What is this? For more than 30 years, shortwave radio bands around the world have been haunted by “numbers stations” on which anonymous voices recite strings of numbers and letters. These stations transmit in various languages, following strict schedules, but they never identify themselves or give any hint as to their purpose. It seems likely that they’re run by government agencies, sending messages to spies in the field using a prearranged code. But why does the station known as “The Buzzer” send out buzzing sounds on 4625 kHz continuously, throughout the year? And why on earth does the station recorded above, known as the “Swedish Rhapsody,” transmit the sound of a music box and a little girl’s voice?
Numbers stations are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act because (presumably) secrecy is essential to their missions, and in fact in the United Kingdom it’s illegal even to listen to them. So we’re unlikely to learn the full story anytime soon. But in 1997 the Irdial-Discs record label assembled a 5-CD set of recordings and has made it freely available to those who want to study them.
It’s possible to visit all six New England states in a single afternoon. The Big E, the region’s annual exposition, features an Avenue of States that includes a replica of each state’s original statehouse. Like an embassy, each building and the land on which it stands is owned by the state it represents, so Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont are all present on the same street.
This arrangement permits each house to sell lottery tickets, so it’s possible to enter six state lotteries at the same time.
On March 31, 1943, Army Air Corps second lieutenant Owen Baggett’s B-24 was hit by Japanese fighters while en route to destroy a railroad bridge in Burma. Baggett and four others bailed out before the bomber exploded, and the fighters began strafing them as they descended. Two of the parachutists were killed, and Baggett’s arm was grazed. He drew his .45 and sagged in his harness, hoping the Japanese would think him dead.
Presently a Zero approached him at near stall speeds and the pilot opened his canopy to get a better look. Baggett fired four rounds into the cockpit and the fighter dropped out of sight.
Had he downed a fighter with a pistol? It’s impossible to know for certain. Baggett was captured by the Burmese and spent two years in a Japanese prison camp and eventually retired from the Air Force as a colonel. When journalist John L. Frisbee contacted him in 1996, he was reluctant to talk about the incident — he believed he had hit the pilot but acknowledged that the evidence for this was indirect and circumstantial. Frisbee wrote that a few months after Baggett’s imprisonment, “Col. Harry Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter Group who had been shot down, passed through the POW camp and told Baggett that a Japanese colonel said the pilot Owen Baggett had fired at had been thrown clear of his plane when it crashed and burned. He was found dead of a single bullet in his head. Colonel Melton intended to make an official report of the incident but lost his life when the ship on which he was being taken to Japan was sunk.” Make your own judgment.
In Nature (January 23, p. 271) you give a letter from Mr. Scouller describing an interesting case of a rainbow, due to the image of the sun in water, which, with the ordinary primary and secondary bows, make up (there being no secondary to that formed by the reflected sun) the three which he saw. Here is a short account of what I saw long ago, almost in prehistoric times, in Scotland, where such sights ought, according to your correspondent, to be very commonly seen. I may mention that I saw at the same time, lasting some five minutes, eight well-defined rainbows of one sort or another.
In 1841, during the time of a long vacation party, spent at Oban, I walked out with my brother to Dunstaffnage, and we were on the top of the Castle, somewhere between 3 and 4 p.m., on a day in the middle of August. Not a breath of wind, bright sun over, I think, Lismore Lighthouse, dusky clouds all over Ben Cruachan and Conoll Ferry; the sea in the bay (bounded by Dunstaffnage in the west) as smooth as a pond. Gradually there appeared before us the astonishing sight of the aforesaid eight distinct rainbows, viz. primary and secondary ordinary bows; primary and secondary bows by reflected sun; primary and secondary bows formed by light from the real sun reflected from the water after leaving certain drops; primary and secondary formed by light from the sun reflected at the water, and, after leaving certain other drops, again reflected at the water. I have called the latter four distinct bows, because, although they looked like reflections of a solid set of four arcs, they were really formed by means of drops distinct from those which helped to make the first four bows. I append a sketch of what I saw.
— Percival Frost, letter to Nature, Feb. 6, 1890
Inspired by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Colorado miniaturist Elaine Diehl spent 13 years and 6,000 hours creating Astolat Castle, a 9-foot dollhouse weighing 600 pounds. The weathered copper roof covers 29 rooms and 10 adjoining areas, staircases, and hallways outfitted with parquet floors, framed mirrors, tapestries, gold chandeliers, oil paintings, and fireplaces. The seven levels range from a wine cellar and an armory in the basement to a “wizard’s tower” outfitted with telescopes and zodiacal signs. The 1″ scale furnishings include seven periods and styles, including Spanish, Oriental, Tudor, 18th-century English, and Victorian.
