Appearances

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

Costa Rica’s alligator bug, Fulgora laternaria, bears a protuberance that looks remarkably like a caiman’s head — a feature that may make a hungry bird think twice.

The leaf insects of Southeast Asia, below, so convincingly mimic living leaves that they even bear “bite marks.” This fooled Magellan’s companion Antonio Pigafetta, who encountered them in the Philippines in 1521:

In this island are also found certain trees, the leaves of which, when they fall, are animated, and walk. They are like the leaves of the mulberry tree, but not so long; they have the leaf stalk short and pointed, and near the leaf stalk they have on each side two feet. If they are touched they escape, but if crushed they do not give out blood. I kept one for nine days in a box. When I opened it the leaf went round the box. I believe they live upon air.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Ship of Theseus

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Suppose we have a complete wooden ship, and one day we replace one of its wooden planks with an aluminum one. Most people would agree that the ship survives this operation; that is to say, its identity remains unchanged. But suppose that we then replace a second plank, and then a third, until our wooden ship is made entirely of aluminum. Is this the same ship that we started with? If not, when did it change?

Thomas Hobbes adds a wrinkle: Suppose that, as we did all this refurbishing, someone had gathered up all the discarded wooden planks and used them to assemble a second ship. What are we to make of this? “This, without doubt, had also been the same numerical ship with that which was at the beginning; and so there would have been two ships numerically the same, which is absurd.”

And philosopher Roderick Chisholm adds another: “Let us suppose that the captain of the original ship had solemnly taken the vow that, if his ship were ever to go down, he would go down with it. What, now, if the two ships collide at sea and he sees them start to sink together? Where does his duty lie — with the aluminum ship or with the reassembled wooden ship?”

Peripatetic Pussycats

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When Ernest Shackleton set out for Antarctica in 1914, his carpenter, Harry “Chippy” McNish, brought along a tabby who was quickly named “Mrs. Chippy,” though he proved to be a male. When the Endurance was crushed by pack ice, Shackleton ordered the “weakling” cat to be shot, a decision for which McNish never forgave him. Cat and carpenter were reunited in 2004, when a life-size bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy was added to McNish’s grave in Wellington.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s 1913 arctic expedition ended in disaster when the main vessel sank, but ship’s kitten Nigeraurak (“little black one”) was lugged safely home in a sack, “the only member of the expedition to survive the whole affair sleek and unscathed.”

And Matthew Flinders’ cat Trim accompanied him on several adventures, including the circumnavigation of Australia, a shipwreck in 1803, and imprisonment in Mauritius during the return to England. Today Sydney’s Mitchell Library bears a statue of the cat (below), with a plaque quoting Flinders’ own words:

TO THE MEMORY OF
TRIM
The best and most illustrious of his race
The most affectionate of friends,
faithful of servants,
and best of creatures
He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia,
which he circumnavigated, and was ever the
delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Standing Order

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

On June 1, 1873, during a visit to New College, Oxford, South Carolina planter William Heyward Trapier asked for a mint julep, “to the utter bewilderment of the butler,” according to the Oxford Companion to the Year.

When his hosts confessed their ignorance of the American drink, Trapier gave them his family recipe, a silver pot in which to share it, and instructions to prepare it every year on the anniversary of his visit. Thereafter it became a college tradition to substitute juleps for the after-dinner port on June 1 each year, and to leave a place empty for Trapier.

This continued for a century, but apparently the tradition died out during World War II. But there’s good news — Oxford’s student newspaper now says that the college has approved a Mint Julep Quartermaster to start it up again.

Here’s the recipe that Trapier gave to the college, according to the Oxford Times:

  • Crush two sprigs of mint and half a teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of a tall glass.
  • Add two lumps of ice and cover with Bourbon whiskey.
  • Fill the glass with cracked ice and chill for several hours before drinking.

Sanctuary

Oxfordshire’s annual stag hunt took a strange turn in 1819:

Dec. 21, being St. Thomas’s Day, as usual, a stag was turned out from Blenheim Park, the property of his Grace, the Duke of Marlborough. It directed its course towards Wickham; from thence it took the high road and proceeded to Oxford; and then formed one of the most beautiful and picturesque sights that can be imagined. The stag, and dogs in close pursuit, followed by a great number of well-known and experienced sportsmen, proceeded up the High-street, as far as Brazenose College; when, to the no small astonishment of hundreds of spectators, the stag took refuge in the chapel, during divine service; where it was killed, sans ceremonie, by the eager dogs.

