Social Climbing

Argentine artist Leandro Erlich calls himself an “architect of the uncertain,” drawing equally from his countryman Jorge Luis Borges and from filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, who he says “have used the everyday as a stage for creating a fictional world obtained through the psychological subversion of everyday spaces.”

The apparently gravity-defying Victorian property above is actually a large mirror suspended at a 45° angle over a facade set into the ground, which visitors are free to climb on. It’s appearing this month on a street in Dalston, East London.

The same participatory spirit informs Erlich’s installation Swimming Pool, below, which appeared at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2008. The lower room is covered with a sheet of acrylic and a thin veil of water.

“Games and play are something that children do in order to learn the world,” Erlich says. “I do think [playing] is a positive way to trigger the process of thinking.”

On-the-Job Training
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, biologist Karen Pryor was training two female rough-toothed dolphins to perform in a show at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park. Each dolphin had a different repertoire, and they were trained separately, though they could watch one another through a gate.

At one performance something was clearly wrong — each animal did everything she was asked to do, but with great agitation and sometimes in the wrong sequence. Pryor confessed her puzzlement to the audience and was pleased when the show concluded successfully. Afterward her assistant said, “Do you know what happened?”


“We got the animals mixed up. Someone put Malia in Hou’s holding tank and Hou in Malia’s holding tank. They look so much alike now, I just never thought of that.”

Each dolphin had performed the other’s act, with no prior training, having only observed it in the earlier sessions. Hou had duplicated tricks that Malia herself had invented, an upside-down jump, a corkscrew, and coasting with her tail in the air, and Malia, wearing a blindfold, had retrieved three sinking rings in a sonar demonstration. Hou had jumped through a hoop held 6 feet above the water, a feat that normally requires weeks to train.

“I stopped the departing audience and told them what they had just seen,” Pryor wrote. “I’m not sure how many understood or believed it. I still hardly believe it myself.”

(From Pryor’s 1975 book Lads Before the Wind, quoted in Thomas I. White’s In Defense of Dolphins, 2007.)

Desperate Measures

Shortly after the completion of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam in 1942, engineers faced a difficult challenge: how to feed a cable through a 24-inch drain, two-thirds filled with grout, that wound 500 feet through the galleries inside the huge concrete structure.

The workers were stumped at first, but they hit on a novel solution. “An alley cat, raised on scraps from the construction men’s lunch pails, was summoned and one end of the 500-foot string was tied onto his tail,” reported the Spokane Daily Chronicle. “He was placed inside the drain, and an air hose was turned on to ‘encourage’ him to go forward.

“The feline scampered through the drain and was caught emerging at the other end, where he was freed. From then on it was a simple matter to tie a rope onto the string and then the cable and draw it through the drain.”

Physicist R.W. Wood had hit on the same technique 30 years earlier.


In 1972 the Toronto Society for Psychical Research set out to create a ghost. They invented a character named Philip, an English nobleman from the 17th century, and tried to contact him through sittings in which they discussed his life, to see whether they could induce a “collective hallucination.”

When a year of this produced no results, they adopted the trappings of a more formal séance, introducing colored lights, singing songs, and reciting poetry while trying to conjure Philip’s spirit. After three or four of these sessions, surprisingly, “the group felt a vibration within the table top, somewhat like a knock or rap.”

Philip had, apparently, shown up. After some initial confusion, the group established a convention by which he could express himself — one rap meant yes, two meant no. And he was quite willing to talk:

‘Did you have your own regiment?’ Sid asked.

(Rap) ‘Yes.’

‘Were you wounded in the fighting?’

(Rap, rap) ‘No.’

‘I wonder which battles he fought in,’ Lorne asked. ‘Philip, did you fight at Naseby?’

(Rap, rap) ‘No.’

‘Did you fight at Marston Moor?’

(Rap) ‘Yes.’

‘I wonder what weapons they used?’ Al asked. ‘Did you use pikemen?’

(Rap) ‘Yes.’

‘Would they have had guns of any kind then?’ someone asked.

‘They would have had muskets,’ Lorne said.

(Immediate confirmatory rap) ‘Yes.’

That’s from Conjuring Up Philip, a 1976 account by Iris Owen, a member of the group. With time the rappings grew stronger, and the table would occasionally move around the room and even levitate. Owen wrote, “In addition to sliding across the floor (which incidentally was covered with a thick pile carpet), the table would tilt in various ways, lifting one, two, or three legs, and pivot, sometimes almost dancing.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, most of Philip’s verbal communications were simply those that the group expected to receive. For example, he said that Charles I had loved cats but not horses or dogs; this isn’t historically accurate, but the questioner was a cat lover. Owen called Philip “a composite of [the group’s] own invented imaginations … a character born of their own desire to bring him as much to actuality as they could.”

