Scraping Bottom

When Germany was divided in two after the Second World War, military leaders recognized the need for liaison between the Soviet-occupied East Germany and the US/British occupied West Germany. To this end, the military governments agreed to exchange a fixed number of representatives who would have the freedom to live and move somewhat freely throughout the country. These representatives would serve to facilitate communication, as well as preventing possible hostilities. Naturally, enterprising spy agencies saw these individuals as vectors for intelligence-gathering.

The British liaison mission was known as British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany (BRIXMIS), and one of their favorite means of information-gathering was to “tamarisk,” a bit of British jargon referring to the practice of sifting through military trash for interesting documents. As the early days of the Cold War unfolded, BRIXMIS officials began to realize that the quantity of useful tamarisk discoveries was inversely correlated with the Soviets’ supply of toilet paper. Evidently, whenever East Germany’s sanitary supplies dwindled, Soviet soldiers tended to improvise by moving stacks of bureaucratic documents from the filing cabinets to the Wasserklosetts. The Soviets knew it would clog the drains to flush the used sheets, so they installed special bins to hold soiled manuals, tainted code sheets, redacted correspondence, and so on. These were periodically emptied into the general trash, their aromatic contents eventually making their way to British intelligence. Upon discovering the cause of these irregular intelligence windfalls, British and US spy agencies began making surreptitious efforts to disrupt East German supplies of toilet paper from time to time.

On the whole, Operation Tamarisk was among the most fruitful intelligence-gathering operations of the entire Cold War. Professor Richard Aldrich, a specialist in Cold War intelligence, said of the effort: “Those used pieces of Russian toilet paper were absolute gold dust in terms of the information they contained.”

The Colors of Numbers

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which certain sensory concepts are strongly linked to each other in seemingly random but persistent ways. Though the pairings are unique to each individual and can cover any type of sensation from sound to touch to emotion, the most commonly-reported type is grapheme-color synesthesia, or connecting letters and numbers to particular hues. A patient with synesthesia may associate the number 3 with the color blue, for example, to the degree that he or she reports seeing all 3s as blue regardless of what shade they may actually be written in.

Opponents, however, have argued that these may be nothing more than accidental mnemonics, or simple memory associations of a forgotten origin. Toddlers often play with magnetic alphabet sets, for example, and who can say whether the capricious color choices of a toy manufacturer are not really at the root of an adult who claims to see the letter A as red? Modern fMRI scans have allowed researchers to visualize the activated areas of the brain and prove the existence of synesthesia, but the expense and time for these scans is still prohibitive for large-scale studies. Instead, one of the foremost synesthesia researchers, Jamie Ward, has created a number of simple tests to quickly identify true “synesthetes,” who are now known make up a little over 1% of the population (though not all of those are of the grapheme-color variety.)

Consider the image to the right. It is immediately obvious to the average person that the “number 2s” in the upper picture are arranged roughly in a triangle shape, even when the picture is only flashed in front of his or her eyes for as little as half a second. This is due to the visual cortex’s extremely refined ability to distinguish color. Take away that distinction, as in the second version of the image below, and it becomes nearly impossible to pick out the 2s among the 5s, certainly not with anything approaching the same reaction time. But if, Ward reasoned, a supposed synesthete were truly seeing numbers as colors, and not just remembering some faint echo of childhood, then the visual cortex should be activated, and the black-and-white numbers should jump off the page as easily as they do for the average individual when colored. A synesthete should always see each 2 as clearly as the rest of us see a red apple among a pile of greens.

It worked. With tests similar to this, Ward and his colleagues have been able to confirm grapheme-color synesthesia in a large number of individuals. The subjects’ ability to discriminate between impossibly jumbled symbols within fractions of a second is well above the 99th percentile, and proves their extra neurological wiring without the need for expensive brain scans. Armed with this information, researchers have been able to focus on more targeted studies, such as the heritability of synesthesia and the fluctuations in sensation over the lifetime of the patient, without worrying about the integrity of their patient population.

Yankee Swap

The Petersons and the Kekichs prior to the trade. Left to right: Marilyn Peterson, Fritz Peterson, Susanne Kekich, Mike Kekich
The Petersons and the Kekichs prior to the trade. Left to right: Marilyn Peterson, Fritz Peterson, Susanne Kekich, Mike Kekich

One of the more controversial trades in baseball history was announced on 04 March 1973, just before the start of the 1973 baseball season. Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, both pitchers for the New York Yankees, called separate press conferences to announce to the world that they had decided to “trade lives.” “Don’t make anything sordid out of this,” 31-year-old Peterson implored the press. His 27-year-old colleague Kekich agreed. “Don’t say this was wife-swapping, because it wasn’t. We didn’t swap wives, we swapped lives.” Kekich’s wife Susanne traded places with Peterson’s wife Marilyn, along with each family’s children and pets. The idea to swap husbands in this way had apparently began as a lark some months earlier, but upon trying it out, they enjoyed the change and decided to make it permanent.

