Oddities

A Disturbing Dinner

When British traveler Richard Gordon Smith reached Japan’s Lake Biwa in 1906, he asked a local cook whether he could prepare the rare dish koi-no-ikizukuri (“a carp cut up alive”), which had been offered at nobles’ feasts in ancient times. The cook, delighted, brought in a red lacquered tray decorated to resemble the sea bottom. On it lay a carp that opened and shut its mouth and gills as if it were swimming in water. “The dish was really pretty in spite of the gasping fish which, however, showed no pain, and there was not a sign of blood or a cut.” But “Now we are ready,” said the cook, and he dribbled some soy sauce into the fish’s eye:

The effect was not instantaneous: it took a full two minutes as the cook sat over him, chopsticks in hand. All of a sudden and to my unutterable astonishment, the fish gave a convulsive gasp, flicked its tail and flung the whole of its skin on one side of its body over, exposing the underneath of the stomach parts, skinned; the back was cut into pieces about an inch square and a quarter of an inch thick, ready for pulling out and eating.

“Never in my life have I seen a more barbarous or cruel thing,” Smith wrote, “not even the scenes at Spanish bull fights. Egawa [his interpreter] is a delicate-stomached person and as he could eat none, neither could I. It would be simply like taking bites out of a large live fish. I took the knife from my belt and immediately separated the fish’s neck vertebrae, much to the cook’s astonishment and perhaps disgust.” He asked them to take it away. “You have certainly operated beautifully,” he said, “but the sooner a law is brought in to prevent such cruelty the better.”

(From Travels in the Land of the Gods: The Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith, 1986.)

Podcast Episode 59: The Wizard of Mauritius

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coucher_de_Soleil_(Flic_en_Flac,_Ile_Maurice).jpg

In 1764 a French engineer on a tiny African island claimed that he could see ships beyond the horizon. In today’s show we’ll review the strange story of Étienne Bottineau and consider the evidence for his claims to have invented a new art.

We’ll also ponder a 400-year-old levitation trick and puzzle over why throwing a beer can at someone might merit a promotion.

Sources for our feature on nauscopie, the purported art of apprehending ships below the horizon:

Rupert T. Gould, Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts, 1928.

Sir David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1832.

J. Gregory Dill, “The Lost Art of Nauscopie,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003 (retrieved May 17, 2015).

Mike Dash, “Naval Gazing: The Enigma of Étienne Bottineau,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 13, 2011 (retrieved May 17, 2015).

Chicago Tribune, “The Science of Nauscopie,” Nov. 7, 1869.

Greg’s post on Samuel Pepy’s “lifting experiment” appeared on Futility Closet on March 22, 2008. Further sources for that segment:

Sir David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1832.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 31, 1665.

Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things Selected from “Notes and Queries,” 1857.

Notes & Queries, July 3, 1852 (the original query).

Notes & Queries, July 24, 1852 (Brewster offers his impressions).

“Non-Wist,” “Phenomenon of Levity in the Human Subject,” The Zoist, January 1852.

Two YouTube videos illustrate the modern technique: one, two

The YouTube discussion mentioned in this week’s lateral thinking puzzle is here (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Asleep Awake

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

At age 13 Marie-Jean-Léon Lecoq, Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, discovered a rare talent: He could recognize a dream state while he was experiencing it, and could move and act lucidly within the dream. Eventually he filled 25 notebooks with descriptions and illustrations of his adventures in the dream world. These are now lost, but his 1867 book Les Rêves et les Moyens de Les Diriger describes some of his feats:

I change a porcelain vase into a rock-crystal fountain, from which I desire a cooling drink — and this immediately flows out through a golden tap. Some years ago I lost a particular ring whose loss I felt deeply. The memory of it comes to mind, and I should like to find it. I utter this wish, fixing my attention on a piece of coal that I pick up from the fireplace — and immediately the ring is on my finger. The dream continues in the same way until one of the apparitions I have called up charms and captivates me so much that I forget my magician’s role and plunge into a new, more realistic series of illusions.

