Podcast Episode 154: Spared by a Volcano

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyparis.jpg

The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”

We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

Intro:

The French newspaper La Bougie du Sapeur is published only on Leap Day.

When a vat burst in 1814, 323,000 imperial gallons of beer flooded a London street.

Sources for our feature on Ludger Sylbaris:

Peter Morgan, Fire Mountain, 2003.

Edmund Otis Hovey, The 1902-1903 Eruptions of Mont Pelé, Martinique and the Soufrière, St. Vincent, 1904.

Ludger Sylbaris, “Buried Alive in St. Pierre,” Wide World Magazine, November 1903.

Matthew St. Ville Hunte, “Inside the Volcano,” Paris Review, Sept. 16, 2016.

“Prison Cell of ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday,'” Slate, July 31, 2013.

Brian Morton, “There’s No Smoke Without Fire,” Financial Times, Feb. 13, 2003.

Tony Jones, “Lone Survivor,” New Scientist 177:2382 (Feb. 15, 2003), 48-49.

“[front page — no title],” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1906.

Listener mail:

Kate Connolly, “He’s Hired: Belgian Lands ‘Dream Job’ as Hermit for Austrian Cliffside Retreat,” Guardian, April 19, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent two sets of corroborating links — these contain explicit photos, and these don’t.

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!

An End in Sight

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Euwe_1935.jpg

Write down a 0:

0

Now mentally “flip” this string in binary, exchanging 0s and 1s, and append this new string to the existing one:

0 1

Keep this up and you’ll get a growing string of 0s and 1s:

0 1 1 0
0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1
0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0

This is the Thue–Morse sequence, named after two of its discoverers, Axel Thue and Marston Morse. One interesting property of the sequence is that, no matter how far it’s extended, it contains no “cubes,” no instances in which some nonempty string occurs three times in a row. For example, the last line above contains both 11 and 00 but no instance of 111 or 000. (It also contains 1001 twice in a row, but not three times.)

Max Euwe, the Dutch mathematician who was world chess champion from 1935 to 1937, used this principle to show that chess was not a finite game. Under the rules at the time, a chess game would end in a draw if a sequence of moves (with all pieces in the same positions) were played three times in a row. Euwe used the Thue-Morse sequence to show that this need never happen: If 0 represents one set of moves, and 1 represents another, and each set leaves the board position unchanged, then the Thue-Morse sequence shows that two players might step through these routines forever without ever playing one three times in a row.

Modern chess rules have dropped the threefold sequence provision. Instead a draw results when the same board position occurs three times, or when 50 successive moves occur without a capture or a pawn move. Both of these rules limit a game to a finite length (although one player must actually claim the draw).

(Thanks, Pål.)

Unquote

la rochefoucauld

More maxims of François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680):

  • “Fortune shews our Virtues and Vices, as Light does Objects.”
  • “‘Tis never more difficult to speak well than when we are ashamed of our Silence.”
  • “Since great Men can neither bestow Health of Body, nor Peace of Mind, we certainly pay too dear for all else they can.”
  • “Our Wisdom is no less at Fortune’s Mercy than our Wealth.”
  • “The Desire of appearing Persons of Ability often prevents our being so.”
  • “There are some Faults, which when well-managed make a greater Figure than Virtue itself.”
  • “We like better to see those on whom we confer Benefits, than those from whom we receive them.”
  • “We should not be much concerned about Faults we have the Courage to own.”
  • “In the Adversity of our Friends, we always find something that don’t displease us.”
  • “Misers mistake Gold for their Good; whereas ’tis only a Means for attaining it.”
  • “When our Merit declines our Taste declines.”
  • “There is near as much Ability requisite to know how to make use of good Advice, as to know how to act for one’s self.”
  • “We had rather speak ill of ourselves than not speak at all.”
  • “We give up our Interest sooner than our Taste.”
  • “We forgive as long as we love.”

And “We sometimes lose People whom we regret more than we sorrow for; and others whom we are sorry for, yet don’t regret.”

Moo

http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/cow-shoes-prohibition-1924/

This is clever — during Prohibition, moonshiners wore shoes that left hoofprints. From the St. Petersburg, Fla., Evening Independent, May 27, 1922:

A new method of evading prohibition agents was revealed here today by A.L. Allen, state prohibition enforcement director, who displayed what he called a ‘cow shoe’ as the latest thing from the haunts of moonshiners.

