Entertainment

Reverses

the man who came to dinner

You never laugh at anything nice. A comedy that ends with a laugh is a comedy that ends not with a solution but with a fresh disaster. At the end of Gogol’s The Government Inspector the real government inspector arrives; the trouble is just beginning. At the end of George F. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Broadway comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, the eccentric Sheridan Whiteside, who has wrought havoc in the lives of the Middle American family in whose home he is stranded by a broken ankle, walks out the door to universal relief, slips on the front step, and breaks his ankle again. According to Arthur Koestler, laughter does not truly release tension because it does not solve the problem; it fritters away energy in purposeless physical reflexes that make action impossible. Laughter is not a solution, it is a sign of the problem. As a number of writers have observed, there is a built-in contradiction between comedy’s two purposes, laughter and the happy ending. In its normal operation [the reaching of a happy ending] the function of comedy is to make the audience stop laughing.

— Alexander Leggatt, English Stage Comedy 1490-1990, 2002

The Masked Marauders

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Masked_Marauders.JPG

In 1969, as a joke, Rolling Stone published a review of a nonexistent album by a nonexistent band, a supposed “supergroup” made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. Editor Greil Marcus had intended this as a self-evident parody of groups like Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but readers began clamoring for the album. So Marcus and editor Langdon Winner recruited a Berkeley skiffle band and retroactively recorded a few of the songs that had been mentioned in the review.

When California radio stations began to play these songs, the hoax took on a life of its own. Marcus began to shop the band to major labels, and Warner Bros. won the contract with a $15,000 advance. The Masked Marauders came out that November with liner notes making it clear that the whole thing was a joke. Nonetheless, on the strength of its own bootstrapped glamor the record sold 100,000 copies and spent 12 weeks on the Billboard charts.

Related: In 2004 Dave Stewart and Kara DioGuardi invented a band called Platinum Weird that they insisted had existed in 1974. Supposedly it had been a partnership between Stewart and a mysterious singer/songwriter named Erin Grace who, among other accomplishments, had introduced Stevie Nicks to Lindsey Buckingham. In July 2006 VH1 even aired a documentary in which Ringo Starr, Bob Geldof, Elton John, and Mick Jagger pretended to reminisce about the band. On the same day, though, Stewart admitted to the Los Angeles Times that the whole thing had been a hoax.

“Lots of artists from the ’60s created mythology about themselves,” he said. “We’re in our own perception of our own world. So what’s reality and what’s not?”

(Thanks, Jeremy.)

Rehearsal

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carole_Lombard_in_Nothing_Sacred_1.jpg

In 1940, just before the release of her film They Knew What They Wanted, Carole Lombard’s press agent, Russell Birdwell, approached the filmmakers with a novel publicity scheme. Lombard would be scheduled to fly to New York for the opening, but they would arrange for the plane to “go down” en route and remain missing for 12 hours.

“And in those twelve hours, fellas, we’re going to be on every goddam front page in the United States of America,” Birdwell said. “Not only Carole Lombard’s name, but the name of the picture and the name of the theatre it’s going to open at and how would you like to foot the bill for that kind of advertising?” He planned that eventually Lombard and the pilot could wander out of the woods saying that the plane’s engines and radio had died.

In his 1967 memoir Hollywood, director Garson Kanin remembers that in the meeting Lombard began to slap her thigh, yelling, “I’ll die! I’ll die! Isn’t that something? I’ll die!”

Birdwell’s plan was considered seriously but finally canceled due to the cost. Two years later, Lombard died in a plane crash in Nevada. “I could hear Carole’s voice and the sound of her hand slapping her thigh, her voice yelling delightedly, ‘I’ll die! I’ll die!'” Kanin wrote. “I remembered Russell Birdwell’s notion of the fake crash for publicity. I stood there hoping against hope that perhaps this was a postponed version of his scheme. … Carole Lombard … could not be dead at thirty-five. But she was.”

(Thanks, Ted.)

