Bad Seafood

In 1993, Greenland issued a 7.25-krone stamp depicting a locally fished crab that it labeled Chionoecetes oiliqo. The stamps were issued first in sheet form, but when they were reissued five months later in an eight-stamp booklet pane, collectors noticed something odd: The crabs’ Latin name had changed to Chionoecetes opilio.

What had happened? It turns out that the second name is correct; apparently during production the species name opilio had been mirror-reversed by accident. By a very unlikely coincidence, in the sans-serif typeface used all of its letters reversed into valid counterparts, producing a meaningless word that looked plausibly Latin and got past the inspectors.

The original stamps are now collectors’ items.

(Jim Puder, “OILIQO, The Looking-Glass Crab,” Word Ways 36:4 [November 2003], 243-246.)

In a Word

adj. engaged in flight

n. impish or playful behaviour; mischief

adj. pertaining to leave-taking or departing

n. publicity or notoriety

In 1953, 61-year-old British ace Christopher Draper flew an Auster monoplane under 15 of the 18 bridges on the Thames, negotiating 50-foot arches at 90 mph.

“I did it for the publicity,” he told the press. “For 14 months I have been out of a job, and I’m broke. I wanted to prove that I am still fit, useful and worth employing. … It was my last-ever flight — I meant it as a spectacular swan song.” He was fined 10 guineas.

Night Life

Suppose that your dream-life underwent a remarkable change. Suppose that on going to bed at home and falling asleep, you found yourself to all appearances waking up in a hut raised on poles at the edge of a lake. A dusky woman, whom you realize to be your wife, tells you to go out and catch some fish. The dream continues with the apparent length of an ordinary human day, replete with an appropriate and causally coherent variety of tropical incident. At last you climb up the rope ladder to your hut and fall asleep. At once you find yourself awaking at home, to the world of normal responsibilities and expectations. The next night life by the side of the tropical lake continues in a coherent and natural way from the point at which it left off. Your wife says, ‘You were very restless last night. What were you dreaming about?’ and you find yourself giving her a condensed version of your English day. And so it goes on. Injuries given in England leave scars in England, insults given at the lakeside complicate lakeside personal relations. One day in England, after a heavy lunch, you fall asleep in your armchair and dream of yourself, or find yourself, waking up in the middle of the night beside the lake. Things get too much for you at the lakeside, your wife has departed with all the cooking-pots, and you suspect that she is urging the villagers to sacrifice you to the moon. So you fall on your fish-spear and from that moment on your English slumbers are disturbed no more than in the old pre-lakeside days.

— Anthony Quinton, Thoughts and Thinkers, 1982

“Is such a two-space reality conceivable?” asks Peg Tittle in What If…: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (2016). “That is, is it conceivable that we could live in two different but real spaces?”

See Figure and Ground.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Set into the corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village is a triangular plaque reading PROPERTY OF THE HESS ESTATE WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN DEDICATED FOR PUBLIC PURPOSES. The “Hess triangle” is a remnant from a property dispute that unfolded here 100 years ago: The city was claiming eminent domain in order to demolish hundreds of buildings and expand the subway, but surveyors overlooked this 65-centimeter triangle, owned by Philadelphia landlord David Hess. Hess, outraged at the loss of his five-story apartment building, refused to donate the triangle to the public and added the plaque as a sort of existential revenge. In 1938 it was sold to the adjacent cigar store, and today it’s owned by a local realty corporation, the smallest plot of land in New York City.

Related: In 1973, artist Gordon Matta-Clark bought 13 unused pieces of land that were left over when property lines were redrawn in the borough of Queens. He paid between $25 and $75 for each. The sites are often irregular or isolated, located where other properties meet in a block, some measuring as little as 2×3 feet.

“When I bought those properties at the New York City Auction, the description of them that always excited me the most was ‘inaccessible’,” he said. “They were a group of fifteen micro-panels of land in Queens, leftover properties from an architect’s drawing. One or two of the prize ones were a foot strip down somebody’s driveway and a square foot of sidewalk. And the others were kerbstone and gutterspace. What I basically wanted to do was to designate spaces that wouldn’t be seen and certainly not occupied. Buying them was my own take on the strangeness of existing property demarcation lines. Property is so all-pervasive. Everyone’s notion of ownership is determined by the use factor.”

(Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land & Environmental Art, 2005.)

The Watlington White Mark

In 1764 Oxfordshire squire Edward Horne decided that the parish church of St Leonard on Watlington Hill would look more impressive with a spire. So he gave it one: By cutting a narrow mark 270 feet long into the chalk soil beyond the building, he was able to perch a foreshortened triangle atop the church when it was viewed in perspective from his house. Local residents maintain the mark to this day.

Blind Leading

“Always let your conscience be your guide,” Jiminy Cricket tells Pinocchio. And so we are constantly telling one another: We seem to believe that following our convictions, whatever they are, is better than “giving in to temptation,” regardless of the outcome. Similarly, resisting temptation and doing what I feel is morally right is somehow praiseworthy, even if it can be shown that my convictions were mistaken. We are saying:

If you believe it is wrong for you to do X then it is wrong for you to do X.

