Paper Chase

Izhar Gafni makes bicycles out of cardboard. The Israeli mechanical engineer can make a 20-pound bicycle that will support a rider of nearly 250 pounds, and its low-cost components make it unattractive to thieves — Gafni fashions the frame, wheels, handlebars, and saddle from sheets of cardboard that are folded and glued together; the tires and drive belt are recycled rubber, and the seat and some of the gears are made of recycled plastic bottles. “It’s one of the most green products you can imagine,” his partner Nimrod Elmish told the Times of Israel in 2012.

The company is pursuing partnerships to distribute cardboard bicycles and wheelchairs in Africa at little to no cost for the end user. “There is much to say about cardboard,” Elmish said. “This bicycle is the beginning of a materials revolution.”

Stopwatch Cinema

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High Noon unfolds in real time — the running time of the story closely parallels the running time of the film itself. Producer Stanley Kramer said that the filmmakers hoped this would “create a sense of urgency as the noon hour approached.” Director Fred Zinnemann wrote the word CLOCK next to many scenes in his script, and he prepared a list of inserts in which clocks would be prominently visible:

Scene 36 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 10:40 a.m.
Scene 60 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 10:51 a.m.
Scene 76 — Helen’s Room — Clock 10:55 a.m.
Scene 86 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 11:02 a.m.
Scene 96 — Helen’s Room — Clock 11:05 a.m.
Scene 101 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 11:07 a.m.
Scene 130 — Saloon — Clock 11:19 a.m.
Scene 144 — Mart Howe’s House — Clock 11:26 a.m.
Scene 231 — Saloon — Clock 11:44 a.m.
Scene 256 — Hotel Lobby — Clock 11:50 a.m.
Scene 303 — Saloon — Clock 11:59 a.m.
Scene 312 — Saloon — Clock 12:00 p.m.

An insert for Scene 294 was never shot — it would have started on a pendulum and panned up to show a clock with no hands, superimposed on a closeup of Gary Cooper’s Will Kane. Zinnemann said he’d got the idea from a handless clock he’d seen in front of a funeral home on Sunset Boulevard. He said it “would have intensified the feeling of panic.”

(From Michael Francis Blake, Code of Honor, 2003.)

Signs of the Times

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For years the village of Fucking, Austria, was plagued by sniggering tourists, who stole its distinctive road signs to keep as souvenirs. Replacing them cost 300 Euros per sign, which meant higher taxes for the residents. They considered changing the name of the village, but, said mayor Siegfried Höppl, “Everyone here knows what it means in English, but for us Fucking is Fucking — and it’s going to stay Fucking.”

Finally they installed theft-resistant signs that are welded to steel and secured in concrete. “We will not stand for the Fucking signs being removed,” said the local police chief. “It may be very amusing for you British, but Fucking is simply Fucking to us. What is this big Fucking joke? It is puerile.”

The residents of Shitterton, Dorset, had a simpler idea — they had their hamlet’s name carved into a 1.5-ton block of stone and had it installed with a crane. “We would get a nice new shiny sign from the council and five minutes later, it was gone,” said Ian Ventham, chairman of Bere Regis Parish Council. “We thought, ‘Let’s put in a ton and a half of stone and see them try and take that away in the back of a Ford Fiesta.'”

UDPATE: Another frequently stolen road sign is in East Kent, half a mile from Ham and 3 miles from Sandwich:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

(Thanks, Dave.)

A Helping Fin

In January 2009, marine ecologists Robert Pitman and John Durban were watching a group of Antarctic killer whales wash a seal off an ice floe when, surprisingly, a pair of humpback whales intervened:

Exposed to lethal attack in the open water, the seal swam frantically toward the humpbacks, seeming to seek shelter, perhaps not even aware that they were living animals. (We have known fur seals in the North Pacific to use our vessel as a refuge against attacking killer whales.)

Just as the seal got to the closest humpback, the huge animal rolled over on its back — and the 400-pound seal was swept up onto the humpback’s chest between its massive flippers. Then, as the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water. The water rushing off that safe platform started to wash the seal back into the sea, but then the humpback gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper, back to the middle of its chest. Moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe.

