damaged by another god. It’s not quite carrying the world on its back, but it still puts a terrapin at the center of the universe, making sure that the very sky doesn’t fall down.

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    The concept of a world turtle seems to have arisen independently within Native American myth and legend. In the creation stories of the Lenape and Iroquois people, the Earth is created as soil is piled on the back of a great sea turtle that continues to grow until it carrying the entire world. Many indigenous tribes in North America refer to the continent as Turtle Island to this day.

    The image of the world being carried through space by an ancient, impossibly massive tortoise is evocative, so it's not hard to imagine why it has survived for so long in so many different cultures. But in the end, why turtles?

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    In a 1974 issue of the anthropological journal Man, the scholar Jay Miller provides some thoughts on what makes the turtle such a popular world bearer, writing, “I viewed the turtle as a logical choice for such an atlantean because its shape and appearance were suited to this role.” But he goes on to write, specifically of the Lenape belief in a world turtle, that the creature also mirrored aspects that they valued in their culture, such as perseverance and longevity. And that idea doesn’t just apply to the cosmic turtle in Lenape culture. “With intensive research, the above analysis should also apply for other societies that place the earth on the back of a turtle.” Most turtles and tortoises are also famously long-lived, giving them a wise, ancient quality that lends itself to mythologizing.

    World turtles appear in more modern pop culture as well, from the Great A'Tuin of the late Terry Pratchett's Discworld franchise, to the all-knowing Maturin of Stephen King’s metaverse. Clearly, it remains cool to imagine that our world is being led through space by a being that actually knows where we’re headed.


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    Tourists come from far and wide to visit the 2,300-year-old Greek theater of Epidaurus, where they stand in one of the back rows, scrunch up their eyes, and listen for the far-off sound of a coin being dropped or a piece of paper being ripped by a tour guide standing on the stage. Like other amphitheaters of the period, it's supposed to have legendary acoustics. But the sonic properties of this theater may not be as dazzling as they're made out to be, say scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, who presented their findings at the scientific conference Acoustics '17 Boston earlier this year.

    The team undertook multiple sound measurements from hundreds of spots across the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the theater of Argos, and the theater of Epidaurus to get a wider picture of the audibility of sounds throughout the auditoriums, at various times of the day to reflect changes in humidity and temperature. They focused on the sounds often demonstrated to tourists—falling coins, tearing paper, a whisper. These, they found, were not audible from the back rows, as they are often said to be.

    The study has sparked a commotion among classicists, however. In a statement given to the Times of London, the Hellenic Institute of Acoustics said that the findings “lacked sufficient scientific evidence,” that the conclusions were "arbitrary," and that it would be requesting a "thorough review of their findings." Many scholars and journalists have posited that the study purports to measure the acoustics as they would have once been, thousands of years ago. According to Remy Wenmaekers, coauthor of the study, this reaction came because of confusion over what he and his team had set out to study. “What we investigated was the current theaters, as they are right now," he says. "Our conclusions are saying nothing about what the theaters would have been like 2,000 years ago, and our expectation is that they were very different."

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    There is no shortage of reasons why today's acoustics may be different than those heralded in ancient literature, Wenmaekers says. Ancient theaters may, for instance, have had decorative backdrops behind the stage that helped bounce sound to the cheap seats. “That would probably have quite a big impact on the acoustics,” he adds.

    Further, Armand D'Angour, classical scholar and musician at the University of Oxford, mentions that the degradation of the theater's surfaces has an impact as well. "The original theater surfaces would have been shiny, because they’d have been polished marble, whereas they’re now very rutted." There's still much that remains unknown about the other ways the ancient Greeks projected sound, he says, and whether that included the placement of additional objects around the theater to help project sound farther. "Clear voice was the most positive adjective you could use of a herald or of a singer," he says. "In order to achieve that clarity, the people who built these theaters would have known all kinds of things."

    Finally, acoustics both modern and ancient can be profoundly influenced by the psychological state of the listener. D'Angour describes the intense focus one might have at the theater. "Maybe that changes you the way you actually listen out for sound," he says. Theater tour guides might also use a kind of psychological groupthink as a trick of the trade. “Nobody dares to say that they didn’t hear it," says Wenmaekers, "because if somebody hears it and you don’t—well, you feel stupid. That is how it works.”


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    The Kunstkamera of St. Petersburg, Russia, is an art and ethnography museum stuffed full of more than 2,000,000 objects. Within its blue-and-white walls, you can find a taxidermied pangolin, Native American baskets, and more than a dozen jarred, pickled fetuses floating in a suspicious yellow liquid, prepared by Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch. What you won’t find, however, is what’s often cited as one of its main attractions: the severed head of the supposed lover of Peter the Great’s wife, in a glass jar.

    William Mons was young, German, and exceptionally dashing—at least one observer described him as one of the “best-made and most handsome men I have ever seen.” He was ambitious and opportunistic, with a keen eye for which patrons might have his interests close at heart. These attributes shot him into the upper echelons of imperial Russia. Eventually, in 1724, he became the secretary and confidant of Catherine, the empress and Peter the Great’s wife. No one can say for sure whether their relationship was exclusively professional, however. “Lurid stories circulated,” writes historian Robert K. Massie, in his biography of the emperor, “including one that Peter had found his wife with Mons one moonlit night in a compromising position in her garden."

