A puzzle from University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton:
“Charles is watching a horror movie about a terrible green slime. He cringes in his seat as the slime oozes slowly but relentlessly over the earth, destroying everything in its path. Soon a greasy head emerges from the undulating mas, and two beady eyes fix on the camera. The slime, picking up speed, oozes on a new course straight toward the viewers. Charles emits a shriek and clutches desperately at his chair. Afterwards, still shaken, he confesses that he was ‘terrified’ of the slime.”
Was he? Walton says no. Charles may have felt intense fear, even shrieking as the slime approached the camera. But he knew that he was not literally in danger. This was not a half-belief or a “gut” feeling — he never considered leaving the theater or calling the police, for instance. Charles wasn’t motivated to avoid the slime physically. Yet he says that what he felt was fear of the slime.
What are we to make of this? “This issue is of fundamental importance,” Walton writes. “It is crucially related to the basic question of why and how fiction is important, why we find it valuable, why we do not dismiss novels, films, and plays as ‘mere fiction’ and hence unworthy of serious attention.” What is the answer?
(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” Journal of Philosophy, January 1978.)
A time-travel paradox from Robin Le Poidevin’s Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003:
Tim is spending the summer holiday at his grandfather’s house in rural Sussex. Bored one day, he wanders into his grandfather’s library. On one of the more remote shelves, Tim discovers a dusty book with no title on its spine. Opening it, he sees it is a diary, written in a familiar hand. With a growing sense of wonder he realizes that one of the entries provides detailed instructions on how to build a time machine. Over the next few years, following the instructions to the last detail, Tim builds such a machine. It is finally completed, and he steps on board, and throws the switch. Instantly, he is transported back fifty years. Unfortunately, both the machine and book are destroyed in the process. Tim writes down everything he can remember in a diary. He cannot rebuild the machine, however, because it requires technology that is not yet available. Reconciled to getting back to the twenty-first century by the traditional method of doing nothing and letting time carry one back, he marries and has a daughter. The family move to a rambling mansion in rural Sussex. The diary is left to gather dust in the library. Years later, Tim’s grandson, spending his summer holidays with his grandfather, discovers the diary.
“The identity of Tim will be obvious,” writes Le Poidevin, “and this in itself is rather strange. But the question we are concerned with is this: where did the inforation on how to build a time machine come from? From the diary, of course, which itself was written by Tim. But where did he get the information from? From the very same diary! So the information has appeared from nowhere. At no stage has someone worked out for themselves how to build a time machine and passed on the information. The existence of this information is therefore utterly mysterious.”
The widespread sail of a ship, rendered concave by a gentle breeze, is also a good collector of sound. It happened once on board a ship sailing along the coast of Brazil, far out of sight of land, that the persons walking on deck, when passing a particular spot, always heard very distinctly the sound of bells, varying as in human rejoicings. All on board came to listen, and were convinced, but the phenomenon was most mysterious. Months afterwards it was ascertained, that at the time of observation the bells of the city of St. Salvador, on the Brazilian coast, had been ringing on the occasion of a festival — their sound, therefore, favoured by a gentle wind, had travelled over perhaps 100 miles of smooth water, and had been brought to a focus by the sail in the particular situation on the deck where it was listened to.
— Neil Arnott, Elements of Physics, 1829
Description of the facts underlying an 1828 action against John Ramage, a Liverpool man accused of “omitting to take proper care of a cow”:
The circumstances of the case were of a somewhat singular nature. It appeared, from the evidence, that, about six o’clock in the evening of the 8th of July last, a cow was found wandering in Tithebarn-street in a very disorderly manner, to the terror of the lieges, several of whom it had thrown down, and, for this conduct, it had been seized and dragged to the pound kept by the defendant. Here the restive animal determined on making her escape, and, ascending a flight of six stone steps, she proceeded along a passage, and, breaking open a door, found herself in a room where Mrs. Ramage and her family were taking tea. The company ran screaming from the room, leaving her to the uninterrupted enjoyment of the bohea, and buttered toast. The cow immediately commenced operations on the good things before her, but from natural awkwardness, overthrew table and tea-service, and, after doing some other mischief, bolted through a door opposite the one at which she had entered the room, and down five steps into a yard, where egress was stopped; and, before she could retrace her steps, Mr. Ramage and his assistants took her into custody, and conveyed her to her original place of durance.
