One of aviation’s great unsolved mysteries is the disappearance of BSAA Flight CS-59, call sign Star Dust.

The plane left Morón Airport at Buenos Aires, Argentina on Aug 2nd 1947, bound for Los Cerrillos Airport in Santiago, Chile. Aboard was a cast worthy of an Agatha Christie novel: two businessmen; a Palestinian man rumored to have a diamond stitched into his jacket; a South American sales agent with connections to the Romanian throne; a seventy year old German émigré; and a British civil servant carrying a “diplomatic bag” bound for the UK embassy.[1]“The Star Dust Mystery.” Damn Interesting, 2 Aug. 2015, www.damninteresting.com/the-star-dust-mystery. The plane itself was a sturdy Avro 691 Lancastrian MkIII, capable of 310mph airspeeds and 20,000ft altitudes, piloted by decorated RAF veteran Reginald Cook.

The Star Dust approached Chilean airspace in the late afternoon, with radio operator Dennis Harmer maintaining contact with Los Cerrillos. Nothing unusual was reported. Then, at 5:41 p.m, Harmer transmitted the message “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC”.

The Chilean air traffic controller didn’t understand the last word, which wasn’t standard ATC terminology or a word in any language she recognized. When she asked for clarification, Harmer signaled “STENDEC” twice more.

This was the last anyone heard of the Star Dust. It never landed at Los Cerrillos, and a five-day search uncovered no trace of the missing plane.

The Star Dust remained a plane-shaped hole in history for fifty years. Theories included aliens, a trans-dimensional rift, aliens, foreign hijacking, and aliens. It became part of “vanished plane” lore along with the Bermuda Triangle – a triangle that seemingly has sixteen points and extends across 80% of the Atlantic Ocean – and (much later) Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

But in 1998, mountaineers found a Rolls Royce engine jutting from the ice 15,000ft above sea level at Mount Tupungato. Subsequent expeditions by the Chilean army and air force uncovered more of the wrecked plane.

The wreckage was strewn across a narrow area, ruling out a mid-air explosion. The Star Dust’s propeller was twisted and bent back, suggesting it had been running at the moment of impact. A fully inflated tire indicated that the plane hadn’t deployed its landing gear.

We can speculate as to how and why the plane crashed: it was caught inside the jet stream, a meteorological phenomenon poorly understood in 1947. The Star Dust’s pilot – guided by primitive navigational instruments, surrounded by shrieking white – overestimated how fast and far the plane had traveled. He would have believed they were directly over Santiago, when they were at least fifty miles east. He also would have believed they had safely crossed the Andes range, when they were plunging right into its face.

The technical term for the crash is “controlled descent into terrain”[2]Pilot, By Plane And, et al. “A Pilot’s Last Words: ‘STENDEC.’” Plane & Pilot Magazine, 12 Dec. 2019, www.planeandpilotmag.com/article/a-pilots-last-words-stendec. – a fancy way of saying Cook flew the plane into the mountain. The impact buried the Star Dust in ice, but recent melt-off at Tupungato exposed the engine. There are fascinating rumors that local arrieros (high-altitude mule-handlers, the Andean equivalent of the sherpas) knew of the Star Dust crash long before 2000. [3]Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: The Hunt to Uncover an Andean Mystery – Geographical Magazine.” Geographical, 2019, … Continue reading

Tupungato’s southwest face is very dangerous even when you’re not dive-bombing a plane into it. Ascending it requires great skill and daring. Only four independent mountaineers have reached the crash site, and two died in the process.[4]Ibid. In recent years Argentinian policy has been to forbid mountaineers from even trying to reach the crash site. The Star Dust’s discovery was a red-letter day for Argentina – finally, some shared Anglo-Argentinian history that didn’t involve bombed islands or offside football goals – and they clearly don’t want to spoil it with still more deaths. The Star Dust is one of those tragedies that has continued to claim a body count long after it happened. Nonetheless, we’ve located many fragments of the Star Dust (including a severed hand from the stewardess, fingernails still painted, [5]Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: An Epic Quest to Find a near-Mythical Plane Wreck.” Red Bull, 19 Nov. 2019, www.redbull.com/au-en/star-dust-mystery-1947-plane-wreck-quest.), and will surely find more.

But the meaning of Dennis Harmer’s “STENDEC” transmission (assuming it has one) has never been conclusively explained. Contenders are legion, none of them fully matching the facts.