Saint-Denys believed that almost anyone could learn to do this. One of his suggestions was to keep a dream diary and to make a daily habit of completing it. Like the rest of the student’s life, this habit would then itself become the raw material for his dreams — eventually he would dream of recording a dream. And if he noted the details of a dream he was recording, he would virtually be dreaming lucidly, having smuggled himself into his own slumbers.

True Colors

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Denmark.svg

In the early 1900s, Prussian authorities forbade Danes living in North Frisia from raising the Danish flag, above.

So they bred flag-colored pigs, below. The “Danish protest pig” was probably developed by crossbreeding Jutlandian and Holsteinian marsh pigs, red individuals from the Angeln Saddleback breed, and Tamworth pigs from England. Only around 140 individuals exist worldwide, but Schleswig-Holstein is trying to preserve the breed for its cultural value.

A 17th-Century Hiccup Cure

In his 1607 Rich Storehouse, or Treasurie for the Diseased, Matthew Blower offers “a present medicine for the hickop”:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine ears very hard, and the hickop will surcease immediately.

I found this in Julian Walker’s How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies (2013), a collection of historical cures for various maladies. He says, “I tried it, and it worked.”

Second Thoughts

We’re told that we can’t change the past, but what about the case of retroactive pronouncements? On July 23, 2000, Lance Armstrong was declared the winner of the Tour de France — he completed the race with the lowest overall time, and his win was certified by the Union du Cyclisme Internationale. If on Christmas Day 2002 a friend of ours said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we would feel that this statement was true.

On Oct. 22, 2012, after determining that Armstrong had used banned substances, the UCI withdrew all of his wins at the Tour de France. If on Christmas Day 2012 our friend said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we’d feel that this statement was false.

“This means that, in moving from Context A to Context B, the past (of the actual world) has changed,” write Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete in the January issue of Analysis. “The year 2000 had a certain property on Christmas 2002, but did not have that property on Christmas 2012 any longer.”

“One should then stop asking whether the past can change and start to inquire on how to make sense of this. We leave this task to a future paper — unless the future changes.”

(Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete, “The Puzzle of the Changing Past,” Analysis, January 2015.)

The Seventh Art Cinema

http://www.kaupokikkas.com/blog/2014/3/7/end-of-the-world-cinema

In the late 1990s, Frenchman Diynn Eadel set out to build an immense open-air movie theater in the desert near Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. He arranged financing in Paris and installed projection equipment, 700 cinema seats, and a generator in the desert.

Unfortunately, the theater was shut down by Egyptian authorities before its planned opening in October 1997. The reasons aren’t clear. It was largely forgotten until Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas rediscovered it in 2014.

“Dynn Eadel with Seventh Art attempts to prove that tourism is not necessarily a destructive element and that The Great Theatre of Nature can reconcile us with the elements,” reads an old flyer for the project. “When will be the first Sinai International Film Festival?”

No Vacancy

A seeming paradox by Mitsunobu Matsuyama. Rotating the colored panels about their centers seems to change the area of the square. How is this possible?

Two in One

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

Look at this image closely and you’ll see the features of Albert Einstein.

But look at it from across a room and you’ll see Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a “hybrid image,” created using a technique developed by Aude Oliva of MIT and Philippe Schyns of the University of Glasgow. The image combines the low spatial frequencies of one picture with the high spatial frequencies of another, so that it’s processed differently at different viewing distances.

See their paper for the details, and this gallery for more examples.

Podcast Episode 55: The Dyatlov Pass Incident

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dyatlov_Pass_incident_02.jpg

On February 1, 1959, something terrifying overtook nine student ski-hikers in the northern Ural Mountains. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount what is known about the incident at Dyatlov Pass and try to make sense of the hikers’ harrowing final night.

We’ll also hear how Dwight Eisenhower might have delivered the Gettysburg Address and puzzle over why signing her name might entitle a woman to a lavish new home.

