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?

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matterhorn_from_Domh%C3%BCtte_-_2.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solvay.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Tiger_shark.png

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!).

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and 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!

Getting Personal

https://www.flickr.com/photos/denverjeffrey/2502522077/
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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abernathy_3641566828_cfa488c790_o.jpg

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Mathematical_paradoxes#mediaviewer/File:Pythagoras_paradox.png

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.)

Mixed Greens

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Francisco_Earthquake_of_1906,_After_the_earthquake_-_NARA_-_522948.tif

Professor Starr Jordan, President of Leland Stanford University, told of a case where nature had juggled with real estate during the San Francisco earthquake. An earthquake crack had passed directly in front of three cottages, and moved the rose-garden from the middle cottage to the furthest one, and the raspberry patch from the near cottage exactly opposite the middle one. History does not relate how the law decided who owned the roses and the raspberries after their rearrangement.

— M.E. David, Professor David: The Life of Sir Edgeworth David, 1937