The cow shoe is a strip of metal to which is tacked a wooden block carved to resemble the hoof of a cow, which may be strapped to the human foot. A man shod with a pair of them would leave a trail resembling that of a cow.

“The shoe found was picked up near Port Tampa where a still was located some time ago. It will be sent to the prohibition department at Washington. Officers believe the inventor got his idea from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the villain shod his horse with shoes the imprint of which resembled those of a cow’s hoof.”

(Via Rare Historical Photos.)

Scene

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boating_on_the_Thames_by_John_Lavery.jpeg

In a London paper, of the last week, is the following curious apology for a hasty accusation — ‘A paragraph in our last paper, rather precipitously accuses, with ingratitude, a gentleman who gave two-pence as a reward to a waterman for risking his life in saving a lady who had fallen in the River; but had the writer of that paragraph been acquainted with all the particulars, he probably would have suppressed his censure. — The lady to whom the accident happened was the gentleman’s wife.

Public Advertiser, Aug. 20, 1790

Audition

https://pixabay.com/en/animal-avian-bird-feathers-nature-1851604/

Mozart’s expense book for May 27, 1784, contains a curious entry:

Starling bird. 34 kreutzer.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MozartStarlingTune.PNG

Das war schön!

He had bought a starling on that date, apparently after asking it to repeat the opening theme of the third movement of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, which he’d completed a few weeks earlier. The bird had held the first G rather long, and then sharped two Gs in the following measure, but Mozart’s exclamation (“That was beautiful!”) shows that he approved.

He kept the bird for three years, until its death on June 4, 1787, when he buried it in his backyard. Then he arranged a funeral for it in which his friends marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to the composer recite a poem. No other written records of the bird appear in his surviving writings, but maybe the two had become collaborators.

Equilibrium

Michael Grab balances rocks. He regards it as a combination of art, engineering, and contemplative spiritual practice combining patience, critical thinking, and problem solving. But the only “ingredients” in his sculptures are rocks and gravity — there’s no mortar, cement, or artificial support holding them together; any one of them can be toppled with a finger.

“The most fundamental element of balancing in a physical sense is finding some kind of ‘tripod’ for the rock to stand on. Every rock is covered in a variety of tiny to large indentations that can act as a tripod for the rock to stand upright, or in most orientations you can think of with other rocks. By paying close attention to the feeling of the rocks, you will start to feel even the smallest clicks as the notches of the rocks in contact are moving over one another.”

“There is nothing easy about it. It can frustrate me to my limits, and then I learn. Or it can reveal magic beyond words, and I learn. Sometimes the rock wins, but most of the time I win.”

False Glory

1956 olympic torch hoax

Sydney mayor Pat Hills had a trying day on Nov. 18, 1956. That year’s Olympic torch had been wending its way across Australia and was scheduled to arrive in town that evening, carried by former marathon champion Harry Dillon. Huge crowds lined the streets, perching on fences and climbing poles for a better view.

Presently a runner appeared, holding a torch aloft. He bounded up the steps and handed it to Hills, who started his welcome address and then stopped, realizing that the handle he was holding bore wet paint.

It turned out to be a chair leg surmounted by a plum pudding can. Students at the University of Sydney had organized the hoax to protest thoughtless reverence for the Olympic torch. “It was being treated as a god, whereas in fact it was originally invented by the Nazis for the Berlin Games in 1936,” said veterinary student Barry Larkin, who had melted into the crowd after handing the fake torch to Hills.

“Our friends from the university think things like that are funny,” Hill told the crowd. “I hope you are enjoying the joke.” He was lucky it hadn’t gone off as planned — the torch had originally contained a pair of burning underwear.

Quiz

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frederick_Tudgay_-_American_Transatlantic_Packet_BYZANTIUM.jpg

Gustave Flaubert posed this teasing problem to his sister Caroline in an 1841 letter:

Since you are now studying geometry and trigonometry, I will give you a problem. A ship sails the ocean. It left Boston with a cargo of wool. It grosses 200 tons. It is bound for Le Havre. The mainmast is broken, the cabin boy is on deck, there are 12 passengers aboard, the wind is blowing East-North-East, the clock points to a quarter past three in the afternoon. It is the month of May. How old is the captain?

He didn’t give an answer. Elsewhere he wrote, “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness — though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”