“It’s been a wonderful hobby,” she told the Prescott, Ariz., Courier in 1990. “I used to not be able to wait to get home from work so I could play. The hours slipped by so easily, I would look at my watch and it would be three in the morning. … With this hobby, you can be in control of your own little world. In real life, you don’t have all those choices available to you.”
When Dutch army colonel J.W.C. van Gorkum died in 1880, he was laid to rest in a Protestant cemetery. His wife, Lady J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, knew that her Catholic faith destined her for a separate cemetery. So she contrived a solution: Before her death in 1888, she requested the burial plot abutting the colonel’s and asked that the tombstones “join hands” over the wall — so that the two of them could hold hands through eternity.
On Sept. 19, 1927, a bedraggled woman arrived at a telegraph maintenance cabin in British Columbia. The operator, Bill Blackstock, fed her and asked where she was going. “Siberia,” she said.
Her name was Lillian Alling, and she had crossed the continent on foot since entering Canada at Niagara Falls the previous year. She said she had emigrated from Russia to New York City, where she had worked as a maid but found herself unhappy there. She had decided to return to Russia, but realized it would be impossible to save enough for a steamer ticket. After consulting a map of North America in a public library, she had resolved to walk home.
Fearing for her safety in the Yukon winter, Provincial Police constable George Wyman contrived to charge her with vagrancy. “I was so surprised to see that woman there,” he told journalist Donald Stainsby. “She was so scantily clad and had no firearms or anything to see her through that country. She was about five foot five and thin as a wisp. When I first saw her, she was wearing running shoes. She had a knapsack with a half-dozen sandwiches in it, some tea and some other odds and ends, a comb and personal effects, but no makeup. I had a time getting her name; she wasn’t going to say anything to anybody. But I finally got it, and when she said she was going to Siberia, I couldn’t say anything. I thought she was out of her mind.”
Alling was released from prison by early November and resumed her journey. She reached Nome in 1929 and headed west, having covered more than 6,000 miles in less than three years. Her trail disappears there, but there’s an intriguing postscript: When True West magazine published an article about Alling in 1972, an Arthur F. Elmore of Lincoln, Calif., wrote to say that a Russian friend of his had grown up across the Bering Strait from Wales, Alaska. In the autumn of 1930, while on an errand for his mother, he had noticed three officials questioning a woman accompanied by three Eskimos:
“He remembered the woman telling the officials she had come from America where she said she had been unable to make a living or make friends. … She said she had had to walk ‘a terrible long way because no one would lift as much as a finger to help me in any way because they didn’t want to — or couldn’t understand — my feelings. I tried to make friends at first, but everyone wanted no part of me — as a foreigner — and that so deeply hurt me I couldn’t bear it and so I began to walk. I knew it was far and it would be hard but I had to do it even if no one understood. And I did it!'”
(From Susan Smith-Josephy’s monograph Lillian Alling: The Journey Home, 2011.)
On the evening of Aug. 12, 1964, 41-year-old California businessman Charles Ogle climbed into a four-seat Cessna 210 and took off from Oakland International Airport without filing a flight plan. He was never seen again.
Rescuers searched for Ogle for 60 hours before giving up.
“This has hung over me my whole life,” Ogle’s son William told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “I don’t remember the emotional impact because I was too young, but my teachers would complain to my mother because I would look out the windows all the time looking for his plane. I just thought he didn’t come down yet.”
Two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time. That seems reasonable. But:
A cat called Tibbles loses his tail at time t2. But before t2 somebody had picked out, identified, and distinguished from Tibbles a different and rather peculiar animate entity — namely, Tibbles minus Tibbles’ tail. Let us suppose that he decided to call this entity ‘Tib.’ Suppose Tibbles was on the mat at time t1. Then both Tib and Tibbles were on the mat at t1. … But consider the position from t3 onward when, something the worse for wear, the cat is sitting on the mat without a tail. Is there one cat or are there two cats there? Tib is certainly sitting there. In a way nothing happened to him at all. But so is Tibbles. For Tibbles lost his tail, survived this experience, and then at t3 was sitting on the mat. And we agreed that Tib ≠ Tibbles. We can uphold the transitivity of identity, it seems, only if we stick by that decision at t3 and allow that at t3 there are two cats on the mat in exactly the same place at exactly the same time.
