Comet Vintages

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In “The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk,” Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes as being as pleased as “a connoisseur who has just taken his first sip of a comet vintage.”

That’s a reference to a strange tradition in winemaking: Years in which a comet appears prior to the harvest tend to produce successful vintages:

1826 — Biela’s Comet
1832 — Biela’s Comet
1839 — Biela’s Comet
1845 — Great June Comet of 1845
1846 — Biela’s Comet
1852 — Biela’s Comet
1858 — Comet Donati
1861 — Great Comet of 1861
1874 — Comet Coggia
1985 — Halley’s Comet
1989 — Comet Okazaki-Levy-Rudenko

“For some unexplained reason, or by some strange coincidence, comet years are famous among vine-growers,” noted the New York Times in 1872. “The last comet which was fairly visible to human eyes [and that] remained blazing in the horizon for many months, until it faded slowly away, was seen in 1858, a year dear to all lovers of claret; 1846, 1832 and 1811 were all comet years, and all years of excellent wine.”

No one has even proposed a mechanism to explain how this might be, but it’s widely noted in the wine world: Critic Robert Parker awarded a perfect 100-point rating to the 1811 Château d’Yquem, and cognac makers still put stars on their labels to commemorate that exceptional year.

Misc

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Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • ZZ Top’s first album is called ZZ Top’s First Album.
  • Supreme Court justice Byron White was the NFL’s top rusher in 1940.
  • LOVE ME TENDER is an anagram of DENVER OMELET.
  • Every palindromic number with an even number of digits is divisible by 11.
  • “In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” — Cassius

From English antiquary John Aubrey’s 1696 Miscellanies: “Anno 1670, not far from Cyrencester, was an Apparition; Being demanded, whether a good Spirit or a bad? Returned no answer, but departed with a curious Perfume and a most melodious Twang.”

Absent Friends

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Image: Flickr

When Connecticut widow Helen Dow Peck died in 1955, she left $178,000 to one John Gale Forbes, who she said had contacted her through a Ouija board in 1919.

Peck had spent 34 years hunting for Forbes since he’d “resolved out of space” to her during the Ouija craze around 1920. She believed Forbes was confined in a mental institution and wrote to many around the country as she tried to locate him.

Nine nieces and nephews contested the will. But Peck’s executor, City National Bank of Danbury, held out that Forbes might have been an actual person, though a private investigator couldn’t find him.

What to do? Peck’s family finally won when the state supreme court rejected the will in 1958. That was a double blow for the paranormal: If the will had been found valid and Forbes couldn’t be located, Peck had asked that the money create a fund “to be used for research on the subject of mental telepathy for the understanding and care of insane persons.”

Open Secrets

In the 1850s, lovers often corresponded by printing coded messages in the Times. An example from February 1853:

CENERENTOLA. N bnxm yt ywd nk dtz hfs wjfi ymnx fsi fr rtxy fschtzx yt. Mjfw ymf esi, bmjs dtz wjyzws fei mtb qtsldtz wjrfns, ncjwj. lt bwnyf f kjb qnsjx jfuqnsl uqjfxy. N mfaj xnsbj dtz bjsy fbfd.

(“I wish to try if you can read this and am most anxious to hear that and when you return and how long you remain here. Go write a few lines explaining please. I have since you went away.”)

A second message appeared nine days later using the same cipher:

CENERENTOLA. Zsyng rd n jtwy nx xnhp mfaj n y wnj, yt kwfrj fs jcugfifynts ktw dtz lgzy hfssty. Xnqjshj nx nf jny nk ymf ywzj bfzxy nx sty xzx jhyji; nk ny nx, fgg xytwpjx bngg gj xnkyji yt ymjgtyytr. It dtz wjrjgjw tzw htzxns’x knwxy nwtutxnynts: ymnsp tk ny. N pstb Dtz.

(“Until my heart is sick I have tried to frame an explanation for you but cannot. Silence is safest if the true cause is not suspected; if it is, all stories will be sifted to the bottom. Do remember our cousin’s first proposition. Think of it. I know you.”)

