Private Collection

In November 1985, a couple walked into an art museum in Tucson, Arizona. While the woman chatted with a security guard, the man disappeared briefly upstairs, and then the pair departed. Then the guard discovered that Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre was missing — it had been cut out of its canvas.

More than 30 years later, in 2017, retired New York speech pathologist Rita Alter passed away in the little town of Cliff, N.M., five years after her husband, Jerry, a former schoolteacher. In their bedroom was the missing de Kooning, in a position that was visible only when the door was closed. The painting appeared to have been reframed only once in the 31 years it had been missing, suggesting that it had had only one owner in that time.

Had the Alters stolen the painting? They were admirers of de Kooning and had been in Tucson the day before the theft. But such a crime seems vastly out of character for the retiring couple. “[They wouldn’t] risk something as wild and crazy as grand larceny — risk the possibility of winding up in prison, for God’s sake — they wouldn’t do that,” Rita’s sister told the New York Times.

Had the pair then bought the painting from a third party? That seems impossible too — it was worth an estimated $160 million. Perhaps the painting’s authenticity had been forgotten by the time of the transaction, so that both buyer and seller thought it was a copy? How could that have come about?

Jerry Alter once published a story in which a woman and her granddaughter steal an emerald from a museum and keep it on private display, “where two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see.” Is that a coincidence? A veiled admission?

We may never know. The FBI’s case remains open.

(Thanks, Daniel.)

Thinking Ahead

If James cannot decide whether to marry Alice or Jane, he simply travels to the future and learns that he is to choose Alice; he then chooses her for this reason. One wants to object that the decision to marry Alice was never really made at all! But this is not true; the decision was made — as a result of the knowledge that this was the decision … It is not the case that the prospective bridegroom could visit the future and compare the results of marrying Alice with those of marrying Jane in order to decide between the alternatives. For if he visits the future, he will learn only that in fact he chose Alice, for better or for worse!

— Gilbert Fulmer, “Understanding Time Travel,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 11:1 (1980), 151-156, via Paul J. Nahin, Time Machine Tales, 2016

“A Matter of Opinion”

A man walks round a pole on the top of which is a monkey. As the man moves, the monkey turns on the top of the pole, so as still to keep face to face with the man. Now, when the man has gone round the pole, has he or has he not gone round the monkey?

— John Scott, The Puzzle King, 1899

The Bebington Puzzle Stones

bebington puzzle stones

Visiting England’s Wirral Peninsula in 1853, Nathaniel Hawthorne came upon a queer battlemented house in the town of Bebington, “quite a novel symbol of decay and neglect,” “probably the whim of some half-crazy person.” “On the wall, close to the street, there were certain eccentric inscriptions cut into slabs of stone, but I could make no sense of them.”

The crazy person was resident Thomas Francis, and the inscriptions had apparently been commissioned to bemuse and entertain passersby. They offer three puzzles. The first presents the image of an inn, The Two Crowns, and the following riddle:

“My name And sign is thirty Shillings just, and he that will tell My Name Shall have a Quart on trust, for why is not Five the Fourth Part of Twenty the Same in All Cases?”

This was easier to guess at the time of its inscription. The landlord of the Two Crowns was Mark Noble, the old English coin known as the noble was worth 6 shillings and eightpence, the mark was worth 13 shillings and fourpence, and two crowns were worth 10 shillings. Together these values total 30 shillings.

The second puzzle is more straightforward: “Subtract 45 From 45 That 45 May Remain.” This seems to refer to the following mathematical curiosity:

- 123456789

Each of these figures comprises the digits 1 to 9, so all have the same digit sum: 45.

The last puzzle is the easiest:


Read this straight through and you get A RUBBING STONE FOR ASSES — possibly a comment by Francis on the loiterers who would gather outside his home.

The house was demolished in the 1960s, but the stones can be seen today in the foyer of the library at the Bebington civic center.

The Ta Prohm Stegosaur,_Siem_Reap,_Cambodia_(5534467622).jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

At Cambodia’s Ta Prohm temple, near Angkor Wat, visitors have noticed an unusual carving on a crumbling wall — it appears to resemble a stegosaur. Well, viewed from the right angle it does, and allowing for the large head, large ears, and horn. In fact, it better resembles a boar, a rhino, or a chameleon viewed against a leafy background.

Because the temple was built in the 12th century, some creationists have cited the carving as evidence that humans and dinosaurs once coexisted in the region. But it’s not even clear when the carving was made — the temple is a favorite spot for filmmakers, one of whom may have added it, or it may even be a deliberate hoax.

