Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, Fiat’s car factory in Turin, Italy, contained a spiral roadway — raw materials went in at ground level, and the cars ascended as they were assembled. At the top they emerged onto a test track on the roof.

Lauded at the time, the factory was eventually outmoded and has since been remodeled into a hotel and shopping mall, but the test track remains and is open to visitors.

“She Was as Cute as a Washtub”

Raymond Chandler similes:

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
“She looked almost as hard to get as a haircut.”
“The smell of old dust hung in the air as flat and stale as a football interview.”
“Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.”
“This car sticks out like spats at an Iowa picnic.”
“I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.”
“A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.”
“Then she straightened the bills out on the desk and put one on top of the other and pushed them across. Very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten.”

“If you use similes,” he once suggested, “try and make them both extravagant and original.”

Over There

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Big Man on Campus

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The balcony of Woolsey Hall at Yale has one extra-wide seat: Carpenters enlarged it to accommodate William Howard Taft, who returned to his alma mater after losing his re-election bid for the presidency in 1912.

Most of the seats in Woolsey measure 18″ x 17″; Taft’s measures 25″ x 20″. He once convinced an usher to admit him by leading him to the customized chair — he told another patron, “I lost my ticket, but was fortunately able to establish my identity by the breadth of my beam and the corresponding breadth of this seat.”

Object Lesson

In a speech class at Oregon State University in 1967, Charles Goetzinger arranged for one student to arrive covered with a large black bag. Only his bare feet showed. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11 a.m., the student would sit on a table at the back of the room, rarely speaking or moving. Goetzinger knew the student’s identity, but none of the other 20 students did.

At first the students treated the bag with hostility, but this evolved into curiosity and even friendship. When another teacher disparaged the mysterious student, “It made me mad,” said a classmate. “I felt I had to protect him.”

The experiment is seen today as an example of the “mere-exposure effect,” the phenomenon that familiarity breeds preference. The students knew nothing about the man in the bag, but simply encountering him over and over disposed them to like him. In the words of social psychologist Robert Zajonc, “mere repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus is a sufficient condition for the enhancement of his attitude toward it.”

In a letter to a newspaper, one student wrote, “The Bag has motivated us, made us delve, explore, ponder and try to understand what goes on inside us. … Above all it has made us learn. It has persuaded us, and drastically changed everyone in the class.”

While You Were Out


A pleasing little philosophy puzzle:

If there’s a sentence that’s guaranteed to be false in any context, surely it’s this:

“I am not here now.”

But this very phrase is played on millions of answering machines and voicemail systems every day, and we all understand it to be true. I, here, and now are indexicals, words whose meanings change with the circumstances of their utterance. Here each seems to make a rather uncertain reference, and the resulting sentence on its face cannot be true, yet we all understand it readily. How?

(Jonathan Cohen, “Indexicality and the Puzzle of the Answering Machine,” Journal of Philosophy 110:1 [2013], 5-32.)

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the Philippine municipality of Sagada, the Igorot people suspend coffins on wooden beams in the face of a cliff, both to protect them from floods and animals and to bring them closer to heaven. In a tradition more than 2,000 years old, the elderly fashion their own coffins out of hollow logs, to be fitted into place by their survivors. The practice is now slowly dying away.

“It’s like returning back to where you came from, in the foetal position in the womb,” Igorot guide Siegrid Bangyay told the BBC in 2018. Though the last cliff burial had taken place in 2010, she said, she would one day like to take a place on the cliff herself — changing from “a tourist guide to a tourist attraction.”


I just ran across this in Hurd and Hurd’s Treasury of Great American Letters, from 1961 — kept from home on his daughter’s 10th birthday, Ogden Nash left her this poem:

My sweet, although you were divine
When you were just a child of nine,
I’d be the happiest of men
If I could see you change to 10.
I do not like to be away
On such a stupendiferous day.
Now that you’re old enough to caddie
I’m a very happy daddy.
Many happy returns and
I love you.