SETI, Bicycles, Gravity, Placebos and Baghdad – WIF Scientific Mysteries

Leave a comment

Science Still

Hasn’t Solved

These Mysteries

The science community has granted us a wealth of knowledge that can never be overstated. Things that used to mystify our ancestors can now be understood and more appreciated. It’s shaped our view of the world, the universe, the animal kingdom, human psychology — literally everything you know has been helped along by science and the men and women who dedicate their lives to finding out the whos, whats, whens, whys, and hows of stuff. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

But with science having that intrinsic aspect of being ever-evolving, it’s never foolproof or absolute. Built right into the scientific method are allowances for screw-ups or just plain not knowing something. And you might be surprised that some very basic parts of life here on our planet totally baffle some of our best and brightest smarties. Here are some examples of mysteries that science has yet to crack.

10. Why do we sleep?

Now here is one you think we’d have nailed down by now. Almost every single person in the world sleeps daily (unless you’re a Rolling Stones guitarist). And the answer probably seems obvious to most of us: we sleep to rest our bodies after the day. We can hold off on food, water, even sex for days on end, but when it’s sleepytime, nature takes over and our bodies ask for the check.

Except it’s not as simple as just needing rest. Science has educated guesses which include all sorts of reasons for sleep, like making time for our brains to get things in order after a long day, to reinforce memories, or to replenish fuel lost while awake. But then you throw in examples of plants and other organisms that don’t have any brains at all like we do, yet still have “sleep” patterns similar to ours, and people who have gene mutations which let them function without much sleep at all, and we begin to see our very limited understanding of why we sleep.

9. How does gravity work?

Gravity, as we learn in school, is very simple… right? There are forces within our planet that pull things toward the center. So if you throw something in the air, it comes back down. Gravity keeps you on the ground. It’s also what keeps the planets orbiting around the sun. This is all very simple, and we’ve known it since we were able to learn information. So why does science have so much difficulty explaining it?

Basically, gravity is one of four forces in our universe, which also include electromagnetism, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Gravity is the weakest of the four, and while we seem to grasp the concept of gravity with earthly examples, when things get too small or too big, like black holes and atoms, that’s when science and Newton’s principles don’t really make sense. And a simple science experiment you’ve seen before, where a balloon rubbed on your shirt creates enough electromagnetism to negate gravity and lift your hair or a piece of paper, shows just how easily gravity can sometimes, well, disappear.

8. Why are most people right handed?

People seem to take notice when someone uses their left hand for something, as if it’s some kind of freak mutation that’s just manifested itself. And while it’s rare for someone to be a natural southpaw (about 10 percent of the world’s population), it’s not quite the same as running across someone who, say, has horns growing out of their head.

So why do people deviate from the norm, in terms of handedness? Is it a genetic mutation? The environment they’re brought up in? Is it hereditary? Science doesn’t really know, and it doesn’t even really have an empirically-established way to measure handedness. Science does lean toward genetics, but there are even problems with that, as some teachers in school force children to become right handed when learning to write, and there is some data as to cultural and societal factors influencing which hand becomes dominant. Weirdly enough, we’ve learned why people become right-handed, but not why right is the “right” way. If that makes sense.

7. Why does anesthesia work?

It’s the divine gas that makes people not have to be acutely aware of their leg being amputated, among other things. The introduction of anesthesia granted patients the ability to snooze through all sorts of medical procedures, and it’s been a godsend since the mid-1800s — not only for the patients, but for doctors who had to deal with squirrely, wide-awake amputee victims. What started as an inhaled ether on its inception has become a more refined chemical blend that renders the recipient unconscious.

But we don’t really know how it does that. Think about it. When you’re asleep, you’re unconscious, right? But you would sure feel a scalpel opening you up, wouldn’t you? So why is the anesthesia unconsciousness different? And it’s an even bigger mystery as to how the diverse chemicals in the anesthetic, ranging from steroids to inert gases, can work together to achieve such a deep unconscious level that takes you about as close to death’s door as is possible. It seems that under anesthesia, different parts of the brain are affected much like a coma patient’s brain would be. All in all, it’s a wonderful tool in medicine and we don’t really know why.

