No Time Like …

In Book 11 of the Confessions, Augustine writes, “Are the present hundred years a long time? But first see whether a hundred years can be present. If it is the first year of the hundred, then that year is present, but the other ninety-nine are still in the future, and so as yet are not; if we are in the second year, then one year is past, one year is present, the rest future. Thus whichever year of our hundred-year period we choose as present, those before it have passed away, those after it are still to come. Thus a hundred years cannot be present.”

Is the chosen year itself present? Not wholly: We’re in some particular month, and the other months are not present. And so on — Augustine applies the same argument to days, hours, and even “fleeting moments.” In the end, “If we conceive of some point of time which cannot be divided even into the minutest parts of moments, that is the only point that can be called present: and that point flees at such lightning speed from being future to being past, that it has no extent of duration at all. For if it were so extended, it would be divisible into past and future: the present has no length.”

Unable Was I

It sounds straightforward to imagine being another person, but is it? If I want to imagine being Napoleon, I need to conceive some relation between our two identities. If I only imagine some situation that was faced by Napoleon, then the result involves too little of my own identity — I’m not really involved at all. But if I imagine myself in Napoleon’s place, then the result involves too little of him. It doesn’t seem possible for two people to share an identity in this way.

Philosopher Bernard Williams writes, “Leibniz, perhaps, made something like this point when he said to one who expressed the wish that he were King of China, that all he wanted was that he should cease to exist and there should be a King in China.”

But, Williams says, it does seem possible to play a role, to pretend to be Napoleon. In that case my first-person thoughts are framed in another’s point of view, so the identity of “I” is less problematic. In this sense perhaps I can imagine being Napoleon — but not having been Napoleon.

(Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self, 1976.)

Getting Started

In 1988, tunneling operations began in both England and France. On Dec. 1, 1990, these two single-entrance holes met under the English Channel, after which there existed a two-entrance tunnel. The completed Channel Tunnel would not be ready for use until 1994. Now, suppose that a speaker in 1989 had said:

There is in the process of coming into existence, so we understand, the Channel Tunnel. Not many of us have seen it; I certainly have not. One understands that that will allow us, if and when it is made available, to travel by train from England to France.

Does this utterance imply that, at the time it was spoken, the Channel Tunnel already existed? If not, what is the it that the speaker says few people have seen? In 1989 all that existed were two blind tunnels, which together could not permit free passage between England and France, surely an essential feature of the Channel Tunnel.

“In the construction of the Channel Tunnel, the time at which we can say that a two-entrance tunnel first exists is 1st December 1990, when the two one-entrance tunnels met,” notes philosopher Antony Galton. “The Channel Tunnel is a two-entrance tunnel; so is this time, 1st December 1990, also the time at which the Channel Tunnel first exists?”

(Antony Galton, “On the Process of Coming Into Existence,” Monist 89:3 [July 2006], 294-312.)

Open and Shut

Jami Johnson lost her wallet on December 11, 2007, when she left it on the counter at the Zip Trip convenience store in Clarkston, Washington. A surveillance video showed a man pick it up and walk out of the store with it.

The man, Michael Millhouse, was arrested two days later and charged with theft. How did police catch him so quickly? The Lewiston Tribune had published a frame from the surveillance video on its front page, directly below a four-column photo of Millhouse decorating a local window for the holidays. He was identified by name and was even wearing the same clothing as in the surveillance photo.

Clarkston Police Chief Joel Hastings said, “Initially, Millhouse denied taking the wallet and then said that he had taken the wallet, and thought it was his wife’s wallet. Later he said that he intended turning the wallet in to the police but had forgot about it.”

Police found the wallet at Millhouse’s business, Millhouse Signs of Lewiston, and returned it to Johnson. “This is the most unusual of any one I know of, to have both pictures on the front page at the same time and in the same location,” Hastings said. “I’ve never experienced that anywhere.”

The Gettysburg Gun
Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the Battle of Gettysburg, Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery were loading a Napoleon cannon when a Confederate shell scored a direct hit on the muzzle, killing two men. Corporal James Dye and Sergeant Albert Straight tried to force another round into the tube with a rammer and an ax, but the ball remained lodged in the dented muzzle until a second Confederate shell struck the cannon’s wheel, putting it out of commission. The spiked gun now stands in the Rhode Island statehouse in Providence.

Even more impressive, in the same battle Captain Hubert Dilger, commander of the 1st Ohio’s guns, personally sighted a shot that seemed to have no effect on its target, an enemy cannon. Only when he sighted it through field glasses did he realize what he’d done: “I have spiked a gun for them, plugging it at the muzzle.”

