The Bat Bomb

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Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.

Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.

Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”

Testament

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In July 1945, a former inhabitant of Poland’s Lódz ghetto, Avraham Benkel, returned to find his home in ruins. Lódz had been the last of 200 ghettos in German-occupied Poland, and as the war neared its conclusion tens of thousands of its inhabitants had been deported to death camps. When the Red Army reached it in January, only 877 survivors remained.

In the abandoned building next door to his own, Benkel found a book, François Coppée’s The Truly Rich, on whose endpages and margins an anonymous boy had kept a diary of his ordeal:

June 1, 1944: “I just finished my ‘loaf, which I had to have for eight days; today is the third. It may turn [out] to be lethal for me to behave in such a manner, but my will-power is so weakened and my ever increasing appetite so strong that I can’t help it. Is there no bread, dry unsavoury bread enough for me and my fellow-sufferers in this world?”

July 10, 1944: “I am exhausted, I have no more patience, my nerves are frayed. What I do have is an indescribable disgust toward the world and mankind, toward the masses and people, toward doctrines and dogmas. I do not believe, I do not believe in any change in the world, no! Anyone who can sink as low as the modern man has can be nothing more than an unsuccessful experiment of nature, which certainly regrets it!”

July 20, 1944: “I feel such a need to open my diary and to write in order to ease my bitter heart, about what hell we go through, how terribly we suffer. During the time when we had literally nothing to eat, we were willing to believe that the physical annihilation of men, women, and children of our nation had appeased the blond beast. But now it looks as if they have not had enough, and that they want to satisfy their thirst with the blood of the innocent.”

Almost nothing is known about the boy’s identity, age, background, schooling, or fate. Only the verb forms in his entries tell us that he was male. In all likelihood he was deported to Auschwitz as the Russians closed in.

“My God, why do you allow them to say that you are neutral?” he wrote in a final, undated entry. “Why will you not punish, with all your wrath, those who are destroying us? Are we the sinners and they the righteous? Is that the truth? Surely you are intelligent enough to understand that is it not so, that we are not the sinners and they are not the Messiah!”

(From Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, 2002.)

Shell Sense

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In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes a battlefield reflex that is “far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness”:

A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down. But had he not abandoned himself to the impulse he would now be a heap of mangled flesh. It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how.

Apparently this was a real phenomenon, at least in World War I. Stephen Foot, a British officer who spent three years on the western front, writes in his 1934 memoir Three Lives:

It was about this time that I suddenly realised that I had become acclimatised to shell fire; not that I liked or had ceased to fear it, but that I was able to discriminate between a shell that was coming near and one that was far enough away not to worry about. Some officers recently arrived from England were responsible. They were in charge of one of the working parties, and while we were standing in a group, not far from Plug Street, we heard the whine of a German shell. I looked instinctively in the direction of the church to see the usual cloud of dust and stones, and at the same time I realised that the officers with me had ducked. I was certainly no braver than they were — quite the contrary; but my ear had somehow become attuned, so that as soon as the first sound was heard I knew approximately where the shell would burst.

Foot calls this sense “a great relief to one’s nervous system” and speculates that the worst cases of nervous breakdown occurred in men who didn’t have it. “One cannot explain it,” Remarque wrote. “If it were not so, there would not be one man alive from Flanders to the Vosges.”

Misc

  • What time is it at the North Pole?
  • The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
  • After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
  • 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
  • PRICES: CRIPES!
  • “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial

When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.

The Richardson Effect

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

How long is a coastline? If we measure with a long yardstick, we get one answer, but as we shorten the scale the total length goes up. For certain mathematical shapes, indeed, it goes up without limit.

English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson discovered this perplexing result in the early 20th century while examining the relationship between the lengths of national boundaries and the likelihood of war. If the Spanish claim that the length of their border with Portugal is 987 km, and the Portuguese say it’s 1,214 km, who’s right? The ambiguity arises because a wiggly boundary occupies a fractional dimension — it’s something between a line and a surface.

“At one extreme, D = 1.00 for a frontier that looks straight on the map,” Richardson wrote. “For the other extreme, the west coast of Britain was selected because it looks like one of the most irregular in the world; it was found to give D = 1.25.”

This is a mathematical notion, but it’s also a practical problem. On the fjord-addled panhandle of Alaska, the boundary with British Columbia was originally defined as “formed by a line parallel to the winding of the coast.” Who gets to define that? On the map below, the United States claimed the blue border, Canada wanted the red one, and British Columbia claimed the green. The yellow border was arbitrated in 1903.

alaska panhandle dispute

A Horrid Coincidence

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In April 1819 the French slave ship Rodeur set sail for Guadeloupe from the Bight of Biafra with a crew of 22 men and 162 slaves. After 15 days, a disease of the eyes appeared among the slaves in the hold. The heartless captain threw 36 slaves overboard, but the illness soon spread to the crew, and eventually everyone on board except for a single man was blind.

