To Do

Titles of actual publications collected by librarian Eric v.d. Luft:

How to Abandon Ship (1942)
How to Abduct a Highland Lord (2007)
How to Attract the Wombat (1949)
How to Avoid Intercourse With Your Unfriendly Car Mechanic (1977)
How to Be an Ocean Scientist in Your Own Home (1988)
How to Become Extinct (1941)
How to Boil Water (1976)
How to Break Out of Prison (2003)
How to Bribe a Judge (2002)
How to Buy an Elephant (1977)
How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth (1986)
How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World (1979)
How to Embalm Your Mother-in-Law (1993)
How to Get a Gorilla Out of Your Bathtub (2006)
How to Hold a Crocodile (1981)
How to Label a Goat (2006)
How to Ride a Tiger (1983)
How to Run a Bassoon Factory (1934)
How to Tell a Blackbird From a Sausage (2007)
How to Tell If Your Boyfriend Is the Antichrist (2007)
How to Travel With a Salmon (1994)
How to Trick or Treat in Outer Space (2004)
How to Wreck a Building (1982)

The list was begun by librarians at Bowdoin College in the 1970s; Luft inherited it there and has maintained it ever since. He published a selection in 2008 as The Inscribed List: Or Why Librarians Are Crazy. “We librarians don’t go deliberately looking for these little nuggets of delight,” he writes. “We don’t have to. They just appear.”

The Mere Addition Paradox

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MereAddition.svg

From Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons: World A contains a large group of people (say, 10 billion), all of whom have a high level of happiness. The width of the bar represents the size of the group, and its height represents their happiness.

World A+ contains twice as many people — the original group, plus a second group who are worse off. Assuming their lives are still happy, though, it appears that A+ is no worse than A. (Assume that the groups don’t know of one another, so there is no social injustice.)

In B-, the two groups are still distinct and of equal size, but all the inhabitants are somewhat happier than the average level in A+ — say, four-fifths the level in A.

Now combine the groups to produce B. This seems as good as B-, since we’ve only merged the two populations.

Intuitively, many people would feel that World B is worse than World A — all its inhabitants are less happy. But the logic seems to indicate that B is better — that “merely adding” people with tolerably happy lives makes the world a better place. Does it?

Double Play

This Latin sentence consists entirely of repeated syllables:

Te tero, Roma, manu nuda, date tela, latete.

“It is you I destroy, Rome, with bare hands, give up weapons, hide yourself.”

See Repeat Performance.

Misc

  • Colombia is the only South American country that borders both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
  • GRAVITATIONAL LENS = STELLAR NAVIGATION
  • 28671 = (2 / 8)-6 × 7 – 1
  • Can a man released from prison be called a freeee?
  • “Nature uses as little as possible of anything.” — Johannes Kepler

Sergei Prokofiev died on the same day that Joseph Stalin’s death was announced. Moscow was so thronged with mourners that three days passed before the composer’s body could be removed for a funeral service.

(Thanks, Alina.)

In a Word

mancipate
v. to enslave

Sounds of War

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Troops_advance_Battle_of_Ginchy_09-09-1916_IWM_Q_1302.jpg

What was it like to be shelled in World War I? Here’s one description, from German officer Ernst Jünger’s 1920 memoir Storm of Steel:

It’s an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants of being hit. I think I have found a comparison that captures the situation in which I and all the other soldiers who took part in this war so often found ourselves: you must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it’s cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it’s struck the post, and the splinters are flying — that’s what it’s like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position.

And several more, collected in Arnold D. Harvey’s A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War (1998):

For the civilians herded into the ranks the sounds of shell and bullet were strange and unexpected as well as frightening and called out for description. At close quarters an artillery barrage sounded ‘as though the earth were cracking up like an egg of super-gigantic proportions tapped by a gargantuan spoon': it created, according to the same witness, ‘A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold: only the rattle of the machine-gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rises above it’. At a greater distance it was ‘like someone kicking footballs — a soft bumping, miles away’, or a noise, felt rather than heard ‘like the beating of one’s heart after running’. A German infantry officer recalled, ‘If you put your hands over your ears and then drum your fingers vigorously on the back of your head, then you get some idea of what the drumfire sounded like to us’.

“The sound of an approaching shell, it was claimed, ‘can be imitated by a suitable rendering of the sentences, “Who are you? I am (these words being drawn out to full length) — (a slight pause) — Krupp (very short and sharp!).”‘”

(Thanks, Ross.)

Babel Fishing

“But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.”

So says Casca to Cassius in Julius Caesar, and the expression has been current in our language for 400 years. In 1978, Arnold Rosenberg of the IBM Research Center began to wonder: If we can take that as a general consensus that Greek is harder than English, then perhaps we could seek similar expressions in other languages and so discover the hardest natural language. For example, if Germans say “That seems like Spanish to me” (Das kommt mir spanisch vor), and Finns say “It is totally Hebrew to me” (Se on minulle tāyttā hepreaa), then arguably Spanish is harder than German and Hebrew is harder than Finnish. Rosenberg set about collecting such idioms, and the final picture was surprisingly clear:

http://people.cs.umass.edu/~rsnbrg/hardest.pdf

“Although we have found numerous hardest languages in our quest, we must acknowledge the special position of Chinese among the hardest languages,” he concluded. “If we were backed into a corner and forced to select a single language that deserved the designation ‘hardest,’ then, in terms of popular consensus, of geographical consensus, and of cultural consensus … Chinese would be the hands-down winner.”

(Arnold L. Rosenberg, “The Hardest Natural Languages,” Lingvisticæ Investigationes, June 1979.)

Extended Tour

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yang_Kyoungjong.jpg

In 1938, 18-year-old Korean soldier Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted into the Japanese army to fight against the Soviet Union.

He was captured by the Red Army, which pressed him into fighting the Nazis on the eastern front.

In 1943 he was captured by the Germans, who forced him to fight the invading Allies at Normandy.

There he was captured by American paratroopers in June 1944.

This means he fought for three different armies during World War II, and was captured each time. He died in Illinois in 1992.

Black and White

taylor chess problem

By I.O. Howard Taylor. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Stone Cold

“A cactolith is a quasihorizontal chonolith composed of anastomosing ductoliths whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith.”

That’s from USGS researcher Charles B. Hunt’s 1953 paper “Geology and Geography of the Henry Mountains Region, Utah.” He was describing an actual geological feature — but also commenting on the absurd profusion of -lith words in geology.

Word Ways chose it as its word of the year for 2010.