Fiction and Feeling

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Green_Slime_(1968_movie_poster).jpg

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.)

Round Trip

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.”

Long Distance

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

Free Range

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

Operation Fantasia

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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.”

(Thanks, Meaghan.)

King of the Jungle

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Private Line

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:

See Oops.

“Editors Have Troubles”

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

(Thanks, Zachary.)

Flash Mob

Pipe plot - 1877 - George Henry Boughton

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.”

(Thanks, Dan.)

Low Profile

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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.