Fritz Peterson and Susanne were still happily married as of 2013, forty years after the infamous trade. “I could not be happier with anybody in the world,” Fritz Peterson said in a 2013 interview. “‘Mama’ and I go out and party every night. We’re still on the honeymoon and it has been a real blessing.” As for Mike Kekich and Marilyn, they separated after just a few years. When asked about his relationship with Peterson, he said, “I’d like to kill him,” though it is unclear whether this was said in jest. As of the 2013 interview, the two retired pitchers had not spoken for over ten years.

The Mystery Lake of the Himalayas


Nestled in a valley high in the Himalayas in northern India is a small lake named Roopkund, known locally as Mystery Lake. The area around Roopkund Lake is uninhabited; at an altitude of over five kilometers, the lake is frozen for all but one month out of the year, and ice storms occasionally pose a significant threat. The mystery concerns the origin of the occupants of the lake: not fish or other common lake-dwellers, but hundreds of human skeletons.

Roopkund Lake, also known as Skeleton Lake, and its surroundings are littered with around 200 sets of human remains. The state of the skeletons indicates that they have been lying in and around the lake for many centuries, but their exact age and the cause of the mass death was unknown until 2004, when National Geographic sent a team of researchers to retrieve some of the skeletons for study.

The National Geographic team discovered that the skeletons dated from 850 C.E. Most of the previous owners of the bones originated in Iran, although a few were from the local Indian population. Fractures in the skulls hint at the cause of death: devastating blows to the top of the heads, from rounded objects roughly the size and shape of a cricket ball (or slightly larger than a baseball). There are no signs of injury to any other part of the bodies. The research team finally concluded that a band of travelers from Iran, traversing the mountains with locally-hired porters, was caught in a terrible hailstorm. Unable to seek shelter, they succumbed to the blunt trauma and their bodies tumbled down the steep slopes, eventually collecting in the lake.

Echoes of NASA

Echo 1
Echo 1

On 13 May 1960, a NASA Thor-Delta rocket carried the agency’s new Echo 1 satellite into a 1,000 mile orbit around the Earth. It was a 156.995 pound metalized sphere 100 feet in diameter, essentially an enormous, shiny balloon made of the same mylar as party balloons of today. It required forty thousand pounds of air to fully inflate the sphere at sea level, but in the rarefied atmosphere in orbit it only required a few pounds of gas.

Echo 1 was a passive satellite, used to reflect transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio, and television signals. It was so large and so reflective that it was easily visible to the naked eye for much of the Earth. It was expected to remain in orbit until sometime in 1964, but it survived much longer, and did not burn up in the atmosphere until 24 May 1968, eight years after its launch.

Its sister “satelloon” Echo 2 was even larger at 135 feet in diameter, therefore it was even more conspicuous while it was in orbit from 1964-1969. Both balloons were sufficiently large and lightweight that they experienced detectable pressure from the solar wind, providing support for the concept of a solar sail. They also secretly served as an early rudimentary GPS system, using the balloons’ positions and instruments to calculate the exact location of Moscow for America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Cracking the Case

A lengthy study of ‘crack babies’ born to cocaine addicts in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s ended in 2013 with an unexpected result. The average IQ amongst the ‘crack babies’ now in their early 20s was 79.0. However, the control group, who were socioeconomically similar but not born to crack addicts, had an average IQ of only 81.9. The cocaine exposure appeared to have only a small and non-significant detrimental effect on the average cognitive functioning of the children of addicts. But both groups were below the average range for the United States (90 to about 110). Further study led the team to a surprise conclusion: both groups had been unable to reach their full intellectual potential due to chronic poverty.

110 of the original ‘crack babies’ now in their 20s were followed through to the end of the study. 108 of them are still alive, but only 6 of them have graduated from college, with only another 6 working towards doing so. In the meantime, there have been 60 children born to them. Whether the next generation will grow up in conditions any better than the ones that held their parents’ cognitive functioning back remains to be seen.

Water Proof

In 1936, Russian scientist Vladimir Lukyanov was confronted with the problem of devising a system to improve the quality of Russian concrete and the efficiency of its manufacture. When furnished with a few requirements for the concrete, Lukyanov was expected to calculate the resulting concrete’s other attributes, such as load capacity, curing time, temperature limits, etc. This involved a lot of tedious manual calculations with partial differential equations.

Lukyanov’s solution was to build one of the world’s first programmable computers. Like all early computers, Lukyanov’s invention was a massive analog calculator, but one design element set it apart: it used water to perform its calculations. Lukyanov outfitted a room-sized array of glass tubes with a series of valves and plugs, and these constituted the data inputs. An operator would turn knobs and move plugs to correspond to the input values, then engage the pumps to slosh water through the intricate plumbing until the water settled into various tanks. The ultimate water level in each tank indicated the results of the calculations, and thus indicated the various properties of the resulting cement.

Lukyanov’s water computer was the first machine in the world capable of solving partial differential equations.

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