Unquote

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing that a tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad.” — Miles Kington

Boom Town

https://books.google.com/books?id=A7pZAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA3

In the summer of 1903, the United States Cartridge Company of Tewksbury, Mass., noticed a stain on the floor of its gunpowder magazine. Apparently the dynamite magazine next door had been leaking nitroglycerine. The company asked the dynamite’s owner, American Powder Mills, to attend to the matter, and on July 29 Cartridge’s powder was loaded onto three wagons and moved a few hundred feet away, and an unlucky foreman named Goodwin entered the building, poured a solution on the stain, and began to sweep it with a broom. The spot began to smoke.

The ensuing blast killed 20 people and flattened a score of houses. “Buildings were shaken and windows broken in hundreds of places within a radius of fifteen miles,” reported New England Magazine. “People as far away as Dedham on the south and the mid-New Hampshire towns on the north, felt the shock and guessed at reckless blasts or earthquakes.”

It appears that the fire had caused the dynamite magazine to explode, which set off the three wagons of gunpowder, which set off a third magazine, leased by the Dupont Powder Company. “The ruin caused by the accident was appalling in its perfection,” notes the report. “Three acres of ground were entirely laid waste, the trees and bushes in a considerable radius being torn and blasted as by a breath from a huge furnace.”

The magazines had been built 30 years earlier, when the area had been remote, and the town had grown up around them. “The only safe assumption is that sooner or later every magazine is bound to explode, and must therefore be kept a safe distance from dwelling houses and other buildings.”

(Thanks, Meredith.)

Black and White

rockwell chess problem

By A.F. Rockwell. White to mate in two moves.

Click for solution …

Flux

vivant, green and yellow

Artist Pierre Vivant performed a sort of typographical sleight of hand in an Oxfordshire field in 1990. In early summer oilseed rape changes from green to yellow as its flowers open. Vivant cut the words GREEN and YELLOW into the flowering field so that each word bore the color it named. Over the ensuing month, the flowers faded and the field reverted to green while the plants in the areas that Vivant had cut grew and flowered. The end result was the reverse of what you see here: a green field in which the word GREEN is yellow and the word YELLOW is green.

The High Road

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spicy_Detective_Stories_May_1935.jpg

Editorial guidelines from Spicy Detective magazine, 1935:

  1. In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
  2. If it is necessary for the story to have the girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details. …
  3. Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip to her underwear or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin torn shred of her garments, but while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
  4. A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.
  5. Also a girl undressing in the privacy of her own room, but when men are in the action try to keep at least a shred of something on the girls.
  6. Do not have men in underwear in scenes with women, and no nude men at all.

“The idea is to have a very strong sex element in these stories without anything that might be intrepreted as being vulgar or obscene.”

(From Nicholas Parsons, The Book of Literary Lists, 1987.)

Podcast Episode 51: Poet Doppelgängers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goethe_1791.jpg

In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers — at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere. We’ll also share our readers’ research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport.

Sources for our feature on poet doppelgängers:

John Oxenford, trans., The Autobiography of Wolfgang von Goethe, 1969.

G. Wilson Knight, Byron and Shakespeare, 2002.

Julian Marshall, The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1889.

Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen, 2013.

W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947.

The stories are recounted in the corresponding posts on Futility Closet: Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Owen, Powys.

Listener mail:

Little House of Cats has a photo of Cervino, the (purported) Matterhorn-scaling kitty cat of 1950.

The Daily Mail has photos of Millie, Utah mountaineer Craig Armstrong’s rock-climbing cat. More at Back Country.

Further data on cat rambles:

BBC News, “Secret Life of the Cat: What Do Our Feline Companions Get Up To?”, June 12, 2013 (accessed March 26, 2015).

National Geographic, “Watch: How Far Do Your Cats Roam?”, Aug. 8, 2014 (accessed March 26, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles are from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

The Paradox of Goals

Suppose that two teams of equal ability are playing football. If goals are scored at regular intervals, it seems natural to expect that each team will be in the lead for half the playing time. Surprisingly, this isn’t so: If a total of n = 20 goals are scored, then the probability that Team A leads after the first 10 goals and Team B leads after the second 10 goals is only 6 percent, while the probability that one team leads throughout the entire game is about 35 percent. (When the scores are equal, the leading team is considered to be the one that was leading before the last goal.) And the chance that one team leads throughout the second half is 50 percent, no matter how large n is.