6. Why do cats purr?

“Awwww, it’s because he/she LOVES ME!,” you likely think to yourself, ignoring the fact that if that cat was a little bigger, it would probably try to rip your face off. But it’s not a stupid assumption — most people probably associate the low rumbly purr of the kitty-cat to a feeling of happiness or contentedness. Science as a whole shrugs and meekly mumbles, “I dunno.”

See, cats also have a tendency to purr when they’re scared or hungry. Purring probably isn’t a form of communication, as it’s too low and local to be really effective. Also, in the realm of just pure weirdness, science has discovered that purring has been linked to bone regeneration. So there are many theories we have for why kittens just sit there and gently hum their bodies, but most likely it’s just a way for them to soothe themselves. Kind of like how we laugh for several different reasons.

5. Why was there a mysterious hum in New Mexico?

New Mexico has had a weird history of everything from nuclear bomb testings to Walter White standing on a dirt road in his tighty-whities. But the residents of the northern town of Taos have their own strange tale to tell, and it’s in reference to a local phenomenon called the “Taos Hum.”

Since the early ’90s, people in the town have described some kind of tangible audio event. Some call it a whirring kind of noise, or a buzz, or a humming in the air around Taos. A professor of engineering at the University of New Mexico studied the sounds around Taos, and noticed that around 2 percent of the population was susceptible to the strange hum. That doesn’t mean that they picked up any unusual sounds while conducting their research. Quite the opposite. Their very sensitive audio recording equipment and vibration sensors picked up nothing out of the ordinary. The fact that the townsfolk heard differing kinds of sounds is also of less scientific value than if they had all heard one low, persistent hum. And that’s why science is more keen to dismiss the Taos Hum as being part of the onslaught of background noise humans live in these days, mixed with subjective hearing experiences from the people themselves. The residents of Taos, however, stand firm in their belief of a weirder explanation. It is New Mexico, after all.

4. The ancient Baghdad batteries

Now, hear us out here. What if we told you that researchers working in Iraq in the 1930s found what totally appeared to be some kind of crude battery that may have been used to produce electrical charges, and that it likely dated from around 200 BC? Of course, that would predate that kind of technology by a couple thousand years.

What archaeologists originally thought were some kind of clay storage pots turned out upon closer inspection to contain copper rods within them. This led the scientists to strongly believe the pots would have held some kind of substance that would react to the copper rods and produce electricity. But why? Theories range from using the charge to shock people as punishment (those were stricter days), to using that electricity to electroplate things with gold. Another school of thought is that they found a way to make electricity long before knowing what the heck it was good for, kind of like the Chinese with gunpowder. Our turbulent history with Iraq doesn’t help us figure much of anything out, either.

3. Why does the placebo effect work?

You’ve all heard the basics of the placebo effect: it’s a treatment that isn’t “real,” but the very act of a patient believing in its effectiveness creates its own beneficial properties. If you expect a pill or drug to do something, it’s likely to work in some way. It seems mean, but science uses placebos especially when testing a new medication’s effectiveness. Which, maddeningly, is skewed because sometimes these placebos work. But why?

Beats us! The point of a placebo is you don’t know you’re taking it. But that opens up a whole host of problems because placebos can often work even when you know you’re taking one. That clearly goes against its entire purpose. In 2009, researchers testing treatments for irritable bowel syndrome found many subjects who knowingly took placebos got better at higher rates than those who received no treatment at all. That’s absolutely insane. And it seems that a person’s personality is tied to whether the placebo effect will work or not. But that’s just a guess so far. If that’s not enough stuff that science doesn’t get, there’s also potentially an inverse nocebo effect, where if you don’t believe a treatment will work, your symptoms will get worse. Our brains are weird, man.

2. Why are we getting repeating radio bursts from space?

Cue the History Channel “alien guy,” because this is clearly some extraterrestrial stuff, right? Slow down there, Captain SETI. Let’s lay out the basics first. A fast repeating signal burst from space, called FRB 121102, was first discovered in 2012. While we’ve come across some of these before, this one has repeated itself, though sporadically.