Batter Up!

https://books.google.com/books?id=eURaAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA301

The first pitching machine was powered by gunpowder. Princeton mathematician Charles Hinton designed it for the school baseball team in 1897, hoping to spare human pitchers whose arms were giving out under the incessant demands of batting practice. At first he planned a catapult, but he found this too inaccurate. Then “it occurred to me that practically whenever men wished to impel a ball with velocity and precision, they drove it out of a tube with powder.”

The result, which he wrote up in Harper’s Weekly on March 20, was a shoulder-mounted cannon whose 4-foot barrel could send a ball across the home plate at 70 mph. With a fingerlike attachment it could even throw a curveball. That summer it pitched three innings in a game between two Princeton social clubs, allowing four hits, striking out eight batters, walking one, and throwing only one wild pitch.

The Washington Post predicted the end of the world (“There would be the base-burning, high-pressure, anti-friction catcher, and the shortstop made of aluminium and rivets and filled with cogs, cams, valves, shafts, and belting”), but Hinton praised the gun’s handiness: “It can be used so as to deliver ball after ball at the same speed in the same curve, or it can be varied from shot to shot, according to the wish or skill of the manipulator.” He took it with him to the University of Minnesota, where he worked until 1900.

All Roads

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/434247

A self-working card trick by New York magician Henry Christ:

Shuffle a deck thoroughly and deal out nine cards in a row, face down. Choose a card, look at it, and assemble the nine cards into a stack face down, with the chosen card at the top. Add this stack to the bottom of the deck.

Now deal cards one at a time from the top of the deck into a pile, face up, counting backward from 10 as you do so. If at some point the card’s rank matches the number said, then begin dealing into a new pile at that point, counting again backward from 10. If you reach 1 without a match occurring, then “close” that pile by dealing a face-down card onto it, and start a new pile.

Keep this up until you’ve created four piles. Now add the values of any face-up cards on top of the piles, count down through the remaining cards until you’ve reached this position, and you’ll find your chosen card.

This works because it always leads to the 44th card in the deck, but it takes some thinking to see this. You can put a sealed deck into a stranger’s hands and direct him to perform the trick himself, with mystifying results.

The Bird Cage

https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/US200358.pdf

In the 1870s baseball catchers played bare-faced, routinely suffering broken noses and teeth; to protect themselves they stood two dozen feet behind the batter, which prevented the pitcher from throwing his best pitches. Finally Fred Winthrop Thayer, captain of Harvard’s team, invented a “Safety-Mask for Base-Ball Players” to minimize the damage.

“It is not an unfrequent occurrence in the game of base-ball for a player to be severely injured in the face by a ball thrown against it,” he wrote in the patent application. “With my face-guard such an accident cannot happen.”

When catcher Jim Tyng first wore Thayer’s mask on April 12, 1877, it was roundly derided. Spectators yelled “Mad dog!” and “Muzzle ’em!”, and opposing players greeted Tyng with “good natured though somewhat derisive pity.” The Portland, Maine, Sunday Telegram wrote, “There is a great deal of beastly humbug in contrivances to protect men from things which do not happen. There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as there is a mask.”

Catchers finally submitted when sportwriter Henry Chadwick faulted their “moral courage.” “Plucky enough to face the dangerous fire of balls from the swift pitcher,” he wrote, “they tremble before the remarks of the small boys of the crowd of spectators, and prefer to run the risk of broken cheek bones, dislocated jaws, a smashed nose or blackened eyes, than stand the chaff of the fools in the assemblage.”

