In an article on secret hiding places in the Strand, December 1894, James Scott describes an ingenious refuge in the space between two matched flights of stairs. The functional set of risers on top can be raised to reveal a false set below, and the fugitive can take his place in the space between the two. When the door is closed again, searchers see only an ordinary staircase, and if they examine the empty cupboard beneath they’ll see only the apparent undersides of the risers above, which match them in number and size. There’s no perspective from which they can view the purported single stair from both above and below, and thus no reason to imagine that it might be double.

“Tapping upon what they believed to be the underside of the proper stairs would produce a hollow sound; but as a similar response must be expected when legitimate stairs are tapped, that point would not be considered a valuable clue,” Scott writes. “The quarters would be truly uncomfortable, as the necessities of the position would demand that the prisoner should lie at full length in the cavity. Perhaps, however, some provision was made whereby slight relief was afforded.”


Reader Nick Hare just sent me this. The opening line of Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons is “Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.” But in fact Parfit didn’t own a cat. David Edmonds describes the solution in his 2023 biography Parfit:

edmonds parfit quote

(Thanks, Nick.)

Cause and Effect

When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation, the thought will often cross our minds that (if only we knew it) the event is already decided one way or the other. I believe this to be no good reason for ceasing our prayers. The event certainly has been decided — in a sense it was decided ‘before all worlds.’ But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really causes it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering. Thus, shocking as it may sound, I conclude that we can at noon become part causes of an event occurring at ten a.m.

— C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 1947

Lewis adds, “Some scientists would find this easier than popular thought does.” In his 2016 book Time Machine Tales, physicist Paul J. Nahin writes, “It is a view that does find much support in the block universe interpretation of Minkowskian spacetime. Lewis never mentions the block concept by name, but it is clear that he believed in the idea of God being able to see all of reality at once.” See Asking Back.

In a Word

Image: Wikimedia Commons

adj. sharp, as a taste

n. a mistake, an error

mauvais quart d’heure
n. a short period of time which is embarrassing and unnerving

adj. worthy to be chosen

The label on Angostura bitters is larger than the bottle. When company founder Johann Siegert died, his sons planned to enter the tonic in a competition and divided the preparatory work between them. One oversaw the design of a new bottle, the other of a new label. They failed to coordinate the work, and by the time the mismatch was apparent they had no choice but to use the oversize labels. The oddity was so distinctive that it’s been retained as a branding measure.

(Thanks, Colin.)

The Augsburg Book of Miracles


What is this? A mysterious illuminated manuscript seems to have appeared in Augsburg, Germany, around 1550, but no one knows who created it or for whom. The name of Augsburg printmaker Hans Burgkmair appears on one page, so he’s thought to be a contributor, but the manuscript contains no introduction, title page, table of contents, or dedication; instead it launches directly into a catalog of divine wonders and marvels of nature, each illustrated in full color.

“The manuscript is something of a prodigy in itself, it must be said,” wrote Marina Warner in the New York Review of Books in 2014. “[I]ts existence was hitherto unknown, and silence wraps its discovery; apart from the attribution to Augsburg, little is certain about the possible workshop, or the patron for whom such a splendid sequence of pictures might have been created.” Here it is.

All’s Fair


The Feuer Buech, a 1584 treatise on munitions by Franz Helm, contains a startling illustration: a cat and a bird approaching a town, each bearing a lighted explosive.

The image accompanies a section titled “To set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise”; Penn curator Mitch Fraas translates the relevant section:

Create a small sack like a fire-arrow … if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited.

Fortunately it appears this was never carried into practice … though possibly birds have been used for this purpose in Russia.

In a Word

Image: OpenStreetMap

adj. rare, unusual

adj. extraordinary in appearance

adj. heart-shaped

n. engagement to be married

The Croatian islet Galešnjak, in the Pašman Canal of the Adriatic Sea, is one of the few naturally occurring heart-shaped objects in the world.

It’s uninhabited, but the family that owns it provides facilities for engagements and weddings.

Local News


The cemetery at Aurora, Texas, bears a notable marker from the state’s historical commission: “This site is also well known because of the legend that a spaceship crashed nearby in 1897 and the pilot, killed in the crash, was buried here.”

An April 1897 article by S.E. Haydon in the Dallas Morning News explains that “the airship which has been sailing through the country” had had a fatal accident in Aurora:

It was traveling due north, and much nearer the earth than ever before. Evidently some of the machinery was out of order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed directly over the public square, and when it reached the north part of town collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot, purportedly a Martian, was carrying papers bearing indecipherable hieroglyphics. The ship, “built of an unknown metal,” was “too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power.”

The story has been inspiring investigations for more than a century, but one item stands out. In a 1980 interview in Time magazine, 86-year-old Aurora resident Etta Pegues said that Haydon had invented the story “as a joke and to bring interest to Aurora. The railroad bypassed us, and the town was dying.”

(Thanks, Meaghan.)