My Favorite Stories

Our brains run on stories. They tell us value statements that a dry statement never could.

This is a compilation of my favorite (mostly true) stories. If it seems overly distilled, I’m high-functioning on the ASD spectrum, and this is how I see it. Just so you don’t think I’m misrepresenting reality, I’ll hyperlink when I can.

Railroad Gauges

The standardized distance between the rails of US rail vehicles is 4 feet, 8.5 inches (1.4351m), which is a very specific number.

English engineers imitated the standard when the first rail lines were built, since there was no reason to change it.

The English engineers drew their plans from wagon carts, since they were using the same tooling.

The standard wagon cart of England was built to withstand the ruts created on the older, long-distance roads. Any other size, and they’d break more frequently.

The first long-distance roads across Europe were made by the Roman Empire for their legions to travel on and have been used ever since.

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which required everyone else to match or risk damaging their wagon wheels.

The Roman war chariot standard is the most efficient way to accommodate two horses drawing it.

Logistical constraints, including feasible rocket sizes for spacecraft, are bound by the width of two horses.

Greenwich Mean Time

Until the mid-1800’s, each British city and town kept its own local time, which could differ by up to half an hour. For that reason, carriage service schedules only specified the hour of departure, not arrival.

In 1842, multiple groups came together to create an organization called the Railway Clearing House, which tracked which trains rented rail usage from the rail owners and maintainers. In 1847, they agreed that all train timetables would use Greenwich Observatory time instead of any local times.

From here, it became the time standard, and to this day, the time in every country is synchronized to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), then modified for the corresponding time zone.

Plate v. Durst

In 1885, in West Virginia, an orphan named Amelia Plate went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, George Durst. The Dursts treated Amelia well and regarded her almost as a daughter, and Plate performed household chores and helped in George’s store without asking for payment.

After about five years, George said if Amelia stayed with them for five more years, he’d give her $1,000. Another time, he promised he’d give her $1,000 and a $500 diamond ring if she got married.

Nine years later, in 1894, Amelia took her sister’s side in a family argument, and George threw her out of the house without paying her anything. She sued for breach of contract. He said he was joking, but the jury said he still needed to pay.

Somehow, the UK considers this a leading case, with the story involving £1,000.

Affordable Camera

In 1962, the USA’s NASA was obsessing about getting into space to catch up with the Soviet Union. They were debating about not even using windows, but they saw it would give the astronauts claustrophobia, and the astronauts needed to see where they were going. Technical difficulties and weather conditions had postponed the launch 10 times already. The launch date was set for February 10, 1962.

A few days prior, the seasoned pilot/astronaut John Glenn had purchased a Minolta Ansco Autoset camera for $40 (~$350 adjusted for inflation to 2020). It was one of the first automatic exposure cameras on the market, meaning less fiddling was necessary to use it.

He worked with the astronauts to modify that camera to work with bulky astronaut gloves. They flipped the camera upside down, added a pistol grip modified to control the shutter and film advance, and adapted the 36-shot reel to take 70 shots.

He was able to pioneer space photography as a public interest, all because of scheduled delays, the impulse to buy a trendy camera, and NASA engineers willing to tinker with a way to do it.

Broken Windows

In 1969, the research psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment. He set two completely identical cars in perfect condition in the poor parts of the Bronx and Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto, raised the hood, took off the license plates, left the doors open, and waited to see what would happen.

The car parked in the Bronx had 20 instances of destruction and looting within 2 days, and it took 2 trucks to remove it. By contrast, the Palo Alto car was unharmed for a week. In fact, when it started to rain, one passerby lowered the car’s hood to protect the motor.

To continue the experiment, Zimbardo caused some visible damage to the Palo Alto vehicle, including breaking one of the windows. From that point, once the vehicle was clearly abandoned, the Palo Alto residents behaved the same way as the Bronx residents had.

Lawnchair Larry

On July 2, 1982, in San Pedro, California, Larry Walters and his girlfriend filled 42 8-foot weather balloons with helium and attached them to his lawn chair. He then took a parachute, snacks, a pellet gun, a camera, and a CB radio and released the restraints.

His original plan was to drift into the Mojave Desert and shoot out balloons slowly until he safely landed.

Instead, he drifted toward Los Angeles International Airport. He tried alerting air traffic control, and two commercial pilots alerted them, and the Federal Aviation Administration was alerted.

Though he was nervous about the risks of unbalancing his chair, he finally got the courage to shoot out the balloons one by one after 45 minutes and touched down after another 45 minutes.

The shot balloons caused a 20-minute power outage in the region by tangling with power lines.

He was eventually fined $4,000, but it was dropped down to $1,500.

He became a bit of a celebrity, made a failed career move to motivational speaker after leaving his job as a truck driver, and committed suicide in 1993.