The bursts usually last about a millisecond, and we don’t yet know where they originate from. We know it’s from a galaxy 3 billion light-years away that was recently discovered, but that’s about all. The radio bursts, though short, are massive, containing as much energy as the sun produces in a day. The fact that it’s persistent and repeating makes scientists think the location could be near a black hole or a nebula. And the source itself has earned science’s best guess of a pulsar or neutron star. But that doesn’t mean the fantastical minds of scientists are ruling out extraterrestrial origins. What fun would it be to ruin those hopes?

1. How bicycles really work

What?? If science is really going to tell us they can’t figure out how a two-wheeled vehicle works, are we supposed to trust them about anything? And yet, the humble bicycle contains so much scientific mystery within.

Much of the mystery concerns the bicycle without a rider perched on it. If a bike is going fast enough, it’s going to want to balance itself so it doesn’t fall over. It even does with when someone is riding it, to a degree. That self-stability and why it occurs has eluded scientists since the 19th century. The commonly-held idea that the gyroscopic effect of the rotating front wheel keeps the bike stable has fallen apart under recent analysis. An alternate theory likens the wheel on a bicycle to the wheels on a shopping cart, in that they align themselves automatically in the direction being traveled. That also fell apart. It seems science does have a point where they just give up and break for lunch.

SETI, Bicycles, Gravity, Placebos and Baghdad –

WIF Scientific Mysteries

Musical Therapy – WIF Monday Medicine

Leave a comment

Music in History

The Health Benefits of Music

Music has been an integral part of human civilization for over 55,000 years and continues to be an important aspect of almost every culture on Earth. It’s so dominant that for many people, their life would be empty without their melodies. At the most basic level, music is just a series of sounds. But research has found it’s much more profound than us hearing noise. Music can have some amazing effects on both your mind and your body.

ediitors-note Please find more great info  from

10. It Reduces Stress


One of the most well known benefits of listening to music is that it reduces stress. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this and probably anyone who is reading this can remember a time in their life when they were stressed out and felt better after listening to a song or an album. But why does music have such a drastic effect on someone’s stress level?

One reason comes down to cortisol, which is a hormone that’s released when someone is stressed out. A high level of cortisol isn’t good for the body and is linked to a number of issues, including problems with memory and concentration as well as weight gain. It’s linked to depression, heart disease, and any other problems related to stress that are believed to stem from high cortisol levels.

Music effects stress because it has the amazing ability to lower cortisol levels, which decreases the feeling of stress in the body. The key to relieving stress through music is simply to follow your own natural urges; pick music that you love and fits your mood.

9. It Helps With Depression


Music can have a profound effect on depression. It’s been found to aid in the treatment of depression by having sufferers play an instrument or sing, and can also help people with depression if they simply listen.

For example, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast got a group of 128 youths who were all being treated for emotional, developmental, or behavioral problems. Half of them received the usual care, and the other half were given that same care, along with music therapy. The researchers found that the students taking the music therapy had their self-esteem improve greatly and their depression drop significantly.

On the other end of the age spectrum, it’s been shown to decrease both anxiety and depression in people over the age of 65. So if you’re having a rough day, turn up your favorite song and belt out the words. You might be surprised at how good you feel.

8. It Helps People Sleep


In order to see how music effects sleeping habits, researchers at the University of Taiwan gathered a group of 60 elderly people with sleeping problems. The 60 seniors were given the choice of listening to slow, soft music, or nothing at all for 45 minutes before bedtime. The results were that in the first week, the people who listened to the music reported 26% improvement, and that eventually rose to 35%. They found that they slept better and longer, and also felt better the next day.

The music they used was about 60-80 beats-per-minute, which is stuff like contemporary jazz or folk. The reason is that the music helped lower the people’s heart and respiratory rate. So next time you’re having problems sleeping, just throw on some James Taylor or Diana Krall before you’re going to bed. If you don’t hate that type of stuff, it should mellow you out enough to sleep.

7. It Helps with the Vascular Health


While music does reduce stress and help with other parts of the brain, researchers weren’t sure if it causes any physical change in the body. Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center decided to see how music impacts the endothelium function of the body. The endothelium function forms the linings of blood cells; the better the endothelium function works, the healthier the vascular system.