From The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1820.

The Paradox of Suspense

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Psycho is certainly suspenseful on the first viewing. But why does it remain so on the second?

“How can there be suspense if we already know how things will turn out?” asks University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton. “Why, for example, should Tom and Becky’s plight concern or even interest a reader who knows, from reading the novel previously, that eventually they will escape from the cave? One might have supposed that, once we have experienced a work often enough to learn thoroughly the relevant features of the plot, it would lose its capacity to create suspense, and that future readings or viewings of it would lack the excitement of the first one. But this frequently is not what happens.”

The paradox extends to music. Why does a crescendo continue to “work” on repeated listenings? Why does it still move us?

(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” The Journal of Philosophy 75:1 [January 1978], 26)

Deal’s a Deal

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Between 1925 and 1963, Burma-Shave billboards were ubiquitous on American highways. Over the course of 18 seconds a motorist would pass six successive red and white signs that formed a rhymed verse:

SAID JULIET
TO ROMEO
IF YOU
WON’T SHAVE
GO HOMEO
BURMA-SHAVE

THE WOLF
IS SHAVED
SO NEAT AND TRIM
RED RIDING HOOD
IS CHASING HIM
BURMA-SHAVE

At its peak the campaign had 40,000 signs posted between Maine and Texas. The jingles were clearly whimsical, but anything that popular invites some smart-alecks:

FREE OFFER! FREE OFFER!!
RIP A FENDER
OFF YOUR CAR
MAIL IT IN FOR
A HALF-POUND JAR
BURMA-SHAVE

When this poem was posted, “scores of fenders of notable decrepitude arrived at the plant by parcel post and express,” noted Frank Rowsome Jr. in his 1965 history of the campaign, The Verse by the Side of the Road. “Many enterprising people scavenged Minnesota junkyards, triumphantly bearing off rusty horrors that they lugged to the Burma-Shave offices.” Each was gamely honored with a free jar of shaving cream, but this only made things worse:

FREE — FREE
A TRIP
TO MARS
FOR 900
EMPTY JARS
BURMA-SHAVE

At this Arliss “Frenchy” French, manager of a Red Owl supermarket in Appleton, Wis., produced 900 empty containers and demanded to be sent to Mars. Burma-Shave sent general manager Ralph Getchman to Appleton, where he found that French had heaped the jars in a huge pile in his store and taken out a full-page newspaper ad reading SEND FRENCHY TO MARS! After some bewildered havering, the company struck a deal with Red Owl’s publicist — they sent French and his wife to Moers, Germany. “The Frenches had a marvelous time,” remembered Burma-Shave president Leonard Odell. “We still get Christmas cards from them.”

Constitution

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A lump of clay exists on Monday. On Tuesday it’s fashioned into a statue. Are the lump and the statue the same thing? It would appear not: The statue didn’t exist on Monday, and it wouldn’t survive being squashed, but the lump did and would. But if the lump and the statue are two different material objects, how can they coincide? How can two things exist in the same place at the same time?

Ghosts of Scotland

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One last striking story about bird mimicry:

I was in the Outer Hebrides and I came across an abandoned derelict croft. It had no roof, but very substantial walls and in the gaps between the stonework was a starlings’ nest. I could hear the birds inside, and eventually one of the starlings came to defend its territory. I heard straight away that it wasn’t just the usual rambling song. It started to mimic a Corncrake, a species that is very rare in mainland Britain. It did this bird’s buzzing repetitive song, but then it immediately went into other sounds that seemed familiar and had a strong rhythm to them. As I was listening I was looking around and could see the remnants of farm machinery, including an ancient tractor that had not moved for 20-30 years. I realised this bird was singing the song of some of this machinery. It was singing the song of a mechanical pump that had obviously been active around this farm, and used by the people who had lived here.

I wasn’t listening to the same starling that heard these original sounds. These copied sounds are usually passed on from parents or neighbouring birds so that a young bird absorbs and then duplicates them. The strange thing was that I was recording the sounds in what had been somebody’s living room, a place that had obviously been full of the conversations of family life over generations and which had passed into history. Yet the birds had returned and taken it back — claimed this space and these rocks — and were singing their own song. And they were singing the songs that were around when the people were here.

— Chris Watson of Tyne and Wear, U.K., quoted in Mark Cocker’s Birds & People, 2013