The next morning, Mr. Ramage, on visiting the yard, found that his prisoner had again escaped, and he immediately made a search for her. She had climbed a heap of stones, lying in one corner of the yard, to a wall about twelve feet from the ground, along which she had walked (though the wall was but one brick and a half thick) a distance of sixteen feet, and climbed somewhat higher to the top of a shed; this she had walked over, and again elevated herself by gaining the top of a building used as a filecutter’s shop. Not being sufficiently acquainted with that part, she at once pushed one of her feet through the sky-light, to the inexpressible horror of Mr. Rockett, the file-cutter, who was at work below. Having extricated her foot, she again ascended, and walked along the roof of a warehouse, the height of an ordinary three-story house. This roof proved to be too weak to support the weight of the animal, and she fell through upon a pile of bags of cotton, and rolled to the floor, where her journeyings ended, for she was found in this room, lying on her side, very materially injured. … After some deliberation, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, damages 2l. 2s., subject to a point reserved for decision as to the jurisdiction of the court to try the cause.
— Liverpool Courier, reprinted in Annual Register, October 1828
In 1943, seeking to use psychological warfare to prevail in its efforts against the Japanese, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services hit on a strange plan. Noting that Shintoists might view the image of an illuminated fox as a harbinger of bad times, the agency’s experts suggested that “under extremely trying conditions” the Japanese “would be adversely affected by what they might consider an evil omen” and succumb to “fear, terror, and despair.”
How does one make a glowing fox? Planners started by experimenting with fox-shaped balloons covered in luminous paint and dangled by fishing line, but by the end of 1944 they’d shelved that idea and begun spraying live foxes with luminous paint, hoping to release them across the “entire field of combat,” calling this America’s “most potent” psychological tool against the Japanese.
The operation would begin by distributing pamphlets warning of impending evil and patterned after those of Japanese soothsayers. These would be airdropped and also spread by field operatives who would blow special reed whistles to simulate a fox-like “cry of the damned” and use powders and pastes to spread “fox odors.” The OSS also enlisted Japanese collaborators to “simulate persons possessed of the Fox spirit.”
To test the plan, the agency actually released 30 foxes in Central Park that “were painted with a radiant chemical which glowed in the dark.” As a result, according to one report, “Horrified citizens, shocked by the sudden sight of the leaping ghostlike animals, fled from the dark recesses of the park with the ‘screaming jeemies.'”
Heartened at this result, the planners set about procuring as many foxes as possible from China and Australia in anticipation of an Allied invasion of Japan. Only the war’s sudden conclusion, with the dropping of the atomic bomb, stopped the operation from going forward.
“Still, the development of their idea demonstrates how Americans during the war perceived the psychology of their Asian foe in a far different way than they saw their enemies in Europe,” writes Robert Kodosky in Psychological Operations American Style (2007). “Based on their notions of Japan’s primitive state, Americans produced plans like ‘Operation Fantasia’ for use against Japanese that stood as much more absurd than any European campaign they proved willing to consider.”
The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat named Stubbs.
Local merchant Lauri Stec discovered him in her parking lot in 1997 and dubbed him Stubbs because he lacked a tail; he was named honorary mayor of the 900-resident town shortly afterward, and Stec’s general store is now his mayoral office.
“All throughout the day I have to take care of the mayor,” Stec’s employee Skye Farrar told CNN. “He’s very demanding. He meowed and meowed and meowed and demanded to be picked up and put on the counter. And he demanded to be taken away from the tourists. Then he had his long afternoon nap.”
He may require special treatment, but his constituents have been largely pleased with his 17-year reign. “He doesn’t raise our taxes,” Stec said. “We have no sales tax. He doesn’t interfere with business. He’s honest.”