Sources for our feature on the Dyatlov Pass incident:

Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2013.

“Yuri Yudin,” Daily Telegraph, April 30, 2013, 25.

http://www.ermaktravel.org/Europe/Russia/Cholat-%20Syachil/Kholat%20Syakhl.htm

Here’s the investigators’ description of the hikers’ tent as it was discovered:

“Tent site is located on the Northeastern slope of mountain 1079 (Kholat Syakhl official term) meters at the mouth of river Auspiya. Tent site is located 300 meters from the top of the mountain 1079 with a slope of 30°. Test site consists of a pad, levelled by snow, the bottom of which are contains 8 pairs of skis (for tent support and insulation). Tent is stretched on poles and fixed with ropes. On the bottom of the tent 9 backpacks were discovered with various personal items, jackets, rain coats, 9 pairs of shoes. There were also found men’s pants, and three pairs of boots, warm fur coats, socks, hat, ski caps, utensils, buckets, stove, ax, saw, blankets, food: biscuits in two bags, condensed milk, sugar, concentrates, notebooks, itinerary and many other small items and documents, camera and accessories to a camera. The nature and form of all (…) lesions suggest that they were formed by contact with the canvas inside of the tent with the blade of some weapon (presumably a knife).”

http://www.ermaktravel.org/Europe/Russia/Cholat-%20Syachil/Kholat%20Syakhl.htm

This is the final exposure in hiker Yuri Krivonishchenko’s camera. Possibly the image was exposed on the final night, or possibly weeks afterward, inadvertently, by technicians. Lead investigator Lev Ivanov wrote that the hikers’ cameras gave him “abundant information based on negative density, film speed … and aperture and exposure settings,” but that they did not “answer the main question — what was the reason of escape from the tent.”

Here’s journalist Oliver Jensen’s rendering of the Gettysburg Address in “Eisenhowese.” Jensen provided his original to Dwight Macdonald for his 1961 collection Parodies: An Anthology. “The version below is the original as given me by Jensen, with two or three variations in which The New Republic‘s version [of June 17, 1957] seemed to me to have added a turn of the screw”:

I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual. Well, now, of course, we are dealing with this big difference of opinion, civil disturbance you might say, although I don’t like to appear to take sides or name any individuals, and the point is naturally to check up, by actual experience in the field, to see whether any governmental set-up with a basis like the one I was mentioning has any validity and find out whether that dedication by those early individuals will pay off in lasting values and things of that kind.

Well, here we are, at the scene where one of these disturbances between different sides got going. We want to pay our tribute to those loved ones, those departed individuals who made the supreme sacrifice here on the basis of their opinions about how this thing ought to be handled. And I would say this. It is absolutely in order to do this.

But if you look at the over-all picture of this, we can’t pay any tribute — we can’t sanctify this area, you might say — we can’t hallow according to whatever individual creeds or faiths or sort of religious outlooks are involved like I said about this particular area. It was those individuals themselves, including the enlisted men, very brave individuals, who have given this religious character to the area. The way I see it, the rest of the world will not remember any statements issued here but it will never forget how these men put their shoulders to the wheel and carried this idea down the fairway.

Now frankly, our job, the living individuals’ job here, is to pick up the burden and sink the putt they made these big efforts here for. It is our job to get on with the assignment — and from these deceased fine individuals to take extra inspiration, you could call it, for the same theories about the set-up for which they made such a big contribution. We have to make up our minds right here and now, as I see it, that they didn’t put out all that blood, perspiration and — well — that they didn’t just make a dry run here, and that all of us here, under God, that is, the God of our choice, shall beef up this idea about freedom and liberty and those kind of arrangements, and that government of all individuals, by all individuals and for the individuals, shall not pass out of the world-picture.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Tyler St. Clare (conceived by his friend Matt Moore).

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!