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    There are plenty of reasons to doubt this story, Massie says. Taking a lover seems out of character for Catherine, who was very fond of Peter and well-acquainted with his furious temper. On top of that, the "moonlit night," had it happened, would have been in November—no time for an outdoor tryst in frigid St. Petersburg. But other stories about Mons were also being shared, ones with more obvious basis in fact, including that he was soliciting hefty bribes from anyone hoping to have a message passed to the empress.

    Peter, when he found out about this behavior, moved swiftly. Late on a frosty Wednesday evening in early November 1724, Mons’s papers were seized. That night, he was taken away in chains. Within a week he was sentenced to death, despite an attempt by Catherine to seek a pardon from her husband. Eight days after his arrest, he was dead—publicly decapitated in front of crowds in central St. Petersburg. While he died, Catherine was practicing a minuet with her daughters and their dancing master, and withholding any trace of emotion from her husband and the eagle-eyed public.

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    The execution had a profound effect on Peter and Catherine’s relationship, Massie writes. Even a month after Mons's death, whispers at court said that they hardly ate together and no longer slept in the same room, though this chill appeared eventually to thaw. In the meantime, Peter battled a bladder illness and cirrhosis. (He had been a hard-drinking man, inventor of the vodka "penalty shot" for anyone who arrived late to one of his feasts.) Three months after Mons’s death, the emperor followed him, aged 53.

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    But what happened to the head famously and publicly removed from Mons's body? For reasons known to only to the emperor himself, Peter had Mons’s head pickled in spirits and placed in a large glass jar. A few years earlier, when his own lover, Mary Hamilton, was executed for crimes including abortion, infanticide, and theft, he had had her head preserved in a similar way. Some accounts claim he presented Catherine with her secretary's head. Others maintain he forced her to keep it by her bed—as a warning, perhaps. Certainly, after the emperor died, she kept the head in her possession until her death. This has led at least one biographer to speculate that it served as a grisly memento of a man she may have loved.

    A little over 25 years earlier, in Dresden, Peter the Great had visited a kunstkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities,” with a collection of rare books, mechanical clocks, and other wonders. He was so inspired that he resolved to start his own museum of natural history, which he opened in 1718. Peter offered Russians between three and 100 rubles for “specimens” of so-called “freaks of nature”—dead and pickled in spirits or double-distilled wine, or, more lucratively, alive. This was partly to dispel common beliefs that such “monsters,” as he referred to them, were the work of the devil, rather than the simple products of nature. Soon the collection boasted an eight-legged lamb, a two-headed baby, and other unusual natural phenomena. It came to be known, as it is today, as the Kunstkamera.

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    Catherine died in 1727, a little over two years after her husband. The head found its way into the Kunstkamera, where it remained for half a century, even through a devastating fire in 1747. In the 1780s, Catherine the Great, the wife of Peter the Great’s grandson, spotted it by Mary Hamilton’s head on a dusty shelf, while walking by with a friend. “Princess Dashkov and Catherine remarked on the wonderful preservation of the two beautiful young faces, still striking after the passage of fifty years,” the scholar Oleg Neverov wrote in 1985. Some sense of propriety took hold, and she had them buried. Precisely where underground these two young, comely heads wound up seems to have been lost.

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    So you won’t find the severed head of Peter the Great’s wife’s lover in any museum, and certainly not in the Kunstkamera, not any more. But the Kunstkamera does have a veritable trove of human parts—heads, organs, limbs, and other medical artifacts. The story of Mons’s head—if not the head itself—fit right in.


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    “When I moved here 25 years ago, Halloween was a cultural wasteland,” says Larry Schmidt, sitting on a homemade bench in his driveway in the Trestle Glen neighborhood of Oakland, California. “There wasn't much in the way of trick-or-treating or jack-o'-lanterns. And I was disturbed that the cultural event I remembered wasn't happening.”

    As the 64-year-old Schmidt recalls, a slow erosion—due to reasons ranging from a culture fearful of knocking on neighbor's doors, to the razors-in-apples news stories of the ‘90s—had turned Halloween into just another day on the calendar. Pumpkins went uncarved, decorations stayed in the attic, uncostumed kids spent the evening indoors. “You didn't have that inter-generational exchange anymore,” he says.

    He set about trying to reignite the Halloween spirit.

    First, he hoisted his old massive witch sculpture onto his garage roof to loom over the passersby. Next, he designed a “front yard haunt” for prospective trick-or-treaters. Schmidt slowly added decorations to the haunt over the years, but when space became cramped, he knew it was time to try something else. So, he built a theater in his driveway, constructed benches for an audience, and wrote a puppet show.

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    This Halloween, Schmidt's “Driveway Follies” will celebrate its 11th anniversary with a now-customary set of musical numbers using intricately crafted and expertly manipulated marionette dolls, interspersed with a few jokes from the ghost puppet M.C. The performances take place before and on Halloween, starting when the sun goes down, resetting for a new audience after each 25-ish minute show concludes, and replaying it until the crowd’s gone for the night; they generally pull off between four and six shows, rain or shine.

