There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.

— Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, 1921


Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

This is a floodlight photographed at night. What are the segmented stalks that seem to surround it? The phenomenon is seen regularly in photographs and videos; cryptozoologists and students of UFOs call the entities rods.

In 2003 author Robert Todd Carroll consulted entomologist Doug Yanega, who explained that they’re flying insects (in this case moths).

“Essentially what you see is several wingbeat cycles of the insect on each frame of the video, creating the illusion of a ‘rod’ with bulges along its length,” Yanega wrote. “The blurred body of the insect as it moves forward forms the ‘rod,’ and the oscillation of the wings up and down form the bulges.”

“Some hilarious photographs of ‘rods’ have been posted on the Internet,” Carroll noted. “My favorite is ‘the swallow chases a rod’ which looks just like a bird going after an insect.”

Line of Thought

At Mr Currie’s table I met several ingenious persons, who entertained me with curious and interesting reminiscences. Dr Adam Smith, author of ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ was a native of Kirkcaldy, and in the place composed his great work. While engaged in composition he frequently fell into a condition of reverie, so as to be entirely unconscious of his relations with the external world. Early on a Sunday morning he walked into his garden, his mind occupied with a train of ideas; he unconsciously travelled into the turnpike road, along which he proceeded in a state of abstraction, till he reached Dunfermline, at a distance of fifteen miles. The people were going to church, and the sound of the bells awakened the philosopher from his dream. Arrayed in an old dressing-gown, he was regarded as an oddity.

— Charles Rogers, Leaves From My Autobiography, 1876

Beyond the Call


Dubious but entertaining: After the Battle of Wauhatchie on the night of October 29, 1863, rumors circulated that Confederate troops had retreated in the darkness because they’d mistaken a stampede of mules for a cavalry charge. Someone wrote a “Charge of the Mule Brigade,” and the Union quartermaster reportedly asked that the gallant mules “have conferred upon them the brevet rank of horses.”

But there are no Southern reports of a mule attack at Wauhatchie, and one Confederate combatant categorically denied the story when it appeared in Grant’s memoir. At best, it appears, some mules broke loose and caused enough confusion to permit the 137th New York Infantry to arrive and oppose the rebels.

“The exact details of whatever the mules did at Wauhatchie will never be precisely known,” writes historian Gene C. Armistead in Horses and Mules in the Civil War (2013), “but the story is too humorous and too good to abandon.”

Dead End

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong contains a street named Rednaxela Terrace. It’s hard not to notice that this is Alexander spelled backward, but the origin of the name is uncertain.

In Signs of a Colonial Era (2009), Andrew Yanne and Gillis Heller claim that the street had been named Alexander Terrace after its original owner but that a clerk recorded the name backward, as the Chinese language was written right to left at the time.

Another possibility is that the name is linked to New York abolitionist Robert Alexander Young’s 1829 pamphlet Ethiopian Manifesto, which contains the name Rednaxela.

Fancy That

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2005 Yale psychologists Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom asked children and adults about the beliefs of fictional characters regarding other characters — both those that exist in the same world, such as Batman and Robin, and those that inhabit different worlds, such as Batman and SpongeBob SquarePants.

They found that while both adults and young children distinguish these two types of relationships, young children “often claim that Batman thinks that Robin is make-believe.”

“This is a surprising result; it seems unlikely that children really believe that Batman thinks Robin is not real,” they wrote. “If they did, they should find stories with these characters incomprehensible.”

One possible explanation is that young children can find it hard to take a character’s perspective, and so might have been answering from their own point of view rather than Batman’s. In a second study, kids acknowledged that characters from the same world can act on each other.

But this is a complex topic even for grownups. “James Bond inhabits a world quite similar to our own, and so his beliefs should resemble those of a real person. Like us, he should think Cinderella is make-believe. On the other hand, Cinderella inhabits a world that is sufficiently dissimilar to our own that its inhabitants should not share many of our beliefs. Our intuition, then, is that Cinderella should not believe that James Bond is make-believe; she should have no views about him at all.”

(Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom, “What Does Batman Think About Spongebob? Children’s Understanding of the Fantasy/Fantasy Distinction,” Cognition 101:1 [2006], B9-B18. See Author!, Truth and Fiction, and Split Decision.)

Head Start

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Does the green dot above flash before, as, or after the red dot reaches it? Most people say after, but in fact the flash occurs before the red dot arrives (below). This anomaly is known as the flash-lag effect, and its cause is unclear. Possibly it’s a sign that the visual system extrapolates the position of a moving object more readily than that of an unpredictably flashing one.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Chapel Oak


In 1696 lightning struck an oak in Normandy, and the resulting fire hollowed out the tree. Villagers filled the space with two chapels, reached by a spiral staircase that circles the trunk. Now perhaps a thousand years old, the Chêne chapelle is still in use today.

See Al Fresco.

Endless Love

Joe invents a time machine. He travels back in time and meets Emily, and they have a child, Bill. Bill grows up, meets Carol, and has a child, Joe. Joe grows up and invents a time machine, and so on.

Joe and Bill are each the other’s father and son, and each man is his own grandfather.

From Dave Morice’s Alphabet Avenue, 1997. See “Proof That a Man Can Be His Own Grandfather” and Oedipus Wrecked. Robert Heinlein’s 1959 story “‘–All You Zombies–‘” is even more confusing.