Podcast Episode 53: The Lost Colony

https://books.google.com/books?id=eu1neCSs4RsC&pg=PA254

It’s been called America’s oldest mystery: A group of 100 English colonists vanished from North Carolina’s Roanoke Island shortly after settling there in 1587. But was their disappearance really so mysterious? In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the history of the “lost colony” and consider what might have happened to the settlers.

We’ll also visit an early steam locomotive in 1830 and puzzle over why writing a letter might prove to be fatal.

Sources for our feature on the lost colony at Roanoke:

James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2011.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 2007.

Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America, 2011.

Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, 2013.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_passenger_railway_1830.jpg

Fanny Kemble wrote of her encounter with an early locomotive in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1830 (“A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies”). It appears in her 1878 memoir Records of a Girlhood.

She sat alongside engineer George Stephenson, who explained his great project and with whom she fell “horribly in love.” At one point on their 15-mile journey they passed through a rocky defile:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Blaine, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

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!

Podcast Episode 52: Moving Day in New York

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

For centuries, May 1 brought chaos to New York, as most tenants had to move on the same day, clogging the streets with harried people and all their belongings. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the colorful history of “Moving Day” and wonder how it lasted through two centuries.

We’ll also recount some surprising escapes from sinking ships and puzzle over a burglar’s ingenuity.

Sources for our feature on Moving Day, New York City’s historic custom of changing residence on May 1:

Kenneth A. Scherzer, The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1875, 1992.

Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850, 1991.

William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs … Illustrated, 1897.

“Expressmen and Cartmen’s Charges — The Laws Relative Thereto,” New York Times, April 14, 1870.

“Rich Are Homeless This Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 1, 1919.

“Rain Adds to Gloom of City Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1919.

“May 1 Moving Rush a Thing of the Past,” New York Times, May 2, 1922.

In 1890 the New York Times published a list of the maximum prices that city ordinances permitted cartmen to charge:

http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/library/alumni/online_exhibits/digital/2007/moving_day/images/015_lg.gif

Sources for our feature on oddities in maritime disasters:

“Andrea Doria Tragedy Recalled by the Survivors,” Associated Press, July 24, 1981.

“A Remarkable Maritime Disaster,” Scientific American, Nov. 24, 1888.

“A Remarkable Collision,” New Zealand Herald, July 26, 1884.

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

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!

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.)

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!

Duty Calls

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

In May 1905 British MP Sir Gilbert Parker insisted that he had seen the astral body of Sir Crane Rasch in the House of Commons while Rasch was ill at home.

Sir Arthur Hayter supported him: “I beg to say that I not only saw Sir Carne Rasch myself sitting below the gangway but I called him to the attention of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, with whom I was talking on the front opposition bench, saying I wondered why all the papers had inserted notices of Sir Carne’s illness while he was sitting opposite, apparently quite well. Sir Henry replied that he hoped his illness was not catching.”

Rasch declared later that he had never left his room.

“It seems that this is not the first instance of the sort that has occurred in the House,” noted the New York Sun. “In 1897 Mr. O’Connor, an Irish member, went to Ireland to be present at the deathbed of one of his parents. Swift McNeill saw his wraith in his usual seat on the third opposition bench. It was also seen from the press gallery.”

Animal Spirits

Football fans found an unlikely oracle during the 2008 European championship: an octopus named Paul. Before each match his keepers at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, would lower two boxes of food into his tank, each bearing the flag of an upcoming competitor. Surprisingly, Paul correctly chose the winner in four of Germany’s six games.

When some observers expressed skepticism, Paul went on to pick the winners of all seven of Germany’s World Cup games in 2010, as well as the final between Spain and the Netherlands, giving him an overall success rate of 85 percent.

Competitors sprang up around the world, including a Singaporean parakeet, a German parrot, and a saltwater crocodile named Dirty Harry, who predicted the result of Australia’s general election by snatching a chicken carcass dangling beneath a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.

(Thanks, Lauren.)

Chinese Magic Mirrors

During China’s Han dynasty, artisans began casting solid bronze mirrors with a perplexing property. The front of each mirror was a polished, reflective surface, and the back featured a design that had been cast into the bronze. But if light were cast from the mirrored side onto a wall, the design would appear there as if by magic.