    If Schmidt's ultimate goal was to bring Halloween back to the neighborhood, it's worked.

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    “Last year, there were some empty seats, and I thought, that's strange. I was a little disappointed,” he says. “But then on the sidewalk, I noticed a flurry of adults and children making the rounds. I liked that I had to compete with other things.”

    This year, among Schmidt's rotating army of puppeteers, stage managers, and vocal talent—the group that makes his vision possible—is a 13-year-old puppeteer named William. He’s not only an invaluable assistant, but gives Schmidt hope about the future of the art form.

    “It's hard for me to imagine marionettes will have a resurgence, because they're more difficult than puppets,” he says. “A hand puppet is so immediately connected to our bodies, and it's wonderful because it's intimate and cozy. But the marionette is on strings, it's a little more mysterious.”

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    Like the yard haunt, Schmidt adds a little something new to the show every year; this time it's new benches and the help of an usher, who will be dressed in 1930s garb with a red hat and yellow detailing. “I initially thought it wouldn't be fun to have an authority figure, as the show is slightly chaotic in a fun way,” he says. “But he'll serve apple cider, get people seated, maybe relay a message back to us if the sound system isn't perfect.”

    While most of the audience will watch the show, have a few laughs, and head home, Schmidt's hope is that the endeavor plants seeds that will blossom into their own ways to celebrate the holiday.

    “It was never my plan to be the King of Halloween. What I'd rather have is an even distribution all over,” he says. “People sometimes think this show in the driveway was an experiment, that I should put it in a commercial 'legitimate' theater space. But if I took it to a theater, there wouldn't be the street scene around it. This way, it's part of the culture of the night.”

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    It's also why Schmidt performs the show for free. Last year, with Schmidt's blessing, a group of fans formed the “Friends of the Driveway Follies” committee to promote the show, an effort that included an IndieGoGo page that raised over $7,000 in donations. But that's a fundraising method Schmidt wants to avoid. This year, with the help of a few grants, Schmidt is once again keeping monetary exchange out of the audience/show relationship.

    “The free part is important to me,” he says. “Free used to be a good thing, but now people think the word means of lower quality. For me, for my generation, 'free' means that it's a gift.”

    After this year’s gift is delivered, when the calendar flips to November, Schmidt will break down the set and cram it back into the garage. He’ll work on a longer, single-story show that he hopes will be ready in a few years, and he'll tinker with his “bucket list” idea of a Christmas marionette show. But when next year’s weather chills again, he'll begin work on the next Halloween show, for another round of putting that lost feeling from his youth back into the world.

    Shows this year are on October 30 and 31, and adults are encouraged to come out after 9 p.m., after the crowd of kids has thinned out. More information is availablehere.


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    In July 1927, NACA—the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA—opened the Langley Propeller Research Tunnel. Compared with earlier wind tunnels, which had measured a measly five feet in diameter, it was a behemoth. It housed a 28-foot propeller with eight blades, each weighing 600 pounds, and was powered by two 1,000-horsepower diesel submarine engines. The result was a 20-foot stream of air that could reach 110 miles per hour, for testing aircraft components.

    The tunnel was located at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, a place where, since 1917, engineers and mathematicians have researched and tested the knottiest of aerodynamic problems. In 1958, NACA’s focus shifted to space technology, and changed its name to NASA.

    All through this time, the research facility at Langley has been home to a notable number of achievements. Four years after building the Propeller Research Tunnel, Langley opened the world’s first full-scale wind tunnel, which tested most high-performance aircraft used in World War II. Langley also constructed a Lunar Landing Facility to simulate the Moon landing, which was used by astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, among others.

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    The facility was also home to some extraordinary mathematical minds. Katherine Johnson was originally hired to work at NACA before working on the calculations for both Alan Shepard's and John Glenn’s space flights, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight. Her achievements, which were recognized in 2015 by President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, are all the more extraordinary considering the barriers facing African-American women in the mid-20th century.

    It has been 100 years since the Langley Research Center first opened. To celebrate its centenary, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, has a new photo exhibition, which runs through to March 11, 2018. Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from the show.

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    Humans have managed to do some smart things over the millennia, and domesticating grapes for winemaking is certainly one of them. We managed to turn a small, tough-skinned fruit into the most important horticultural crop in the world—the 2014 harvest worldwide was worth about $69.2 billion. But scientists aren't entirely sure when exactly we managed to domesticate the wild Eurasian grape, though archaeological evidence suggests it happened around 8,000 years ago in western Asia. A new genetic analysis of wild and domesticated grapes offers up more clues about the history of the fruit, and what its future may look like.

    Researchers from University of California, Irvine and University of California, Davis compared the sequenced genomes of wild and domesticated Eurasian grapes. They found that the domesticated subspecies diverged from its wild cousins rather quickly around 22,000 years ago, and then went into a long, drawn out population decline. It's hard to know exactly what caused this decline, but it might have been "low-intensity management by humans," some kind of management between gathering and full-on horticulture. Climate change or a quirk of population structure might also have been involved. "This decline culminated in a weak bottleneck," write the scientists in their report, in which the overall genetic diversity of grapes declined, right around the time people began to cultivate them. The team was surprised to find that the grape population size didn't expand again after it was domesticated, which means humans didn't suddenly start a bunch of vineyards. But compared to other crops, grapes still have a lot of residual genetic diversity—hence all the bewildering options at the wine store.