This practice was so well known that cracking the codes became a regular recreation among certain Londoners. Lyon Playfair and Charles Wheatstone uncovered a pending elopement and wrote a remonstrating response to the young woman; she published a new message saying, “Dear Charles, write me no more, our cipher is discovered.”

Most of the messages were simple substitution ciphers, which made them fairly easy to solve, though the lovers seemed to find them challenging — one wrote, “If an honours degree at Oxford cannot read my message, we had better change the cipher. Suggest we revert to numbers. Love, Gwendoline.” But when Playfair and Wheatstone came up with a more secure “symmetrical cipher” and offered it to the Foreign Office, the under-secretary rejected it as “too complicated.”

“We proposed that he should send for four boys from the nearest elementary school,” Playfair wrote, “in order to prove that three of them could be taught to use the cipher in a quarter of an hour. The reply to this proposal by their Under-Secretary was … ‘That is very possible, but you could never teach it to attachés.'”

(From Donald McCormick, Love in Code, 1980. Here’s a whole book of messages, both coded and clear.)

Podcast Episode 112: The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared after a boating accident off the coast of Dutch New Guinea. Ever since, rumors have circulated that the youngest son of the powerful Rockefeller family had been killed by the headhunting cannibals who lived in the area. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll recount Rockefeller’s story and consider the different fates that might have befallen him.

We’ll also learn more about the ingenuity of early sportscasters and puzzle over a baffled mechanic.

Sources for our feature on Michael Rockefeller:

Carl Hoffman, Savage Harvest, 2014.

Associated Press, “Rockefeller’s Son Killed by Tribes?”, Nov. 19, 1971.

Peter Kihss, “Governor’s Son Is Missing Off Coast of New Guinea,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 1961.

United Press International, “Rockefeller to Join in Search for Missing Son,” Nov. 20, 1961.

United Press International, “Michael Rockefeller Had Been Told to End Quest for Native Trophies,” Nov. 21, 1961.

Associated Press, “Missionaries Join Rockefeller Search,” Nov. 22, 1961.

United Press International, “Searchers for Michael Rockefeller Pessimistic,” Nov. 22, 1961.

“Hope Wanes for Michael Rockefeller,” St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 24, 1961.

Milt Freudenheim, “Michael Rockefeller Unusual Rich Man’s Son,” Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 10, 1961.

Barbara Miller, “Michael Rockfeller’s Legacy,” Toledo Blade, Sept. 2, 1962.

Associated Press, “Young Michael Rockefeller Missing Almost 5 Years,” Oct. 21, 1966.

Mary Rockefeller Morgan, “A Loss Like No Other,” Psychology Today, July/August 2012.

Listener mail:

A “synthetic cricket” game in Sydney in the 1930s, re-creating a game played in England:

Paul D. Staudohar, “Baseball and the Broadcast Media,” in Claude Jeanrenaud, Stefan Késenne, eds., The Economics of Sport and the Media, 2006.

Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life, 1997.

Modesto Radio Museum, “Baseball Games Re-Created in Radio Studios.”

Wikipedia, “Broadcasting of Sports Events” (accessed June 30, 2016).

Media Schools, “History of Sports Broadcasting.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Larry Miller. Here are three corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Fore!

Temporary rules adopted by London’s Richmond Golf Club during the Battle of Britain:

richmond rules

I had my doubts about this, but the rules are acknowledged by the club itself. While we’re at it: In A Wodehouse Handbook, N.T.P. Murphy notes two unusual tournament rules at the annual Bering Sea Ice Classic in Nome, Alaska:

  • If a player hits a polar bear, he is penalized three strokes.
  • If a player hits a polar bear and retrieves his ball, he is awarded five strokes.

Apparently those are local rules: In Extreme Golf, Duncan Lennard notes that officials of the World Ice Golf Championship actually wrote to the game’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, to ask what to do about polar bears, and received the ruling that “in the event of a polar bear wandering onto the ice golf course, the same safety procedure should be followed as for rattlesnakes and ants elsewhere in the world” — a free drop out of harm’s way.