The mirrors first came to the attention of the West in the early 19th century, and their secret eluded investigators for 100 years until British physicist William Bragg worked it out in 1932. Each mirror had been cast flat with the design on the reverse side, giving the disk a varying thickness. As the front was polished to produce a convex mirror, the thinner parts of the disk bulged outward slightly. These imperfections are invisible to direct inspection; as Bragg wrote, “Only the magnifying effect of reflection makes them plain.”

Joseph Needham, the historian of ancient Chinese science, calls this “the first step on the road to knowledge about the minute structure of metal surfaces.”

Podcast Episode 49: Can a Kitten Climb the Matterhorn?


In 1950 newspapers around the world reported that a 10-month-old kitten had climbed the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll wonder whether even a very determined kitty could accomplish such a feat.

We’ll also marvel at a striking demonstration of dolphin intelligence and puzzle over a perplexed mechanic.

My own original post about Matt, the kitten who climbed the Matterhorn, appeared on Dec. 17, 2011. Reader Stephen Wilson directed me to this page, which rehearses the original London Times story (from Sept. 7, 1950) and adds a confirming account from a Times reader that appeared on Sept. 10, 1975.

Further sources:

“A Cat Climbs the Matterhorn,” Miami News, Oct. 19, 1950 (reprinting an editorial, I think, from the San Francisco Chronicle).

“Cat-Climbing on the Matterhorn,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 9, 1950.

“Mere Kitten Conquers Matterhorn,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, Sept. 7, 1950.

Here’s a photo of the Solvay hut at 12,556 feet, where the kitten reportedly spent the first night of its three-day climb:

Sources for our feature on porpoise trainer Karen Pryor:

Karen Pryor, Lads Before the Wind, 1975.

Thomas White, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, 2008.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

Also by Loot Crate — go to http://www.lootcrate.com/CLOSET and enter code CLOSET to save $3 on any new subscription.

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!

Larghissimo

John Cage indicated that his 1987 piece Organ2/ASLSP should be played “as slow as possible,” but he declined to say how slow that is. Because a pipe organ can be rebuilt piecemeal as it plays, in principle there’s no limit to how long a performance can last.

In 1997 a conference of musicians and philosophers decided to take Cage’s instruction seriously and arranged a performance that would last 639 years. Fed by a bellows, a custom-built organ in the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, has been playing the piece since Sept. 5, 2001; it began with a contemplative 17-month pause, then played the first chord (A4-C5-F#5) for two years. Since then it’s got through only 12 changes; the next won’t occur until Sept. 5, 2020.

This will go on for another 620 years, ending on September 5, 2640. By that time someone somewhere will probably be playing it even more slowly.

Huffman’s Pyramid

huffman's pyramid

Here’s a subtly impossible figure devised by UC-Santa Cruz computer scientist David Huffman. If it’s a three-sided pyramid, then its edges define the intersections of three planes and should meet in a single point. But they don’t:

huffman's pyramid impossibility

This is intriguing because the figure doesn’t immediately look impossible. In Vagueness and Contradiction, philosopher Roy Sorensen writes, “The impossibility of an appearance is sometimes concealed without overloading our critical capacities.”

Possibly this is because we sense that other solutions are possible that can reconcile the error. Zenon Kulpa points out that the pyramid becomes intelligible if we imagine that the farther side hides a fourth edge, giving the figure four sides rather than three. He describes two families of such solutions in “Are Impossible Figures Possible?”, Signal Processing, May 1983.

Podcast Episode 48: The Shark Arm Affair

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In 1935 a shark in an Australian aquarium vomited up a human forearm, a bizarre turn of events that sparked a confused murder investigation. This week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast presents two cases in which a shark supplied key evidence of a human crime.

We’ll also learn about the Paris Herald’s obsession with centigrade temperature, revisit the scary travel writings of Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer, and puzzle over an unavenged killing at a sporting event.