    The analysis also looked at which genes set the domesticated grapes apart from their wild cousins. Genes involved with berry ripening and softness, and the timing of flowering, appear to be major differences, along with genes governing the sex of the plant. Wild grapes have separate male and female plants, while domesticated plants have fertile male and female organs in every flower and rely on pollinators. They also found that the domesticated grape's genome contains some harmful mutations—not unusual for a plant usually grown from clones—but they don't seem to affect the grape's hardiness. Domestication of grapes appears to have been a win-win.

    We’re launching a food section! Gastro Obscura will cover the world’s most wondrous food and drink. Sign up for our weekly email to get an early look.


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    Nightmares, as we use the word today, are vivid, personal terrors whipped up by a person’s subconscious just for them—a giant snapping turtle, a car that starts backing away from home on its own, a rocket ship with two witches in the backseat eating a potato/voodoo doll that causes the front seat to disappear with every bite. But in centuries past a night “mare” was a very specific type of frightening nocturnal visitor, a spirit or demon that would sit on a person’s chest and suffocate them.

    The root of the English word "nightmare" is the Old English maere. In Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, a mara was something known to sneak into people’s rooms at night, plop down on their bodies, and give them bad dreams. When the mare came to visit, the victim would feel a heavy weight—it might start at the feet, but it always settled on the chest—and lose the ability to move. Mares could be sent by sorceresses and witches: One Norwegian king died when his wife, tired of waiting for 10 years for him to come home, commissioned a mare attack. The conjured spirit started by crushing the king’s legs while his men tried to protect his head. But when they went to defend his legs, the mare pressed down on his head and killed him.

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    This apparition roamed across Europe—it was a mahr in Germany, a marra in Denmark, a mare in French. The visions that the mare brought upon its victims were often called “mare rides”—martröð in Anglo-Saxon, mareridt in Danish, and mareritt in Norwegian, according to (now retired) folklore scholar D.L. Ashliman.

    Ashliman collected accounts of mares from across Europe, as well as advice for how to get rid of them. People troubled by mares might want to place their shoes by the side of the bed and turn the laces towards the place where they plan to lie down. Mares snuck in through keyholes or knot holes, so plugging these openings could keep them away. Alternatively, you could enlist a friend, wait for the mare to appear, and then plug the hole to capture it. (Mares were thought to be female, and a few men in these folkloric accounts were able to trap a beautiful wife this way—but she always escaped when she rediscovered the place she’d come through.) If a mare was sitting on you, you could try putting your thumb in your hand to get it to leave, or you could promise it a gift, which it would come the next day to collect.

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    Today, it’s thought that the mare's particular nastiness was a way to explain a type of sleep paralysis that, as historian Owen Davies writes in Folklore, affects perhaps 5 to 20 percent of people in their lifetime. Sleep paralysis happens at the edge of sleep, usually just before sleeping or just after waking. Sufferers can see and hear, without being able to move or speak. And some people who experience this state also report feeling a heavy pressure on their chests and a sensation of choking, and the sensation of a dark presence in the room.

    “As a boy, I would experience a frightening sound, somewhere between white noise and insect buzzing, while feeling a dark presence in the room,” the writer Andrew Emery explains, in his account of sleep paralysis. In the worst case, he writes, “I’ll fight to regain consciousness and, having told myself I have done so, will still find that there’s some foul presence in my bedroom which then proceeds to punch me in the stomach. At this stage, my mind, which seconds ago knew it was experiencing sleep paralysis, is now convinced I’m the victim of a real-world demonic attack."

    There’s no precise treatment for sleep paralysis, nothing better than the superstitions and charms used by medieval people to keep away the mare and its attacks. The episodes are, Davies writes, “a moment when reality, hallucination, and belief fuse to form powerful fantasies of supernatural violation”—a truly terrifying experience, demonic or otherwise.

    We want to hear about your dreams and terrors, the ones that stay with you for years. What’s the dream that scared you as a child and still gives you chills? What was the worst dream you ever had? If you’ve experienced hallucinations during sleep paralysis, what did you see? Please tell us all about them here. We’ll publish the most strange, frightening, and hallucinatory among them next week, just in time for Halloween.


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    If a night “mare” was originally a very specific type of frightening nocturnal visitor, today our nightmares are bad dreams, night terrors, and all sorts of fears that bubble up from our brains to haunt the dark hours. And sometimes, we dream dreams so frightening that they stick in our minds for decades, inescapable but inscrutable windows into our deepest fears.

    We want to hear about those dreams and terrors, the ones that stay with you for years. What's the dream that scared you as a child and still gives you chills? What was the worst dream you ever had? If you've experienced hallucinations during sleep paralysis, what did you see? What dream made you whimper in the night and wake the person sleeping next to you?

    Please tell us all about them here or use the form below.

    Here are some from the Atlas Obscura staff:

    Being eaten by ant. Grandpa also eaten by ant. A very big ant.

    Falling asleep in math class, having sleep paralysis, and thinking all of my classmates were staring at me and their eyes were just holes. I could hear them making yowling noises like cats.