Such questions began with a study of ballot problems: In 1887 Joseph Bertrand found that if in an election Candidate P scores p votes and Candidate Q scores q votes, where p > q, then the probability that P leads throughout the voting is (pq)/(p + q).

But pursuing them has led to “conclusions that play havoc with our intuition,” writes Princeton mathematician William Feller. If Peter and Paul toss a coin 20,000 times, we tend to think that each will lead about half the time. But in fact it is 88 times more probable that Peter leads in all 20,000 trials than that each player leads in 10,000 trials. No matter how long the series of coin tosses runs, the most probable number of changes of lead is zero.

“In short, if a modern educator or psychologist were to describe the long-run case histories of individual coin-tossing games, he would classify the majority of coins as maladjusted,” Feller writes. “If many coins are tossed n times each, a surprisingly large proportion of them will leave one player in the lead almost all the time; and in very few cases will the lead change sides and fluctuate in the manner that is generally expected of a well-behaved coin.”

(Gábor J. Székely, Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics, 2001; William Feller, An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, 1957.)

New Tropes for Old

In an 1810 satire, C.L. Pitt noted that “a novel may be made out of a romance, or a romance out of a novel with the greatest ease, by scratching out a few terms, and inserting others.” The steps below will, “like machinery in factories,” convert a Gothic romance into a sentimental novel:

Where you find:              Put:

A castle                     An house
A cavern                     A bower
A groan                      A sigh
A giant                      A father
A bloodstained dagger        A fan
Howling blasts               Zephyrs
A knight                     A gentleman without whiskers
A lady who is the heroine    Need not be changed, being versatile
Assassins                    Telling glances
A monk                       An old steward
Skeletons, skulls, etc.      Compliments, sentiments etc.
A gliding ghost              A usurer, or an attorney
A witch                      An old housekeeper
A wound                      A kiss
A midnight murder            A marriage

“The same table of course answers for transmuting a novel into a romance.”

(From a footnote in Pitt’s The Age: A Poem, Moral, Political, and Metaphysical, With Illustrative Annotations, 1810.)

Chin Up

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_wounded_Bernafay_Wood_19_July_1916.jpg

“I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy. No one grumbles at one for being dirty.” So wrote professional soldier and poet Julian Grenfell in October 1914, shortly after arriving at the western front.

The unparalleled horrors of the First World War seemed to call forth untapped reserves of mannerly British sang-froid, a “stoical reticence” that artillery officer P.H. Pilditch traced to training in the public schools: “Everything is toned down. … Nothing is ‘horrible.’ That word is never used in public. Things are ‘darned unpleasant,’ ‘Rather nasty,’ or, if very bad, simply ‘damnable.'”

General James Jack reported, “On my usual afternoon walk today a shrapnel shell scattered a shower of bullets around me in an unpleasant manner.” When Private R.W. Mitchell moved to trenches in Hebuterne in June 1916, he complained of “strafing and a certain dampness.”

This unreality reached its peak in the Field Service Post Card, which soldiers were required to complete to reassure next of kin after a particularly dangerous engagement:

I am quite well.

I have been admitted into hospital (sick) (wounded) (and am going on well) (and hope to be discharged soon).

I am being sent down to base.

I have received your (letter dated ____) (telegram dated ____) (parcel dated ____)

Letter follows at first opportunity.

I have received no letter from you (lately) (for a long time).

(Signature only)

(Date)

A soldier would cross out any text that did not apply, perhaps leaving only the line “I am quite well.” “The implicit optimism of the post card is worth noting,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), “the way it offers no provision for transmitting news like ‘I have lost my left leg’ or ‘I have been admitted into hospital wounded and do not expect to recover.’ Because it provided no way of saying ‘I am going up the line again’ its users have to improvise. Wilfred Owen had an understanding with his mother that when he used a double line to cross out ‘I am being sent down to the base,’ he meant he was at the front again.”

(Thanks, Garrett.)

The Long Way

http://i.imgur.com/rQlk4.png

It’s possible to sail in a straight line from Pakistan to Siberia — a carefully plotted great-circle route will thread a line between Madascar and the African mainland, between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, and through the Aleutian Islands to arrive at the Kamchatka Peninsula, a total distance of nearly 20,000 miles, about 80 percent of the Earth’s circumference. You can reverse course to get back to Karachi.

(Thanks, Derek.)

Page 1 of 85412345...10203040...Last »