Sources for our feature on the shark arm affair:

Andrew Tink, Australia 1901-2001: A Narrative History, 2014.

Dictionary of Sydney, “Shark Arm murder 1935,” accessed March 5, 2015.

“Arm-Eating Shark Bares Weird Killing,” Pittsburgh Press, July 9, 1935.

“Shark Gives Up Clue to Murder,” Milwaukee Journal, July 9, 1935.

“‘Shark Arm’ Murder Mystery Still Baffles Australian Police,” Toledo Blade, Dec. 14, 1952.

The 1799 episode of the Nancy’s forged papers appears in (of all places!) Allan McLane Hamilton’s 1910 biography The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton appeared for the United Insurance Company in the case). It’s confirmed in Xavier Maniguet’s 2007 book The Jaws of Death: Sharks as Predator, Man as Prey. Apparently both the “shark papers” and the shark’s jaws were put on public display afterward and are now in the keeping of the Institute of Jamaica; I gather the case made a sensation at the time but has largely been forgotten.

Sources for our feature on James Gordon Bennett and the “Old Philadelphia Lady”:

The International New York Times, “Oct. 5, 1947: Old Philadelphia Lady Said It 6,718 Times,” Oct. 14, 2013.

James B. Townsend, “J.Gordon Bennett, Editor by Cable,” New York Times, May 19, 1918.

Mark Tungate, Media Monoliths, 2005.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Lily Geller, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle!).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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Thanks for listening!

Getting Personal

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Image: Flickr

Avon, Colorado, has a bridge called Bob. The four-lane, 150-foot span, built in 1992, connects Avon with the Beaver Creek ski resort across the Eagle River. The town council held a naming contest and received 85 suggestions, including Avon Crossing and Del Mayre Bridge. It was 32-year-old construction worker Louie Sullivan who said, “Oh, heck, just name it Bob,” a suggestion that set city manager Bill James “laughing so hard he had to leave the room.”

Sullivan said he was surprised at the town’s vote; previously he had considered Avon a bit stuffy. “It raises my faith in their sense of humor,” he said.

Young Riders

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Sons of Jack “Catch-‘Em-Alive” Abernathy, the youngest U.S. Marshal in history, Louis and Temple Abernathy inherited their father’s self-reliance: In 1910, when they were 10 and 6 years old, they rode on horseback from their Oklahoma ranch to Manhattan to greet Theodore Roosevelt as he returned from Africa. After riding behind Roosevelt’s car in a ticker-tape parade, they drove home in a new car.

The following year, apparently bored, they accepted a $10,000 challenge to ride on horseback from New York to San Francisco in 60 days or less, never eating or sleeping indoors. They missed the deadline by two days but still established a speed record. And in 1913 they rode by motorcycle from Oklahoma to New York City.

The two went on to successful careers in law and oil. “Teach a boy self-reliance from the moment he tumbles out of the cradle, make him keep his traces taut and work well forward in his collar, and 99 times out of a hundred his independence will assert itself before he is 2 years old,” their father told a newspaper after their first trip. “That’s my rule, and if you don’t think I’ve taken the right tack talk to my boys for five minutes and they’ll convince you that they are men in principles even if they are babies in years. God bless ’em.”

The Pythagoras Paradox

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Draw a right triangle whose legs a and b each measure 1. Draw d and e to complete a unit square. Clearly d + e = 2.

Now if we cut a “step” into the square as shown, then f + h = 1 and g + i = 1, so the total length of the “staircase” is still 2. Cut still finer steps and j + k + l + m + n + o + p + q is likewise 2.

And so on: The more finely we cut the steps, the more closely their shape approximates that of the original triangle’s diagonal. Yet the total length of the stairstep shape remains 2, the sum of its horizontal and vertical elements. At the limit, then, it would seem that c must measure 2 … but we know that the length of a unit square’s diagonal is the square root of 2. Where is the error?

(Thanks, Alex.)