Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fighting a storm in the Kuril Archipelago in January 1960, Soviet barge T-36 ran out of fuel and was carried out of its lagoon and into the open ocean. By the time the storm ceased it had also lost its radio transmitter, and when rescue crews found debris it was concluded that the vessel had sunk.

In fact it was drifting eastward across the North Pacific. The barge had recently been stocked with a three days’ supply of food and water, but some of this had been ruined in the storm, and the four-man crew were eventually reduced to eating their shoes and belts as they drifted endlessly east. “Each time we awoke, we were surprised to be alive,” private Philip Poplavski later told Time. “But we felt we were too young to die.”

Finally, after 49 days, they were spotted by an American Navy reconnaissance plane and picked up by the aircraft carrier Kearsarge. Amid worldwide publicity, the crew sailed to Paris on the Queen Mary, then flew back to the Soviet Union.

Google Dearth,_Landsat_7_ETM%2B.png

This is a photograph of an absence. In 1876 the whaling ship Velocity reported spotting some “Sandy Islets” in New Caledonia, and “Sandy Island” was carried into later charts as a potential navigational hazard. But doubts began to arise in the 20th century, and in 2012 an Australian research vessel visited the area and “undiscovered” the island. With its absence officially confirmed, it’s been removed from modern maps and databases.

In a Word

v. to watch carefully; to keep vigil

n. lateness; delay

adj. roving; wandering; characterized by vagaries

adj. that roams around the world

Letter to the Times, Aug. 24, 2001:

Sir, Some years ago when I lived in Livingstone, Zambia, I received a letter from Lusaka, the capital, correctly addressed but weeks late.

Among the numerous back stamps the envelope had collected in its travels the last was Livingstone, Canada, with an inscription ‘Try Livingstone, Zambia’.

The letter had also visited Scotland and New Zealand.

Yours truly,

David H. Walton
Crowland, Peterborough

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Drive east on Canusa Street and you’re in the United States, drive west and you’re in Canada. That’s because the street, part of Quebec Route 247, runs along the border — the yellow line dividing its lanes follows the 45th parallel.

Families who live on the south side are in Vermont, and those in the north are in Quebec — they can see one another but must present themselves at a border post before crossing the street.

But residents of both countries can freely visit the Haskell Free Library — where the main entrance is in America but the books are in Canada.

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.”