    Going to jail for the rest of my life and I'm on my last day of freedom just wallowing in a sea of dread.

    Sitting in a field covered in grass, flowers, and other plants and keep hearing an approaching thud in the distance. Each night, the thud would get louder and the field would shrink around me. I'd grow increasingly frantic about it and wake up. Then, on the last night, there was one patch left right in front of me, and I looked up and saw a giant robot leg coming down to stomp it—and me—out.

    Being chased by wolves or sharks.

    This recurring, inescapable image of a giant, inverted pyramid, balancing on a single stone. And I was filled with dread that if i moved or let my mind wander for even a second, it would collapse and destroy everything and—specifically—make a deafening, roaring sound as it came down.

    We'll be collecting these dreams and publishing the most strange, frightening, and hallucinatory among them next week, just in time for Halloween, when nightmares come alive.


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    In 1922, Albert Einstein sat in a hotel room in Tokyo and wrote down two thoughts. “Wo ein Wille ist, da ist auch ein Weg”—where there’s a will, there’s a way—and “Stilles bescheidenes Leben gibt mehr Glueck als erfolgreiches Streben, verbunden mit bestaendiger Unruhe”—a quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.

    He gave those two notes in lieu of a tip to a courier who had brought him a message, as the Japan Times reports. It may have been that he didn’t have any change; it may have been that the courier had refused money. But Einstein had the idea that these small slips of paper might be worth much more than a handful of change one day.

    When he had arrived in Tokyo, the scientist had been met by crowds of fans. He had been traveling around the world, giving a series of lectures, in America, in British Palestine, and in southeast Asia. He was in Asia when he received a telegram informing him he had won a Nobel Prize. He must have understood what his growing fame could mean when he handed the courier these two notes.

    One of the notes is one the stationery of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo; the other is on a blank sheet of paper. They’re both being sold by an auction house in Israel, by the anonymous German owner. It’s unclear how these notes passed hands and reemerged now, but they're small hints as to how Einstein treated people and thought of the world in terms of human experience, not just grand theories.


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    In 1903, a New York millionaire threw one of the most unusual banquets in history. C.K.G. Billings, a horse-racing fanatic who the New York Times called "the American Horse King," spent thousands of dollars transforming a Manhattan ballroom so he and his friends could eat on horseback.

    Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings inherited a gas company, but his passion was racehorses. A famous equestrian, Billings built a $200,000 private stable next to the Harlem River Speedway, a track for horse and carriage racing that opened to cars in 1919. The luxurious stable included two exquisite suites for Billings and guests in the upper story and a training ring for show horses. Billings wanted to celebrate the finished stable with a banquet.

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    Newspapers speculated about the Horse King's banquet—journalists described the stable's decorations and even discovered that the dinner would be on horseback. In the face of intense public interest, Billings seemingly took a more typical dinner-party route, by selecting a restaurant. But this was misdirection.

    On the night of the dinner, Billings' guests filed into the ballroom of Sherry’s, a 5th Avenue restaurant, in black and white evening wear. To their surprise, the room was decorated with fake turf, plants, and painted scenery that resembled the English countryside. The room had no tables. Instead, the guests mounted live horses, which had ridden the freight elevator up to the ballroom. Waiters in riding gear brought oats for the horses and placed dish after dish on table trays mounted on each horse’s saddle.

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    The French-style dinner that Billings and company ate was as lavish as their surroundings. The meal started with caviar and turtle soup. One course featured truite au bleu—cooking trout while it is super-fresh and dunking it in vinegar results in a blue-purple colored fish. Served with a green herb sauce, it would have been visually striking, if hard to eat on horseback.

    More courses followed: rack of lamb with glazed vegetables, guinea hens with lettuce-heart salad, and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Flambéed peaches capped off the meal. On the menu, Sherry noted the parties’ drinks, including an 1898 Krug champagne, scotch and sodas, and bottled ginger ale for Billings, who probably knew better than to drink and ride.

    At the end of the dinner, the guests dismounted to watch a variety show, while the horses headed for the freight elevator. Attendees also received sterling-silver horseshoes inscribed with the menu as souvenirs. While none from the dinner have surfaced, Sherry’s record of the meal gives useful clues as to the night’s happenings, including the number of attendees (32), the time, and a note that the event was photographed by the famous Byron Company, whose photographer captured the iconic image of New York’s banquet on horseback.

    We’re launching a food section! Gastro Obscura will cover the world’s most wondrous food and drink. Sign up for our weekly email to get an early look.


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    No one quite knows what turns the lugworm on. Salmon are all about the familiar sight of their own spawning beds. Amphibians prefer the sultry glow of a full moon. Dogs dig the rain (though most other times are probably fine, too.) For human beings, all you need is Marvin Gaye. Female spiders like a good meal, and preferably with a big male with hairy legs. But the lugworm has scientists stumped.

    Lugworms are rust-colored and grow up to nine inches in length or more, with bodies ridged like an earthworm's. Unlike earthworms, they have bristles running down their sides, and eleven pairs of feathery gills for breathing. Mating is, for the lugworm, a strictly remote activity. Males cast their sperm out into the world, where it pools on the sand. The tide then carries the sperm into the burrows of the females—et voilà, more lugworms. They mate like this en masse, but only when conditions are ideal. Scientists don't know what those conditions are, and without that knowledge, they'll never be able to tell how adaptable lugworms will be to environmental change.

