Split Decision

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In December 2013 a U.S. District Court decided that copyright in the fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had expired, but only for the characters as they’re depicted in the earlier novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Aspects of the characters that are mentioned only in the later novels — such as Dr. Watson’s athletic background, first described in a 1924 short story — are considered new “increments of expression” of those characters, and remain protected.

That makes eminent sense for writers and lawyers, but what about poor Dr. Watson, anxiously stirring the fire at 221B Baker Street? Does he have an athletic background or doesn’t he? The copyright law seems to apply to a version of him that does, and not to one that doesn’t. Should we say there are two Dr. Watsons? That doesn’t seem right.

Worse, “If an author now wants to write a new Holmes novel, but is prohibited from mentioning almost everything pertaining to Professor Moriarty (who only rose to prominence in the later work Valley of Fear), how can we say that he is still writing about the ‘the same’ Holmes, given how much his character was formed through the interaction with his nemesis?” ask legal scholars Burkhard Schafer and Jane Cornwell. “Does this not render any new Holmes necessarily ‘incomplete,’ that is lacking character traits and memories Holmes is ‘known to’ possess, according to the canonical work?”

Even the “public domain” Holmes seems to multiply in this light. We learn that Holmes has an older brother, Mycroft, in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” published in 1893. But if Mycroft is older than Sherlock, then surely he’s been Sherlock’s brother ever since Sherlock’s birth in 1854. Does the early Sherlock (in, say, A Study in Scarlet) have a brother?

(Burkhard Schafer and Jane Cornwell, “Law’s Fictions, Legal Fictions and Copyright Law,” in Maksymilian Del Mar and William Twining, eds., Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice, 2015.)

Desperate Measures

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From reader Jon Sweitzer-Lamme:

Pressed for materials during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, the city’s Daily Citizen newspaper printed its last six issues on the back of wallpaper. Each of the issues for June 16, 18, 20, 27, 30, and July 2 was printed in four columns on a single sheet, as above; a reader who turned the sheet over would see this:

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm114.html

The last issue, on July 2, is still defiant:

The Yankee Generalissimo surnamed Grant has expressed his intention of dining in Vicksburg on the Fourth of July. … Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it.

But two days later, when the city finally fell, Union troops added a final paragraph:

Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gen. Grant has ‘caught the rabbit:’ he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him. The ‘Citizen’ lives to see it. For the last time it appears on ‘Wall-paper.’ No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricassed kitten — urge Southern warriors to such diet never-more. This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.

More at the Library of Congress. (Thanks, Jon.)

Byways

A desire path is a route made evident by foot traffic, often easier or more direct than a provided avenue:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A holloway is a sunken lane formed by traffic or erosion — some in Europe date to the Iron Age:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A snowy neckdown is a disused area of a roadway made evident by snowfall:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the absence of snow, some Australian engineers have dusted intersections with cake flour to reveal traffic patterns. Others study the oil stains left by traffic. Dan Burden, director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, says, “I call something like that highway forensics.”

Gesundheit

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Classical statues tend to lose their noses, and in the 19th century museums would commonly replace them with “restoration” noses, to preserve the appearance of the original sculpture.

In the 20th century some museums changed philosophies and “de-restored” their collections, thinking it better to present each piece in its authentic state.

This created a superfluity of noses, and some museums collect these into displays of their own. Charmingly, there’s even a word for this: A collection of noses is a Nasothek.

Above is the collection in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen.

(Thanks, Carsten.)

“An Interesting War Relic”

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A small highland terrapin was captured in 1884 by a Chattanooga gentleman that carries on the smooth surface of its belly the inscription, carved in distinct characters: ‘Union: Co. K, 26th Regt., Ohio Vols.; November 18, 1864.’ It is supposed that some straggling Union soldier, belonging to the command designated, captured the North Georgia quadruped and proceeded to make a living historical tablet of the hard-shell little creeper.

That was twenty years ago. In 1886 when a party of ex-Union captives from Ohio, who were making a tour of the South, passed through Chattanooga, the terrapin was shown them and they could not have shown more delight over the meeting of an old friend. ‘He was the pet of some of our boys,’ said one of the old soldiers, as he fondly patted the terrapin’s back, while the tears filled his eyes and rolled down his cheeks in great drops.

Rome [Ga.] Sentinel, reprinted in W.C. King and W.P. Derby, Camp-Fire Sketches and Battle-Field Echoes, 1886

Extreme Measures

Zürich has a singularly violent way to welcome summer: They roast a snowman until its head explodes.

At the spring holiday Sechseläuten, traditionally celebrated on the third Monday in April, residents build an effigy of winter in the shape of a giant snowman known as the Böögg, pack it with explosives, and set it afire.

“It is believed the shorter the combustion, the hotter and longer summer will be,” writes Bob Eckstein in The History of the Snowman. “When the head of the snowman explodes to smithereens, winter is considered officially over.”

The shortest time on record is 5 minutes 7 seconds, in 1974. The longest, just last year, is 43 minutes 34 seconds.

Podcast Episode 136: The Boston Molasses Disaster

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In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston’s North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city’s history books.

We’ll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.

Intro:

In 1888 three women reported encountering a 15-foot flying serpent in the woods near Columbia, S.C.

In 1834 the American Journal of Science and Arts reported the capture of a pair of conjoined catfish near Fort Johnston, N.C.

Sources for our feature on the Boston Molasses Disaster:

Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, 2003.