And then came one of the most remarkable incidents in the history of sea commerce. As the Rodeur was crawling along with this one man at the helm, another ship, with all sails set, was seen. That was a glad moment on the Rodeur, and she was quickly headed for the stranger, hoping to get men who could navigate the ship. Drawing near, the Rodeur’s lone helmsman observed that the stranger was steering wildly, and that no one could be seen on board. But the moment the Rodeur had arrived within hailing distance men came to the stranger’s rail, and in frantic tones said that every one on board had become blind, and begged for the help that the Rodeur had come to secure. The stranger was the Spanish slaver Leon.

That’s from journalist John Randolph Spears, who wrote a history of the American slave trade at the turn of the century. This is such a horrible story that I hoped it was just folklore, but it’s borne out in the inquiries that followed and commemorated in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Slave-Ships”:

“Help us! for we are stricken
With blindness every one;
Ten days we’ve floated fearfully,
Unnoting star or sun.
Our ship’s the slaver Leon,–
We’ve but a score on board;
Our slaves are all gone over,–
Help, for the love of God!”

On livid brows of agony
The broad red lightning shone;
But the roar of wind and thunder
Stifled the answering groan;
Wailed from the broken waters
A last despairing cry,
As, kindling in the stormy light,
The stranger ship went by.

Unable to help one another, the two ships parted. On June 21 the Rodeur reached Guadaloupe, where the last man went blind. The Leon passed into the Atlantic and was never seen again.

In a Word

periplus
n. a circumnavigation, an epic journey, an odyssey

In 1505 Ferdinand Magellan sailed east to Malaysia, where he acquired a slave named Enrique who accompanied him on his subsequent westward circumnavigation of the globe. When that expedition reached the Philippines, Enrique escaped, and his fate is lost to history. That’s intriguing: If he managed to travel the few hundred remaining miles to his homeland, then he was the first person in history to circumnavigate the earth.

Things to Come

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In May 1861, barely three weeks after the start of the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln received a letter from Helen Rauschnabel of Rochester, N.Y., relating “a remarkable dream I had last night about Mr. Lincoln which I think has a significant meaning.”

I dreamed it stormed & thunderd & lightned terribly, it seemed as tho the Heavens & Earth were coming together, but it soon ceased, still there seemed to be very dark clouds sailing thro the horison, I thought I stood pensively viewing the scene, when a man resembling Mr Lincoln appeard standing erect in the firmament with a book in his hand, he stood as near as I could calculate over the City of Washington, his head seemed reard above the lightnings flash and thunder bolt, the sun seemed to be just rising in the East, and its rays shed a soft mellow light around about him, beneath his feet rolled dark & heavy clouds which the sun light was fast dispeling, I saw him walk thro all the Southern part of the horison with a book in one hand, & a pen in the other.

“When he got to the western part of the firmament he made a halt & stood erect,” she remembered. “He was crowned with honors & coverd with Laurels, and looked very smiling.” She found herself singing a verse, which she remembered when she awoke and committed to paper: “A voice from the North has proclaimed the glad Morn / And Slavery is ended & Freedom is born / The fair Sunny South is restor’d one more / Secession is ended & Slavery is ore.”

Presidential Wordplay

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In 1936, as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for re-election against Republican Alf Landon, a group from Wall Street’s financial district sponsored a competition to find the best anagram for FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. The winner was VOTE FOR LANDON ERE ALL SINK.

During the 1980 campaign, Jimmy Carter was accused of reversing his position on several issues to maintain his popularity. Edward Scher of New York University coined the palindrome TO LAST, CARTER RETRACTS A LOT.

Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan, who inspired Howard Bergerson to compose a “press conference” in 1982 using only the letters in RONALD WILSON REAGAN. Here the Gipper describes his foreign policy:

We are sworn nonaggressors; we need law and order, we disallow war as lawless and senseless, and in a larger sense we also regard war as, now and again, needed. A needed war is no dead end or swan song, nor need we ride in war as no-good sinners on genderless geldings! We need androgens and derring-do! We need Old Glories, and seasoned soldiers garrisoned worldwide, generals in golden regalia, and raised dander! We need all-seeing, world-girdling radar, seagoing sonar and liaison ensigns, newer DEW lines and earlier NORAD warnings, larger arsenals and deadlier arrows in silos, R-and-D on lasers, and goodlier anger! We need no ring-a-ding dissensions and wild-goose rallies, nor do we need addled ding-a-ling diagnoses on wielding dread winged swords and daggers — or on wielding God’s own grenades! Ordained grenadiers alone assess, and ordained godlings alone will wield Gold’s sidereal grenades riding on Odin’s arrows. Godless Leningrad warlords and roodless, religionless Red warriors sold on Red-engendered Warsaw agreeings are as sidling sidewinders in loose sand! In nine innings (I disdain gridiron analogies) we will win — no one is dawdling! We are leaning on oars! We and God will engage all Red raiders, and, God willing, we will win odds-on! No one dragoons or goads God!

Reagan’s name can also be rearranged to spell INSANE ANGLO WARLORD.