The Barossa Reservoir dam in South Australia is a “whispering wall” — sound hugs the arc of the dam, so two people at opposite ends of the 140-meter span can have a conversation that’s inaudible to those in the middle.
There’s a whispering arch outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station — a feature that has some creative uses:
Editors have troubles like less distinguished folk. One of these, who presides over the destinies of a western newspaper, is mourning the loss of two subscribers. One wrote asking how to raise his twins safely, while the other wanted to know how he might rid his orchard of grasshoppers. The answers went forward by mail, but by accident he put them into the wrong envelopes, so that the man with twins received this answer: ‘Cover them carefully with straw and set fire to it, and the little pests, after jumping in the flames a few minutes will be speedily settled.’ And the man with the grasshoppers was told to ‘give them castor oil and rub their gums with a bone.’
— The Typographical Journal, Aug. 15, 1900
When Wilhelm Kieft tried to outlaw smoking in New Amsterdam in the 1630s, he brought on a unique protest. Washington Irving writes:
A mob of factious citizens had … the hardihood to assemble before the governor’s house, where, setting themselves resolutely down, like a besieging army before a fortress, they one and all fell to smoking with a determined perseverance, that seemed as though it were their intention to smoke him into terms. The testy William issued out of his mansion like a wrathful spider, and demanded to know the cause of this seditious assemblage, and this lawless fumigation; to which these sturdy rioters made no other reply, than to loll back phlegmatically in their seats, and puff away with redoubled fury; whereby they raised such a murky cloud, that the governor was fain to take refuge in the interior of his castle.
Wilhelm finally gave in — people could smoke, he said, but they had to give up long pipes. “Thus ended this alarming insurrection, which was long known by the name of the pipe plot, and which, it has been somewhat quaintly observed, did end, like most other plots, seditions, and conspiracies, in mere smoke.”
In 2008 L.A. Innes of Jamestown, Saint Helena, auctioned a collection of images taken during the Boer War. This one shows a prisoner standing next to a tortoise on the island. The tortoise was mature at the time of the photograph, which was taken in 1900, and investigators were surprised to find that he’s still alive — “Jonathan” lives on the grounds of the governor’s residence, blind in one eye but still active and mating with other tortoises.
If he was 70 at the time Innes’ photograph was taken, then he’s 184 today — the oldest living reptile on earth.
In 1966 University of Kentucky social psychologist Melvin Lerner asked 72 undergraduate women to observe a peer working on a learning task. When the learner made an error she appeared to receive a painful electric shock. In describing her suffering, the observers tended to reject and devalue her when they thought they would continue to see her suffer in a later session.
Lerner suggested that we come to terms with the suffering we see around us by deciding that the world is just — that those who are unfortunate somehow deserve their fate, and thus that we can avoid such a fate ourselves. This is reflected in figures of speech such as “You reap what you sow” and “He got what was coming to him.”
“If people did not believe that they could get what they want and avoid what they abhor by performing certain appropriate acts, they would be virtually incapacitated,” Lerner wrote. “If this is true, then the person who sees suffering or misfortune will be motivated to believe that the unfortunate victim in some sense merited his fate.”
(Melvin J. Lerner and Carolyn H. Simmons, “Observer’s reaction to the ‘innocent victim': Compassion or rejection?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4(2) [August 1966], 203-210.)
An odd feature from the Baltimore Sun of Oct. 5, 1902: Alfred Hermann of Bakersfield, Calif., pledged to circle the world in a year and a half wearing a pair of steel handcuffs, and to earn a livelihood while doing so. If he succeeded, his friend Al Armstrong agreed to finance a medical education for him.
At the time of the interview, Hermann had reached the East Coast six months after setting out from California on March 22, having visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. “From here I ship to London, and from there go to Paris. After leaving Paris I intend to visit Berlin. At St. Petersburg I will connect with the Trans-Siberian railway and reach the west coast of China,” whence he planned to continue to Japan and embark for San Francisco. His only means of earning money along the way was to sell pictures of himself and give “exhibitions of the different exercises that it is possible for a man to take with his hands steel-braceletted.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Hermann could remove the manacles at night, “for health’s sake.” “At each stopping place the cuffs are unlocked, when he retires, by some responsible person, preferably the landlord of the hotel where he stays. Upon departing the landlord locks the cuffs, seals a bit of paper over the key opening, writes his name thereon and also writes his name in a book that Hermann carries, with the name of place, date, etc., affixed in regular postmark form. The key is then placed in Hermann’s pocket.”