However, other people were inspired by his idea and created cluster ballooning: strapping into a harness attached to helium balloons.

Ratner Jewelry

In 1991, Gerald Ratner, the CEO of Ratners Group, a UK near-monopoly on the jewelry market, made a remark at a private event about his jewelry that became very public:

…We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap.

(and later)

[Our earrings are] cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.

The company lost £500 million almost overnight, and Ratner resigned in 1992. The company rebranded as the Signet Group in 2002 to further distance itself from him. He recuperated from the decision and became an executive later, but not entirely.

GameStop Short Squeeze

A short is an investing trick someone can use to profit from a decline in stock price:

  1. Borrow money to buy shares.
  2. Immediately sell the shares.
  3. Before the debt is due, and the stock price has dropped significantly, buy the same number of shares.
  4. Give back the shares, plus the interest from the debt, and anything left over is a profit.

In 2021, hedge funds were holding many short sales in GameStop stock (waiting in between #2 and #3 above).

On the social media site Reddit, specifically on r/wallstreetbets, this news broke with the call to action to buy GameStop stock to raise its price.

The story rapidly became a meme styled as “taking down the gigantic corporations”, and a deluge of random investors (including people who never used the stock market) put money into GameStop stock. In only one day in February, the price had doubled within a 90-minute period.

Investing brokers placed a hold on trades, including the ironically named Robinhood platform.

For years afterward, there were endless debates about whether using a meme to direct stock purchase decisions was legally considered “market manipulation”.

Blank Paper

In 2022, Chinese protesters held up blank sheets of paper to represent the censorship they felt against their country’s leadership. This was similar to Russian protesters the same year and a Hong Kong protest in 2020.

The basis for this story comes from a Soviet joke about a man distributing blank leaflets when the police confronted him. When they asked why it was blank, he said, “Everyone already knows”.

Easy Insurance Fraud

In 2024, most fraud schemes have become elaborate and arcane. Most of them involve obfuscated reporting, concealed information, multiple steps to directly steal money, and often involve hacking.

However, this isn’t always the case, and two farmers were sentenced to federal prison and $6.5 million by the US Department of Justice for tampering with rain gauges, which are essentially buckets in an open area to collect rainfall. They performed the fraud via two methods:

  1. They put umbrellas over the buckets, then removed them before the measurement employee checked.
  2. They dumped water out of the buckets before the measurement employee checked.

Hines Lumber

The CEO of the Hines Lumber Company had to fill a top executive position. Two managers had equal experience, but the choice went to the one with fewer years with the company.

After hearing about the decision, the other one asked the CEO why he wasn’t selected.

Instead of answering, the CEO asked him if any lumber had come in that day. The manager said he would check. A few minutes later, he said a truckload came that morning.

The CEO then wanted to know the type of lumber. The manager left to check, then told him it was #6 pine.

The CEO then asked him how many board feet were in the order. He left the room again to check and told him it was 3,500 board feet.

After several more questions and trips, the CEO asked the man to sit in the next room and left the door ajar.

The CEO then summoned the promoted manager and asked him if any lumber had arrived that day. The manager said he would check, and he returned with a very specific answer: a carload of #6 pine had come in on track 3 at 9:30 a.m. and totaled 3,500 board feet. The lumber was unloaded by 2:00 p.m. and stored in warehouse 18. It was order number 65-03 for the Williams Company, and its total value was $16,352.00.

The CEO thanked him and dismissed him. After he left, the CEO called in the first manager again, who had heard the entire conversation, and the first manager responded that he understood why he didn’t get the promotion.

8 Pixels at Microsoft

Tom Edwards, the geopolitical strategy team leader at Microsoft, had some issues with localization.

When coloring in 800,000 pixels on a map of India for Windows 95, Microsoft colored 8 of them a different shade of green to represent the disputed Kashmiri territory. The difference in greens meant Kashmir was shown as non-Indian, and India promptly banned the product. Microsoft had to spend millions to recall all 200,000 copies of its operating system software to heal the diplomatic wounds.

Elsewhere, in a Spanish-language version of Windows XP, a translation error had gender selections between “not specified”, “male”, or “bitch”.

Abstracted Stories

A Henry Ford myth: [Wealthy magnate] hired people to scour junkyards for [broken-down parts]. They found all of them in every form of failure, except [unique part]. [Wealthy magnate] decided the part was being made too well, so he lowered the quality of [unique part] production to match the rest of the product, saving the company money.

In the early 20th century, a shoe company sent a sales representative to [poor country], and after a few weeks he wired back, “I’m coming home. Nobody wears shoes here.” A second competing shoe company sent their sales representative, and after a few weeks he wired back, “Business is fantastic. Nobody has heard of shoes here.”

Other Little (Probably) True Stories

My Favorite Fiction Short Stories