Query

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mina_Edison_1906.jpg

Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife, Mina, in Morse code.

“My later courtship was carried on by telegraph,” he wrote in his diary. “I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word ‘Yes’ is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak of it, she might have found it harder.”

Podcast Episode 115: Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier

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After the Battle of Gettysburg, a dead Union soldier was found near the center of town. He bore no identification, but in his hands he held a photograph of three children. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the efforts of one Philadelphia physician to track down the lost man’s family using only the image of his children.

We’ll also sample a 9-year-old’s comedy of manners and puzzle over a letter that copies itself.

Intro:

The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat named Stubbs.

According to multiple sources, the 3rd Earl of Darnley, an eccentric bachelor, suffered from the delusion that he was a teapot.

Sources for our feature on Amos Humiston:

Mark H. Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier, 1999.

Mark H. Dunkelman, “Key to a Mystery,” American History 32:2 (May/June 1997), 16-20.

Errol Morris, “Whose Father Was He?” (parts 1-5), New York Times, March 29-April 5, 2009.

Ronald S. Coddington, “At Gettysburg, Life Imitates Art,” Military Images 34:3 (Summer 2016), 54-55.

“Visit Recalls Wartime Story,” Gettysburg, Pa., Star and Sentinel, Oct. 28, 1914.

The full text of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, including J.M. Barrie’s preface, is on Project Gutenberg.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener TJ.

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 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 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!

The Magdeburg Hemispheres

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

German scientist Otto von Guericke conducted a memorable experiment on May 8, 1654: He connected two hemispheres, sealed their rims together, and drew out the air between them using a pump of his own devising. The resulting vacuum was so strong that 30 horses could not pull them apart.

At the time the experiment was seen as a strike against Aristotle’s dictum that nature abhors a vacuum. It’s repeated today as a dramatic demonstration of the power of atmospheric pressure.

Sound and Sense

In the early 1970s, Alan Berry and Ronald Morehead visited the Sierra Nevada of eastern California and emerged with “the Sierra Sounds recordings,” 90 minutes of vocalizations and wood knockings that they attributed to Bigfoot. In studying these and other recordings, “Bigfoot language expert” R. Scott Nelson has devised a Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet to record the utterances:

0:4.5 (W) (W)

0:8.62 (W) (W) (W)

0:15.11 RAM HO BÄ RÜ KHÄ HÜ

0:16.70 WAM VO HÜ KHÖ KHU’

0:17.52 NÖ U PLÄ MEN TI KHU

0:18.82 NÄR LÄ

0:20.21 NA GÖ KÜ STEP GÄ KÜ BLEM

0:21.25 Ü KÜ DZJÄ

0:21.76 FRrÄP E KHÜK LE

(A fuller transcription, and Nelson’s notating conventions, are here.)

What should we make of this? Nelson claims that “the creatures mentally process information at a much higher rate than humans do, or at least they are able to communicate their ideas much faster,” which makes their speech impossible for humans to understand, but “we have verified that these creatures use language, by the human definition of it.”

“No, we haven’t,” answers linguist Karen Stollznow in Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic (2014). “Before creating a transcription of this ‘Bigfoot language’, Nelson first needed to demonstrate that this is language. He has tried to authenticate the recordings, rather than analyze them in an unbiased way. Unknown sounds don’t immediately qualify as ‘language’, any more than an Unidentified Flying Object must be extraterrestrial.”

“There is no solid physical evidence to support the existence of Bigfoot. Before we establish the existence of Bigfoot language, we need to establish the existence of Bigfoot.”

Appeals

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Advertisements in the Sing Sing inmate newspaper Star of Hope, May 19, 1900:

WANTED — A home-like home. Present one, not what it is cracked up to be. Address Clinton 4,320.

WANTED — A good night’s rest. Gallery shouters and instrumentalists take note. Nemo, Star Office.

WANTED — An eraser, (must be mighty sharp) to blot out the past. A stock of experience, (fringed and threadbare) given in exchange. For particulars, Auburn 20,101.

WANTED — That rara avis, the con who does not think he is better able to manage the Star than the present Editor. Applications solicited by Sing Sing 51,094.

WANTED — A few blank pages in the Book of Life, wherein we desire to make some new entries — on the Cr. side. Address Summa Summarum, New York State Prisons.

WANTED — Immediately — an Opportunity. Price no object if goods are fair and in good working order. Anxious, Clinton 4,298.

WANTED — Anno Domini 1902. Will give in exchange one and a quarter yards of warranted genuine, homemade Spring po’ms — just too lovely for every day wear. Samantha, Auburn 595 (W. P.)

LOST — Five days’ ‘short time.’ Finder can have same by arranging with the Powers That Be. Address Nostalgic, Auburn 20,210.

(From Karel Weiss, The Prison Experience, 1976.)

An Elizabethan Word Square

lok square

Princeton scholar Thomas P. Roche Jr. calls this “an astounding piece of ingenuity,” one of “the most elaborately numerological poems I have found in the Renaissance.” Poet Henry Lok created it in 1597, in honor of Elizabeth I. It can be read as a conventional 10-line poem, but there are fully eight other ways to read it:

“1. A Saint George’s crosse [+] of two collumbs, in discription of her Maiestie, beginning at A, and B, in the middle to be read downward, and crossing at C and D to be read either singly or double.”

Rare Queen, fair, mild, wise
Shows you proof
For heavens have upheld
Just world’s praise sure.