Today Thayer’s Harvard mask is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In a Word

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Death_star1.png

interfector
n. a death-bringing planet

mundicidious
adj. likely or able to destroy the world

In 2012 an online petition urged the Obama administration to build a Death Star like the one in Star Wars. The campaign amassed 25,000 signatures, enough to require an official response, and it fell to Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the Office of Management and Budget, to reject the project. He gave three reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

Three-Cornered Baseball

http://keymancollectibles.com/publications/images/wpe1.gif

In 1944, eager to help the war effort, a group of New York sportswriters arranged a three-way baseball game among the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the New York Giants. The teams took turns batting, fielding, and sitting so that each played a total of six innings, under a scheme concocted by Columbia University math professor Paul A. Smith:

three-cornered baseball

Leo Durocher managed the Dodgers, Joe McCarthy the Yankees, and Mel Ott the Giants. The Dodgers showed a strange talent for this sort of play, winning 5-1-0 and shutting out the Giants entirely. The game “drew a gathering of 50,000, which included 500 wounded service heroes,” reported the New York Times, whose Byzantine box score is reproduced here.

“It helped swell New York’s war bond quota by approximately $56,500,000, and it also demonstrated that no matter how much you may strive to complicate things, the Dodgers, who still insist on doing things in their own fashion, will invariably continue to find their way around.”

A Universal Language

The Swedish pop group Caramba has an odd claim to fame — their eponymous 1981 album consists entirely of nonsense lyrics. No one’s even sure who was in the band — the album sleeve lists 13 members, all using pseudonyms. It was produced by Michael B. Tretow, who engineered ABBA’s records, and singer Ted Gärdestad contributed some vocals, but these are the only two participants who have been named.

The band broke up (apparently) after the first album, so we’ll never get more of this. Here are the lyrics to the single “Hubba Hubba Zoot Zoot”:

Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Num
Deba uba zat zat
Num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Num
Deba uba zat zat
Num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa
HAH
A-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa
HAH
A-num num
A-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
A-huh zoot a-huh
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
Num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
Deba uba zat zat
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
a-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
deba uba zat zat
HAH
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Duuh
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
HAH
A-num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
HAH
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
HOH
Hubba hubba zoot zoot
Hubba hubba mo-re mo-re
Deba uba zat zat a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-hoorepa hoorepa a-huh-hoorepa a-num num
A-num

(Thanks, Volodymyr.)

Community Spirit

Louisiana State University law professor Christine Alice Corcos points out that Ghostbusters, apart from being an entertaining comedy, also offers “a thoughtful introduction to environmental law and policy, suitable for discussion in a law school class.” For example, the team has no license for the containment unit in the basement of their firehouse:

The LLRWA sets forth extremely specific terms under which sites must be proposed, evaluated, and chosen. It also mandates environmental impact statements, which the Ghostbusters could not have prepared since they did not notify any agency of their activities. Additionally, the LLRWA guidelines require that the waste being stored, and the disposal site, be structurally stable. Apparently the psychic waste being stored does not meet Class B or C waste guidelines, nor does it seem to have the minimum stability required by any other class. As we see on Peck’s second visit to the facility, it is neither liquid nor solid, and if released will likely ignite or emit toxic vapors. Furthermore, storage is likely to be advisable not for 100 years, as with Class A and B wastes, but forever. However, under RCRA, the government need only show that the waste is hazardous within the statutory definition. The EPA might prefer to exercise this option for this particular case.

On the other hand, it’s EPA lawyer Walter Peck who orders the unit to be shut down, over the team’s protests. “Peck’s unilateral action may leave the EPA liable for suit by New York City residents under the Federal Tort Claims Act,” Corcos writes. “A successful suit would have to fall outside one of two exceptions to the federal government’s waiver of immunity. The discretionary function exception, exempts the acts and omissions of a government employee ‘exercising due care in the execution of a statute or regulation,’ or specific intentional torts, such as assault, battery and false imprisonment. Peck’s behavior in forcing the release of the psychic waste arguably falls within the battery exception, as would Venkman’s claim of malicious prosecution.”

(Christine Alice Corcos, “‘Who Ya Gonna C(S)ite?’: Ghostbusters and the Environmental Regulation Debate,” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law (1997): 231-272.) (Thanks, Mark.)

Cross Purposes

ferland crossword grid

The daily New York Times crossword puzzle fills a grid measuring 15×15. The smallest number of clues ever published in a Times puzzle is 52 (on Dec. 23, 2008), and the largest is 86 (on Jan. 21, 2005).