I don’t know whether he made it. “The boy’s got grit in him,” Armstrong said. “I like his pluck; but, of course, he doesn’t stand much chance of winning. His enthusiasm will be likely to give out when he’s up against it in China or Russia or some other outlandish place where nobody understands the American lingo and will lock him up for a lunatic or a jailbird. However, I’ll make good if he will.”
In 1964 British meteorologist Allan Crawford visited tiny, freezing Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, the most remote island in the world, to investigate the possibility of establishing a weather station there. When his helicopter touched down near a shallow lagoon in the island’s interior he found a surprise:
There was an abandoned whaleboat in quite good condition, though lying at the bottom of the lagoon, gunwales awash. What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery? There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose.
Thinking that castaways might have landed on the uninhabited island, Crawford’s party made a brief search but found no human remains. The boat’s presence has never been explained.
(From Crawford’s book Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties, 1982.)
In August 1883 James Wallis, the chief of police on the small island of Rodrigues in the western Indian Ocean, added this note to his official report for the month:
On Sunday the 26th the weather was stormy, with heavy rain and squalls; the wind was from SE, blowing with a force of 7 to 10, Beaufort scale. Several times during the night (26th-27th) reports were heard coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns. These reports continued at intervals of between three and four hours, until 3 pm on the 27th, and the last two were heard in the direction of Oyster Bay and Port Mathurie.
It wasn’t gunfire. It was the “death cry” of Krakatoa, 3,000 miles away in Indonesia — the loudest sound in recorded history.
The lyrebird of Australia is an astonishingly gifted mimic, and its talents extend beyond the natural world: Above, a lyrebird imitates the human technology it has encountered; below, a captive bird mimics construction at the Adelaide Zoo.
In 1969, park ranger Sydney Curtis heard a lyrebird producing flute sounds in New England National Park on the coast of New South Wales. After some sleuthing, Curtis discovered that a neighboring farmer had played the flute for a pet lyrebird in the 1930s. When ornithologist Norman Robinson studied the call, he discovered that the bird was singing two popular songs of the 1930s — “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”
“It is now seventy years since a lyrebird learned these fragments,” wrote David Rothenberg in 2006, “and today the flute song has been heard a hundred kilometers from the original source. A human tune is spreading through the lyrebird world, as they’ve decided through generations to prefer just two shards of our particular music.”
The United Press syndicate published an eye-opening story in 1951 — a 32-year-old German soldier had emerged, “bearded, blinded and blubbering,” when workers cleared wreckage from the entrance to a Nazi supply depot in Babie Doly, Poland.
The soldier said that he and five companions had been buried alive in the food and supply warehouse when retreating German troops dynamited the entrance in 1945. Four of the six had died, two by suicide, but the man and one companion had survived for six years underground, drinking water that trickled through cracks and living in darkness when their supply of candles ran out in 1949. The second man had “dropped dead of shock on emerging into the daylight.”
Decide for yourself — here’s another UP story, and here’s an account in Time magazine. The story also turns up in the 1958 German film Nasser Asphalt and inspired the 1973 English film The Blockhouse, with Peter Sellers.
Related: During World War II, British naval intelligence conceived “Operation Tracer,” a secret plan to seal a group of soldiers in a bunker at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, so that if Nazis captured the rock the hidden soldiers could observe the movements of enemy vessels and report them to the Admiralty by wireless communication. A chamber, shown here, measuring 14 × 4.8 × 2.4 meters was constructed secretly in 1942, and six men volunteered to be sealed inside for at least a year (they had provisions for up to seven years). But the plan was never put into effect, and the empty chambers were ordered sealed. They came to light only in 1997, when they were discovered by the Gibraltar Caving Group.