And if you do have such a conviction:

You believe it is wrong for you to do X.

Then combining these statements produces the disconcerting conclusion

It is wrong for you to do X.

This seems to mean that all my convictions about my moral conduct are correct, regardless of the facts of the matter, the substance of my convictions, and even whether I’ve considered them.

“Needless to say, this is deeply implausible,” writes University of New Mexico philosopher G.F. Schueler. “For one thing, not only do these ‘proofs’ not depend on the content of our moral convictions; they don’t depend in any way on how we arrived at these convictions. They ‘prove’ the convictions not only of the moral philosopher who has spent her life seriously reflecting on morality, but also those of the most superficial ditz, who has never read or thought about anything more profound than comic books or video games, not to mention the racist bigot who is convinced that it is wrong for her to allow blacks to vote and the religious zealot who thinks all those who don’t accept her religion should be driven out of the country. They ‘prove’ absolutely everybody’s convictions equally.” And that means we must doubt and study even our own convictions … which is much harder than relying on a cricket.

(G.F. Schueler, “Is It Possible to Follow One’s Conscience?”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 44:1 [January 2007], 51-60.)

Al Fresco
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1848 the French commune of Le Plessis-Piquet distinguished itself with a restaurant built in the boughs of a chestnut tree. Owner Joseph Gueusquin named it Le Grand Robinson, after the treehouse in Swiss Family Robinson.

“Word spread and people started to make the eight-mile pilgrimage from Paris,” writes Pete Nelson in Treehouses of the World. “Soon, other entrepreneurs began opening their own treehouse restaurants. At the height of its popularity, there were ten such restaurants and countless other treehouse attractions.”

The trend persisted even into the 1960s, drawing a steady stream of curious diners to Le Plessis-Piquet — in fact, in 1909 the commune officially changed its name to Le Plessis-Robinson, after Gueusquin’s pioneering idea.

Double Talk
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gottfried Leibniz held that no two distinct objects can have exactly the same properties.

But, Max Black asked, “Isn’t it logically possible that the universe should have contained nothing but two exactly similar spheres? We might suppose that each was made of chemically pure iron, had a diameter of one mile, that they had the same temperature, colour, and so on, and that nothing else existed. Then every quality and relational characteristic of the one would also be a property of the other.”

(We might object that the two spheres are discernible because they occupy different positions in space, but this is true only if we have a third object to use as a reference point in establishing the “objective” location of each sphere. If the only things in the universe are the two spheres, then their positions can be established only in relation to each other, and these would always be identical — for example, each sphere is five miles from another sphere.)

“Now if what I am describing is logically possible,” wrote Black, “it is not impossible for two things to have all their properties in common.”

Sort of vaguely related:

On a visit to Princeton, E.H. Moore began a lecture by saying, “Let a be a point and let b be a point.”

Solomon Lefschetz asked, “But why don’t you just say, ‘Let a and b be points’?”

Moore said, “Because a may equal b.”

In Indiscrete Thoughts, Gian-Carlo Rota writes, “Lefschetz got up and left the lecture room.” Rota calls this “an example of mathematical pedantry.”

(Max Black, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Mind 61:242 [April 1952], 153-164.)

Minor Threat

CUNY philosopher Noël Carroll notes, “It is a remarkable fact about the creatures of horror that very often they do not seem to be of sufficient strength to make a grown man cower. A tottering zombie or a severed hand would appear incapable of mustering enough force to overpower a co-ordinated six-year-old. Nevertheless, they are presented as unstoppable, and this seems psychologically acceptable to audiences.” Why is this?

(From his Philosophy of Horror, 1990.)

Small World

As children Maurice Baring and his brother Hugo invented a gibberish language in which the word for yes was Sheepartee and the word for no was Quiliquinino. This grew so tiresome to the adults around them that they were eventually threatened with a whipping:

The language stopped, but a game grew out of it, which was most complicated, and lasted for years even after we went to school. The game was called ‘Spankaboo.’ It consisted of telling and acting the story of an imaginary continent in which we knew the countries, the towns, the government, and the leading people. These countries were generally at war with one another. Lady Spankaboo was a prominent lady at the Court of Doodahn. She was a charming character, not beautiful nor clever, and sometimes a little bit foolish, but most good-natured and easily taken in. Her husband, Lord Spankaboo, was a country gentleman, and they had no children. She wore red velvet in the evening, and she was bien vue at Court.

There were hundreds of characters in the game. They increased as the story grew. It could be played out of doors, where all the larger trees in the garden were forts belonging to the various countries, or indoors, but it was chiefly played in the garden, or after we went to bed. Then Hugo would say: ‘Let’s play Spankaboo,’ and I would go straight on with the latest events, interrupting the narrative every now and then by saying: ‘Now, you be Lady Spankaboo,’ or whoever the character on the stage might be for the moment, ‘and I’ll be So-and-so.’

“Everything that happened to us and everything we read was brought into the game — history, geography, the ancient Romans, the Greeks, the French; but it was a realistic game, and there were no fairies in it and nothing in the least frightening. As it was a night game, this was just as well.”

(From his Puppet Show of Memory, 1922.)