During the study, they had participants listen to joyful music as well as music meant to provoke anxiety. The participants also watched a video that would make them laugh, and another that would make them feel relaxed. Then they measured the flow mediated dilation (FMD), which measures the endothelium function. They found that the joyful music raised the FMD by 26 percent, which was higher than anything else. Laughter made it rise by 19 percent, while it was an 11 percent increase for the relaxation video.

The conclusion is that joyful music may be good for your heart, your veins, and your blood vessels. So don’t let anyone give you a hard time for still liking “Happy” by Pharrell Williams; you’re just trying to be healthy.

6. It Helps With Diet and Exercise


Good news for those trying to lose weight: one way to help keep the calorie level down and give you an edge in exercising may just come from listening to the right music.

In order to see how music can affect eating habits, two researchers from Cornell University took over a Hardee’s fast food restaurant. They gave half the restaurant a makeover to make it look like a fine-dining restaurant, which included playing slow jazz music, while the other half of the restaurant was left looking like a normal Hardee’s. The researchers originally thought that the people in the fine-dining area would eat more because they would linger around longer and might be bored. However, they found the people in the fine-dining area actually ate less and enjoyed their food more. This means that if you want to eat less and get more enjoyment from your food, simply put on some slow, soft music while you eat.

Not only does music help with dieting, but it’s also incredibly helpful when it comes to exercising as well. A number of studies have been done on the connections between music and exercise. Some findings conclude that it helps people ignore fatigue and pain, improves mood, increases endurance, and it may also help with the metabolism’s efficiency. As for picking which music is the best for exercising, it’s important to keep it personal. For example, songs that evoke memories are useful. Also, if you can identify with the singer’s viewpoint or emotional state, it can be incredibly beneficial. It’s not about picking songs that are fast or up-tempo; it’s about picking songs that make you move.

5. It Helps With Stroke Victims


A study from the University of Helsinki looked at patients who had just suffered a stroke and were recovering. They randomly assigned patients what they would listen to for a few hours every day: music, audio books, or nothing at all. The researchers found that, compared to the patients that listened to the audio books or nothing, the people who listened to music had their verbal memory and focused attention recover better. Also, their demeanor was more positive and they were less confused.

Another interesting finding in the study is that when it came to verbal memory, 60 percent of the group that listened to music improved after three months, but the group that listened to audio books only saw about a 19 percent improvement. The doctors believe that words are not enough to help, but words with music can be incredibly beneficial in helping repair the brain.

4. It Aids in the Development of Children


Even at a young age, children can be helped by music. One study from York University in Toronto, Canada found that after just one month of music lessons, out of 24 participants who were between the ages of four and six, 90% showed improvement in verbal intelligence. Another study from Harvard University found that by training children in music, it also helps with the development of auditory discrimination, fine motor skills, vocabulary, and nonverbal reasoning.

In fact, music training has even been known to help children who don’t yet walk or talk. A study at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, found that one-year-old babies who participate in music classes with their parents smile more, communicate better, and show earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music.

3. It Keeps Your Mind Sharp


For some people who took music lessons as a child, it may have seemed like a torturous ordeal and a waste of time. The good news is that if you were one of those people, or are someone who is currently forcing a child to learn to play an instrument, the training may have long-term positive effects on the human brain. A study from Northwestern University found that the more musical training someone had as a child the sharper his or her mind was as a senior adult. For the study, they took a group of 44 adults between the ages of 55 and 76, who had studied music between the ages of four and 14, but had quit and had not played in at least 40 years.

The researchers recorded the brain activity of the participants in the area of the brain where sound is processed and they found that the participants with more musical training responded faster to speech. Although it is important to point out that it was only about a millisecond faster and that may not sound like a lot, but the brain is a sharp tool and it is sensitive to timing. If one millisecond is compounded over millions of neurons, it can have drastic effects on the lives of seniors.
The researchers believe that the study will hopefully encourage more musical training for children and it will also justify parents sending their children out of the house for music lessons for a few hours every week.

2. It Reduces Pain


Researchers at the Pain Research Center at the University of Utah found that if people actively listen to music that they enjoy, they can reduce acute pain. This type of pain would be felt in situations like post-surgery or at the dentist.