Tibbles and Tib were distinct material objects, but after the amputation they appear to occupy exactly the same space. Were we mistaken?
(From David Wiggins, “On Being in the Same Place at the Same Time,” The Philosophical Review, 77:1 [January 1968], 90-95.)
No cat has two tails.
Every cat has one tail more than no cat.
Therefore every cat has three tails.
In composing a state map of New York in the 1930s, the General Drafting Company wanted to be sure that competing mapmakers would not simply copy its work. So the company’s founder, Otto G. Lindberg, and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, scrambled their initials and placed the fictional town of Agloe at the intersection of two dirt roads in the Catskills north of Roscoe.
Several years later, they discovered Agloe on a Rand McNally map and confronted their competitor. But Rand was innocent: It had got the name from the county government, which had taken it from the Agloe General Store, which now occupied the intersection. The store had taken the name from a map by Esso, which had (apparently) copied it from Lindberg’s map. Agloe had somehow clambered from imagination into reality.
Similarly, in 2001 editors placed a fake word in the New Oxford American Dictionary as a trap for other lexicographers who might steal their material. Fittingly, the word was esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”
Sure enough, the word turned up at Dictionary.com (it’s since been taken down), citing Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary.
And as with Agloe, the invention has taken on a life of its own. NOAD editor Christine Lindberg, who coined esquivalience, told the Chicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”
Costa Rica’s alligator bug, Fulgora laternaria, bears a protuberance that looks remarkably like a caiman’s head — a feature that may make a hungry bird think twice.
The leaf insects of Southeast Asia, below, so convincingly mimic living leaves that they even bear “bite marks.” This fooled Magellan’s companion Antonio Pigafetta, who encountered them in the Philippines in 1521:
In this island are also found certain trees, the leaves of which, when they fall, are animated, and walk. They are like the leaves of the mulberry tree, but not so long; they have the leaf stalk short and pointed, and near the leaf stalk they have on each side two feet. If they are touched they escape, but if crushed they do not give out blood. I kept one for nine days in a box. When I opened it the leaf went round the box. I believe they live upon air.
Suppose we have a complete wooden ship, and one day we replace one of its wooden planks with an aluminum one. Most people would agree that the ship survives this operation; that is to say, its identity remains unchanged. But suppose that we then replace a second plank, and then a third, until our wooden ship is made entirely of aluminum. Is this the same ship that we started with? If not, when did it change?
Thomas Hobbes adds a wrinkle: Suppose that, as we did all this refurbishing, someone had gathered up all the discarded wooden planks and used them to assemble a second ship. What are we to make of this? “This, without doubt, had also been the same numerical ship with that which was at the beginning; and so there would have been two ships numerically the same, which is absurd.”
And philosopher Roderick Chisholm adds another: “Let us suppose that the captain of the original ship had solemnly taken the vow that, if his ship were ever to go down, he would go down with it. What, now, if the two ships collide at sea and he sees them start to sink together? Where does his duty lie — with the aluminum ship or with the reassembled wooden ship?”
When Ernest Shackleton set out for Antarctica in 1914, his carpenter, Harry “Chippy” McNish, brought along a tabby who was quickly named “Mrs. Chippy,” though he proved to be a male. When the Endurance was crushed by pack ice, Shackleton ordered the “weakling” cat to be shot, a decision for which McNish never forgave him. Cat and carpenter were reunited in 2004, when a life-size bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy was added to McNish’s grave in Wellington.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s 1913 arctic expedition ended in disaster when the main vessel sank, but ship’s kitten Nigeraurak (“little black one”) was lugged safely home in a sack, “the only member of the expedition to survive the whole affair sleek and unscathed.”
And Matthew Flinders’ cat Trim accompanied him on several adventures, including the circumnavigation of Australia, a shipwreck in 1803, and imprisonment in Mauritius during the return to England. Today Sydney’s Mitchell Library bears a statue of the cat (below), with a plaque quoting Flinders’ own words:
TO THE MEMORY OF
The best and most illustrious of his race
The most affectionate of friends,
faithful of servants,
and best of creatures
He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia,
which he circumnavigated, and was ever the
delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.
On June 1, 1873, during a visit to New College, Oxford, South Carolina planter William Heyward Trapier asked for a mint julep, “to the utter bewilderment of the butler,” according to the Oxford Companion to the Year.
