Mallows Bay

mallows bay

About 30 miles south of Washington D.C., on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, lies a curious collection of lozenge-shaped islands, the remains of a mighty fleet of wooden steamships built hurriedly during World War I and made obsolete by the end of the war. The unused ships became the center of a political scandal, “the grandest white elephant” ever built, and for decades the government and various salvage companies dithered over what to do with them. Eventually nature herself decided the question: The sunken hulls had consolidated and enriched the sediment in which they lay, creating a valuable new ecosystem. So the armada remains where it is, the largest collection of wrecked ships in the Western Hemisphere.

(Thanks, Craig.)

Blind Date

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When I was 10 years old, a time machine appeared in my bedroom and my older self emerged and tried to kill me. He failed, of course, as his own existence must have shown him he would. But ever since I’ve wondered: This means that someday I myself must travel back to that bedroom and try to kill my younger self. And why would I ever do that?

This is not a logical or a metaphysical problem, but a psychological one. I can imagine being someday so depressed or ashamed or angry at myself that I’m motivated to travel back and try to erase my own existence. But I already know that the gun will jam. What earthly reason, then, could I have to go through the motions of a failed assassination? (Certainly we can imagine cases of amnesia, mistaken identity, etc., where such an action would make sense, but we’re interested in the basic straightforward case in which a time traveler interacts with his younger self — which surely would happen if time travel were possible.)

It seems that I must be motivated, somehow, in order for the appointment to take place, and yet the motivation seems to have no source. “In the present case, we have actions coming from nowhere, in the sense that no one decides, in the usual way, to perform them (or decides that they should be performed), and yet they are performed nonetheless,” writes University of Sydney philosopher Nicholas J.J. Smith. “The psychology of self-interaction is essentially different from that of interaction with others — because the former, but not the latter, involves the problem of agents knowing what they will decide to do, before they decide to do it.”

(Nicholas J.J. Smith, “Why Would Time Travelers Try to Kill Their Younger Selves?”, The Monist 88:3 [July 2005], 388-395.)

The Vennbahn

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vennbahn.png

In the 1880s the Prussian state railways built a line to carry coal and iron across the High Fens south of Aachen. The line wanders across the modern border between Germany and Belgium, but according to the Treaty of Versailles the trackbed itself is Belgian territory. This has the effect of creating six German exclaves — regions of Germany that are surrounded entirely by Belgium (Belgium proper to the west, and the technically Belgian railway trackbed to the east).

The smallest of these exclaves, a farm known as the Rückschlag, measures only 150 × 100 meters and has an estimated population of four people.

The Vennbahn track was used by tourist services until 2001 but is now disused and has begun to be dismantled. But the trackbed itself still belongs to Belgium, so the six exclaves remain.

Unsinkable

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Ordered to blockade Martinique in 1803, Commodore Sir Samuel Hood covered an island with guns and declared it a sloop-of-war. Perched 175 meters above the sea, the guns denied all entrance to Fort-de-France, the island’s main port, for 17 months.

The British Royal Navy still regards “HMS Diamond Rock” as being in commission — when passing the island, personnel on Royal Navy ships stand at attention and salute the rock.

Since that time, a naval establishment on land has been referred to as a “stone frigate.”

Giving Pause

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Can time exist without change? Aristotle thought not, and David Hume claimed that “’tis impossible to conceive … a time when there was no succession or change in any real existence.” But in 1969 Cornell philosopher Sydney Shoemaker offered a thought experiment that purports to show otherwise.

Consider a universe that consists of three regions, A, B, and C. Periodically a region might experience a “local freeze” in which all processes come to a halt. The inhabitants of a frozen region do not observe the passing of time but resume their awareness at the end of the freeze.

With experience, the inhabitants determine that each freeze lasts exactly one year and that the freezes occur at regular intervals: Region A freezes every third year, Region B every fourth year, and Region C every fifth year. This suggests that all three regions freeze every 60th year.

Shoemaker wrote, “If all of this happened, I submit, the inhabitants of this world would have grounds for believing that there are intervals during which no changes occur anywhere.” It’s true that none of the inhabitants would be able to verify this directly, but given the regularity they observe in the local freezes, the reality of the total freeze seems to be the simplest hypothesis.

Whatever we think of this argument, the example does run into one sticking point: It’s hard to see how a total freeze could end. If nothing in the universe is changing, it seems, then there can be no causes.

(Sydney Shoemaker, “Time Without Change,” Journal of Philosophy 66:12 [June 19, 1969], 363-381.)

Early Warning

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Central Hudson Rail Road train No. 9 was roaring from Buffalo to Lockport, New York, with about 200 passengers when lightning prevented a train wreck in 1894. It was a dark rainy night and Engineer Schaffer squinted to see past the limited beam from his locomotive’s headlight. He could only see about 50 yards ahead. Suddenly a flash of lightning, followed by a loud clap of thunder, lit up the track a half mile ahead. Schaffer saw a sight that made him grab the reverse lever and call to the fireman to put on the brakes. The wheels screeched and the train came to a halt with the cowcatcher just one foot from the caboose of a stalled freight train. Railroad men claimed that the flash of lightning was all that saved the lives of the passengers.

— Peter Viemeister, The Lightning Book, 1961

Hare Mail

https://books.google.com/books?id=VV1DAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA176#v=onepage&q&f=false

This drawing appeared in L’Illustration in May 1845 — it’s a “caniposte” railway that allegedly was used to carry express mail in Belgium. Two dogs are harnessed to a small wagon that runs on a narrow-gauge railway. They chase a stuffed hare, or, in “improved models,” a piece of raw meat.

Was this ever really used? “Despite evidence of the drawing, one has doubts!” writes J.R. Day in More Unusual Railways (1960). “Nevertheless the author has seen a large dog drawing a small cart in the streets of Salzburg, so perhaps it is not so unlikely after all.”

02/18/2016 UPDATE: A reader in Bruges tracked down the original story and offers some details:

Two ‘eccentric’ Brits apparently found associates for the construction of such a railway, meant for the transport of fresh fish from the seaport of Blankenberge to Bruges (some 12 km or 7.5 miles). The standard configuration would have been 4 hungry dogs, 2 barrels of fish and one piece of meat hung out in front; a different one (depicted) would consist of 2 hungry dogs, express mail and a motorized (‘dead or stuffed’) hare.

The railway was proposed but never actually built. ‘Some will consider it barbaric, other deem it impossible, and everyone will find it ridiculous; but people wil get used to it, and very soon one will wonder how we never thought of it any earlier.’

(Thanks, Karl.)

Electrical Fault

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In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for $100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.

Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.

Lucky Fourteen

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When a party of 13 dines at London’s Savoy Hotel, the management wards off bad luck by setting a place for Kaspar, a two-foot-tall statue of a black cat.

According to legend, when diamond magnate Woolf Joel held a dinner party for 14 guests at the hotel in 1898, one guest dropped out, and another predicted that the first person to leave the table would die. Joel left first and was shot dead a few weeks later.

To allay any further trouble, architect Basil Ionides sculpted Kaspar in 1927. When he joins a dining party, the cat has a napkin tied around his neck and is served like a regular diner, with a full place setting, champagne and wine.

Winston Churchill so admired Kaspar that he called for his attendance at every meeting of the Other Club, the political dining society that he founded with F.E. Smith. Kaspar has attended every fortnightly meeting for the last 88 years. Presumably he has a tell-all memoir in the works.