In the study, they gave participants an electric shock and found that when listening to music, it decreased pain levels by 17 percent. It was twice as effective for people who have high anxiety. The reason music reduces pain is because a lot of the pathways in the brain that process music are the same ones that process pain. So when you listen to music you enjoy, it will create emotional responses that will compete with the pain, which means there are fewer resources for the body to compute the hurt.

1. It Improves Immune System


Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada looked at 400 papers on music and neuroscience. One of the things they found was that music can help the body’s immune system. They found evidence that when people listen to music their body has an increase in immunoglobulin A, which is an antibody that plays an important part in the mucous system. Immunoglobulin A is also a natural killer cell count, which are cells that attack germs and bacteria that are invading.

Essentially, this means that just by listening to Taylor Swift you could be improving your immune system and keeping yourself healthy. Go ahead and use that as an excuse if you ever feel like shaking it off.

Musical Therapy

– WIF Monday Medicine

WORLD WIDE WORDS Issue 871 – WIF Style

Leave a comment
Issue 871

Issue 871




Issue 871: Saturday 1 March 2014

Online version| Home page| Contact me| Subscriptions| Surprise me!

This mailing also contains a plain-text version. Settings in your e-mail viewer will determine which version you see by default.


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Hypnopompic.

3. Wordface.

4. Blind Freddie.

5. Sic!

Sporting words J Hogan followed up a recent item: “Regarding verbs learned from Olympic winter sports (aside from the curious usage, to medal), one new to me is to ragdoll, referring to what a slopestyle skier or snowboarder does when an edge goes just a bit wrong and the contestant suddenly flops sprawled onto the hillside. If he or she stays loose when this occurs, the athlete may escape injury; but it’s alarming to witness it.”

Cricket Batsman

Haymaker From Anthony Holt: “I believe that haymaker was alive and well in the 1950s when I was at school in Brighton. It was used exclusively on the cricket field and was applied to a batsman who made wildly reckless and risky strokes in his innings, trying to knock every ball into the next county. The end result was usually his dismissal, but it could also result in an exciting and match-winning time.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1954 and I remember it from the same period. My impression is that it has now fallen out of use.

Paddy Crean wrote, “Here in Ireland the term ‘haymaker’ has had only one meaning to me, a very heavy thundery shower of rain in spring or early summer, which would be guaranteed to produce plenty of green grass in due course.”

Fain Jan Matthews commented: “Your example of fain brought my childhood flooding back. My father taught me to lisp the following at a tender age as a party piece. ‘Recite Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ would produce:

Scintillate, scintillate globule vivific,
Fain would I fathom thy nature specific,
Loftily poised in the ether capacious,
Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous

Memory-imprinted forever — and uselessly — of course!”

A memory of fawn came from D A Brown: “As a schoolboy many years ago I overheard two women discussing parents’ day interviews with their daughters’ teachers: ‘Now, I like Miss ——. She doesn’t fornicate all over you.’ ”

Neknominate Margaret Neville countered my view of the origin of this: “I disagree that the name is an abbreviation of neck and nominate. I am confident the nek part was taken from another recent social-media term, nek minnit (next minute), used when referring to an immediate consequence and made popular by New Zealand street skater, Levi Hawken. Hence, neknomination definitely means ‘next nomination’, as the purpose of the game is to film oneself consuming a beverage and then issuing a challenge by nominating the next person to do so.”

River run The biggest response by far in this week’s postbag was to a throw-away comment I inserted at the end of a Sic! item that featured the sentence “As a native of drought-ridden Southern California, the Colorado River has always loomed large to me.” It’s a classic misplaced modifier, of course (the writer meant to say that she is the native, not the river), and I tried to point this up by saying that the Colorado River wasn’t a native of California, but of Colorado, in which state its source conventionally lies. Lots of people sent me detailed descriptions of the route of the river to show that it had connections with five states and Mexico. I meant native in the sense in which I always use it, a person associated with a place by birth (which I equated with source for the river), not merely somebody who is a local inhabitant. Perhaps I was being too literal, or too obscure.

2. Hypnopompic

One of the curses of life today was outlined by the Times in 2013: “Modern alarm clocks destroy dreams because they rip you through your hypnopompic sleep state so fast.”

