Podcast Episode 6: Texas Camels, Zebra Stripes, and an Immortal Piano

The 1850s saw a strange experiment in the American West: The U.S. Army imported 70 camels for help in managing the country’s suddenly enormous hinterland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll see how the animals acquitted themselves in an unfamiliar land under inexperienced human masters.

We’ll also learn a surprising theory regarding the origin of zebra stripes; follow the further adventures of self-mailing ex-slave Henry “Box” Brown; ask whether a well-wrought piano can survive duty as a beehive, chicken incubator, and meat safe; and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Our original post on the U.S. Camel Corps appeared on Jan. 2, 2006.

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Here’s an illustration of a disconsolate camel embarking for Texas, from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis’ 1857 report to Congress. After two months at sea, the animals were delighted to reach dry land: No sooner were they set ashore than they “became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree, rearing, kicking, crying out, breaking halters, tearing up pickets, and by other fantastic tricks demonstrating their enjoyment of ‘liberty of the soil.’ Some of the males, becoming even pugnacious in their excitement, were with difficulty restrained from attacking each other.”

A stunning example of the camels’ capability: In Indianola, to show the value of the animals, Maj. Henry Wayne ordered a camel to be loaded with 1,226 pounds (!) of hay. Wayne wrote, “When the camel arose, without a strain, and quietly walked away with his four bales, as one who felt himself master of the situation, there was a sudden change of public sentiment, most flattering to the outlandish brute and encouraging to his military sponsors.”

Further sources:

Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, 1976.
Harlan D. Fowler, Camels to California: A Chapter in Western Transportation, 1950.
Lewis Burt Lesley, Uncle Sam’s Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, 1929.
“The Camels That Jefferson Davis Bought,” New York Times, Aug. 20, 1922.

A few articles on the conjectured origins of zebra stripes:

Christine Dell’Amore, “Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? New Study Offers Strong Evidence,” National Geographic, April 1, 2014.

Rachel Kaufman, “Zebra Stripes Evolved to Repel Bloodsuckers?”, National Geographic News, Feb. 9, 2012.

Jennifer Viegas, “Zebra Stripes Not for Camo, But They Do Something Else,” Discovery, April 1, 2014.

Here’s Charles Rosen playing Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major on the 1955 LP that introduced Avner Carmi’s restored “immortal piano” to the world:

My other sources for that segment:

Avner Carmi and Hannah Carmi, The Immortal Piano, 1961.
The Siena Pianoforte, Charles Rosen, pianist, Counterpoint LP, 1955.
Weldon Wallace, “Beehive, Booby Trap, Meat Locker,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 30, 1955.
“The Harp of David,” Time, Aug. 29, 1955.
Weldon Wallace, “Siena Piano at Peabody,” Baltimore Sun, Nov. 2, 1955.
Claudia Cassidy, “Bechet’s Ballet, ‘Sunless Cycle,’ ‘Siena’ Story, Kodaly, Voodoo,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 4, 1955.
Ross Dunn, “Rommel Piano Up for Auction in Israel,” The Times, Sept. 7, 1996.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to follow the flight of L’Oiseau Blanc, a French biplane that crossed the Atlantic two weeks before Lindbergh — but disappeared en route. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Unquote

Via ovicapitum dura est. The way of the egghead is hard.” — Adlai Stevenson

Confederados

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When the Civil War ended, thousands of Confederates chose to leave the United States entirely and settle in Brazil. “Shall any Southerner be blamed, if he seeks a land where the night of vengeance has not come, that his day may not be one of threatening?” asked Ballard S. Dunn in Brazil, the Home for Southerners (1866). “Why should he? For, as surely as that these four years of disastrous war have left most of those who have been true to themselves and their ancestors penniless, homeless, despoiled, and bereaved, so surely the future, with its cumbrous disabilities, and fearful forebodings, promises nothing better than poverty and humiliation.”

About 10,000 Southerners made the trip to Brazil, where most settled in the state of São Paulo. Today their descendants form an ethic subgroup. In the city of Americana, the 300-member Fraternity of American Descendants holds an annual festival with Confederate flags, uniforms, and music, and a local cemetery holds the remains of W.S. Wise, the great-uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

Alison’s Triangle

alison's triangle

I’m not sure who came up with this — this simple diagram reflects all possible true trigonometric identities of the form x ÷ y = z or x × y = z, where x, y, and z are the basic trigonometric functions of the same angle t.

For any three neighboring functions on the perimeter of the star, the product of the ends always equals the middle (e.g., tan t × cos t = sin t) and the middle function divided by one of the end functions is equal to the other end function (e.g., sin t ÷ tan t = cos t and sin t ÷ cos t = tan t). If you memorize the diagram you can reel off a list of 18 simple relations.

I found it in Michael Stueben’s Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998.

“Socrates Among the Athenians”

socrates among the athenians

— Louis Phillips, Academe, February 1979

One on One

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Thomas Jefferson looks on nervously while Lyndon Johnson “confers” with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.). At 6’4″, Johnson tied Abraham Lincoln as the tallest U.S. president, and he used his physical presence to advance his agenda, cornering his targets in out-of-the-way places and leaning “so close to you,” one staffer recalled, “that your eyeglasses bumped.” In their 1966 book The Exercise of Power, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak dubbed this The Treatment:

The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.

LBJ denied this. “I’d have to be some sort of acrobatic genius to carry it off,” he told an interviewer, “and the senator in question, well, he’d have to be pretty weak and pretty meek to be simply standing there like a paralyzed idiot.”

Rubbing Elbows

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Vienna’s Café Central was crowded with intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century, including Freud, Lenin, the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, and endless chessplayers.

When Victor Adler made the argument that war would provoke a revolution in Russia, Leopold Berchtold replied, “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein sitting over there at the Café Central?”

Mr. Bronstein was Leon Trotsky.

Black and White

griswold chess problem

By John Griswold White. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Shape Reference

thomas whales

The index to the fourth edition of George Thomas’ Calculus and Analytic Geometry contains an entry for “Whales” on page 188. That page contains no reference to whales, but it does include the figure above.

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German mathematician Erich Bessel-Hagen was often teased for his protruding ears.

In 1923 his colleague Béla Kerékjártó published a book, Vorlesungen Über Topologie, whose index lists a reference to Bessel-Hagen on page 151.

That page makes no mention of Bessel-Hagen, but it does contain this figure:

2011-03-23-shape-reference-2

Is that libel?

In a Word

sottisier
n. a list of written stupidities

Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:

  • He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
  • Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
  • Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
  • Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
  • With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
  • Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
  • So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
  • Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
  • O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
  • The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
  • Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
  • Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
  • Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
  • Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)

In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”