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    Scientists at Newcastle University in England are calling for "citizen scientists" to keep an eye on the mating habits of these invertebrates, an operation they have evocatively titled Spermwatch. The worms spend most of their lives buried in the sand, but they're easy enough to locate, since their burrowing produces long, coiled noodles of sand that dot tidal flats. Volunteers are being asked to count the sand casts on the northeastern coasts of the United Kingdom. Though the survey is now in its second year, scientists say they're not yet any closer to their goal. Speaking to the BBC, Jacqueline Pocklington, project coordinator, said last year's survey results produced different conclusions in different regions. Maybe the lugworms are just trying to be discreet about the whole thing.


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    High in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the violent years leading up to the Mexican-American War of 1846, lasso-toting horsemen known as vaqueros hunted an animal that is now extinct: the California grizzly bear.

    Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, it was believed that California held around 10,000 grizzly bears. In the 19th century, California grizzlies were most sought for their intrinsic fighting qualities, especially when coerced into combat with a bull—an event that served as entertainment for a crowd on many Sunday afternoons.

    In the small cities and towns that peppered the valleys and coastal cliffs and mustard fields, a curious bloodsport had taken hold. Bear-baiting was brought to California by the conquistadors, but the sport itself was old as Rome. London in the Middle Ages built great amphitheaters known as bear-gardens to host the events. But in 19th-century California, the venues were more temporary and crude. Often known as “pits,” the slapdash arenas were built of split-board fencing and reinforced with heavy logs and adobe. A raised viewing platform was constructed for women and children, a family affair, while the men remained on horseback outside the barricades, raetas (braided-oxhide lassos), rifles and revolvers at the ready just in case the bear decided to climb its way out.

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    Such occasions usually commenced on Sundays, after church, when the townsfolk gathered after their pious songs and prayer, and slowly made their way to the town square toward the sounds of spectacle. As Hubert Howe Bancroft, American historian and ethnologist, wrote in California Pastoral, “A bull and bear fight after the sabbath services was indeed a happy occasion. It was a soul-refreshing sight to see the growling beasts of blood tied with a long raeta by one of its hind feet, as to leave it free to use its claws and teeth.” And there the spectators would find the vaqueros from the mountains clamping irons on the grizzly and blooding it with small dogs sacrificed to keep the bear in the mood.

    If the grizzly was the symbol of California, then the symbol of Spain was destined to be its foe, two species that under normal circumstance would have never faced each other in the wild. Toward the pit would be led a Spanish Fighting Bull, that proud trot and deep black hide, its horns decorated with garlands of flowers and always—somewhat baffling—the home favorite.

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    The bear and bull fight was the main event, with an undercard of cockfighting and dogfighting to whet the crowd’s appetite for death. But then there would be other activities on the periphery, strange contests that usually involved a display of horsemanship, sharpshooting, or lasso work, anything to prove to the churchgoers that you had the right stuff. Of course there would be the requisite horse racing, but there were also other peculiar feats such as“to place on the ground a rawhide, and riding at full speed suddenly rein in the horses the moment his fore-feet struck the hide,” a prototypical driver’s test of sorts.

    A more amusing form of horsemanship would be to bury a rooster in the dirt up to its neck, and, as California Pastoral says, “at a signal a horseman would start at full speed from a distance of about sixty yards, and if by dexterous swoop he could take the bird by the head, he was loudly applauded.” But if the rider failed, “he was greeted with derisive laughter, and was sometimes unhorsed with violence, or dragged in the dust at the risk of breaking his limbs or neck.”

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    Finally the moment would arrive. The bear and the bull, secured with shackles and ropes, would be led into the pit by shortcoat and sash-wearing caballeros—gentlemen of high standing in the town. The bull and bear would be tied together by a long length of rope, but short enough to keep the two gladiators in each other’s company. By now the crowd would be in frenzy, the smell of grilled meat in the air and the swilling of spirits from black bottles. As the crowd pressed forward, baying for the release of the beasts, an officiator would climb to his position on the raised platform, women and children behind him, and fire a pepperbox pistol in the air to start the contest.

    At the outset, the bear would usually hang back, taking a defensive posture on its hind legs, while the bull was often the first to attack, charging with head down and horns lethal. It was generally understood by eyewitness accounts that the bear held the advantage in the fray. While the bull had a deadly lunge, the bear could parry the advance and grab the bull by the head, sinking its teeth into the bull’s neck, or on one account, biting the bull’s tongue, which would have undoubtedly released a crowd-pleasing bellow. At such times the vaqueros would jump in and break up the fight to save the bull and prolong the drama. “I was present,” stated a spectator named Arnaz in the pages of California Pastoral, “when a bear killed three bulls.” Often a single grizzly would fight many bulls consecutively until the home team won. “Sometimes the bull came off victorious, and at other times the bear, the result depending somewhat on the ages of the beasts.”

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    What further added enjoyment of the bloodsport was how differently the two animals fought. The bear would often stand and take mighty downward swipes with its paws, while the bull would charge low and rush upward for the gore.