This set Bloomsburg University mathematician Kevin Ferland wondering: What are the theoretical limits? What are the shortest and longest clue lists that can inform a standard 15×15 crossword grid, using the standard structure rules (connectivity, symmetry, and 3-letter words minimum)?

The shortest is straightforward: A blank grid with no black squares will be filled with 30 15-letter words, 15 across and 15 down.

The longest is harder to determine, but after working out a nine-page proof Ferland found that the answer is 96: The largest number of clues that a Times-style crossword will admit is 96, using a grid such as the one above.

In honor of this result, he composed a puzzle using this grid — it appears in the June-July 2014 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly.

(Kevin K. Ferland, “Record Crossword Puzzles,” American Mathematical Monthly 121:6 [June-July 2014], 534-536.)

Fascinating Rhythm

The theme music for the British television series Inspector Morse starts with a motif based on the Morse code for the word Morse:

-- --- ·-· ··· ·

“It was just a little in-joke,” composer Barrington Pheloung told Essex Life & Countryside in 2001. “I put his name at the beginning and then it recurred all the way through.”

Encouraged, he carried the idea into subsequent episodes. “Sometimes I got a bit cheeky and spelled out the killer’s name in the episode. In the episode ‘WHOK,’ which was a bit of an enigma, the culprit was called Earle. So he got plastered all over the orchestra.” When viewers caught on to this, occasionally he’d insert another character’s name to fool them.

And sometimes he’d give them the slip entirely. When the episode aired in which the detective was due to reveal his first name, 20 million people tuned in to listen for clues in the music, and a national newspaper enlisted the Royal College of Signalling to decipher the notes. They found nothing. (The inspector’s name is Endeavour.)

(Thanks, Dave.)

UPDATE: In the same spirit, the theme to the 1970s British sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (below) spells out the series’ title in Morse code (minus the apostrophes). (Thanks, Nick.)

Take Two

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TheTwilightZoneLogo.png

Rod Serling’s original opening narration for The Twilight Zone read, “There is a sixth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, and it lies between the pit of man’s fear and the sunlight of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area that might be called The Twilight Zone.”

Producer Bill Self questioned the line There is a sixth dimension … “I said, ‘Rod, what is the fifth one?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. Aren’t there five?’ I said, ‘I can only think of four.’ So we rewrote it and rerecorded it and said, ‘There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man …'”

Asked how he came up with the title The Twilight Zone, Serling said, “I thought I’d made it up, but I’ve heard since that there is an Air Force term relating to a moment when a plane is coming down on approach and it cannot see the horizon. It’s called the twilight zone, but it’s an obscure term which I had not heard before.”

(From Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, 1982.)

DO IT NOW

ArnoldC, a language devised by Finnish computer programmer Lauri Hartikka, assigns programming functions to catch phrases from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Some keywords:

False: I LIED

True: NO PROBLEMO

If: BECAUSE I’M GOING TO SAY PLEASE

Else: BULLSHIT

EndIf: YOU HAVE NO RESPECT FOR LOGIC

While: STICK AROUND

EndWhile: CHILL

MultiplicationOperator: YOU’RE FIRED

DivisionOperator: HE HAD TO SPLIT

EqualTo: YOU ARE NOT YOU YOU ARE ME

GreaterThan: LET OFF SOME STEAM BENNET

Or: CONSIDER THAT A DIVORCE

And: KNOCK KNOCK

DeclareMethod: LISTEN TO ME VERY CAREFULLY

MethodArguments: I NEED YOUR CLOTHES YOUR BOOTS AND YOUR MOTORCYCLE

Return: I’LL BE BACK

EndMethodDeclaration: HASTA LA VISTA, BABY

AssignVariableFromMethodCall: GET YOUR ASS TO MARS

ReadInteger: I WANT TO ASK YOU A BUNCH OF QUESTIONS AND I WANT TO HAVE THEM ANSWERED IMMEDIATELY

AssignVariable: GET TO THE CHOPPER

SetValue: HERE IS MY INVITATION

EndAssignVariable: ENOUGH TALK

ParseError: WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO WRONG

This program prints the string “hello world”:

IT'S SHOWTIME
TALK TO THE HAND "hello world"
YOU HAVE BEEN TERMINATED

More on GitHub.