When his hosts confessed their ignorance of the American drink, Trapier gave them his family recipe, a silver pot in which to share it, and instructions to prepare it every year on the anniversary of his visit. Thereafter it became a college tradition to substitute juleps for the after-dinner port on June 1 each year, and to leave a place empty for Trapier.
This continued for a century, but apparently the tradition died out during World War II. But there’s good news — Oxford’s student newspaper now says that the college has approved a Mint Julep Quartermaster to start it up again.
Here’s the recipe that Trapier gave to the college, according to the Oxford Times:
- Crush two sprigs of mint and half a teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of a tall glass.
- Add two lumps of ice and cover with Bourbon whiskey.
- Fill the glass with cracked ice and chill for several hours before drinking.
Oxfordshire’s annual stag hunt took a strange turn in 1819:
Dec. 21, being St. Thomas’s Day, as usual, a stag was turned out from Blenheim Park, the property of his Grace, the Duke of Marlborough. It directed its course towards Wickham; from thence it took the high road and proceeded to Oxford; and then formed one of the most beautiful and picturesque sights that can be imagined. The stag, and dogs in close pursuit, followed by a great number of well-known and experienced sportsmen, proceeded up the High-street, as far as Brazenose College; when, to the no small astonishment of hundreds of spectators, the stag took refuge in the chapel, during divine service; where it was killed, sans ceremonie, by the eager dogs.
From The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1820.
Psycho is certainly suspenseful on the first viewing. But why does it remain so on the second?
“How can there be suspense if we already know how things will turn out?” asks University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton. “Why, for example, should Tom and Becky’s plight concern or even interest a reader who knows, from reading the novel previously, that eventually they will escape from the cave? One might have supposed that, once we have experienced a work often enough to learn thoroughly the relevant features of the plot, it would lose its capacity to create suspense, and that future readings or viewings of it would lack the excitement of the first one. But this frequently is not what happens.”
The paradox extends to music. Why does a crescendo continue to “work” on repeated listenings? Why does it still move us?
(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” The Journal of Philosophy 75:1 [January 1978], 26)
Between 1925 and 1963, Burma-Shave billboards were ubiquitous on American highways. Over the course of 18 seconds a motorist would pass six successive red and white signs that formed a rhymed verse:
SO NEAT AND TRIM
RED RIDING HOOD
IS CHASING HIM
At its peak the campaign had 40,000 signs posted between Maine and Texas. The jingles were clearly whimsical, but anything that popular invites some smart-alecks:
FREE OFFER! FREE OFFER!!
RIP A FENDER
OFF YOUR CAR
MAIL IT IN FOR
A HALF-POUND JAR
When this poem was posted, “scores of fenders of notable decrepitude arrived at the plant by parcel post and express,” noted Frank Rowsome Jr. in his 1965 history of the campaign, The Verse by the Side of the Road. “Many enterprising people scavenged Minnesota junkyards, triumphantly bearing off rusty horrors that they lugged to the Burma-Shave offices.” Each was gamely honored with a free jar of shaving cream, but this only made things worse:
FREE — FREE
At this Arliss “Frenchy” French, manager of a Red Owl supermarket in Appleton, Wis., produced 900 empty containers and demanded to be sent to Mars. Burma-Shave sent general manager Ralph Getchman to Appleton, where he found that French had heaped the jars in a huge pile in his store and taken out a full-page newspaper ad reading SEND FRENCHY TO MARS! After some bewildered havering, the company struck a deal with Red Owl’s publicist — they sent French and his wife to Moers, Germany. “The Frenches had a marvelous time,” remembered Burma-Shave president Leonard Odell. “We still get Christmas cards from them.”
A lump of clay exists on Monday. On Tuesday it’s fashioned into a statue. Are the lump and the statue the same thing? It would appear not: The statue didn’t exist on Monday, and it wouldn’t survive being squashed, but the lump did and would. But if the lump and the statue are two different material objects, how can they coincide? How can two things exist in the same place at the same time?
One last striking story about bird mimicry:
I was in the Outer Hebrides and I came across an abandoned derelict croft. It had no roof, but very substantial walls and in the gaps between the stonework was a starlings’ nest. I could hear the birds inside, and eventually one of the starlings came to defend its territory. I heard straight away that it wasn’t just the usual rambling song. It started to mimic a Corncrake, a species that is very rare in mainland Britain. It did this bird’s buzzing repetitive song, but then it immediately went into other sounds that seemed familiar and had a strong rhythm to them. As I was listening I was looking around and could see the remnants of farm machinery, including an ancient tractor that had not moved for 20-30 years. I realised this bird was singing the song of some of this machinery. It was singing the song of a mechanical pump that had obviously been active around this farm, and used by the people who had lived here.
