Quick Thinking

https://pixabay.com/en/natural-starry-sky-night-view-2065714/

The historian Socrates tells us that the Emperor Tiberius, who was much given to astrology, used to put the masters of that art, whom he thought of consulting, to a severe test. He took them to the top of his house, and if he saw any reason to suspect their skill, threw them down the steep. Thither he took Thrasyllus, and after a long consultation with him, the emperor suddenly asked whether the astrologer had examined his own fate, and what was portended for him in the immediate future. Now the difficulty is this: If Thrasyllus says that nothing important is about to befall him, he will prove his lack of skill and lose his life besides. If, on the other hand, he says that he is soon to die, either the emperor will set him free, in which case the prophecy was false and he ought to have destroyed him; or Tiberius will destroy him, while he ought to have spared him as a true revealer of the future. Of course the solution is easy. Thrasyllus, after some observations and calculations, began to quake and tremble greatly, and said some great calamity seemed to be impending over him, whereupon the emperor embraced him and made him his chief astrologer.

The Ladies’ Repository, July 1873

Back Channels

In 1863 Union soldiers seized a bag of rebel correspondence as it was about to cross Lake Pontchartrain. In one of the letters, a woman named Anna boasted of a trick she’d played on a Boston newspaper — she’d sent them a poem titled “The Gypsy’s Wassail,” which she assured them was written in Sanskrit:

Drol setaredefnoc evarb ruo sselb dog
Drageruaeb dna htims nosnhoj eel
Eoj nosnhoj dna htims noskcaj pleh
Ho eixid ni stif meht evig ot

The paper published this “beautiful and patriotic poem, by our talented contributor.” A few days later a reader discovered the trick — it was simply English written in reverse:

God bless our brave Confederates, Lord!
Lee, Johnson, Smith, and Beauregard!
Help Jackson, Smith, and Johnson Joe,
To give them fits in Dixie, oh!

She had signed her name only “Anna,” but in the same bag they found a letter from her sister to her husband, saying “Anna writes you one of her amusing letters,” and this contained her signature and address. Union general Wickham Hoffman wrote to her: “I told her that her letter had fallen into the hands of one of those ‘Yankee’ officers whom she saw fit to abuse, and who was so pleased with its wit that he should take great pleasure in forwarding it to its destination; that in return he had only to ask that when the author of ‘The Gypsy’s Wassail’ favored the expectant world with another poem, he might be honored with an early copy. Anna must have been rather surprised.”

(From Hoffman’s 1877 memoir Camp, Court and Siege.)

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Greg

Goodbye to Romance

https://books.google.com/books?id=qpctAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA119

In his 1916 book The Science of Musical Sounds, Dayton Clarence Miller uses harmonic analysis to convert the line of a woman’s profile (left) into an equation of 18 terms. Then he uses this equation to reproduce the profile synthetically (right). “If mentality, beauty, and other characteristics can be considered as represented in a profile portrait,” he writes, “then it may be said that they are also expressed in the equation of the profile.”

He repeats the synthesized profile to produce a waveform:

https://books.google.com/books?id=qpctAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA120

“In this sense beauty of form may be likened to beauty of tone color, that is, to the beauty of a certain harmonious blending of sounds.”

In Noise, Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, Douglas Kahn writes, “The simple beauty of the female expressed in the line thus becomes also the simple beauty of mathematics, graphic representation, and instrumentation, let alone mediation and reproduction, involved in the production of the equation and profile. Thus, we move beyond Lord Kelvin’s fascination with a beauty of mathematics to a fascination with a mathematics of beauty.”

“A Cheap Correspondence”

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

A curious story of two poor lovers, whose system of correspondence was confined to an ingenious cipher of ink-blots on the outside of the letter, is told by the Poet Coleridge. In one of his walks in the Lake district, he saw the postman offer a letter to the servant-girl at a village inn, who, after carefully looking at the address, returned the document to the postman, telling him that she could not take it in, as she was too poor to pay the postage. Thereupon, Coleridge stepped forward, and giving the postman the shilling required for the letter, handed it to the girl. To his surprise, she did not appear as pleased as he had expected; and when the postman was out of hearing, she explained the matter by confessing to the poet that the whole of the letter consisted in its address and certain exterior blots and marks, and that it was the method adopted by her lover and herself to keep up an unpaid-for correspondence in the days of dear postage.

