Persons and Promises

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A conundrum by Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit:

In several years, a young Russian will inherit vast estates. Because he has socialist ideals, he intends, now, to give the land to the peasants. But he knows that in time his ideals may fade. To guard against this possibility, he does two things. He first signs a legal document, which will automatically give away the land, and which can be revoked only with his wife’s consent. He then says to his wife, ‘Promise me that, if I ever change my mind, and ask you to revoke this document, you will not consent.’ He adds, ‘I regard my ideals as essential to me. If I lose these ideals, I want you to think that I cease to exist. I want you to regard your husband then, not as me, the man who asks for this promise, but only as his corrupted later self. Promise me that you will not do what he asks.’

She agrees. In time the Russian’s ideals fade, and when he inherits the land he asks his wife to revoke the document, declaring that he releases her from her earlier commitment. What is her obligation here? She had made her promise to her earlier husband, but is that a different person from the man before her now? In her view, the man to whom she made her promise no longer exists, and so cannot release her from her obligation. Is this right? If a person is a succession of earlier and later selves, does a promise attach to a person or to a self?

(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 1984. See The Ulysses Contract.)

Back on Track

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Partially paralyzed in the Boer War, British infantry officer Hugh Trenchard traveled to Switzerland to recuperate and took up tobogganing out of boredom. Because he couldn’t brake properly, he traveled dangerously fast, and one day the toboggan leapt over the bank and parted company with him in midair. “His body hit the side of the hill two or three times before coming to rest in a snowdrift nearly thirty feet below”:

When he came to his head was throbbing violently. Solicitious hands raised him. He pushed them aside in a sudden fury of excitement and happiness. He could walk again unaided. Whatever other damage he might have done himself as he bounced down the hill-side like a rubber ball, he had recovered the use of his legs. Apart from a dull pain near the base of his spine he felt no aftereffects. Something must have clicked back into place; he had cured himself by violence.

Before the accident he could walk only with sticks; now he threw them away. For good measure, he won the freshman and novices’ tobogganing cups for 1901. Biographer Andrew Boyle writes, “It was a singular achievement for a man with no previous experience, and for one regarded as a virtual cripple until the week before the event.”

Trenchard went on to play a central role in establishing the Royal Air Force.

(From Andrew Boyle, Trenchard, 1962.)

Notable Nightmares

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Half sleepless night again — an entirely disgusting dream, about men using flesh and bones, hands of children especially, for fuel — being out of wood and coals. I took a piece to put on someones fire, and found it the side of an animals face, with the jaw and teeth in it.

— John Ruskin, Brantwood Diary, Oct. 29, 1877

I had a dream last night. An amputated head had been stuck on to a man’s trunk, making him look like a drunken actor. The head began to talk. I was terrified and knocked over my folding screen in trying to push a Russian in front of me against the furious creature’s onslaught.

— August Strindberg, Inferno, 1897

The nightmares returned — one terrible one in February 1896 about a tramp, seen holding over a well ‘washing, but with a kind of amused tenderness, an object that I thought was a rabbit, but I presently saw that it was a small deformed hairy child, with a curious lower jaw, very shallow: over the face it had a kind of horny carapace … made of some material resembling pottery. I was disgusted at this but went on, and it grew dark: I heard behind me an odd sound, and turning round saw this horrible creature only a foot or two high, walking complacently after me, with its limbs involved in ugly and shapeless clothes, made, it seemed to me, of oakum, or some more distressing material. The horror of it exceeded all belief.’

— A.C. Benson, quoted in David Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise, 1980

Podcast Episode 101: Jerome

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In 1863 the residents of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, discovered a legless man on the shore of St. Mary’s Bay. He spoke no English and could not tell them who he was or where he had come from. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of “Jerome” and what is known or guessed of his past.

We’ll also learn about explosive rats in World War II and puzzle over a computer that works better when its users sit.

See full show notes …

Dream Cuisine

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1973 and 1974, the U.S. armed forces gave a food preference survey to about 4,000 members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

The examiners included three fake dishes “to provide an estimate of how much someone will respond to a word which sounds like a food name or will answer without reading.”

