I strolled into the kitchen yesterday and noticed that there was a fly perched on the edge of my counter, right next to the sink. I figured as I got closer to it, it would fly away. He looked like he was ready to take off. Anyway, I got closer and closer and nothing happened. I put my hand over him as if I was going to hit him, still nothing. Turns out he was dead. He sure didn’t look dead. So what happened? Did he realize he was going to die and figure it would be nice to go on my kitchen counter, near the sink? Was he just flying around, doing his fly thing, then landed on my counter and all of a sudden bit it? Do animals know when they’re about to die?
Whippet, via email
Do animals “know” anything? Chimps obviously “know” some things, but do they think great thoughts? Do they even have a concept of death? Hardly likely, say most scientists, though fists fly when researchers start talking about animal intelligence.
But consider birds. It’s common for a dead bird to be found beneath its favorite evening perch. So you can either figure lots of birds die in their sleep, or when a bird is feeling funky, it heads for a known safe space. Does he know that his funkiosity is about to send him to the big birdcage in the sky? What do you think? Something as elemental as a fly, which at best is going to live for three weeks, has to cram a lot of stuff into a short time span. “Where’s the meat, where’s the dog poop, where’s any kind of poop, where’s something else that’s edible, why’s that big rolled-up newspaper heading at me, where’s a fly of the opposite sex, where’s the poop?” A fly hardly has a moment to spare, to sit back with his pipe and slippers and contemplate the end of his little life. According to most scientists, your little fly was just doing his fly thing, landed on your counter, and bit it without giving death a thought.
I heard from a friend that there is a combination code that makes the traffic lights turn yellow right away so you can cross the street. It is like Morse code with quick presses and holds. Do you know the truth behind this?
— Monkey, via email
Gee, Monkey, your friend might not know the secret code, but I do. It’s two long pushes, two short pushes, one short two long with your left hand, three long pushes and one short with your right hand, pause for the count of five, then stand on your right foot and give four long pushes and two short, stand on your left foot and give two short pushes and four long, then three quick jabs with your left thumb, two quick jabs with your right thumb. This is the important part. The jabs have to be fast. Then slowly turn around and look off into the distance, ignoring the light-changing device completely. The light will turn yellow right away.
If this question seems vaguely familiar to the rest of you Alicelanders, well, it is. It’s Son of Traffic Light Change Code, the belief held by an alarming number of people that there was a secret code involving flicking your high beams up and down or turning your headlights on and off that would make a traffic light turn green for you. The story appeared about the same time as the devices on traffic lights that read a special flashing red light on top of ambulances and fire engines, which turns the light from red to green for them. So anyway, we dismissed that story long ago as ridiculous and stuffed it in the Urban Legends People Wish Were True But Aren’t file. Son of Traffic Light I guess is the next logical evolution, and I hope this gives you all some idea of how a trash fact can magically morph when set loose out there in Humanbeanland.
Was there actually a man named Phillips, and was there something special about his head?
— Anonymous, via email
Oh cryptic Anonymous, are we asking about the Phillips-head screwdriver, by chance? The elves and I puzzled over your question for hours, checking out milk of magnesia kings and drug-addicted child TV stars and every other Phillips we could think of. But we decided the screwdriver guy is the one you’re talking about. There really was a Phillips. Henry F. In 1936 automakers were complaining about how automated, standard slot screwdrivers on assembly lines were punk. Workers couldn’t center them easily from right to left, and screws ended up stripped or broken. Aha! says Henry. His Phillips-head screwdriver had a point on it that would seat in a small depression in the middle of the special Phillips-head screw, automatically centering the driver and making the auto magnates smile. Through a paperwork tangle, Phillips lost his patent in 1948, proving that his head wasn’t screwed on right.