Last Word

In August 1947 a British South American Airways airliner en route from Buenos Aires to Santiago crashed into Mount Tupungato in the Argentine Andes. The wreckage wasn’t located for 50 years, but it’s believed today that, hindered by the jet stream, the pilots had started their descent before they’d cleared the mountaintops and crashed into Tupungato.

The last Morse code message received by the Santiago airport was “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC.” The operator didn’t recognize the last word and asked that it be sent again. The flight transmitted STENDEC twice more and then was lost. The meaning of that last transmission is unknown — despite much speculation, it’s never been definitively explained.

Over There
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1942, homesick GI Carl K. Lindley was ordered to repair a local signpost in the Yukon. He decided to add an indicator pointing to his hometown: DANVILLE, ILL. 2835 MILES. Others began adding their own signs, and today the “Sign Post Forest” holds 80,000 signs. It’s actively accepting more — you can bring your own or make one at the visitor information center.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the last glacial period, at around 50,000 B.C., a 5-cubic-meter boulder became wedged into a crevasse in Scandinavia, just southwest of the village of Lysebotn in western Norway.

The boulder is accessible to tourists, but be careful: There are no fences, and the abyss below is 984 meters deep.

Imagining the Worst

Holders of lottery tickets are reluctant to trade them in for different tickets, even though they know that all tickets are equally likely to win. Why? Possibly it’s because of “anticipated regret” — I’ll feel like a fool if I discover I’ve traded away a winning ticket; I’d rather hold on to my ticket even if it means that my inaction costs me a fortune.

But in a series of experiments in 2007, Cornell psychologists Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich found that people have a gut feeling that an exchanged lottery ticket is more likely to win than an unexchanged one, and are even willing to back up that belief with cash. We seem to find it easy to imagine that possibility, and that ease makes that outcome seem more likely.

“As these results indicate, the tendency to imagine a negative outcome and therefore to believe that it is especially likely to occur manifests itself in many other circumstances beyond the decision of whether to exchange lottery tickets.” For example, we think we’re more likely to be pulled over by police when we’ve borrowed a car without permission, and we think we’re more likely to be called on in class when we haven’t done the reading.

For similar reasons, people are reluctant to switch checkout lanes at the grocery store or to change answers on a multiple-choice test. “Although one might think that in most situations the rational system would hold the upper hand, it is often the intuitive system that people obey.”

(Jane L. Risen and Thomas Gilovich, “Another Look at Why People Are Reluctant to Exchange Lottery Tickets,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93:1 [2007], 12.)

Toynbee Tiles
Image: Wikimedia Commons

What is this? No one quite knows. Plaques such as this have been found embedded in the streets of 24 major American cities since the late 1980s. Typically they read:

IN MOViE `2001

But what that means, and who’s been placing them, are unknown. TOYNBEE may be British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and MOViE `2001 is likely Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film. What do these have in common? One possibility is Ray Bradbury’s 1984 short story “The Toynbee Convector,” which appeals to Toynbee’s idea that humans must adopt ambitious goals in order to advance even slightly (colonizing Jupiter might be such a goal). But that’s just a guess, and even if it’s right it’s not clear how someone thought that impressing it in asphalt would advance this cause. Maybe some sort of Phase 2 is coming.

Concealed Shoes
Image: Wikimedia Commons

England’s Northampton Museum maintains a Concealed Shoe Index that documents the discovery of shoes hidden in the structure of buildings, 1900 of them as of 2012.

This seems to have been a tradition that was once widespread and that died out relatively recently — the first such shoe was discovered behind the choirstalls in Winchester Cathedral, which were installed in 1308, and almost half are from the 19th century. Most have been worn, and about half belonged to children.

Why did people do this? The shoes may have been a fertility charm, or offerings to a household deity, or protections against evil spirits. But the practice was evidently once very popular — concealed shoes have been found in Europe, North America, and Australia, and in many types of buildings: workhouses, factories, public houses, country cottages, town houses, manor houses, hospitals, and two Oxford colleges, St John’s and Queen’s.

Turning Back Time

A watch for left-handed people has been invented by a Kalamazoo jeweler, who believes that the left-handed look at things in a ‘left-handed’ fashion. The left-handed watch runs backward. The dial is arranged so that the numeral 1 is on the left hand of 12 instead of on the right as in the case of the ordinary watch. The hands also run from right to left instead of in the usual fashion. Mechanically, with the exceptions given, the left-handed watch differs very slightly from the ordinary time-piece.

The inventor constructed the unusual watch for the benefit of his daughter, who is left-handed.

Popular Science Monthly, January 1916


I was just researching wartime superstitions and came across this striking anecdote. Major Hubert Knilans was an American bomber pilot who flew with the No. 619 Squadron in the RAF during World War II. As he was climbing to cruising altitude one evening, “The upper sky before me was still somewhat lighted. A figure of a woman several thousand feet high slowly emerged into my startled view.”

He realized she had the face of a young woman he’d loved but who had died suddenly of pneumonia some years earlier. “She had a slight smile on her lips as I flew towards her. The vision slowly melted into the darkening sky around us.”

He says he was “a bit uneasy” over this vision, uncertain “if she had appeared to reassure me that she would keep me from harm or if she was welcoming me into her world of the hereafter.”

Apparently it was the former — he finished the mission successfully and wrote up the encounter in his private memoir A Yank in the RCAF.

The Nearby Daughter

Your beloved daughter is spending the summer at a Japanese monastery. On July 28 you receive a letter from an administrator, dated July 19, saying that she needs to have her wisdom teeth removed. The availability of drugs is not certain: She’ll either have a relatively painful extraction on July 27 or an unpleasant but painless one on July 29. Learning of this situation from afar, which drug would you prefer to have been available?

Now imagine that you receive the letter on July 26 and jet to her bedside. You arrive on July 28 to find her asleep. She seems a little restless, but you don’t know whether that’s because she had a painful extraction yesterday or because she’s anxious about having an unpleasant one tomorrow. Now which do you prefer?

“I find that the large majority of people to whom I present these cases say that they would prefer, in the first case, for their daughter to have the merely unpleasant operation on the 29th, and, in the second case, for their daughter to have had the painful operation on the 27th,” writes MIT philosopher Caspar Hare. “Furthermore, in each case they feel that it makes sense to have the preference, given the way in which it is appropriate to care about a daughter. While they would be loath to condemn a parent with different preferences, they feel that such a parent would be making a kind of mistake.” Why should this be?

(Caspar Hare, “A Puzzle About Other-Directed Time Bias,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86:2 [June 2008], 269-277.)