In a Word

sesquialteral
adj. half again as large

improcerous
adj. not tall

Born in 1915, giant Henry M. Mullins partnered with Tommy Lowe and little Stanley Rosinski to form the vaudeville act Lowe, Hite and Stanley. Of Mullins, who stood 7’6-3/4″ and weighed 280 pounds, doctor Charles D. Humberd said, “It is indeed amazing to watch so vast a personage doing a whirlwind acrobatic act. … He dances, fast and furiously, and engages in a comedy knock-about ‘business’ that would be found strenuous by any trained ‘Physical culturist.’ … He is alert, intelligent, well read, affable and friendly.” The act continued until Rosinski’s death in 1962.

A Jump Ahead

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marion_Tinsley.jpg

Mathematician Marion Tinsley lost only seven games of checkers in a career that spanned 45 years. Between 1950 and 1995, he took first place in every tournament in which he played. “Dr. Tinsley has taken the game beyond what anybody else ever conceived,” International Checkers Hall of Fame founder Charles Walker told Sports Illustrated in 1992. “No one presumed to think they could beat him.”

His last and best opponent was a machine, Chinook, designed by University of Alberta computer scientist Jonathan Schaeffer. When the American Checkers Federation refused to let a machine play for the championship in 1990, the sporting Tinsley resigned his crown and immediately accepted the match.

He won 4-2, with 33 draws. In one game, after the program had played its 10th move, Tinsley said, “You’re going to regret that.” Chinook resigned 26 moves later, and in the ensuing analysis Schaeffer found that Tinsley had looked 64 moves ahead to find the only winning strategy. (When asked for the source of his advantage, Tinsley, a lay preacher, said, “I’ve got a better programmer — God.”)

But the machine kept improving, and Tinsley’s health began to fail. He had to withdraw after six draws in their 1994 rematch, and he died of pancreatic cancer shortly afterward at age 68.

Chinook has since solved the game — after 18 years of thinking, it produced a map that would show it a non-losing move in any situation. In principle, at least, the computer is now invincible — the best a human can hope for is a draw.

This might have disappointed Tinsley, who played not for supremacy but for a love of the game. “Checkers can get quite a hold on you,” he said. “Its beauty is just overwhelming — the mathematics, the elegance, the precision. It’s capable of wrapping you all up.”

In a Word

advolution
n. a rolling toward

“The ball was my idea,” said Steven Spielberg of the boulder that threatens Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I don’t even know where I came up with it — it might have been deeply in my subconscious from something I saw when I was a kid — but I just said, ‘You know, at some point some huge boulder should start chasing Indy, and it almost squashes him three or four times until he gets out of the cave.'”

The scene was shot 10 times, with the crew replacing fallen stalactites each time. “I didn’t know it was gonna look as good as it did until the day [production designer] Norman Reynolds showed me that he had actually made a boulder that was something like 22 feet in circumference,” Spielberg said. “So I didn’t have Harrison step in the shot until I was completely convinced it was safe. Once we’d rehearsed it several times with a stuntman, Harrison did every shot himself.”

When Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had met in January 1978 to brainstorm ideas, it was quickly clear that Lucas already had an articulate vision of the story. At one point Kasdan asked Lucas why he didn’t direct the film himself. He said, “Because then I’d never get to see it.”

(From J.W. Rinzler, The Complete Making of Indiana Jones, 2008.)

Higher Mammals

http://www.cuppafame.com/#!rv;g=p-GB190408713A;t=Patent;backtoken=searchresult

In 1904 Belgian circus manager Eduard Wulff patented an apparatus “whereby living animals, such as horses, elephants, monkeys etc., are readily thrown into space for the purpose of causing same to take a somersault or so-called salto-mortale.”

