The Paulding Light

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, a group of teenagers in the town of Paulding, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reported seeing a ghostly light in a valley nearby. Locals claimed that the light, which appears every night when viewed from a precise location, was the lantern of a ghostly railroad brakeman who had been killed trying to warn an oncoming train of railway cars stopped on the track.

A more prosaic explanation is that the specter is produced by the headlights of cars traveling on US 45, about 5 miles away. In 2010, a group of student engineers from Michigan Tech studied the light with a telescope and distinguished individual vehicles and even an Adopt a Highway sign. They were able to produce the effect themselves by driving a car along the suspected stretch of highway. It’s thought that an inversion layer may create a volume of unusually stable air that accounts for the lights’ visibility at such a distance.

That didn’t end the ghost theory, though. “We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light,” Ph.D. candidate Jeremy Bos told Michigan Tech News in 2010. “I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it.”

“No matter what, some people will believe what they want to believe.”

Urban Studies

http://www.moma.org/collection/works/634

Hans Hollein’s 1964 photomontage “Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape” challenged viewers’ conception of a city, suggesting that any structure that supports a large population might earn this title.

In the same year, British architect Ron Herron proposed building a massive “walking city” (below) that could roam the world as needed. Ironically, the closest we’ve come to building this is an aircraft carrier.

herron walking city

Head and Heart

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In 2001 UC-San Diego sociologist David Phillips and his colleagues noted that deaths by heart disease seem to occur with unusual frequency among Chinese and Japanese patients on the 4th of the month. A study of death records revealed a 7 percent increase in cardiac deaths on that date, compared with the daily average for the rest of the week. And deaths from chronic heart disease were 13 percent higher.

One explanation is that the number 4 sounds like the word for “death” in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, which causes discomfort and apprehension among some people. The effect is so strong that some Chinese and Japanese hospitals refrain from assigning the number 4 to floors or rooms. The psychological stress brought on by that date, the researchers suggest, may underlie the higher mortality.

They dubbed this the Baskerville effect, after the Arthur Conan Doyle novel in which a seemingly diabolical dog chases a man, who flees and suffers a fatal heart attack. “This Baskerville effect seems to exist in fact as well as in fiction,” they wrote in the British Medical Journal (PDF).

“Our findings are consistent with the scientific literature and with a famous, non-scientific story. The Baskerville effect exists both in fact and in fiction and suggests that Conan Doyle was not only a great writer but a remarkably intuitive physician as well.”

Company

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What it’s like to be attacked by the Red Baron:

Richthofen dove down out of the sun and took Dunn by surprise. The first notice I had of the attack was when I heard Dunn from his seat behind me shout something at me, and at the same time a spray of bullets went over my shoulder from behind and splintered the dashboard almost in front of my face.

I kicked over the rudder and dived instantly, and just got a glance at the red machine passing under me to the rear. I did not know it was Richthofen’s. … I endeavoured to get my forward machine gun on the red plane, but Richthofen was too wise a pilot, and his machine was too speedy for mine. He zoomed up again and was on my tail in less than half a minute. Another burst of lead came over my shoulder, and the glass faces of the instruments on the dashboard popped up in my face. I dived again, but he followed my every move. …

Another burst of lead from behind, and the bullets spattered on the breech of my own machine gun, cutting the cartridge belt. At the same time, my engine stopped, and I knew that the fuel tanks had been hit. There were more clouds below me at about six thousand feet. I dove for them and tried to pull up in them as soon as I reached them. No luck! My elevators didn’t answer the stick. …

I was busy with the useless controls all the time and going down at a frightful speed, but the red machine seemed to be able to keep itself poised just above and behind me all the time, and its machine guns were working every minute. I found later that bullets had gone through both of my sleeves and both of my boot legs but in all of the firing, not one of them touched me, although they came uncomfortably close. I managed to flatten out somehow in the landing and piled up with an awful crash. As I hit the ground, the red machine swooped over me, but I don’t remember him firing on me when I was on the ground.

Richthofen instructed his pilots: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.”

(From Floyd Gibbons’ The Red Knight of Germany, 1927, quoting British lieutenant Peter Warren.)

Going Nowhere

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A thousand miles off the coast of West Africa, where the equator crosses the prime meridian, lies a nonexistent point of land known as Null Island. It was invented by GIS analysts to help trap errors: When software converts misspelled street names, bad building numbers, and other faulty data into coordinates of latitude and longitude, the result is often 0°N 0°E — which led cartographers to joke that there’s a 1-square-meter island in the Gulf of Guinea where all these lost features reside. (In fact what’s there is a weather observation buoy, above, which must wonder what all the fuss is about.)

Related: Conceptual artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin considered a map on which the areas that we normally call Arizona, New Hampshire, Tennessee, etc., are instead labeled “Not Arizona,” “Not New Hampshire,” and “Not Tennessee.” This would have to be regarded as simply false, or at least as inviting new names for these places.

“Yet such a scheme would be correct if, for example, the delineated area normally named Arizona was labelled ‘Not New York’ and so on throughout the whole map synopsis. Only this time the map would be a map to indicate what was not where rather than the conventional what is where. Where there is no road in a certain place we do not conventionally indicate this fact upon the relevant map by labelling it ‘There is no road at this point.'”

(From Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, 1998.)

In a Word

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perlegate
v. to read through (a text)

incondite
adj. consisting of parts which are ill composed

dehort
v. to advise against strongly

atrament
n. ink

Your last letter was a beauty as far as its length but it was vilely spelt. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many mistakes in so few lines. Howe wood you lick it if I rote you a leter al ful of mispeld wurds? I no yu know kwite well howe to spel onli yu wonte taik the trubble to thinck!

— Rudyard Kipling to his son, John, at boarding school, Oct. 6, 1908

Recycling

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Raphaelite painters found an unusual source for one of their pigments: They ground up Egyptian mummies. In the words of one enthusiast, “A charming pigment is obtained by this means, uniting a peculiar greyness (due to the corpse and its bandages) with the rich brown of the pitch or bitumen, in a manner which it is very hard indeed to imitate. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness.”

Artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked at learning that this was the source of his umber paint that he staged a poignant little ceremony. “He left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then,” recalled his wife Georgiana. “So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”

The production of “mummy brown” ceased in the 20th century — only because the supply of mummies was exhausted.

Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor

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Image: Flickr

In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.

See full show notes …

The Enemy Within

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla circulated an essay among his friends titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” He listed five fundamental laws:

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The diagram above elaborates the third law. Intelligent people contribute to society and themselves benefit by this. Helpless people make contributions but are victimized in return. Bandits seek to help themselves, even if this means harming those around them. And stupid people harm both themselves and others. This makes stupid people even more pernicious than bandits: While a bandit’s behavior is at least comprehensible, “you have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy.”

The full essay is here. “Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm,” Cipolla writes. “Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation — or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”