In any case, writes Smithsonian‘s Riley Black, “the temple carving can in no way be used as evidence that humans and non-avian dinosaurs coexisted. Fossils have inspired some myths, but close scrutiny of geological layers, reliable radiometric dating techniques, the lack of dinosaur fossils in strata younger than the Cretaceous, and other lines of evidence all confirm that non-avian dinosaurs became extinct tens of millions of years before there was any type of culture that could have recorded what they looked like.”

Planned Forgiveness

My neighbor has been stealing my newspaper. And when I confront him, he apologizes with a sarcastic, condescending air, as if to say that he’s surprised I can read at all. I find it impossible to forgive him, but then I learn that he’s about to lose his job. He’s an aging executive with a large family to support, and I’m sure that this misfortune will soften his scorn and make him more sincerely apologetic. I decide to forgive him when all this happens.

This seems odd — if I’m sure that he’ll lose his job and express real contrition for stealing the paper, why do I have wait for this to happen? Why can’t I forgive him now?

Another twist: I learn that I (and only I) can save his job. This would amount to doing him a large favor, so I feel justified in withholding my help until I’ve forgiven him. But is this fair? Can I refuse to help him until I get a sincere apology, knowing that this will happen only after he loses his job?

Xanthippe is angry that Socrates is late, but she knows that he’ll apologize when she starts making dinner. Knowing this, can’t she skip the dinner and just forgive him? “In other words,” asks Tennessee State University philosopher James Montmarquet, “knowing that he would apologize, may she not still forgive him — having elected, for quite good reasons, not to allow conditions apt for his apology even to take place?”

(James Montmarquet, “Planned Forgiveness,” American Philosophical Quarterly 44:3 [July 2007], 285-296.)

Peak Performance

This is fascinating if it’s true: Ten municipalities meet at the summit of Mount Etna, producing a “decipoint” and one of the most complex arrangements of political boundaries outside Antarctica.

I say “if it’s true” because, for such a striking fact, it’s surprisingly hard to confirm. Many sources point to a blog post at Condé Nast Traveler by Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, but that cites no source.

On the other hand, no one else seems to doubt it, and this map by Patrick McGranaghan won the American Geographical Society’s monthly map contest in November 2017. Maybe I’m too skeptical?

09/21/2023 UPDATE: Wow, it seems to be true. The official website of the Parco dell’Etna includes a map (PDF) showing the distribution of comuni metropolitani around the peak. And the website of the Italian National Institute of Statistics offers data files on statistical districts that can be opened using the desktop version of Google Earth. Many thanks to readers Rob Miller and Ross Ogilvie for looking into this.

Four-Mile Fall

In January 1942, Soviet Air Force lieutenant Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov was serving as navigator on an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber when an attack by Messerschmitt fighters forced him to bail out.

He left the plane at 6,700 meters and decided to forgo opening his parachute until he’d dropped below the level of the battle. But due to the thin atmosphere he passed out before he could pull the ripcord.

At an estimated 200 kph he struck the edge of a ravine whose steep sides were covered in deep snow. He tumbled to the bottom, where cavalrymen found him alive and still wearing his unopened parachute. He spent a month in critical condition with a broken pelvis but was flying again three months later.

Play On

Local rules adopted at British golf courses during World War II:

  • “In competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.”
  • “The positions of known delayed-action bombs are marked by red flags placed at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.”
  • “A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.”
  • “A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.”

In Curiosities of Golf (1994), Jonathan Rice writes, “At Folkestone GC, the wartime rules included the rather grudging allowance that ‘a ball may be lifted and dropped if in a bomb hole in the rough, but not if the bomb hole is in or part of a recognized hazard.’ So if you sliced your drive and just caught a bunker by the side of the fairway, which then turned out to be fifty feet deep thanks to an overnight bombing raid, you just had to play out of the hazard, however unrecognizable it might have been compared with the day before. They breed tough golfers in Folkestone.”

In July 1941, some American clubs reportedly adopted similar rules in a show of solidarity.

UPDATE: Here are the rules adopted by Richmond GC, southwest of London. (Thanks, Brieuc.)

Pyrrho’s Pig

Pyrrho the philosopher being one day in a boat in a very great tempest, shewed to those he saw the most affrighted about him, and encouraged them, by the example of a hog that was there, nothing at all concerned at the storm. Shall we then dare to say that this advantage of reason, of which we so much boast, and upon the account of which we think ourselves masters and emperors over the rest of all creation, was given us for a torment? To what end serves the knowledge of things if it renders us more unmanly? if we thereby lose the tranquillity and repose we should enjoy without it? and if it put us into a worse condition than Pyrrho’s hog? Shall we employ the understanding that was conferred upon us for our greatest good to our own ruin; setting ourselves against the design of nature and the universal order of things, which intend that every one should make use of the faculties, members, and means he has to his own best advantage?

— Montaigne, “That the Relish for Good and Evil Depends in Great Measure Upon the Opinion We Have of Them,” 1580