“I was shocked,” Pitman said later. “It looked like they were trying to protect the seal.”

Perhaps they were. Humpbacks organize to protect their own calves, of course, but they also protect other species — indeed, this happened in nearly 90 percent of attacks where the killer whales’ prey could be identified.

Is this evidence of a moral sense among the whales? Donald Broom, an emeritus professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University, thinks so — if right means meeting individuals’ basic needs and maintaining their rights, and wrong means impeding these things, then there’s considerable evidence for a sense of morality among nonhumans. In The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell write, “When whales and dolphins go out of their way to help other creatures with their needs that looks pretty moral, at least on the surface.”

The Machine Prayer

In his 1953 book The Impact of Science on Society, Bertrand Russell warned that modern life was subordinating people to the technical requirements of their work. “What science has done is to increase the proportion of your life in which you are a cog,” he warned. “You can only justify the cog theory by worship of the machine.”

In time men will come to pray to the machine: ‘Almighty and most merciful Machine, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost screws; we have put in those nuts which we ought not to have put in, and we have left out those nuts which we ought to have put in, and there is not cogginess in us’ — and so on.

“You must make the machine an end in itself, not a means to what it produces,” he wrote. “Human beings then become like slaves in The Arabian Nights.”

Surf’s Up

La Ola, or the “Mexican wave,” seems like the ultimate in spontaneous behavior, but biological physicist Illés Farkas of Eötvös University found that stadium waves can be studied quite effectively using the methods of statistical physics. Examining videos of waves in stadia holding more than 50,000 people, Farkas and his colleagues found that a crowd behaves like an excitable medium — the first group to stand acts as a “perturbation,” and in less than a second the wave begins, dying out on one side and continuing on the other (3 out of 4 Mexican waves travel clockwise around the stadium). And the speed of waves is surprisingly consistent — 22±3 seats per second, with an average width of 15 seats.

Farkas defined three states that a spectator can take: inactive (sitting, ready to stand), active (standing up), and refractory (sitting again afterward). Shizuoka University mechanical engineer Takashi Nagatani found that the local behavior of the spectators can be interpreted in terms of a chemically excitable medium with the following reaction set:

Passive + Activated ↦ 2 · Activated
Activated ↦ Refractory
Refractory ↦ Passive

Farkas wrote, “For a physicist, the interesting specific feature of this spectacular phenomenon is that it represents perhaps the simplest spontaneous and reproducible behaviour of a huge crowd with a surprisingly high degree of coherence and level of cooperation. In addition, La Ola raises the exciting question of the ways by which a crowd can be stimulated to execute a particular pattern of behaviour.”

(From Andrew Adamatzky, Dynamics of Crowd-Minds, 2005.)

Et Tu?

A Friedman number, named after Stetson University mathematician Erich Friedman, is a number that can be calculated using its own digits, such as 736 = 36 + 7 or 3281 = (38 + 1) / 2.

A “nice” Friedman number is one in which the digits are used in order, such as 3685 = (36 + 8) × 5 or 3972 = 3 + (9 × 7)2.

Might this be done in other number systems? In a sense all Roman numerals are automatically Friedman numbers, but there are some interesting nontrivial examples as well:

XVIII = IV × II + X

LXXXIII = IXX×X/L + II

And it turns out that “nice” examples are possible here too, in which a number’s letters are used in order:

LXXVI = L / X × XV + I

LXXXIV = LX / X × XIV

Is there more? Friedman has begun looking for examples in Mayan numerals — see his website.

Mementos

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Image: Mare Milin / Museum of Broken Relationships

When Croatian artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišic ended their four-year relationship in 2003, they joked about creating a museum to house all their leftover personal items. “We were thinking of how to preserve the beautiful moments we had together and not destroy everything,” Vištica said. Three years later, Grubišic suggested that they do this in earnest, and they created the Museum of Broken Relationships, displaying items left over from breakups around the world.

After ending an 18-month relationship with an abusive lover, a Toronto woman sent in a necklace and earrings he had given her. “The necklace was given as an apology after one night of abuse. He used it as leverage that I should do as he said. I finally broke it off. I keep the necklace as a reminder of what to look out for.”