Here Grace in that Prince
Of earth’s race, who
There shields thus God
Whom choice (rich Isle, stay!) builds.

“2. A S[aint] Andrew’s crosse [X], beginning at E and read thwartwaies, and ending with F, containing the description of our happie age, by her highnesse.”

God crowned this time, wise choice of all the Rest,
And so truth, joy of just kings’ known, God blest.

“3. Two Pillars in the right and left side of the square, in verse reaching from E and F perpenddicularly, containing the sum of the whole, the latter columbe hauing the words placed counterchangeably to rime to the whole square.”

God makes kings rule for heauens; your state hold blest
And still stand will their shields; fear yields best rest.

“4. The first and last two verses or the third and fourth, with seuenth and eighth, are sense in them selues, containing also sense of the whole.”

“5. The whole square of 100, containing in it self fiue squares, the angles of each of them are sense particularly, and vnited depend each on other, beginning at the center.”

1 Just, wise of choice
2 Joy of kings’ time
3 This truth all known
4 So crowned the God
5 Blessed God and rest.

“6. The out-angles are to be read 8 seuerall waies in sense and verse.”

“7. The eight words placed also in the ends of the St. George’s crosse, are sense and verse, alluding to the whole crosse.”

Rare grace here builds
There shields for heaven.

Rare Grace there shields
For heaven here builds.

“8. The two third words in the bend dexeter of the St. Andrew’s crosse, being the middle from the angles to the center, haue in their first letters T. and A. for the Author, and H.L. in their second, for his name, which to be true, the words of the angles in that square confirme.”

THis ALl
T[he]H[enry]is A[uthor]L[ok]l

“9. The direction to her Maiestie in prose aboue, containeth onely of numerall letters, the yeare and day of the composition, as thus, DD. C. LL. LL. LL. LL. VV. VV. VV. IIIIIIIIIIIII. For, 1593. June V.”

The whole square is intended to demonstrate the powers of language to accommodate the queen’s praises in God’s providential order. Further, the arrangement of the words forms a comment on the political situation at the time: St. George is the patron saint of England, St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and the pillars may represent Elizabeth’s chosen emblem, the Pillars of Hercules. “The fact that the words of the square can be forced to yield meaning within the imposed specifications is amazing in itself.”

(Thomas P. Roche Jr., Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences, 1989.)

In a Word

synodite
n. a traveling companion

dépaysé
adj. removed from one’s usual surroundings

credenda
n. things to be believed; matters of faith

David Livingstone reaches the Atlantic, May 31, 1854:

The plains adjacent to Loanda are somewhat elevated and comparatively sterile. On coming across these we first beheld the sea: my companions looked upon the boundless ocean with awe. On describing their feelings afterwards, they remarked that ‘we marched along with our father, believing that what the ancients had always told us was true, that the world has no end; but all at once the world said to us, “I am finished; there is no more of me!”‘ They had always imagined that the world was one extended plain without limit.

(From his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, 1857.)

Wild Life

The author of Bambi wrote a pornographic novel. Josephine Mutzenbacher: The Life Story of a Viennese Whore was published anonymously in Vienna in 1906, shortly after Felix Salten moved there. Salten’s authorship has never been proven conclusively, but the consensus of scholars and even the Austrian government supports it.

The book is the fictional memoir of a 50-year-old Viennese prostitute, looking back on her scandalous life. In The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, Harold B. Segel writes, “For those who knew him it was more in character than Bambi.”

It’s remained in print for more than a century now and sold 3 million copies. A sample in English (NSFW) is here.

Villarceau Circles

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How many circles can be drawn through an arbitrary point on a torus? Surprisingly, there are four. Two are obvious: One is parallel to the equatorial plane of the torus, and another is perpendicular to that.

The other two are produced by cutting the torus obliquely at a special angle. They’re named after French astronomer Yvon Villarceau, who first described them in 1848.

The Ellsberg Paradox

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Here are two urns. Urn 1 contains 100 balls, 50 white and 50 black. Urn 2 contains 100 balls, colored black and white in an unknown ratio. You must choose an urn and draw one ball from it, betting on the ball’s color. There are four possibilities:

  • Bet B1: You draw a ball from Urn 1 and bet that it’s black.
  • Bet W1: You draw a ball from Urn 1 and bet that it’s white.
  • Bet B2: You draw a ball from Urn 2 and bet that it’s black.
  • Bet W2: You draw a ball from Urn 2 and bet that it’s white.

If you win your bet you’ll get $100.

If you’re like most people, you don’t have a preference between B1 and W1, nor between B2 and W2. But most people prefer B1 to B2 and W1 to W2. That is, they prefer “the devil they know”: They’d rather choose the urn with the measurable risk than the one with unmeasurable risk.

This is surprising. The expected payoff from Urn 1 is $50. The fact that most people favor B1 to B2 implies that they believe that Urn 2 contains fewer black balls than Urn 1. But these people most often also favor W1 to W2, implying that they believe that Urn 2 also contains fewer white balls, a contradiction.

Ellsberg offered this as evidence of “ambiguity aversion,” a preference in general for known risks over unknown risks. Why people exhibit this preference isn’t clear. Perhaps they associate ambiguity with ignorance, incompetence, or deceit, or possibly they judge that Urn 1 would serve them better over a series of repeated draws.

The principle was popularized by RAND Corporation economist Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame. This example is from Leonard Wapner’s Unexpected Expectations (2012).