The Map as Address: Cryptic Letter Reaches Icelandic Destination
The sender didn’t have a name nor an address for his letter. So he drew a map instead.
Want to send a letter but don't have the full address? Why not draw a map of your destination on the envelope? As in this case, it just might work.
A tourist back in Reykjavik from a trip to western Iceland wanted to send a thank-you note to a couple he met in the town of Búðardalur. But he didn't have their addresses, nor even know their names. Refusing to throw in the towel, he wrote down a detailed description of the couple on the envelope – a horse farm with an Icelandic/Danish couple and three kids and a lot of sheep – and drew a map of the area.
The map shows Búðardalur, on the shore of the Hvammsfjörður, and the numbered roads connecting the remote location to the rest of Iceland. A red dot on the north shore of the fjord marks the site of the horse farm. The sender had another clue for the local mailman: The Danish woman works in a supermarket in Búðardalur.
The letter reached its destination. Which is nice, but perhaps not so surprising. Iceland's human geography played in its favour. It's a lot easier to find someone in Iceland, because there are so few other Icelanders to confuse them with. Cleveland, Ohio has more inhabitants than the whole of Iceland, which is home to a third of a million people. Over two-thirds of those live in and around the capital, Reykjavik. The remaining hundred thousand people are scattered in tiny, mostly coastal settlements across the vast, treeless island, which is about the same size as Kentucky.
Búðardalur is a small town with a long history. It dates from the time of the first Norse settlement of Iceland, in the late 9th century. Nearby is the birthplace of Erik the Red, who discovered Greenland from there. His son Leif Erikson went even further west and landed in America, almost five centuries before Columbus.
Despite its thousand-year history, Búðardalur has no more than 270 inhabitants. It's a service centre for the wider region, with a petrol station, hair salons, a pub/restaurant, a coffee shop, a health care centre, a liquor shop, a garage – and yes, a supermarket. With, if the letter is still up to date, at least one Danish employee.
But just how recent is the letter? It was stamped on the 29th of March 20-- (last two digits unreadable), so anywhere between half a year and a just over a decade and a half. Old enough, in any case, to have become something of an evergreen, surfacing at least twice on Reddit, here and here.
The map-as-address is a rare cartographic example of a fairly frequent postal phenomenon: cryptic addressing.
A cryptic address goes against convention and common sense. Both dictate that a letter should be addressed as precisely as possible. Usually with the name of the addressee at the top and the largest relevant administrative unit – be it state, province or country – at the bottom. In between: as few lines as possible plotting a pathway between both, with the aid of a town name and post code, a street name and house number.
By necessity or design, cryptic addresses leave out much of the required information. The letter-writer might not remember the entire address, but decide to take their chances anyway. And/or they might be reasonably sure that the mail delivery service will figure out the letter's final destination anyway. Another possibility is that they see cryptic addressing as a sport – a good-natured battle of wits with the postal service.
One such scribe is James Addison, a graphic designer based in Poole, who decided to test the problem-solving capacity of the Royal Mail by sending out envelopes using an acrostichon, a drawing of the building, or even an address rendered entirely in Morse code as directional clues. See this video and this article for more on his postal puzzlers.
Irishman David Curran is a kindred spirit. He runs a Tumblr blog called Me versus An Post – the name of the Irish national postal service – on which he details attempts to send mail in the weirdest ways possible, both by others and by himself. In the latter category are attempts including an address using a wheel mechanism, a jigsaw puzzle and a Moebius strip. As mentioned in this article in the Journal, Mr. Curran got his inspiration from a paper on Postal Experiments published in the Journal of Improbable Research, for which the authors, in order to test the limits of the U.S. Postal Service, sent a variety of unpackaged items to U.S. destinations, appropriately stamped for weight and size: “We sent items that loosely fit into the following general categories: valuable, sentimental, unwieldy, pointless, potentially suspicious, and disgusting”.
Third of a kind is Harriet Russell, a British artist who used the Royal Mail as an involuntary partner in her mail art project. Her envelopes contain addresses rendered as mazes, puns, wordplay, anagrams, etc. In 2005, she filled a book with the most curious examples. You can still order Envelopes: A Puzzling Journey through the Royal Mail online, but don't count on the computer-generated address label on your delivery to be as witty and clever as the contents of the book.
The comments section of the Reddit thread figured out the likeliest location for the mysterious horse farm in western Iceland – here – and mentions quite a few other examples of the “and yet it arrived” trope (1). Here are a few notable ones – of which curiously many occur in Ireland.
(John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts)
(1) Several commenters mention the what3words solution to addressing problems, now apparently adopted by the Mongolian postal service, and that system's suggestion as the address for the horse farm: shapeless barber goalpost. See also #761.
Strange Map #800
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
- If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
- It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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