I was just researching wartime superstitions and came across this striking anecdote. Major Hubert Knilans was an American bomber pilot who flew with the No. 619 Squadron in the RAF during World War II. As he was climbing to cruising altitude one evening, “The upper sky before me was still somewhat lighted. A figure of a woman several thousand feet high slowly emerged into my startled view.”

He realized she had the face of a young woman he’d loved but who had died suddenly of pneumonia some years earlier. “She had a slight smile on her lips as I flew towards her. The vision slowly melted into the darkening sky around us.”

He says he was “a bit uneasy” over this vision, uncertain “if she had appeared to reassure me that she would keep me from harm or if she was welcoming me into her world of the hereafter.”

Apparently it was the former — he finished the mission successfully and wrote up the encounter in his private memoir A Yank in the RCAF.

Head Over Heels
Image: John Allan

In his 1703 Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, Martin Martin describes an alarming tradition concerning a beetling rock formation in St. Kilda:

In the face of the rock, south from the town, is the famous stone, known by the name of the mistress-stone; it resembles a door exactly; and is in the very front of this rock, which is twenty or thirty fathom [120-180 feet, 37-55 meters] perpendicular in height, the figure of it being discernible about the distance of a mile; upon the lintel of this door, every bachelor-wooer is by an ancient custom obliged in honour to give a specimen of his affection for the love of his mistress, and it is thus; he is to stand on his left foot, having the one half of his sole over the rock, and then he draws the right foot further out to the left, and in this posture bowing, he puts both his fists further out to the right foot; and then after he has performed this, he has acquired no small reputation, being always after it accounted worthy of the finest mistress in the world: they firmly believe that this achievement is always attended with the desired success.

“This being the custom of the place, one of the inhabitants very gravely desired me to let him know the time limited by me for trying of this piece of gallantry before I design’d to leave the place, that he might attend me,” he added. “I told him this performance would have a quite contrary effect upon me, by robbing me both of my life and mistress at the same moment.”


As Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 story “The Adventure of the Reigate Squire” begins, Sherlock Holmes is recuperating after the unspecified-but-apparently-quite-taxing case of the “Netherlands-Sumatra company,” which left him lying exhausted in the Hotel Dulong in Lyons. Watson writes:

The triumphant issue of his labours could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name, and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams, I found him prey to the blackest depression.

Leslie S. Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes includes this droll footnote:

Carol P. Woods calculates that to fill the average French hotel room to ‘ankle-deep’ would require 10,741 crumpled telegrams; and she muses that Holmes’s illness was caused not entirely by the exertions put forth in the Netherlands-Sumatra case but also by the telegram-crumpling itself, which would have required slightly over 179 hours of opening, reading, crumpling, and tossing.


Letizia Ramolino was born in 1750. In her 85 years of life she gave birth to Napoleon Bonaparte, saw the French monarchy collapse, witnessed the French Revolution, and saw her son crowned emperor. Then she saw his death, the collapse of his empire, and the restoration of the monarchy.

She died in 1836, 15 years after her most famous son.

Three Predictions

In Season 8, Episode 7 of Penn & Teller’s magic competition show Fool Us, magician Hans Petter Secker appears to predict the outcome of three successive rounds of rock-paper-scissors, though Secker oversees the game remotely from Norway and the players are invited to exchange items before each round. How is this accomplished?

Click for Answer

Pointlessness Exalted
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dodgers outfielder Gary Thomasson was a big disappointment in Japan — in 1980 he was signed to the Yomiuri Giants for a record-breaking sum, then nearly set a record for strikeouts before injuring his knee and retiring.

Artist Akasegawa Genpei took a strange inspiration from this: He defined a “Thomasson” as “an object, part of a building, that was maintained in good condition, but with no purpose, to the point of becoming a work of art.” For example, in Tokyo he’d noticed a well-maintained stairway with a blank wall at its top, and a ticket window that had been boarded up but whose tray had been assiduously permitted still to function.

Akasegawa’s colleague Chikuma Shobo eventually published a whole taxonomy of Thomassons: useless doorways, useless staircases, useless windows, doors to nowhere, senseless signs. Just like art, these items have no purpose in society, but they’re preserved with care, to the point that they seem to be exhibits in themselves. “However, these objects do not appear to have a creator, making them even more art-like than regular art.”

Out, Out!

In 1990, University of Houston English professor Earl Dachslager wrote to the New York Times “to settle once and for all the debate over the first references in print to the game of baseball.” He had found 11 in Shakespeare:

  • “And so I shall catch the fly” (Henry V, Act V, Scene ii).
  • “I’ll catch it ere it come to ground” (Macbeth, III, v).
  • “A hit, a very palpable hit” (Hamlet, V, ii).
  • “You may go walk” (The Taming of the Shrew, II, i).
  • “Strike!” (Richard III, I, iv).
  • “For this relief much thanks” (Hamlet, I, i).
  • “You have scarce time to steal” (Henry VIII, III, ii).
  • “O hateful error” (Julius Caesar, V, i).
  • “Run, run, O run!” (King Lear, V, iii).
  • “My arm is sore” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, v).
  • “I have no joy in this contract” (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii).

“I trust that the question of who first wrote about baseball is now finally settled.”

Small World

Artist François Abelanet created this perspective-based illusion outside the city hall in Paris in 2011. Ninety gardeners worked for five days to prepare an area of 1500 square meters.

Abelanet called it Qui croire? (Who to Believe?).

The Nearby Daughter

Your beloved daughter is spending the summer at a Japanese monastery. On July 28 you receive a letter from an administrator, dated July 19, saying that she needs to have her wisdom teeth removed. The availability of drugs is not certain: She’ll either have a relatively painful extraction on July 27 or an unpleasant but painless one on July 29. Learning of this situation from afar, which drug would you prefer to have been available?

Now imagine that you receive the letter on July 26 and jet to her bedside. You arrive on July 28 to find her asleep. She seems a little restless, but you don’t know whether that’s because she had a painful extraction yesterday or because she’s anxious about having an unpleasant one tomorrow. Now which do you prefer?

“I find that the large majority of people to whom I present these cases say that they would prefer, in the first case, for their daughter to have the merely unpleasant operation on the 29th, and, in the second case, for their daughter to have had the painful operation on the 27th,” writes MIT philosopher Caspar Hare. “Furthermore, in each case they feel that it makes sense to have the preference, given the way in which it is appropriate to care about a daughter. While they would be loath to condemn a parent with different preferences, they feel that such a parent would be making a kind of mistake.” Why should this be?

(Caspar Hare, “A Puzzle About Other-Directed Time Bias,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86:2 [June 2008], 269-277.)