Parting of the Waters

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In Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness, North Two Ocean Creek splits into two smaller creeks: Pacific Creek flows westward to the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Creek eastward to the Atlantic.

In principle this makes it possible for a fish to swim upstream from the Pacific, cross the Great Divide, and pass down into the Atlantic. This may be how the Yellowstone cutthroat trout came to be found in both the Snake and Yellowstone rivers.

Looking Up

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Rome is north of Chicago.

Venice is north of Minneapolis.

London is north of Calgary.

Paris is nine miles south of the U.S.-Canada border.

Muse Be Damned

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Anthony Trollope established himself as one of the world’s most prolific novelists while holding down a 30-year career as a full-time civil servant.

He did this by simply demanding it of himself. Even while traveling he rose at 5:30 each morning and worked for three hours, “allowing himself no mercy,” counting words as he went and noting his progress on a chart, “so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the efficiency might be supplied.” He disdained inspiration: “To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.”

“All those I think who have lived as literary men — working daily as literary labourers — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom … to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.”

His brother Tom said, “Work to him was a necessity and a satisfaction. He used often to say he envied me the capacity for being idle.”

Podcast: Episode 20

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In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information — and his motives for publishing it.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation that ensued, which involved legendary editor John W. Campbell and illuminated the imaginative power of science fiction and the role of censorship in times of war. We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s advice against being too clever and puzzle over the failure of a seemingly perfect art theft.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

In a Word

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obolary
adj. poor or impecunious

inopious
adj. lacking wealth or resources; needy

ptochocracy
n. government by the poor

Shadow Play

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Artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster find self-portraits in arrangements of domestic trash. Their Dirty White Trash (with Gulls) (1998, right) was contrived from the six months’ rubbish they produced while making it, a sculpture produced by the residue of its own composition.

More shadow art: Shigeo Fukuda, Larry Kagan, Richard Haas.

lead pencil billboard

Somewhat related: Last year travelers from Washington state to Vancouver were surprised to discover this “negative space” billboard by the side of the road. It was created by Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han of Seattle-based art collective Lead Pencil Studio. Most billboards draw the eye away from the environment; this draws the eye to it.

(Thanks, Alex and Bob.)

Coming and Going

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1159760

A puzzle by Pierre Berloquin:

In my house are a number of rooms. (A hall separated from the rest of the house by one or more doors counts as a room.) Each room has an even number of doors, including doors that lead outside. Is the total number of outside doors even or odd?

Click for Answer

Stage Business

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The goal of the Shakespeare programming language is to create code that reads like a Shakespearean play: Variables are “characters” that interact through dialogue, constants are represented by nouns and adjectives, and if/then statements are phrased as questions. (Insulting Macbeth assigns him a negative value.) Act and scene numbers serve as GOTO labels, and characters can tell one another to “remember” or “recall” values. The phrases “Open your heart” and “Speak your mind” output a variable’s numerical value and the corresponding ASCII character, respectively.

This program prints the phrase HELLO WORLD:

Romeo, a young man with a remarkable patience.
Juliet, a likewise young woman of remarkable grace.
Ophelia, a remarkable woman much in dispute with Hamlet.
Hamlet, the flatterer of Andersen Insulting A/S.

                   Act I: Hamlet's insults and flattery.
                   Scene I: The insulting of Romeo.
[Enter Hamlet and Romeo]
Hamlet:
You lying stupid fatherless big smelly half-witted coward! You are as
stupid as the difference between a handsome rich brave hero and thyself!
Speak your mind!
You are as brave as the sum of your fat little stuffed misused dusty
old rotten codpiece and a beautiful fair warm peaceful sunny summer's
day. You are as healthy as the difference between the sum of the
sweetest reddest rose and my father and yourself! Speak your mind!
You are as cowardly as the sum of yourself and the difference
between a big mighty proud kingdom and a horse. Speak your mind.
Speak your mind!
[Exit Romeo]
                   Scene II: The praising of Juliet.
[Enter Juliet]
Hamlet:
Thou art as sweet as the sum of the sum of Romeo and his horse and his
black cat! Speak thy mind!
[Exit Juliet]
                   Scene III: The praising of Ophelia.
[Enter Ophelia]
Hamlet:
Thou art as lovely as the product of a large rural town and my amazing
bottomless embroidered purse. Speak thy mind!
Thou art as loving as the product of the bluest clearest sweetest sky
and the sum of a squirrel and a white horse. Thou art as beautiful as
the difference between Juliet and thyself. Speak thy mind!
[Exeunt Ophelia and Hamlet]

                   Act II: Behind Hamlet's back.
                   Scene I: Romeo and Juliet's conversation.
[Enter Romeo and Juliet]
Romeo:
Speak your mind. You are as worried as the sum of yourself and the
difference between my small smooth hamster and my nose. Speak your
mind!
Juliet:
Speak YOUR mind! You are as bad as Hamlet! You are as small as the
difference between the square of the difference between my little pony
and your big hairy hound and the cube of your sorry little
codpiece. Speak your mind!
[Exit Romeo]
                   Scene II: Juliet and Ophelia's conversation.
[Enter Ophelia]
Juliet:
Thou art as good as the quotient between Romeo and the sum of a small
furry animal and a leech. Speak your mind!
Ophelia:
Thou art as disgusting as the quotient between Romeo and twice the
difference between a mistletoe and an oozing infected blister! Speak
your mind!
[Exeunt]

Because it’s written as a play, a program can be performed by human actors, but the drama lacks a certain narrative drive:

See Output.

Unquote

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“It has been said of the Iliad that anyone who starts reading it as history will find that it is full of fiction but, equally, anyone who starts reading it as fiction will find that it is full of history.” — Arnold Toynbee

Three Odd Books

B.S. Johnson’s 1969 “book in a box” The Unfortunates consists of 27 unbound sections, ranging in length from a single paragraph to 12 pages. The first and last chapters are specified, but the 25 in between can be read in any order. Johnson felt this was a “better solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.”

Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 40,000-word novel The Gates of Paradise, published in 1960, consists of only two sentences. The second is “And they marched all night.”

When Edgar Wallace published his detective thriller The Four Just Men in 1905, he challenged readers of the Daily Mail to guess the murder method, offering first, second, and third prizes of £250, £200, and £50. Unfortunately he failed to specify that each prize would go to a single entrant, so he was legally obliged to award a prize to every correct entry. He went bankrupt, and the newspaper had to pay more than £5,000 to protect its reputation.

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