Federal agents on the New Year’s party. The largest movement of physical wealth in history. «Placebo buttons» in the big cities [r/TodayiLearned, Episode #19]

#1

TIL in 1923, federal agents burst into the Chase Hotel’s posh Palm Room for a whiskey raid during an alcohol prohibition.

The nine-story Chase was built in 1922 by Chase Ullman, with the enormous 28-story Park Plaza following close behind in 1929. The early years of the Chase were times of fine dining, uniformed bellhops, and luxury to spare . . . they were also times of illegal booze. It was the era of Prohibition, but within the walls of the Chase Hotel, the party never stopped. Underground tunnels between the two buildings, originally intended as service corridors, were used to store a cache of illegal liquor. (They also allowed some of St. Louis’s more prominent citizens to move discretely between the booze-filled parties.) Few places were better than the Chase’s luxurious Palm Room for a festively wet New Year’s party—that is, until the police showed up.

Just after midnight on January 1, 1923, federal agents burst into the Chase Hotel’s posh Palm Room for a whiskey raid. They were forced back by hundreds of furious party-goers who began pummeling the officers with chairs, plates, and silverware in uncontrolled chaos. Soon gunshots rang out, and two men were wounded. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the scene:

About 10 tables had been searched when a woman screamed and her escort punched an enforcement agent’s face. . . . Almost immediately the dry agents were surrounded by about 200 men and women. Vigorous demands were made by some guests that the dry agents depart at once. The agents stood their ground. Words passed. Blows were struck. Glasses, plates, silverware, and water were hurled through the air. The three agents, being the only ones in the demonstrative and surging group who were not in evening dress, were shining targets. . . . All the while the orchestra, under orders from the management, kept playing fast and loudly, in an effort to drown the noise of the excited, fighting, surging crowd 50 feet distant.

The officers claimed self-defense, but the irate public, including hotel owner Chase Ullman, claimed the officers’ search warrants weren’t valid. The raid made front-page headlines in The New York Times, and two St. Louis agents had to be transferred to other cities.

#2

TIL the largest movement of physical wealth in history was during WW2, Operation Fish had 186,332 gold bars and more than 8 million ounces of gold coins sent to Canada from the UK with not even one crate or treasury bill going missing.

On the eve of the Second World War, England worried about its wealth. War was costly. But the gold to pay the price of victory lay vulnerable in London. The solution — ship England’s treasure overseas, to Canada. And so began Operation Fish.

Also, onboard the sealed train, which had traveled from Halifax Harbour, were five hundred boxes of marketable securities conservatively valued at £200 million. The total shipment of bullion and securities that had arrived in Halifax aboard the Emerald, at that time the largest transfer of wealth ever undertaken in the history of the world, represented a sizable portion of England’s treasure, and its perilous journey to Canada signified a desperate attempt to keep it out of Nazi hands.

It was the first of many daring shipments to be carried out under the code name Operation Fish.

Canada’s prominent role in the evacuation of British and European gold had not been chosen at desperate random; in fact, the scene for Canada’s involvement had been set a good half-decade earlier with the establishment of a Canadian central banking system in 1935.

The incoming volume was evidently significant, since one young Bank of Canada employee, who had remarked in 1938 that the Bank’s new vault seemed as “cavernous as Fort Knox,” noted in mid-1939 that already gold was “by necessity being stacked on the floor to save space.”

It is notable that the arrival of gold in Halifax and its subsequent transfer to waiting trains was conducted in such secrecy that the Maritime Command Museum in Halifax holds no record of any dockside, gold-related activity. Even the file on HMCS Assiniboine is devoid of any reference to gold transfer, despite British records clearly showing it to have carried £1 million from Plymouth to Halifax in November 1939.

#3

TIL That most of the Streetlight buttons in cities like NYC, Boston, and Seattle don’t actually function anymore. they have been left in place to give pedestrians a placebo illusion of control over traffic flow.

Have you ever pressed the pedestrian button at a crosswalk and wondered if it really worked? Or bashing the “close door” button in an elevator, while suspecting that it may, in fact, have no effect whatsoever?

You’re not alone, and you may be right. The world is full of buttons that don’t actually do anything.

They’re sometimes called “placebo buttons” — buttons that are mechanically sound and can be pushed but provide no functionality. Like placebo pills, however, these buttons may still serve a purpose, according to Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who pioneered a concept known as the “illusion of control.”

“They do have a psychological effect,” she said in a phone interview. “Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation, and that feels good, rather than just being a passive bystander.

“Doing something typically feels better than doing nothing.”

In the case of pedestrian crossings, they may even make us safer by forcing us to pay attention to our surroundings. And ultimately, pressing a button doesn’t require much effort.

“When you think about it, it’s such a small response that, even if it doesn’t have any effect, it hardly has a cost,” Ellen Langer said

“I think it’s a shame if people call it a ‘placebo button’ and, by that name, think that people are behaving foolishly. Hidden in that (term), is the belief that people are foolish for pressing them — or mean for putting buttons there that serve no purpose in the first place.

“They serve a psychological purpose at the very least,” she added, “and sometimes they do have an effect.”