Podcast Episode 110: The Brooklyn Chameleon

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Over the span of half a century, Brooklyn impostor Stanley Clifford Weyman impersonated everyone from a Navy admiral to a sanitation expert. When caught, he would admit his deception, serve his jail time, and then take up a new identity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll review Weyman’s surprisingly successful career and describe some of his more audacious undertakings.

We’ll also puzzle over why the police would arrest an unremarkable bus passenger.

Sources for our feature on Stanley Clifford Weyman:

St. Clair McKelway, The Big Little Man From Brooklyn, 1969.

Alan Hynd, “Grand Deception — ‘Fabulous Fraud From Brooklyn,'” Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 13, 1956.

Tom Henshaw, “Bygone State Visits Marked by Incidents,” Associated Press, Sept. 13, 1959.

John F. Murphy, “Notorious Impostor Shot Dead Defending Motel in Hold-Up,” New York Times, Aug. 28, 1960.

Richard Grenier, “Woody Allen on the American Character,” Commentary 76:5 (November 1983), 61-65.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Josva Dammann Kvilstad. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Chromatic Illusion

This illusion was discovered by University of California psychologist Diana Deutsch. Listen first with the left and right channels in balance, then isolate each ear. Though the pattern in each channel jumps around in pitch, when they’re combined we tend to hear two smooth scales. Why?

“It is as though the sounds gravitate towards neighbours, where ‘neighbourhood’ is defined not by the physical proximity of the causative events, but by adjacent places on the pitch spectrum,” writes philosopher Roger Scruton. “Yet the sequences as heard are played into neither ear, and represent no causally unified process in the physical world. The auditory Gestalt is not merely incongruous with the physical events that produce it. It is organized according to principles that are intrinsic to the world of sounds, and which would be operative even if there were no physical events that could be identified as the causes of the individual sounds.”

(Roger Scruton, “Thoughts on Rhythm,” in Kathleen Stock, ed., Philosophers on Music, 2007.)

Eating Words

Reader Colin Brown sent this in: In the Harvard Libraries in 2008 he checked out a history of Tillamook County, Oregon, and of cheesemaking in particular, issued in the 1930s by the Oregon Journal. There were two volumes: Volume One was a book titled Cheese Cheddar, and in place of Volume Two he found a note taped to the inside cover:

Note for the Cataloguer:

Vol. II of this work was a two pound piece of Cheddar Cheese. The Librarian can attest to its excellent quality and to the fact that it no longer exists. Sic transit gloria caseii.

A.C.R.

Dec. 31, 1933

“The book was noted as a personal gift of Charles H. Taylor, Jr., but it was unclear whose initials those were on the added sheet,” Colin writes. “When I checked the book out in 2008, it had only been checked out one other time since its donation (in 1944).”

He adds, “I informed the library and they have archived it in their protected section of the Widener Depository for unusual addenda or marginal notes.”

cheddar box 1
cheddar box 2
cheddar box 3

(Thanks, Colin.)

Distant Early Warning

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Alexandre Dumas’ cat knew when he was coming home:

At the time I speak of, I held a situation in the service of the Duc d’Orléans, with a salary of 1500 francs. My work occupied me from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. We had a cat in those days, whose name was Mysouff. This cat had missed his vocation; he ought to have been a dog. Every morning I started for my office at half-past nine, and came back every evening at half-past five. Every morning Mysouff followed me to the corner of a particular street, and every evening I found him in the same street, at the same corner, waiting for me. Now the curious thing was that on the days when I had found some amusement elsewhere, and was not coming home to dinner, it was of no use to open the door for Mysouff to go and meet me. Mysouff, in the attitude of the serpent with its tail in its mouth, refused to stir from his cushion. On the other hand, on the days I did come, Mysouff would scratch at the door until some one opened it for him.

“My mother was very fond of Mysouff,” he wrote. “She used to call him her barometer.”