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries the Capitol Beltway across the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., connecting Maryland on the eastern shore with Virginia on the western.
The southern tip of Washington’s jurisdiction just touches the bridge’s westbound lanes — a 90-meter section of that span belongs to the District of Columbia. This makes the Wilson the only bridge in the United States that occupies three jurisdictions.
This sounds like an opportunity for some sort of perfect crime, but I can’t quite work it out.
Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.
— James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895
In the 1860s, workers discovered the remains of a cat and a rat behind the organ in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.
There’s no telling how long they’d been there. Their bodies had been desiccated in the dry air of the church.
The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”
In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.
If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.
So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.
Indeed, death can coexist with immortality. Consider Miss Paginate. She is born in 2000. In 2030 she time travels to a future funeral in 2050. She finds herself in the coffin as a fifty-year-old. Just as a distinction between temporal parts allows you to both sit and stand, it also allows Miss Paginate to be both dead and alive. Indeed, by slowing down her aging to an asymptotic rate from 31 to 39, Miss Paginate lives forever. At age 40, she finds herself back in 2040. She learns that she has been missing from 2031 to 2039. Miss Paginate also discovers that her normal rate of aging has resumed. She commences a memoir of her life, with special attention to the infinite portion that commences from 2050. She regrets her upcoming death in 2050. That will deprive her the time needed to complete her autobiography. But she takes comfort in knowing that she will live forever after her death (albeit as something akin to a partial amnesiac — since she will not remember her experiences from forty to fifty).
— Roy Sorensen, “The Symmetry Problem,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, 2013
This unassuming house in Petersburg, Va., has an odd history — it was constructed from the tombstones of Union soldiers who had besieged the city in 1864. The curator of the city’s museum told author Gwyn Headley that, apparently to save on maintenance, nearly 2,000 marble headstones were removed from Poplar Grove Cemetery and sold to a Mr. O.E. Young, who assembled them into a two-story house.
“The tombstones face inward, so as the owner lay in bed the names of the dead stood about his head,” Headley writes in Architectural Follies in America (1996). “Later they were plastered over so that their descendants leave none the wiser.”
“The last word must be left to the lady living next door to the Tombstone House, who confessed with massive political incorrectness, ‘Ah don’t rightly see what all the fuss was about. They was jist Union boys.'”
How’s that for a headline? It ran in the New York Times Sunday magazine on Aug. 27, 1911:
Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.
The Times was relying on Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a dying Martian civilization was struggling to reach the planet’s ice caps. “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” he’d told the newspaper — but he was already largely ostracized by skeptical colleagues who couldn’t duplicate his findings. The “spokes” he later saw on Venus may have been blood vessels in his own eye.
Whatever his shortcomings, Lowell’s passions led to some significant accomplishments, including Lowell Observatory and the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death. “Science,” wrote Emerson, “does not know its debt to imagination.”
W.H. Coltharp had a problem. He’d been asked to build a bank in Vernal, Utah, but the bricks he needed were in Salt Lake City, 127 miles away. Wagon freight would have been too expensive, so in 1916 he sent 50,000 bricks by parcel post, essentially mailing the bank to Vernal.
The post office was not delighted with Coltharp’s ingenuity. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson wrote that “it is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail” — and he set a new limit of 200 pounds per day per receiver.
A clown’s face is his livelihood; it’s an unwritten rule among clowns that one must not copy the face of another. Accordingly, in 1946 London clown Stan Bult began painting the faces of his colleagues onto eggshells, effectively trademarking their identities. Bult’s collection was largely destroyed in an accident in 1965, but London’s Circus Clowns Club resurrected the practice in 1984 and added samples of its members’ costumes and wig hair, making each into a peculiar sort of portrait.
In 1979, Leon “Buttons” McBryde, a clown with the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, heard about the British practice and established his own egg registry, which now includes hundreds of portraits of clowns hand-painted by his wife, Linda. The U.S. registry has been used in at least one court case in which one clown charged another with infringing his design.