    If this sounds familiar, like a word on the tip of your tongue you can’t quite remember, that is because the bear and bull fights of California inspired the modern day colloquialism of Wall Street: bull markets and bear markets. And the rest is just history.


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    A few years ago, the climate adaptation researcher Ben Smith—then a Ph.D. student at Kings College London—was working on his dissertation, about the effectiveness of water restoration projects in the United Kingdom. As with most scholarly projects, this involved spending hours and hours with the same information.

    "I'd been staring at lists of rivers... [for] far too much time," he says, when certain patterns of terminology began emerging. While the northern U.K. was squiggled all over with "burns," the southeast was instead full of "nants" and "afons."

    "I got interested in the way [the words] varied between regions," says Smith. So he decided to start mapping them. This year, inspired by a query from the landscape linguist Robert McFarlane, he returned to the project, and recently completed a set of maps of the U.K., twisted all over with different words for "stream."

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    Smith's creations are a form of dialect map, a 19th-century invention that aims to connect how people speak to where they live. The genre has been made familiar to modern audiences through online surveys, such as that popular 2013 New York Times questionnaire that asked its readers whether they say "crawdad," "crayfish," or "mudbug," and then heat-mapped the results. Instead of mobilizing a bicycling surveyor or an internet quiz, Smith dredged his information up from a public data set: the Ordnance Survey of Open Rivers, which has mapped about 144,000 kilometers of watercourses in the U.K.

    Most people use the survey to think through future scenarios. If toxic sludge accidentally spilled in this river, where would it end up? But when Smith sorted the waterways by title instead, they offered a snapshot of a past-inflected present.

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    "It's really clear from the distribution of 'allt' where the traditional areas of Gaellic speakers were," he says—up in the north, of course. "And the use of 'beck'"—clustered mostly around current-day Yorkshire, Cumbria and Manchester—"is a pretty good match for the area that used to be under Danelaw in the 10th century." Smith is also intrigued by the outliers. Although the word "burn" is most common in Scotland, some burns appear in the southwest, and there's a pocket of unexpected gills in the southeast.

    Bodies of water have proven to be a fruitful well for this type of work. Back in 2011, the geographer Derek Watkins used the USGS's National Hydrography Dataset to map generic stream names in the United States. (It turns out 'brook' made its way from the southern U.K. to New England, Louisiana is full of bayous, and Pennsylvania's got the runs.) After Smith's maps gained wide attention on Twitter, the data scientist Phil Taylor did the same thing with the U.K.'s lakes, not to mention its lochs, waters, loughs, llyns, broads, pools, meres, and tarns.

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    Smith likes that these types of maps draw attention to both linguistic and topographical diversity. "I hope it encourages people to think about their local environment, and engage with the landscape," he says. "Also… even in the U.K. there are big regional differences in dialect, and that's important to try to keep."

    And even though he still spends a good amount of time staring at lists of rivers, he adds, the sheer variety of terms revealed by the maps has surprised even him. "I had no idea how many different variants for 'stream' there were," he says.

    Map Monday highlights interesting and unusual cartographic pursuits from around the world and through time. Read more Map Monday posts.


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    Springtime in Australia is a dangerous season thanks to the constant threat of dive-bombing magpies. Around August of each year, the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen) tends to go on the rampage, with males swooping down to scare off potential threats to their nests, namely humans. Sometimes, it’s just startling, but other times, they can injure eyes or scratch peoples’ faces with their beaks and claws.

    According to a statistic shared by the website MAGPIE ALERT!, via a recent Guardian article, there have already been over 500 magpie-related injuries reported across Australia in 2017. Over the years, residents have devised a number of DIY methods to protect themselves from such injuries, including wearing buckets on their heads. But one doctor may have recently devised the most festive bit of magpie-protective gear yet.

    In a video that’s making the rounds, Dr. Richard Osborne, an oncologist and avid cyclist, can be seen showing off his new defense mechanism, a bike helmet equipped with children’s noise blowers. Connected to a tube in his mouth, he simply blows into it, and the party favors unravel with a little toot, spooking any magpies near him. A simple idea, but as can be seen in the video, an effective one.

    As he told a local news station, it seemed safer to him than carrying a stick or waving his hand while biking. From the looks of the video, he's right.


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    Scientists know that a massive earthquake will one day shake the Pacific Northwest. At some point in the future, pressure building on the Cascadia subduction zone will reach a breaking point, and the Juan de Fuca plate will slide further under the North American plate. It happens roughly every 500 years, and when it does it is going to be big. But earthquake propagation is impossibly complex, so no one knows how much shaking different cities in the region will experience. The last time a subduction zone quake rattled the region, it was January 26, 1700, and all we know about it comes from tree ring data, sediment cores, oral traditions of indigenous peoples living in the area, and records of an "orphan" tsunami in Japan. To understand the inevitable shaking, scientists have produced a new set of simulations of the "Really Big One".

    A team of researchers from the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey used supercomputers to simulate 50 different earthquake scenarios along the subduction zone. Pressure isn't evenly distributed along the fault, and the nature of the quake will depend on whether the entire fault or just a portion of it moves. The location and depth of the epicenter will also affect the intensity of shaking, which is important for places built on sediment that liquifies during a quake. The team's simulations focused on Seattle, with a variety of different epicenters, depths of fault movements, and "sticky points," where the Juan de Fuca plate might snag on the North American plate and generate even more shaking.

