Sweet Mystery of Life

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For 20 years, someone stocked a Coke machine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill with obscure, sometimes discontinued drinks such as Grape Fanta, Mountain Dew White Out, Hawaiian Punch, and raspberry Nestea Brisk. The price was 75 cents, and each button read simply “? MYSTERY ?”

The machine stood in front of Broadway Locksmith on John Street, but the locksmith claimed to know nothing about its operator. When the city passed a tax on sugary drinks in January 2018, the machine raised its price to $1.00. Six months later, it disappeared, leaving only a message on its Facebook page: “Going for a walk, need to find myself. Maybe take a shower even.”

It hasn’t been seen since. Do machines take walks?

Casper the Commuting Cat

Susan Finden named her cat Casper because he kept disappearing, visiting doctor’s offices, office buildings, and pharmacies near her Weymouth home. When she moved to Plymouth in 2006 she was too busy to monitor his daily activities, and so three years later she was surprised to learn that he was riding buses. The drivers, who looked out for him, told her that he would journey 11 miles to the city center and back, sitting on a favored seat. They would let him out opposite his house.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, but it explains a lot,” she said. “He loves people and we have a bus stop right outside our house so that must be how he got started — just following everyone on.”

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, he was finally killed by a taxi. The news of his death brought condolences from around the world, and Finden wrote a best-selling book. “He will be greatly missed,” she wrote in a note posted on Casper’s usual bus stop. “He was a much-loved pet who had so much character. Thank you to all those who befriended him.”

Foreign Food

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In The Ouija Book (1979), Gina Covina writes, “Whatever your work or field of interest, it brings an added richness to your Ouija sessions, and Ouija will return this richness by sparking new ideas and reflecting imaginative perspectives back on your field of interest.” One day, “in a particularly domestic mood,” she sat at her Ouija table and found herself copying down this recipe:

Mix together equal parts peanut butter, honey, and nutritional yeast. Add raisins or nuts if desired. Make into balls and roll balls in coconut.

She calls it “Goo Ball,” “an excessively healthful candy that provides all the B vitamins in doses larger than you’ll find anywhere.” Where it came from, exactly, is unknown — proceed at your own risk.

A New World

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Offered in 1950, the alarmingly named Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory was exactly that — a children’s chemistry set that included radioactive material, in this case four glass jars containing uranium-bearing (U-238) ore samples.

“Produces awe-inspiring sights!” read the catalog. “Enables you to actually SEE the paths of electrons and alpha particles traveling at speeds of more than 10,000 miles per SECOND! Electrons racing at fantastic velocities produce delicate, intricate paths of electrical condensation — beautiful to watch. Viewing Cloud Chamber action is closest man has come to watching the Atom!”

It sounds rather worse than it was — in 2020 IEEE Spectrum determined that the likely radiation exposure was “minimal, about the equivalent to a day’s UV exposure from the sun” if the samples were not removed from their containers, in accordance with the safety instructions.

Children were not the best market for a fairly sophisticated kit, and fewer than 5,000 were sold, but creator Alfred Carlton Gilbert didn’t go hungry — he’d also invented the Erector Set.

Autopilot

On Boxing Day 1927, the Thames sailing barge Lady Daphne entered the difficult waters of the Isles of Scilly and passed with seeming assurance among its many rocky hazards. At length she began to veer toward land, though, and the islanders dispatched a lifeboat, which caught up with the ship just as she beached herself safely on the island of Tresco.

The only living thing aboard was a canary in a cage. Daphne‘s skipper had been washed overboard, and the remaining two crew members had abandoned the barge off the Cornish coast. Unmanned, she had somehow sailed herself among the rocks to a patch of safe sand.

Last Word

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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

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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.

Kjeragbolten

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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

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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:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOViE `2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

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.