1. “STENDEC” is an anagram for “DESCENT”. But if Harmer had meant to write “DESCENT”, he would have done so; radio operators are trained to signal clearly, not in word games and riddles.

2. Harmer was suffering from altitude sickness or hypoxia, and mixed up his message. While this might seem plausible, it’s not easy to accidentally switch letters in Morse the way it is on a keyboard (signaling C alone requires four distinct pulses.) In any case, Harmer repeated the word when prompted; clearly he meant to write what he wrote.

3. “STENDEC” shares many letters with “Stardust”. But planes in the air are identified by registration number (G-AGWH in the Star Dust’s case), not the romantic names assigned by their airlines. And why would an operator sign off by telling Chilean air traffic control the name of his plane (which they already knew)?

4. “STENDEC” is obscure RAF shorthand for “Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending, Emergency Crash-landing”[6]“NOVA Online | Vanished! | Theories (Feb. 8, 2001).” PBS, 2001, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/vanished/sten_010208.html.. But this doesn’t match the first half of the message. The Star Dust expected to arrive in Santiago.

5. “STENDEC” is spy code of some sort. What sort of spy code? And what was a random Chilean air traffic controller supposed to do with the message? How did Harmer (or whoever wrote the code) intend for it to reach the right hands?

5a “STENDEC” stands for “Saturday, 10th of December”. Sounds good…but December 10th that year was a Wednesday.

6. It’s possible (but again, uncertain) that the word was mistakenly deciphered by radio control, due to limitations of the Morse code cipher.

Translation is easiest when two languages share all the same features, and harder when Language 1 possesses some property that isn’t present in Language 2, or vice versa. Early Biblical manuscripts were written in scriptio continua, in an unbroken flow of unmarked text.

This creates textual ambiguity, as sentences can change meaning depending on where the translator chooses to insert spaces and punctuation. For example, the Greek Septuagint of  Romans 16:7 runs A S P A S A S T H E A N D R O N I K O N K A I I O U N I A N T O U S S U G G E N E I S M O U K A I S U N A I K H M A L O T O U S M O U O I T I N E S E I S I N E P I S E M O I E N T O I S A P O S T O L O I S O I K A I P R O E M O U G E G O N A S I N E N K H R I S T O, which the King James Version translates as “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” The problem is that the accusative noun IOUNIAN can have one of two accent marks (IOUNÍAN/IOUNIÂN), which would make it either a man’s name or a woman’s. We still don’t know the gender of this “Junia”.[7]Omanson, Roger L. 1946-. “Punctuation in the New Testament. If Only Paul Had Used the Chicago Manual of Style.” Bible Review , vol. 14.6, 1998, pp. 40-43.

Morse is another example of scriptio continua. Its dots and dashes represent 26 letters and 10 numbers, but there’s no special character for a space. Operator convention[8]“Morse Code & Abbreviations.” Portland State University, 2021, web.cecs.pdx.edu/%7Ecaleb/aa7ou/ham_pages/morse_abb.html. is that spaces between letters are signaled by a pause equal to three dots, while spaces between words are signaled by a pause equal to seven dots. But if the signaler is in a hurry (or panicking), the pauses might get shortened, creating an ambiguous message that could be deciphered multiple ways.

The exact transmission was.

… – . -. -.. . -.-.

The Chilean air traffic controller spaced it like this: STENDEC.

… / – / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-.

But it could also  be spaced like this: STAREAR

… / – / .– / .–. / . / .–.–.

A typical “end of message” signoff was “AR” (with no spaces.)[9]“An Explanation of STENDEC …..” Fly with the Stars, 2021, www.flywiththestars.co.uk/Documents/STENDEC.htm., and it’s proposed that the sequence could have meant “STandard ARrival from East + signoff.”

This (as well as many other ways of re-ordering the message) raises as many questions as it answers. How could the Chilean air traffic controller mistake this supposedly commonplace message? And how did she commit the same mistake three separate times? And why didn’t Harmer clarify the message?

In short, all explanations suffer from one of three basic weaknesses:

1) Harmer signalled “STENDEC” multiple times. This completely rules out a mistake, and makes it far less likely that the Chilean air traffic controller misunderstood the spaces. (“Tell ’em three times” is a simple but reliable error-correcting trick in communications theory).

2) Harmer had no reason to write in code. If the Star Dust had been about to crash, he would have said so. If its navigational instruments had failed, he would have said so. Explanations that rely on “deciphering” Harmer’s final transmission like a puzzle make one wonder why this is even necessary.

