Author: Marisa Brook

Marisa Brook is a Canadian living in Michigan. She collects postcards, fridge magnets, lapel pins, and sometimes interesting rocks. For about a decade she also collected linguistics degrees, but seems to have run out of new ones to find.

The King’s Letters

In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.

This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.

“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.

The (Very Brief) Republic of Rose Island

In the late 1960s, an Italian engineer named Giorgio Rosa oversaw the construction of an artificial platform in the Adriatic Sea about 4,500 square-feet in size. On this, he helped establish a restaurant, a nightclub, a bar, and a post office. On 24 June 1968, Rosa declared his platform the Republic of Rose Island (a play on his surname), and proclaimed himself the president. The Italian government was not at all amused; they saw Rosa as trying to make a profit while evading Italian tax laws. Deciding to shut down Rosa’s enterprise, the government sent soldiers over to the platform to seize control of Rose Island. Rosa and his own micronational government protested this ‘occupation’, but no one paid him any attention. Once the population of Rose Island had been relocated, the Italian government warned everyone to stand back and then blew the platform to bits. Rosa himself went on to declare himself the ongoing president ‘in exile’; however, with his micronation’s homeland obliterated, things aren’t looking so good for his cause.


James Vicary
James Vicary

Market researcher James Vicary became well-known for a 1957 study attesting to the efficacy of subliminal advertising. His description of his experiment involved movie-theatre customers being shown very brief (0.03-second-long) advertisements for popcorn and soft-drinks, then purchasing substantially more of these than attendees who were not shown the advertisements.

The only problem was that Vicary’s results proved to be hard to replicate, and Vicary himself claimed that too many of the details of his experiment were confidential and could not be shared with other researchers. Suspicion grew, and Vicary admitted on television in 1962 that the study had been a “gimmick” with only a very small amount of data. A 1992 study by another researcher went farther and concluded that Vicary had not performed an experiment at all.

In spite of this, the idea persists that advertising below the level of consciousness is powerfully persuasive.

Cut It Out

Inés Ramírez Pérez of Rio Talea, Mexico, is known for being one of the only confirmed people to have successfully completed a Caesarian section on herself. She went into labour with her ninth child at the age of 40 in March of 2000 while alone in her cabin; her husband was out drinking, and the nearest midwife was 50 miles away over poor-quality roads. Rio Talea itself had 500 people and a telephone, but it wasn’t close enough for Ramírez to reach. Ramírez was accustomed to childbirth – her eldest child was now 25 – but her eighth child had died during labour due to the lack of a way to conduct a Caesarian section, and Ramírez was determined not to see the same thing happen this time. She had no medical training, but decided to deliver her own child by Caesarian. After twelve hours of excruciating labour pain, Ramírez drank some liquor of almost 100-proof, then found a large knife and stabbed herself in the abdomen. It took her three tries to get an incision started, plus it was night and the only light was a small bulb. But she managed to cut a 17-centimetre-long gash vertically downwards from the right side of her navel. Blood started pouring out immediately, and getting to the uterus took Ramírez an hour, but she stayed alert and delivered a baby boy. With a pair of scissors, she cut the umbilical cord; and after a brief period of unconsciousness, used clothing to bandage the wound, then sent one of her older children to get help.

A village health-assistant arrived within a few hours and temporarily sewed the incision shut. Ramírez was transferred to a clinic several kilometres away, then to the closest hospital. She underwent two surgeries in the next week: one to repair damage to her intestines, and another to close the incision site.

It was fortunate for Ramírez that her position during the self-directed surgery made the womb close to the incision site. She was also extremely lucky in that she did not simply pass out due to pain and/or shock partway through the surgery. Furthermore, the enormous open wound in a very non-sterile environment did not lead to infection, which was improbable.

Ramírez and her baby son, Orlando, survived the surgery. Ramírez was released from hospital after only about a week, and has since made a full recovery. The surgery has left behind a large scar but no problematic side-effects. Her case not only got attention in the media, but also from the medical community; it was reported on in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics in 2004. As of 2004, the knife was still in Ramírez’s kitchen. She used it to cut fruits and vegetables.

89, 263, 201, 500, 337, 480

In 1885, an author named James B. Ward published a pamphlet telling of a long-lost treasure available to anyone clever enough to solve the puzzle associated with it. Ward reported that around 1817, a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale had been the leader of an expedition to the American Southwest primarily concerned with hunting buffalo and/or bears. Beale’s group had instead stumbled upon gold and silver deposits in what is now Colorado. Agreeing to keep it all a secret, Beale’s team had spent the better part of two years quietly mining, then had taken the metals to Virginia by wagon and buried them in a vault underground between 1819 and 1821. Beale had written three notes explaining where the treasure was and who had legal rights to shares in it, encrypting each of these using a different text. However, Beale had vanished after leaving the notes with a friend. Eventually, the second of the three texts was deciphered using a slightly altered version of the Declaration of Independence. It specified which county in Virginia the treasure was hidden in, and referred the reader to the first of the notes for details.

But the first—and the third—notes remained stubbornly undeciphered. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other ciphertext source produced a readable message out of the first note. Beale had done far too good a job of encrypting his texts.

Or had he? Even as the field of cryptography advanced, and modern computers were invented and directed at the ciphers, the content remained frustratingly out of reach. The tantalizing mystery of where in Virginia there might be an enormous cache of treasure has turned into a broader question: Did Thomas J. Beale even exist, or was James B. Ward playing an enormous practical joke? The problem with the second interpretation is that Ward was not known to be a prankster. Could his pamphlet have been motivated by something stranger still?

Up in the Air

As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town’s citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project.

Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance.

Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two hours later the families were en route to a predetermined clearing on a hill by way of automobile and moped. The other components of their project—a steel platform, a homemade gas burner, and a powerful fan—were already packed and ready to go. It was time to attempt the escape.

Welcome to the Jungle

In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.

Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.

From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.

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