The hypnopompic state is that drowsy, half-alert, comfortable state you’re in as you awaken slowly and naturally. It’s the opposite of the one you drift into as you gradually fall asleep, which is the hypnagogic state.

Both words derive from Greek hupnos, sleep. Hypnopompic combines it with pompē, sending away, while hypnagogic adds agōgos, leading. The former was coined by Frederic Myers, a philologist and one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, while the latter was the creation of Alfred Maury, a French researcher into dreams. Hypnagogic came into English from French hypnagogique. Though it’s conventional to lose the final o from prefixes like hypno- when they’re put before a vowel, many users spell the word hypnogogic. That may be because hypna- is very rare in English (the only other in the Oxford English Dictionary is hypnaesthesia, which in any case is now often spelled hypnesthesia) and they’re swayed by all the others beginning hypno-. And few people now know the Greek root begins with a vowel.

The terms are most often applied to hallucinations during these states that seem completely real to their subjects. They may hear music or their name being called or see images of people. Repeated or particularly vivid episodes may lead some to fear that they’re mentally ill. Such hypnagogic or hypnopompic experiences turn out to be common, though the former occur more often. It’s thought that some reports of ghosts come from such experiences.

3. Wordface

Impulsive An article in last week’s New Scientist included the mildly alarming word electroceutical. It’s a device implanted in the body that sends electrical signals along nerves for medical purposes. Early research is beginning to show that nerve impulses can control the body’s immune system and that such generated signals can tell organs to suppress infection or abnormal activity. The article reports some success with arthritis and asthma and that one pharmaceutical firm, GlaxoSmithKline, is hoping to find treatments for other chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension. The term, known in research circles since about 2007, belongs to a wider field of study more generally called bioelectronics, which also covers the use of nerve signals to control prosthetics such as artificial limbs.

Smith, surround them! The Press Association reported on Tuesday that two anti-fracking protesters had been convicted of besetting a drilling site. The writer put the word in quotes, twice, to mark a word he or she thought odd or unfamiliar. I had to stop and think about it myself. Beset is common but almost always appears either in the grammatical passive or referring to some agency that acts on a person: “he was beset with worries”; “doubts and confusions that often beset us”; “the hazards that beset early travellers”. These all come from the original sense in Old English of surrounding or encircling, or of assailing on all sides, such as an army besetting a fortress. What we don’t often encounter is a single person, or even two, described as actively besetting somewhere. It turns out to be a legal term and — despite its etymological origins — it’s indeed legally possible for one person to beset a place.

4. Blind Freddie

Q From Matthew Brand: A relatively common expression in Australia describes something obvious as one that even Blind Freddy could see (“even Blind Freddy could tell that their marriage wouldn’t last”). I was wondering, has anyone ever traced an actual visually impaired man by that name, or is it simply unknowable?

A My feeling, from half a world away, is that the idiom is slowly falling out of use and is now mainly found in the speech of older people. But it’s still easy to find examples in newspapers:

The proverbial Blind Freddie could have anticipated these consequences as a result of callow policies designed to appease public opinion.
The Australian, 19 Feb. 2012.

The first known use of the idiom I’ve found is this:

The present system has to go. There’s no other way. It MUST go. Even Blind Freddie can see that.
The International Socialist (Sydney, NSW), 8 Mar. 1917.

One candidate often put forward is the India-born Eton-educated Sir Frederick Pottinger. He joined the Grenadier Guards but went through a fortune gambling on horses and had to emigrate to Australia, where he became a trooper in the New South Wales police force. Once his title became known locally, he was promoted to inspector, seemingly beyond his competence, though he was a dogged man who wanted to do well in his job. He made several unsuccessful tries at catching the bushrangers “Wild” Ben Hall, John Gilbert and Frank Gardiner, which unfairly made him a comic incompetent in the press and among local people. He featured in a satirical ballad, The Bloody Field Of Wheogo, about the failed attempt to capture Gardiner, which contains the lines:

But the Ranger proud, he laughed aloud,
and bounding rode away,
While Sir Frederick Pott, shut his eyes for a shot,
and miss’d — his usual way.
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Aug. 1862.