It’s pretty simple: A “throwing plate” (3) is clamped over a stationary base (1), compressing two powerful arched springs (6). The animal is fitted with a corset which is attached by rings to four supporting standards (7). Wulff emphasizes that the animal should be nearly hanging on the standards, with its feet barely contacting the base. “Otherwise the animal would cling with the legs, which would be objectionable.”

The user pulls a lever, releasing the throwing plate, and “the animal will be caused to turn in space and perform a so-called salto-mortale.” Fair enough. He says nothing about landing.

Return to Sender

Mathematician Yutaka Nishiyama of the Osaka University of Economics has designed a nifty paper boomerang that you can use indoors. A free PDF template (with instructions in 70 languages!) is here.

Hold it vertically, like a paper airplane, and throw it straight ahead at eye level, snapping your wrist as you release it. The greater the spin, the better the performance. It should travel 3-4 meters in a circle and return in 1-2 seconds. Catch it between your palms.

Catch as Catch Can

Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, took an active interest in juggling. He used to juggle balls while riding a unicycle through the halls of Bell Laboratories, and he built the first juggling robot from an Erector set in the 1970s. (The machine above mimics W.C. Fields, who himself juggled in vaudeville before turning to comedy.)

Noting that juggling seems to appeal to mathematics-minded people, Shannon offered the following theorem:

claude shannon juggling theorem

F is flight time, the time the ball spends in the air
D is “dwell time,” the time it spends in the hand
V is vacancy, the time a hand spends empty
B is the number of balls
H is the number of hands

“Theorem 1 allows one to calculate the range of possible periods (time between hand throws) for a given type of uniform juggle and a given time of flight,” he wrote. “A juggler can change this period, while keeping the height of his throws fixed, by increasing dwell time (to increase the period) or reducing dwell time to reduce the period. The total mathematical range available for a given flight time can be obtained by setting D = 0 for minimum range and V = 0 for maximum range in Theorem 1. The ratio of these two extremes is independent of the flight time and dependent only on the number of balls and hands.”

To measure dwell times, Shannon actually created a “jugglometer” in which a juggler wore copper mesh over his fingers and juggled foil-covered lacrosse balls; catching the ball closed a connection between the fingers and started a clock. “Preliminary results from testing a few jugglers indicate that, with ball juggling, vacant time is normally less than dwell time, V ranging in our measurements from fifty to seventy per cent of D.”

Shannon noted that juggling gets dramatically harder as the number of balls increases. He worked out a foolproof solution, at least in theory. A light ray that starts at one focus of an ellipse will be reflected to the other focus. If the ellipse is rotated around its major axis, it will create an egglike shell with two foci. Now if a juggler stands with a hand at each focus, then a ball thrown from either hand, in any direction, will bounce off the shell and arrive at the other hand!

(“Scientific Aspects of Juggling,” in Claude Elwood Shannon: Collected Papers, 1993.)

Hooverball

http://hoover.archives.gov/education/hooverball.html

Herbert Hoover weighed 200 pounds when he entered the White House in 1929. He couldn’t spare time for golf or tennis, so physician Joel Boone invented a game called Hooverball that could give him a strenuous workout in the minimum time.

On a tennis-like court, two teams of three players throw a 6-pound medicine ball back and forth over an 8-foot net. Sports Illustrated noted, “This cannot be accomplished graciously.” Rules:

  1. The ball is served from the back line.
  2. The ball must be caught in the air and immediately thrown back from the point where it was caught. It cannot be carried or passed.
  3. Points are scored when a team fails to catch the ball, fails to throw it across the net, or throws the ball out of bounds.
  4. A ball caught in the front half of one team’s court must be thrown to the back half of the opponents’ court. If it doesn’t reach the back court, the opponents score a point.
  5. Scoring is exactly like tennis. The serve rotates among one team’s members until a game is won, then passes to the other team.
  6. A ball that hits the line is good.
  7. A player who catches the ball out of bounds can return to the court before throwing it back.
  8. A ball that hits the net but passes over is a live ball.
  9. Teams can make substitutions when the ball is dead.