Fred Durso Jr., “The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919,” NFPA Journal 105:3 (May/June 2011), 90-93.

Sean Potter, “Retrospect: January 15, 1919: Boston Molasses Flood,” Weatherwise 64:1 (January/February 2011), 10-11.

Kaylie Duffy, “Today in Engineering History: Molasses Tanker Explodes, Kills 21,” Product Design & Development, Jan. 15, 2015.

Steve Puleo, “Death by Molasses,” American History 35:6 (February 2001), 60-66.

Chuck Lyons, “A Sticky Tragedy,” History Today 59.1 (January 2009), 40-42.

Dick Sinnott, “21 Persons Drowned in Molasses Flood,” Reading [Pa.] Eagle, Jan. 15, 1959.

Edwards Park, “Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston,” Smithsonian 14:8 (November 1983), 213-230.

“12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 1919.

Ferris Jabr, “The Science of the Great Molasses Flood,” Scientific American, Aug. 1, 2013.

United Press International, “The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919,” Jan. 17, 1979.

Peter Schworm, “Nearly a Century Later, Structural Flaw in Molasses Tank Revealed,” Boston Globe, Jan. 14, 2015.

William J. Kole, “Slow as Molasses? Sweet but Deadly 1919 Disaster Explained,” Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2016.

Erin McCann, “Solving a Mystery Behind the Deadly ‘Tsunami of Molasses’ of 1919,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016. (The corn syrup video is midway down the page.)

Jason Daley, “The Sticky Science Behind the Deadly Boston Molasses Disaster,” Smithsonian, Nov. 28, 2016.

Jennifer Ouellette, “Incredible Physics Behind the Deadly 1919 Boston Molasses Flood,” New Scientist, Nov. 24, 2016.

The Boston Public Library has photos and newspaper headlines.

Listener mail:

Erik Bye’s song on the 15th Wisconsin Regiment:

Statistics Norway’s names database.

Wikipedia, “Old Norse” (accessed Jan. 5, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils 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 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!

Rough

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

SIR, — While surveying in northern Labrador I had occasion to visit the island of Nukusustok, a few miles to seaward of the village of Nain. On the slope of a hill, and about 300ft. inland, I found a golf ball in good condition. How did the ball come to be there, and so far inland? It is possible that the ball was driven by a golfer from an Atlantic liner during practice, drifted northward past Greenland, and was finally carried ashore by the Labrador current which runs from north to south along the Labrador coast.

I have sent the ball to Dunlops, the makers, who suggest that it was probably carried so far inland by a sea bird. Perhaps some of your readers could help in explaining the mystery.

Yours faithfully,

Thos. O. Hampson

The Field, June 29, 1935

Things and Stuff

Anchormen, chairs, dogs, flowers, and comets are things: If I have one anchorman and add another, I have two anchormen. My chair did not exist until it was assembled into that form. And if a comet hits Paraguay, it is no longer a comet.

Helium, gravy, wood, music, and joy are stuff: If some helium escapes my balloon, it seems wrong to say that I’ve lost a thing. If I divide my gravy into two portions, it’s still gravy. And if I chop my cabin into firewood, the amount of wood in the world does not seem to have changed.

We seem to distinguish between these two classes of existence. We can count things, but stuff forms a sort of cumulative mass. Things are made of stuff (crowns are made of gold), but stuff is made of things (gold is made of molecules). What’s at the bottom? And what leads us to make these distinctions?

(Kristie Miller, “Stuff,” American Philosophical Quarterly 46:1 [January 2009], 1-18.)

Keyboard Variations

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Inspired by Isaac Newton’s theory that the seven notes of the diatonic scale were related to the colors of the spectrum, French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel in 1725 invented an “ocular harpsichord” outfitted with lanterns so that “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colours with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” Voltaire devoted Chapter 14 of his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton to the the theory and to Castel’s instrument, and Telemann composed several pieces for it.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia, produces its tones by striking stalactites with rubber mallets. Leland W. Sprinkle spent three years in the 1950s identifying promising stalactites, shaving them to pitch, and wiring solenoids to trigger the mallets. The tones can be heard throughout the cavern even without amplification, but a loudspeaker system is normallly used.

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I think I’ve written elsewhere about the Katzenklavier, a thankfully imaginary instrument first described by Athanasius Kircher in 1650. In the words of one writer, “if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow.”

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Allegedly Louis XI of France challenged Abbé de Baigne to do the same thing with pigs to produce a “piganino”:

That brutal monarch, Louis XI of France, is said to have constructed, with the assistance of the Abbé de Baigne, an instrument designated a ‘pig organ,’ for the production of natural sounds. The master of the royal music, having made a very large and varied assortment of swine, embracing specimens of all breeds and ages, these were carefully voiced, and placed in order, according to their several tones and semitones, and so arranged that a key-board communicated with them, severally and individually, by means of rods ending in sharp spikes. In this way a player, by touching any note, could instantly sound a corresponding note in nature, and was enabled to produce at will either natural melody or harmony!

“The result is said to have been striking, but not very grateful to human ears.”

After our civilization has destroyed itself, the Adriatic will still be playing harmonies on the “sea organ” in Zadar, Croatia. Wind and waves interact with a system of polyethylene tubes to produce sound in a resonating cavity. In 2006 architect Nikola Bašic received the European Prize for Urban Public Space for the project, voted the best among 207 candidate projects from across Europe.

12/17/2016 UPDATE: I completely forgot the mouse organ! (Thanks, Gavin.)