3) There’s no hint that anything was amiss. The retracted landing gear, the running propeller, the casual tone of the message…there’s literally zero sign that anyone aboard the Star Dust knew they were in trouble until they slammed into the side of Mount Tupungato.

The Andean glaciers are still melting. It’s possible we’ll recover more wreckage from the Star Dust, but I don’t think we’ll ever know what STENDEC means.

[Update] The mystery is solved. “STENDEC” stands for “Stop Trying to ENcode and DEcode this Conundrum.” Glad we could put this one to bed.

References

References
1 “The Star Dust Mystery.” Damn Interesting, 2 Aug. 2015, www.damninteresting.com/the-star-dust-mystery.
2 Pilot, By Plane And, et al. “A Pilot’s Last Words: ‘STENDEC.’” Plane & Pilot Magazine, 12 Dec. 2019, www.planeandpilotmag.com/article/a-pilots-last-words-stendec.
3 Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: The Hunt to Uncover an Andean Mystery – Geographical Magazine.” Geographical, 2019, geographical.co.uk/people/explorers/item/3213-searching-for-stardust.
4 Ibid.
5 Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: An Epic Quest to Find a near-Mythical Plane Wreck.” Red Bull, 19 Nov. 2019, www.redbull.com/au-en/star-dust-mystery-1947-plane-wreck-quest.
6 “NOVA Online | Vanished! | Theories (Feb. 8, 2001).” PBS, 2001, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/vanished/sten_010208.html.
7 Omanson, Roger L. 1946-. “Punctuation in the New Testament. If Only Paul Had Used the Chicago Manual of Style.” Bible Review , vol. 14.6, 1998, pp. 40-43.
8 “Morse Code & Abbreviations.” Portland State University, 2021, web.cecs.pdx.edu/%7Ecaleb/aa7ou/ham_pages/morse_abb.html.
9 “An Explanation of STENDEC …..” Fly with the Stars, 2021, www.flywiththestars.co.uk/Documents/STENDEC.htm.
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A single long movie that was split in two because Harvey Weinstein wanted to fuck a potted plant that day (I don’t know). On the surface it’s a movie about kung fu/grindhouse/western tropes of revenge, but equally, it’s about the technique of moviemaking itself. The closest parallel is watching an artist who puts paint on canvas with such consuming skill that the act of watching him paint is as fascinating as the actual painting.

Kill Bill is ingenious, and one of the stronger Tarantino works. There’s hardly any story. From beginning to end, the movie wants to thrill. It’s just cool visual, cool setpiece, cool dialog moment, with only tenuous ligatures of plot and motivation in between. It’s all delivered with ease: some movies try so hard that they seem to sweat, while Tarantino’s, whether good or bad, all have an effortlessness to them. Only later (or upon rewatching) do you become aware of how hard certain parts must have been to film. Although a shorter one-movie version of this would have been stronger, it’s good to live in a world where any form of Kill Bill exists.

Witness the opening scene, which goes from 0 to 100, 100 to 0 (when Vivica A Fox’s daughter interrupts the fight), then 0 to 100 again – sudden gear-changes that have devastating effects on the viewer. The staging, and blocking, and so forth is cartoony as hell, and this almost seems like an effect. There’s an animation technique called rotoscoping that consists of artists painting cels over live-action film. Kill Bill almost looks like reverse rotoscoping, with live actors playing at being comic drawings. The exaggerated swooshes, bangs, and music stabs add to this effect.

But it’s uneven in places. Vol I is much the stronger half. Most of the classic Kill Bill scenes are here – the animated sequence, the House of Blue Leaves sequence, the final boss battle. The climax is absurd beyond absurd, but it’s directed with a slaughterman’s eye for weight and mass, with blood spraying and limbs falling convincingly. Everything makes sense and can be followed on the screen. The decision to film everything “practical” was the right one – watch the Crazy-88 fight and infamous “burly brawl” scene in the second Matrix film (the only comparison I can think of) and the Wachowski film looks like Pixar.

I enjoy Vol II less. It has a slower pace, which allows for some fun Coen Brothers-esque character moments (a lethal assassin who winds down his days cleaning toilets in a strip club), but much of it’s clearly filler, stretching out a too-short movie. Kill Bill was chopped in half, and due to the way the plot is structured, it couldn’t be chopped in half. Most of its skeleton and organs ended up in Vol I. Vol II contains a lot of mush, with about seventy or eighty minutes of movie mixed in.