The three fake dishes were “funistrada,” “buttered ermal,” and “braised trake.” The Washington Post reported, “Out of the 378 foods listed, braised trake came in 362, buttered ermal was 356 and funistrada finished several foods above the bottom 40, coming in between brussels sprouts and fried okra.”

For the record, here are the nine lowest-ranked foods, from the bottom up — all nine are so bad that service members ranked them beneath foods that don’t exist at all:

Buttermilk, skimmed milk, fried parsnips, low-calorie soda, mashed rutabagas, french fried carrots, prune juice, stewed prunes, french fried cauliflower.

(“The Ranking of the Favorites,” Washington Post, July 1, 1987. The Army survey is here: PDF.)

Watkin’s Folly

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In 1890, inspired by France’s new Eiffel Tower, railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin proposed building an even larger tower at Wembley as the centerpiece of a new amusement park there. He sponsored an architectural design competition that attracted 68 designs inspired by everything from the Tower of Pisa to the Great Pyramid of Giza. The winning design, number 37 (center), was to measure 366 meters tall, 45.8 meters taller than Eiffel’s tower. Foundations were laid in 1892, but funding troubles forced a redesign and in the end only the first stage was finished (below). The site was closed in 1902 and the aborted tower was dynamited five years later, but the surrounding park remained popular — it’s now the site of Wembley Stadium.

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(Thanks, Meaghan.)

Mallows Bay

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About 30 miles south of Washington D.C., on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, lies a curious collection of lozenge-shaped islands, the remains of a mighty fleet of wooden steamships built hurriedly during World War I and made obsolete by the end of the war. The unused ships became the center of a political scandal, “the grandest white elephant” ever built, and for decades the government and various salvage companies dithered over what to do with them. Eventually nature herself decided the question: The sunken hulls had consolidated and enriched the sediment in which they lay, creating a valuable new ecosystem. So the armada remains where it is, the largest collection of wrecked ships in the Western Hemisphere.

(Thanks, Craig.)

Blind Date

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When I was 10 years old, a time machine appeared in my bedroom and my older self emerged and tried to kill me. He failed, of course, as his own existence must have shown him he would. But ever since I’ve wondered: This means that someday I myself must travel back to that bedroom and try to kill my younger self. And why would I ever do that?

This is not a logical or a metaphysical problem, but a psychological one. I can imagine being someday so depressed or ashamed or angry at myself that I’m motivated to travel back and try to erase my own existence. But I already know that the gun will jam. What earthly reason, then, could I have to go through the motions of a failed assassination? (Certainly we can imagine cases of amnesia, mistaken identity, etc., where such an action would make sense, but we’re interested in the basic straightforward case in which a time traveler interacts with his younger self — which surely would happen if time travel were possible.)

It seems that I must be motivated, somehow, in order for the appointment to take place, and yet the motivation seems to have no source. “In the present case, we have actions coming from nowhere, in the sense that no one decides, in the usual way, to perform them (or decides that they should be performed), and yet they are performed nonetheless,” writes University of Sydney philosopher Nicholas J.J. Smith. “The psychology of self-interaction is essentially different from that of interaction with others — because the former, but not the latter, involves the problem of agents knowing what they will decide to do, before they decide to do it.”

(Nicholas J.J. Smith, “Why Would Time Travelers Try to Kill Their Younger Selves?”, The Monist 88:3 [July 2005], 388-395.)

As You Were

The Galil machine gun includes a built-in bottle opener in the front handguard. Soldiers commonly damaged the lips of Uzi submachine gun magazines by using them to open bottles, so designer Yisrael Galili built a dedicated opener into his rifle.

The Vennbahn

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In the 1880s the Prussian state railways built a line to carry coal and iron across the High Fens south of Aachen. The line wanders across the modern border between Germany and Belgium, but according to the Treaty of Versailles the trackbed itself is Belgian territory. This has the effect of creating six German exclaves — regions of Germany that are surrounded entirely by Belgium (Belgium proper to the west, and the technically Belgian railway trackbed to the east).

The smallest of these exclaves, a farm known as the Rückschlag, measures only 150 × 100 meters and has an estimated population of four people.

The Vennbahn track was used by tourist services until 2001 but is now disused and has begun to be dismantled. But the trackbed itself still belongs to Belgium, so the six exclaves remain.