“It would be hard to calculate the odds of such an occurrence happening,” writes Michael Sanders in More Strange Tales of the Civil War. “Just hitting a gun with a ball would be considered a great shot. This would be equivalent to Robin Hood splitting an arrow with another arrow. Captain Dilger could truly say that he could never do that again even if he tried.”

About Time,_Prague..jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Korf’s Clock

Korf’s clock is of a novel sort
In which two pairs of hands are used:
One pair points forwards as it ought,
The other backwards a la Proust.

When it says eight it’s also four,
When it says nine it’s also three;
A single glance and you no more
Need fear the ancient Enemy.

For with this wondrous clock you’ll find
As, Janus-like, it turns about
(To such an end it was designed)
Time simply cancels itself out.

Palmström’s Clock

But Palmström’s clock has a “higher” power,
Balanced as lightly as a flower.

Scorning a set pedestrian pace,
It keeps time with a certain grace

And will, in answer to a prayer,
Go en retard, en arriéré.

One hour, two hours, three hours indeed,
Sympathizing with our need!

Though clockwork in its outward part
It hides within — a tender heart.

— Christian Morgenstern

Above: Built in 1586, the town hall in the old Jewish ghetto of Prague bears two clocks: a traditional clock tower with four faces bearing Roman numerals and a second clock bearing Hebrew numerals. The hands on the conventional clocks turn clockwise; those on the Hebrew clock turn counterclockwise. (Thanks, Danesh.)

Male Run

Mr. and Mrs. Emory Harrison of Jonesboro, Tenn., had 13 children, all boys, making the largest all-male American family in 1955.

Amazingly, they made this crowded life seem pretty easy. Emory told the St. Petersburg Times that they spent only $12 to $15 a week on food, since they could grow most of what they needed on their 70-acre farm. And he boasted that he’d spent less than $50 on medical bills in 22 years of married life.

The Harrisons found immortality in algebra textbooks, which are forever asking the odds of this outcome. If both genders are equally likely, the chance is 1 in 8,192.

Exploring Made Easy

A tiny detail, but I thought it was interesting: Scottish writer Henry Drummond believed that sub-Saharan Africa was so well networked with footpaths that an explorer could walk from Zanzibar westward “never in fact leaving a beaten track” until “his faithful foot-wide guide lands him on the Atlantic seaboard.” From his Tropical Africa of 1888:

Now it may be a surprise to the unenlightened to learn that probably no explorer in forcing his passage through Africa has ever, for more than a few days at a time, been off some beaten track. Probably no country in the world, civilized or uncivilized, is better supplied with paths than this unmapped continent. Every village is connected to some other village, every tribe with the next tribe, every state with its neighbour, and therefore with all the rest. The explorer’s business is simply to select from the network of tracks, keep a general direction, and hold on his way.

This is repeated in J.W. Gregory’s The Story of the Road (1931) and in M.G. Lay’s Ways of the World (1992). Gregory admits only afterward that this may have been true in Nyasaland, the district that Drummond had visited, but it’s hardly the case elsewhere. “One evening, after the porters had suffered one of many repeated disappointments at not finding a human path, I removed their gloom, as they sat around the camp fires, by translating to them the passage from Henry Drummond. Their laughter showed that they concluded that the reports of European travellers, like those they told themselves on their return to the coast, were not always to be taken literally.”

Sweet Mystery of Life,_Seattle_(2014).JPG
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For 20 years, someone stocked a Coke machine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill with obscure, sometimes discontinued drinks such as Grape Fanta, Mountain Dew White Out, Hawaiian Punch, and raspberry Nestea Brisk. The price was 75 cents, and each button read simply “? MYSTERY ?”

The machine stood in front of Broadway Locksmith on John Street, but the locksmith claimed to know nothing about its operator. When the city passed a tax on sugary drinks in January 2018, the machine raised its price to $1.00. Six months later, it disappeared, leaving only a message on its Facebook page: “Going for a walk, need to find myself. Maybe take a shower even.”

It hasn’t been seen since. Do machines take walks?

Casper the Commuting Cat

Susan Finden named her cat Casper because he kept disappearing, visiting doctor’s offices, office buildings, and pharmacies near her Weymouth home. When she moved to Plymouth in 2006 she was too busy to monitor his daily activities, and so three years later she was surprised to learn that he was riding buses. The drivers, who looked out for him, told her that he would journey 11 miles to the city center and back, sitting on a favored seat. They would let him out opposite his house.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, but it explains a lot,” she said. “He loves people and we have a bus stop right outside our house so that must be how he got started — just following everyone on.”

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, he was finally killed by a taxi. The news of his death brought condolences from around the world, and Finden wrote a best-selling book. “He will be greatly missed,” she wrote in a note posted on Casper’s usual bus stop. “He was a much-loved pet who had so much character. Thank you to all those who befriended him.”