A Berlin women donated the ax she’d used to chop up her partner’s furniture after she left her for another woman. “Every day I axed one piece of her furniture. I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt. Two weeks after she left, she came back for the furniture. It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood. She took that trash and left my apartment for good. The axe was promoted to a therapy instrument.”

Between 2006 and 2010, the collection toured the world and was seen by 200,000 people. It’s now found a permanent home in Zagreb, and in 2016 it opened another location in Los Angeles, next to the theater that hosts the Oscars. “I think in periods of suffering people become creative, and I think this is a catharsis,” Vištica told The Star. “I think that relationships, especially love relationships, influence us so much and they make us the people we are.”

Bull Market

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“If you bet on a horse, that’s gambling. If you bet you can make three spades, that’s entertainment. If you bet cotton will go up three points, that’s business. See the difference?” — Blackie Sherrod

Podcast Episode 185: The Man From Formosa

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In 1703, London had a strange visitor, a young man who ate raw meat and claimed that he came from an unknown country on the island of Taiwan. Though many doubted him, he was able to answer any question he was asked, and even wrote a best-selling book about his homeland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the curious question of the man from Formosa.

We’ll also scrutinize a stamp forger and puzzle over an elastic Utah.

Intro:

In 1892 a legionnaire in West Africa met a rifle he’d owned 22 years earlier in France.

Americans and Canadians can visit one another’s territory through a Peace Arch on the border.

Sources for our feature on George Psalmanazar:

Michael Keevak, The Pretended Asian, 2004.

Frederic J. Foley, The Great Formosan Impostor, 1968.

Tobias B. Hug, Impostures in Early Modern England, 2010.

George Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, 1704.

George Psalmanazar, A Dialogue Between a Japonese and a Formosan, About Some Points of the Religion of the Time, 1707.

George Psalmanazar, Essays on the Following Subjects …, 1753.

George Psalmanazar, An Enquiry Into the Objections Against George Psalmanaazaar of Formosa, 1710.

Memoirs of ****. Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar, a Reputed Native of Formosa, 1764.

“George Psalmanazar,” National Magazine 6:1 (1859), 123-127.

“George Psalmanazar,” Dictionary of National Biography, 1896, 439-442.

Benjamin Breen, “No Man Is an Island: Early Modern Globalization, Knowledge Networks, and George Psalmanazar’s Formosa,” Journal of Early Modern History 17:4, 391-417.

Michael Keevak, “A World of Impostures,” Eighteenth Century 53:2 (Summer 2012), 233-235.

Donald Rayfield, “Forgiving Forgery,” Modern Language Review 107:4 (October 2012), xxv-xli.

C. Macfie Campbell, “A Note on the Imagination and Its Exploitation: Psalmanazar and Hélène Smith,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 92:5 (November 1940), 605-613.

Ben Downing, “Psalmanazar the Amazing,” Yale Review 90:3 (July 2002), 46-74.

Peter Mason, “Ethnographic Portraiture in the Eighteenth Century: George Psalmanaazaar’s Drawings of Formosans,” Eighteenth-Century Life 23:3 (November 1999), 58.

Kembrew McLeod, “The Fake ‘Asian’ Who Fooled 18th-Century London,” Atlantic, April 22, 2014.

Benjamin Breen, “Illustrations From an 18th-Century Frenchman’s Completely Made-Up Book About Taiwan,” Slate, Nov. 6, 2013.

Listener mail:

Jessica Bineth, “Somerton Man: One of Australia’s Most Baffling Cold Cases Could Be a Step Closer to Being Solved,” ABC News, Jan. 1, 2018.

Colin Gleadell, “Art Sales: The Finest Forger of All Time?” Telegraph, Jan. 9, 2007.

Rosslyn Beeby, “The Rubens of Philately,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 31, 2012.

laser kiwi

Elle Hunt, “New Zealand’s New Flag: 15 Quirky Contenders,” Guardian, May 14, 2015.

“Are These The Craziest Designs for a New Flag?” TVNZ, July 15, 2015.

“The Colourful Contenders for New Zealand’s New Flag,” BBC, May 15, 2015.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Michael Förtsch, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!