Pottinger died in 1865, having accidentally shot himself with his own pistol while trying to board a moving coach. Many of the stories told about him are later elaborations, as is the belief that he was the original Blind Freddie. If he was, it’s strange that the first written reference should have appeared half a century later.

A more plausible origin was put forward by the famous Australian lexicographer Sidney Baker:

According to Sydney legend, a blind hawker named Freddy operated in the area bordered by Market, King, Castlereagh and George Streets in the 1920s, selling ties, razor blades, hair oil and other items. Although blind, he is reputed to have been able to find his way around with great ease and to have recognised scores of customers by their voices.
Australia Speaks, by Sidney Baker, 1953.

The creation of a huge collection of searchable historic newspapers by the National Library of Australia, appropriately called Trove, has led to my being able to find out much more about this man. He must surely must be the one described in this newspaper article, which contains the first recorded use of the nickname:

One of the best known identities of the Sydney boxing game during the past quarter of a century is ‘Blind Freddie,’ who never misses a fight of even minor importance, and whose ears assist his mind’s eye to such an extent that exciting situations work him up and he can laugh as heartily as anyone else at amusing occurrences. ‘Blind Freddie’ is not an old man; he lost his sight 28 years ago, when 11 years old. The sightless sport enjoys life as much as most men, and feels many a hearty hand grip and hears many a cordial greeting as he roams round the city alone, for ‘Freddie,’ who follows the calling of a general dealer, is popular with everybody.
The Referee (Sydney), 12 Apr. 1911.

Although the evidence is circumstantial, there can be little doubt the idiom originated with this man, partly because early appearances of the term Blind Freddie are in and around Sydney and partly because later reports reinforce that he was a well-known character.

The next reference in print to a person called Blind Freddie came in 1933, when newspapers reported him as being seriously ill and said that his real name was Frederick Solomons. The funeral notice posted by Solomon’s family in the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 December that year identified him as Blind Freddie.

An article reporting his illness described him as “one of Sydney’s most remarkable characters”, in part because his acute senses allowed him to undertake seemingly impossible feats:

Mick Dunn, champion fighter of bare fist days, told today how about 35 years ago this blind man drove a hansom cab from Bathurst street along Pitt street to the railway station without mishap. He has been known to tell whose horse was approaching by its trot. His senses of touch and smell are two of his greatest assets. He can identify people by the touch of their hands or their clothing.
The News (Adelaide), 21 Aug. 1933.

Another article reported his death with the comment,

He could walk to any business house in the city, unaccompanied and without hesitation, and it is said that one day finding another blind man waiting at a corner he led him across an intersection.
The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate (Parramatta), 14 Dec. 1933.

Though few people remember him as a real person, his nickname lives on. I am delighted to have rediscovered the individual behind it.

5. Sic!

• Pattie Tancred found this sentence alongside a copy of the Rosetta Stone in the Egyptian Museum, Turin: “Written in three different scripts, (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek), the French scholar J-F Champollion used the Greek text to decipher hieroglyphics.”

• The Brunswick News of 25 February, Joel T Keys tells us, had a story about the local submarine base headlined, “Kings Bay prepares for possible terrorist attacks with drills.”

• A photo caption in a story in CTV News online could have been better worded: “In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 photo taken with a cellphone camera, an Indian policeman tries to charge a leopard with a stick that was spotted at a hospital in Meerut, India.” Thanks to Silas DeRoma for that.

• Tony McCoy O’Grady found this in the Sky TV programme guide for 21 February: “Fred Dineage examines the murders of Peter Manuel who was hanged for killing seven people in Scotland in the 1950s. He later confessed to killing many more.”

• Department of unnecessarily redundant superfluity, via Bob Lee from the Calgary Herald of 19 February. In reporting the investigation on a homicide, it said that “The couple’s children are not suspected suspects at this time.”


While You Were Sleeping

Leave a comment

J.M. Barrie

“You know that place between sleeping and awake, that place where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always think of you.”
― J.M. Barrie

Stephen King

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

― Stephen King


“Dreams are formed and reside in an area called the garbage can of the mind. It is there where hope and fear are randomly tossed together, producing a story. Maybe I should call it the salad bowl of life?”

— Gwendolyn Hoff