    Worse for Seattle (Courtesy Nasser Marafi/University of Washington/CC BY 2.0) from Atlas Obscura on Vimeo.

    Intuitively, one expects that being farther away from the epicenter is better—but that's not always the case. The simulations show that the Emerald City fares best when the epicenter is right next to it, under Washington's Olympic Peninsula, which may cause most of the quake's waves spread out and away from the city. "But when the epicenter is located pretty far offshore," said team member Erin Wirth in a statement, the waves travel inland, "and all of that strong ground shaking piles up on its way to Seattle, to make the shaking in Seattle much stronger." The latter simulation can be seen in the video above.

    A magnitude-9 earthquake will be devastating for the Pacific Northwest, no matter where it originates. But with a better sense of possible or likely scenarios, geologists may be able help cities and people prepare for what a "Really Big One" really means.


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    Lucky the Leprechaun has been the Lucky Charms mascot since the cereal debuted in 1964. In 1975, though, he vanished, as if by magic, from the shelves of New England grocery stores. In his place, a green-cloaked wizard named Waldo suddenly appeared on boxes of Lucky Charms.

    Why was the iconic, scarf-wearing sprite given the boot? Marketers felt that Lucky was a bit cold in commercials. That is, the scurrying leprechaun didn’t seem keen on divvying up his colorful food with hungry children. “He wasn’t very friendly for the kids,” explains 76-year-old Alan Snedeker, who helped create advertisements for Lucky Charms. “They were always chasing him, and he wasn’t really sharing.”

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    After hearing this feedback, executives at General Mills, the parent company of the breakfast cereal, boldly considered a rebranding. They asked Snedeker, who was then a copywriter at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, one of New York’s top advertising firms, to conjure up a more popular mascot. “I was told to try to beat Lucky,” Snedeker says.

    In focus groups made up of 12 children, Snedeker and his colleagues showed kids storyboards featuring potential mascots. “If two or three characters are liked, those tests are shared with the client, and a decision is made to test the commercials using full animation,” Snedeker says about the mascot-selection process. “Those are then shown to a greater number of kids in focus groups with more in-depth questions.”

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    At first, Snedeker presented kids with a knight who—unlike the leprechaun—rushed to bring the marshmallow-infused cereal to children. He even leapt off cliffs to do so. “If you want Lucky Charms in the morning, just yell ‘Good Knight!’” Snedeker quips, rehashing the slogan he once whipped up for the potential mascot.

    The friendly knight performed remarkably well in tests. It even seemed as though the Good Knight would become the new face of Lucky Charms. But when push came to shove, General Mills did not adopt the character. It appears the knight wasn’t magical enough to be the mascot of the long-touted “magically delicious” cereal.

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    Snedeker did, however, have another character under review by discriminating 5- to 8-year-olds, one more magically inclined. “Waldo was a little overweight, friendly character who didn’t run from the kids,” Snedeker says about the forgetful, middle-aged wizard. “He greeted them right away.”

    Like the Good Knight, Waldo—who wore a cloak with bright stars, hearts, and crescent moons—performed well in focus groups. The magical fellow was also able to charm the higher-ups at General Mills. They selected him to replace Lucky in an official trial in New England.

    In commercials, Waldo always misplaced his boxes of Lucky Charms, and cartoon kids reminded him that, since he was a wizard, he could magically create some. At the end of each ad, Waldo gleefully muttered that Lucky Charms were “ibble-debibble-delicious.” It was a jibber-jabber of a catchphrase inspired, Snedeker says, by the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” song from Disney’s Cinderella, which he adored.

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    Less than one year after the wizard debuted in New England, though, he suddenly vanished—POOF!—and the four-leaf clover-wielding leprechaun was back, grinning larger than ever.

    “It wasn’t that the Waldo failed in New England,” Snedeker says, confessing his thoughts on why Waldo, “but General Mills had millions of dollars invested in Lucky, in terms of advertising, and they thought it would be crazy to give that up.” Lucky even had the benefit of sharing the cereal’s name.

    Snedeker also played a role in Waldo’s demise by devising ways to make Lucky seem friendlier. “I made the chase more of a game,” he says, about his adjustments to advertisement scripts. “I improved the Leprechaun’s personality.”

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    Despite Waldo’s popularity, the culmination of marketing factors against him sent Waldo into early retirement. Today, Snedeker’s loveable wizard is just a quirky breakfast memory. A vague one that many Bostonians may believe is a false memory—like the people who collectively misremember Berenstain Bears, the beloved children’s book characters, being spelled “Berenstein.”

    But in this case, memories of a bedazzled, fumbling sorcerer are, indeed, correct. Mike Siemienas, the current brand media relations manager at General Mills, even has some reassuring words: “For those New Englanders who remember a wizard on the Lucky Charms box in the ‘70s, you are not dreaming. It did happen.”

    We’re launching a food section! Gastro Obscura will cover the world’s most wondrous food and drink. Sign up for our weekly email to get an early look.