And it’s visually less appealing. The first part looks drab and overstays its welcome – it feels like we spend a million years in some asshole’s mobile home, and when the Pai Mei flashback sequence occurs, it’s a relief to see some color on the screen again. And it doesn’t really try to recapture the first film’s excesses, which is a shame. There’s 2-3 fights and they end pretty quickly, with only the Elle Driver battle arousing much interest (it also contains the best eye-gore scene since Lucio Fulci retired). And the more grounded tone doesn’t always work to the movie’s advantage. It invites logic into the proceedings, and logic is Kill Bill’s antimatter. “Wait, why is the Bride allowed to carry a samurai sword with her on the plane?”

I enjoyed David Carradine, though. I guess you could say he has a stranglehold on the movie. There’s a lot hanging on him, and its good that he doesn’t choke during his performance. The film really breathes during the moments he’s on screen. I’m glad Tarantino gave him maximum airtime, and didn’t leave him dangling.

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Adolfo Bioy Casares was an Argentinian author, and The Invention of Morel (1940) is his most famous work.

At 100 pages long, the book is sleek and deadly, like one of those rockets with every planar surface graded away to minimize wind drag. It evolves Siddhartha-like through several distinct forms: a Robinson Crusoe-like adventure tale of a man surviving on an island, then a “William Wilson”-like horror story about doubles and dopplegangers, then a disturbing science fiction tale from the speculative side. Prominence romance elements keep the story anchored throughout, although it’s not romance of the usual kind.

The island-stranded protagonist doesn’t warrant a backstory: he has done something bad and is a fugitive from justice; that’s all we know. He’s not alone on the island: there are some dwellings that are inhabited by strange tourists. He soon grows afraid of these people, and not because he thinks they might report him to the police. There’s something very peculiar about them. Their party never ends. They play two pop songs – over and over – until the sound seems hammered permanently into the air.

In time, he notices a beautiful young woman. He’s attracted to her – even though there’s something unusual about her too. She doesn’t react to him, and she behaves as if he’s not there. Confusion about the island and where exactly he’s ended up cause him to explore, find things he’s not supposed to find, and make some world-shattering (or mind-shattering) discoveries.

Adolfo Bioy Casares is often compared to Borges. They were friends, countrymen, colleagues. Bioy’s imaginative faculties are dimmer than Borges, but he’s more successful as a teller of tales.  Borges work is a little like a puzzle box: there’s satisfaction in watching pieces slide together and a solution appear, but often there’s not really a story there. Bioy is a lot like Edgar Allen Poe (or, hell, Edogawa Rampo) – he takes dry ideas and wraps human flesh around them, making his scenarios seem real and scary. The story’s third act is as nailbitingly intense as anything I’ve read in recent memory.

Invention of Morel is a jostle of influences and sources, both fictional and nonfictional. HG Wells The Island of Dr Moreau is a pretty obvious inspiration (Mor-el/Mor-oh). The character of Faustine is based on silent film star Louise Brooks, who Bioy was reportedly obsessed with. But that’s the interesting thing – did he ever really know her?

Louise Brooks was famous for her pictures, maybe immortal because of them, but an actress’s fame is a kind of living death. Brooks is going to smile and giggle and tempt in Pandora’s Box for a thousand years, or however long people still watch it…but the smile will be cold, the laughter will be as robotic as that of a coin-operated machine, she’ll walk eternal steps dictated by a film director. The real Louise Brooks died long ago. The fake one lives on, the way an insect’s molted shell often outlasts the soft, pulpous creature that crawled out of it. But which of the two did Bioy fall in love with? Certain primitive humans think cameras steal souls, and maybe they’re right to.

Nonfiction influences include Malthus’s economic theories, which end up joined with the book’s primary concerns in an interesting way, and the de Broglie hypothesis of matter being made up of waves. More generally, it plays on terms set  by George Berkeley’s subjective idealism – the idea that perception is king, and that physical objects only exist to the extent that our senses perceive them. The idea is that if you overlay a combinations of visual, audible, tactile (etc) data using a machine, you will have, in some sense, created the thing you’re depicting. Bioy’s version of this technology is vague and impossible, but it’s not altogether absurd as a concept. A lot of things in this universe seem to hinge upon observation. And a lot of technically nonexistent things (such as nations) exist because we will them out of the ether.

The Invention of Morel seems well ahead of the curve, which is generally where you want science fiction to be. It presages things like the parasocial relationships of the online era. I enjoy books that drag together unlike influences together like oxen and make them pull the ploughshare of a story, and few achieve this with Bioy’s skill.

 

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