But the physical tricks are harder to understand. The simplest explanation is that some in the group were deliberately creating the “supernatural” effects, a possibility that all strongly denied. Or perhaps the group really had stumbled into some sort of collective, or wishful, hallucination. Whatever the case, the whole episode shows that even supernatural explorations that are known to be groundless can produce convincingly “otherworldly” effects for a receptive audience. To that extent, Philip was a ghost who helped to disprove his own existence.


A fight with a piano that came near proving disastrous to the greatest of pianists, occurred on shipboard wile Paderewski was on his way to New York a short time ago. Paderewski in his state room had a small upright piano on which to practice. It was fastened to the floor by means of bolts. On the opposite side of the room was the bed. In a heavy storm the piano was loosened by the rolling of the vessel. Straight it made for the pianist and crashed into his bed, nearly pinning him to the wall. Paderewski on reaching the floor rushed to the opposite side of the room. Instantly the piano followed, coming at him with great force. He dodged it, but it came at him again, being hurled about in the room by the rolling of the boat. The pianist tried to get out the door, but could not loosen the bolt and he was thus hemmed in with the tumbling piano which threatened to crush him to death at every second. There was nothing to do but wrestle with the instrument. He grasped it as it came toward him again and after lengthy struggle in which he was nearly exhausted, succeeded in binding it to the wall.

Popular Mechanics, 1902

Plant Food

man-eating tree

Exploring a tabooed piece of land on Mindanao, Mississippian planter W.C. Bryant discovered a 35-foot tree surrounded by bones and the smell of carrion. He was entering the circle to examine a skull when his guide suddenly pinioned his arms and pulled him backward “with the strength of a maniac.” Bryant followed the man’s gaze and saw that “the tree was reaching for him”:

The whole thing had changed shape and was horribly alive and alert. The dull, heavy leaves had sprung from their compact formation and were coming at him from all directions, advancing on the ends of long vine-like stems which stretched across like the necks of innumerable geese and, now that the old man had stopped his screaming, the air was full of hissing sounds.

The leaves did not move straight at their target, but with a graceful, side-to-side sway, like a cobra about to strike. From the far side, the distant leaves were peeping and swaying on their journey around the trunk and even the tree top was bending down to join in the attack. The bending of the trunk was spasmodic and accompanied by sharp cracks.

The effect of this advancing and swaying mass of green objects was hypnotic, like the charm movements of a snake. Bryant could not move, though the nearest leaf was within an inch of his face. He could see that it was armed with sharp spines on which a liquid was forming. He saw the heavy leaf curve like a green-mittened hand, and as it brushed his eyebrows in passing he got the smell of it — the same animal smell that hung in the surrounding air. Another instant and the thing would have had his eyes in its sticky, prickly grasp, but either his weakness or the brown man’s strength threw them both on their backs.

The charm was broken. They crawled out of the circle of death and lay panting in the grass while the malignant plant, cracking and hissing, yearned and stretched and thrashed to get at them.

That’s from “Escaped From the Embrace of the Man-Eating Tree,” in the American Weekly, Jan. 4, 1925. Interestingly, naturalist Williard Clute tracked down the author and published a followup in American Botanist that April:

“The author of this tale, having been questioned, replies under date of January 8, 1925, that ‘the tree is there and in the main the account is true. The circle at the foot of the tree was about 80 maybe 100 feet in diameter. The tree looked nothing like the drawings [in the paper]. It was round as a smoke stack — the trunk, I mean, and dark gray or ash-color. The whole tree was symmetrical and the tree and ground under it, was very inviting to a storm-beset or sun-depressed traveller. The clucking and hissing was, I judged, from a gluey consistency of, or on, the leaves. My impression was that if it reached me, it would fasten and hold me, thus it had done to apes, birds, and animals.'” Stay out of the Philippines, I guess.

Ill Will

A person with Münchausen syndrome feigns illness to get attention. In order to get this diagnosis, she must be faking symptoms of a condition that she doesn’t really have. But any such faked symptoms are an authentic sign of Münchausen syndrome. Does this mean it’s impossible to have the disorder?

(By Washington University philosopher Roy Sorensen.)

“The Man With the Golden Arm”

When James Harrison had chest surgery at age 13, he resolved to begin donating blood to help others in need. When he did so, doctors realized that he carries a rare immune globulin that can prevent unborn babies from suffering attacks by their mothers’ antibodies, a condition known as Rhesus disease.

In the 59 years since this was discovered, Harrison has given blood more than 1,000 times, an average of once every three weeks for five decades, and his donations have saved an estimated 2.4 million babies.

This has earned Harrison a spot in Guinness World Records. He calls this “the only record that I hope is broken.”

Nose Knowledge

Seeing a rose seems to give me information about a flower out there in the world. But smelling it, blindfold, is a curiously internal experience: I can suppose, even confidently, that it’s a rose I’m smelling, but this feels like a surmise, and one based only on an impression in my mind. The visual world seems to be made up of independent objects with observable properties, but the world of smell seems to exist only in our consciousness.

If there were no creatures here to observe them, roses would still be red. But would they still smell sweet?