I wasn’t listening to the same starling that heard these original sounds. These copied sounds are usually passed on from parents or neighbouring birds so that a young bird absorbs and then duplicates them. The strange thing was that I was recording the sounds in what had been somebody’s living room, a place that had obviously been full of the conversations of family life over generations and which had passed into history. Yet the birds had returned and taken it back — claimed this space and these rocks — and were singing their own song. And they were singing the songs that were around when the people were here.
— Chris Watson of Tyne and Wear, U.K., quoted in Mark Cocker’s Birds & People, 2013
adj. producing darkness
On Sept. 29, 1940, two Avro Anson training aircraft took off from a Royal Australian Air Force base near Wagga Wagga for a cross-country exercise over New South Wales. They were making a banking turn over Brocklesby when pilot Leonard Fuller lost sight of Jack Hewson’s plane beneath him, and the two collided with a “grinding crunch of metal and tearing of fabric.”
To his horror, Fuller found that the planes were now locked together. His own engines had been knocked out by the collision, but Hewson’s were still functioning, and he could still manipulate his own ailerons and flaps, so he found he could control the lumbering pair as one aircraft.
After the crew of the lower plane had bailed out, along with his own navigator, Fuller flew an additional five miles and made an emergency landing in a paddock, where he slid 200 yards to a safe stop. “I did everything we’ve been told to do in a forced landing,” he told air accident inspector Arthur Murphy. “Land as close as possible to habitation or a farmhouse and, if possible, land into the wind. I did all that. There’s the farmhouse, and I did a couple of circuits and landed into the wind. She was pretty heavy on the controls, though.”
Fuller was credited with saving £40,000 worth of military hardware and preventing any damage or injury in Brocklesby, and his plane was even returned to service. He died four years later in a road accident.
On Feb. 6, 1898, a worker preparing the front page of the New York Times added 1 to that day’s issue number, 14,499, and got 15,000.
Amazingly, no one caught the error until 1999, when 24-year-old news assistant Aaron Donovan tallied the dates since the paper’s founding in 1851 and found that the modern issue number was 500 too high.
So on Jan. 1, 2000, the paper turned back the clock, reverting from 51,753 to 51,254.
“There is something that appeals to me about the way the issue number marks the passage of time across decades and centuries,” Donovan wrote in a memo. “It has been steadily climbing for longer than anyone who has ever glanced at it has been alive. The 19th-century newsboy hawking papers in a snowy Union Square is in some minute way bound by the issue number to the Seattle advertising executive reading the paper with her feet propped up on the desk.”
In 1923, the Brazier family traveled from Oregon to Indiana, bringing their 2-year-old collie/shepherd mix, Bobbie. They were separated in Wolcott, Ind., when Bobbie was chased off by a group of local dogs, and after three weeks the family reluctantly returned to Oregon.
Exactly six months later, the family’s youngest daughter was walking down a Silverton street when she recognized a bedraggled dog. At her voice he “fairly flew at Nova, leaping up again and again to cover her face with kisses and making half-strangled, sobbing sounds of relief and delight as if he could hardly voice his wordless joy.”
He had traveled more than 2,500 miles. He was identified by three scars, and by letters the family later received from people who had housed and fed him along the way. The “wonder dog” received national publicity, and well-wishers gave him a jewel-studded harness, a silver collar, keys to various cities, and “a miniature bungalow, which weighed about nine hundred pounds, with eight windows curtained with silk.” He died in 1927, and Rin Tin Tin laid a wreath on his grave.
At a timber-mill in the Powelltown district (Victoria) it is customary to blow three blasts of the whistle to indicate an accident and six blasts to notify a fatality. One day the six blasts echoed about the hills and men ran from all directions to the mill. But there was no fatality; the ‘whistle’ was produced by a Lyrebird, which had heard the three blasts with some frequency, and, in imitating them, had added three more for good measure. That episode ranks with one related by Mervyn Bill, a forest surveyor, who has written that when he was camped at Hell’s Gates (Victoria), he was annoyed to see, through the theodolite telescope, his men doing certain field operations without the usual instructions. The fact became revealed, subsequently, that they had obeyed ‘instructions’ from a Lyrebird in an adjacent gully, which faultlessly imitated the surveyor’s shrill, staccato code of signals.
— Alec H. Chisholm, Bird Wonders of Australia, 1958
See Technical Fowl.