— Thomas Hood, The Book of Modern English Anecdotes, 1872

Drawn Onward

tintin

Comic strips offer even more opportunities for working with the symbolism of direction. W.A. Wagenaar, a psychologist at Leiden University and a Tintin fan, once tallied up all the acts and transitions in three Tintin books and discovered that in three out of four cases the characters move from left to right, even when their movement takes several frames to portray. More interestingly still, movements towards the left almost always have a bad outcome. The man who moves his finger from right to left to ring Tintin’s doorbell falls unconscious on the doormat as soon as the alert reporter opens the door. When Captain Haddock crosses the frame from right to left in an attempt to escape, he is recaptured in no time. And so on. This is Tintin’s Law, and it is reminiscent of the messenger in the theatre of the ancient world: entering on the right — and therefore moving towards the left — is a sign to the audience that something ominous is happening.

— Rik Smits, The Puzzle of Left-Handedness, 2010

(Wagenaar’s paper is “Als Kuifje naar links beweegt is er iets mis,” NRC Handelsblad, Aug. 5, 1981.)

Podcast Episode 142: Fingerprints and Polygraphs

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

Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.

We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.

Intro:

In 1892, Bostonians realized that the architects of their new library had hidden their name in the façade.

In 1918, a California businessman built a 7,900-ton steamer out of ferrocement.

Sources for our feature on fingerprints and polygraphs:

Ken Alder, The Lie Detectors, 2007.

Jack Fincher, “Lifting ‘Latents’ Is Now Very Much a High-Tech Matter,” Smithsonian, October 1989, 201.

James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, 2013.

Ian Leslie, Born Liars, 2011.

William J. Tilstone, Kathleen A. Savage, and Leigh A. Clark, Forensic Science: An Encyclopedia of History, Methods, and Techniques, 2006.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Criminal Justice: New Technologies and the Constitution, 1989.

Kenneth R. Moses et al., “Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS),” in The Fingerprint Sourcebook, Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis Study and Technology and National Institute of Justice, 2011, 1-33.

Raymond Dussault, “The Latent Potential of Latent Prints,” Government Technology, Dec. 31, 1998.

Barbara Bradley, “Fingered by the Police Computer,” Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 1988.

U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, “New Technology for Investigation, Identification, and Apprehension,” in Special Report: Criminal Justice, New Technologies, and the Constitution, May 1988.

Thanks to listener Pål Grønås Drange for suggesting the Ken Moses story.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Mirage” (accessed Feb. 17, 2017).

W.H. Lehn, “The Nova Zemlya Effect: An Arctic Mirage,” Journal of the Optical Society of America 69:5 (May 1979), 776-781.

Wikipedia, “Novaya Zemlya Effect” (accessed Feb. 17, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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.

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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!

Little Wars

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

H.G. Wells played war games. In 1913 he published a set of rules for playing with miniature infantry, cavalry, and artillery, worked out with his friend Jerome K. Jerome while playing with toy soldiers after lunch one day.

He fired that day a shot that still echoes round the world. An affair — let us parallel the Cannonade of Valmy and call it the Cannonade of Sandgate — occurred, a shooting between opposed ranks of soldiers, a shooting not very different in spirit — but how different in results! — from the prehistoric warfare of catapult and garter. ‘But suppose,’ said his antagonists; ‘suppose somehow one could move the men!’ and therewith opened a new world of belligerence.

With another friend and a lot of playtesting, he worked out a set of rules by which two players contend for control of a battlefield, “little brisk fights in which one may suppose that all the ammunition and food needed are carried by the men themselves.”

In two or three moves the guns are flickering into action, a cavalry melee may be in progress, the plans of the attack are more or less apparent, here are men pouring out from the shelter of a wood to secure some point of vantage, and here are troops massing among farm buildings for a vigorous attack. The combat grows hot round some vital point. Move follows move in swift succession. One realises with a sickening sense of error that one is outnumbered and hard pressed here and uselessly cut off there, that one’s guns are ill-placed, that one’s wings are spread too widely, and that help can come only over some deadly zone of fire.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3691/3691-h/3691-h.htm

When Wells published his rules in August 1913, the Spectator raved that “there can be no doubt at all as to the excellence of Little Wars as a game for its own sake” — “Mr. Wells describes his new game and sets out its rules so attractively, and has, moreover, added to his description such alluring photographs, that his readers will find it hard indeed not to hurry out to the toy-shop round the corner, raise the necessary levies, and fall down forthwith upon hands and knees to emulate his achievements in the Battle of Hook’s Farm.”

Happily, since it was published a century ago, the whole thing is in the public domain — it’s available at Project Gutenberg.