Round Numbers

Letter to the Times, June 17, 1978:


It is not only dates that make nice patterns of numbers. Some years ago I was bringing a Destroyer home from the Far East and was required to report my position twice a day.

One evening, I saw that we would be passing close to where the Greenwich Meridian cuts the Equator so arranged to arrive there dead on midnight. Once there I altered course to due North and stopped engines so my position signal read:

At 0000 my position Latitude 00°00’N, Longitude 00°00’E. Course 000°. Speed 0.

I had considered saying I was Nowhere but thought (probably correctly) that Their Lordships would not be amused.

Yours faithfully,

Claud Dickens

Breakfast News

In May 2009, California consumer Janine Sugawara sued PepsiCo for implying that crunchberries are a fruit. She claimed that she and other consumers had been misled both by the name of the cereal and by the image on the box of Cap’n Crunch “thrusting a spoonful of ‘Crunchberries’ at the prospective buyer.” The package suggests that the product contains real fruit, she said; had she known otherwise, she would not have bought it.

“While the challenged packaging contains the word ‘berries’ it does so only in conjunction with the descriptive term ‘crunch’,” wrote Judge Morrison England Jr., reflecting wearily upon the course his life had taken. “This Court is not aware of, nor has Plaintiff alleged the existence of, any actual fruit referred to as a ‘crunchberry.’ Furthermore, the ‘Crunchberries’ depicted on the [box] are round, crunchy, brightly-colored cereal balls, and the [box] clearly states both that the Product contains ‘sweetened corn & oat cereal’ and that the cereal is ‘enlarged to show texture.’ Thus, a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the Product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist.”

He dismissed the case and denied Sugawara the chance to amend her complaint. “The survival of the instant claim would require this Court to ignore all concepts of personal responsibility and common sense,” he wrote. “The Court has no intention of allowing that to happen.”

Creative Taxidermy

To demonstrate “the discovery which I had made of preparing specimens upon scientific principles,” eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) created “The Nondescript,” a red howler monkey whose face he had manipulated into a semi-human cast.

“I have no wish whatever that the nondescript should pass for any other thing than that which the reader himself should wish it to pass for,” he wrote, rather elliptically. “Not considering myself pledged to tell its story, I leave it to the reader to say what it is, or what it is not.”

The specimen is preserved at the Wakefield Museum in West Yorkshire. Lost is a similar Waterton creation, “The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated,” a series of “portraits” of famous Protestants fashioned from preserved lizards and toads.

Such experiments could make Waterton seem unfeeling, but he was fundamentally more sympathetic with the wildlife of South America than the Georgian society to which he’d been born. He made this address to a sloth he surprised on the banks of the Essequibo in Guyana:

“Come, poor fellow. If thou hast got into a hobble to-day, thou shalt not suffer for it: I’ll take no advantage of thee in misfortune; the forest is large enough for both thee and me to rove in: go thy ways up above, and enjoy thyself in these endless wilds; it is more than probable thou wilt never have another interview with man. So fare thee well.”

(“I followed him with my eye till the intervening branches closed in betwixt us; and then I lost sight for ever of the two-toed Sloth. I was going to add, that I never saw a Sloth take to his heels in such earnest: but the expression will not do, for the Sloth has no heels.”)

“Three Sundays in a Week”

In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe pointed out the confusion that can result when a ship reckons time while circling the world. Captain Smitherton and Captain Pratt have just returned from circumnavigating the globe, one traveling eastward and the other westward, while Kate and her father Mr. Rumgudgeon have remained in London. On reuniting, they discover some confusion: Captain Pratt thinks that tomorrow will be Sunday, Smitherton thinks that yesterday was Sunday, and Kate and Rumgudgeon think that today is Sunday. Finally Smitherton says:

What fools we two are ! — Mr. Rumgudgeon, the matter stands thus: The earth, you know, is, in round numbers, twenty-four thousand miles in circumference. Now the earth turns on its own axis, spins round, these twenty-four thousand miles, going from west to east, in precisely twenty-four hours. Well, sir, that is at the rate of one thousand miles an hour.

Now suppose that I sail from this position a thousand miles east. Of course, I anticipate the rising of the sun here at London by just one hour. I see the sun rise one hour before you do. Proceeding in the same direction yet another thousand miles, I anticipate the rising by two hours; another thousand, and I anticipate it by three hours: and so on, until I go entirely round the globe, and back to this spot, when having gone twenty-four thousand miles east, I anticipate the rising of the London sun by no less than twenty-four hours; that is to say, I am a day in advance of your time. Understand?

But Captain Pratt, when he had sailed a thousand miles west of this position, was an hour, and when he had sailed twenty-four thousand miles was twenty-four hours, or one day, behind the time at London. Thus, with me, yesterday was Sunday; thus, with you, to-day is Sunday; and thus, with Captain Pratt, to-morrow will be Sunday. And what is more, Mr. Rumgudgeon, it is positively clear that we are all right.

Mr. Rumgudgeon, who had forbidden Kate to marry until there were “three Sundays in a week,” now relents. Too bad for him — the international date line would shortly obviate the problem.


spirit of byron

“The Spirit of Byron,” a popular English print, circa 1830.

A footnote in Byron’s Don Juan mentions a rhyming contest between John Sylvester and Ben Jonson:

“I, John Sylvester, lay with your sister.”

“I, Ben Jonson, lay with your wife.”

“That is not rhyme.”

“No, but it is true.”

House Cat

hedren lion 1

Tippi Hedren had a lion. The star of The Birds kept a full-grown African lion as a house pet in the 1970s.

“My mother and stepfather went to Africa in 1972 and found themselves stricken by the plight of animals there,” remembered Melanie Griffith, her daughter, in When I Was a Girl. “There was a prediction that by the year 2000 there would be no more wild animals. My stepfather made a movie about it, and my mother decided that we should get a real lion — that way, we could experience what living with wildlife was like.

“So we made friends with this guy Neil. He had a full-grown lion on his ranch, and we’d go out and visit him. Eventually we got a lion cub of our own. His name was Casey, and he was our first cat. Eventually we started to get more and more. The police would come to our door, and I’d take the lions, jump over the fence into this vacant lot, and hide there with the cats while the police searched the house. It was a wild thing to do.”

hedren lion 2

Hedren went on to found a California wild animal preserve that, among other things, is now home to Michael Jackson’s two Bengal tigers.

(Thanks, Dan.)

Haste, Waste

On Sept. 21, 1956, Navy pilot Tom Attridge put his supersonic F11F Tiger into a shallow dive and test-fired two bursts from its 20mm cannon. Unfortunately, the jet was traveling so fast that it overtook its own rounds. One struck the engine, which failed on the way back to the airfield. Attridge crash-landed, losing a wing and a stabilizer but getting away safely. His Tiger had become the first jet aircraft to shoot itself down.

A puzzle sent to me by a Caltech grad student: A man is walking his dog on the beach. Each time he blows a whistle, the dog doubles its speed. If the dog starts at 2 meters per second, how many whistles does it hear? Answer: Fifteen — when the dog exceeds the speed of sound, it catches up with the earlier whistles.

(Thanks, John and Srivatsan.)

Lost and Found

dalmatian photo

What is this? Most people see a mass of black blobs and then gradually recognize a photograph of a Dalmatian.

“What is interesting is that the outline shape on the picture surface that is experienced as resembling that of a dog is not seen as an outline shape at all unless the dog is seen in the figure,” writes University of British Columbia philosopher Dominic McIver Lopes. There’s no dog-shaped outline to notice; the contour of the dog’s body is invisible. To see the contour we must first see the dog … but how do we see the dog without the contour?