Hoover played with his friends at 7 a.m. every day, even in snow. The regulars included the president, Boone, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, and journalists such as Mark Sullivan and William Hard. Talking shop was forbidden, and after the game they gathered on the White House lawn for juice and coffee.

“The regimen worked well for the president,” writes biographer Glen Jeansonn. “By the end of the term he had firmed up and slimmed down to 179 pounds. … Hoover looked forward to the games and the camaradarie, although he did not like rising quite so early. But the games were energizing and he began each day refreshed and relaxed.”

The Hoover Presidential Foundation, which co-hosts a national championship each year, has a complete set of rules.

Small Wonder

Playing baseball for the St. Louis Browns, Eddie Gaedel had a career on-base percentage of 1.000, but most people have never heard of him.

Why? Because he had only one at-bat. Gaedel was a dwarf signed by the Browns as a publicity stunt in 1951. He had a legitimate contract, so the umpire had to let him play, but since he was only 3’7″, his strike zone measured an inch and a half.

“Three thoughts went through my mind that day,” said Frank Saucier, for whom Gaedel was pinch-hitting. “One, this is more like a carnival or a circus than a professional baseball game. Two, this is the greatest bit of showmanship I’ve ever seen. Three, this is the easiest money I’ll ever make.”

Tigers pitcher Bob Cain threw four balls, all high. The Tigers won 6-2, but Gaedel got a standing ovation. “For a minute,” he said, “I felt like Babe Ruth.” Today his jersey (number “1/8”) hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball,” wrote Browns owner Bill Veeck, who had cooked up the scheme. “He was also the only one.”

In a Word

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

asmatographer
n. a composer of songs

While on the road with his 1927 musical Funny Face, George Gershwin left “two notebooks containing at least forty tunes” in a hotel room in Wilmington, Del. “After calling the hotel and learning the notebooks could not be located, he did not seem greatly perturbed,” wrote his brother and lyricist, Ira. “His attitude is that he can always write new ones.”

George was a songwriting machine, always at work. “I can think of no more nerve-wracking, no more mentally arduous task than making music,” he said in 1930. “There are times when a phrase of music will cost many hours of internal sweating.” Though he would sometimes try ideas at the piano, he insisted that “the actual composition must be done in the brain” — the fifth and final version of “Strike Up the Band” came to him in bed, and he heard, and even saw on paper, the complete construction of Rhapsody in Blue while riding a train from New York to Boston. “Like a pugilist,” he once said, “the songwriter must always keep in training.”

Ira’s struggle was less apparent. While working on lyrics he would wander the room, singing to himself or playing the piano with one finger. A new maid once asked his wife, “Don’t Mr. Gershwin never go to work?”

Fiction and Feeling

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Green_Slime_(1968_movie_poster).jpg

A puzzle from University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton:

“Charles is watching a horror movie about a terrible green slime. He cringes in his seat as the slime oozes slowly but relentlessly over the earth, destroying everything in its path. Soon a greasy head emerges from the undulating mas, and two beady eyes fix on the camera. The slime, picking up speed, oozes on a new course straight toward the viewers. Charles emits a shriek and clutches desperately at his chair. Afterwards, still shaken, he confesses that he was ‘terrified’ of the slime.”

Was he? Walton says no. Charles may have felt intense fear, even shrieking as the slime approached the camera. But he knew that he was not literally in danger. This was not a half-belief or a “gut” feeling — he never considered leaving the theater or calling the police, for instance. Charles wasn’t motivated to avoid the slime physically. Yet he says that what he felt was fear of the slime.

What are we to make of this? “This issue is of fundamental importance,” Walton writes. “It is crucially related to the basic question of why and how fiction is important, why we find it valuable, why we do not dismiss novels, films, and plays as ‘mere fiction’ and hence unworthy of serious attention.” What is the answer?

(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” Journal of Philosophy, January 1978.)