Return to Sender

Mathematician Yutaka Nishiyama of the Osaka University of Economics has designed a nifty paper boomerang that you can use indoors. A free PDF template (with instructions in 70 languages!) is here.

Hold it vertically, like a paper airplane, and throw it straight ahead at eye level, snapping your wrist as you release it. The greater the spin, the better the performance. It should travel 3-4 meters in a circle and return in 1-2 seconds. Catch it between your palms.

Podcast Episode 30: The Oak Island Money Pit


http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Oak_Island,_Nova_Scotia#mediaviewer/File:Digs_and_Buildings,_photo_2,_Oak_Island,_Nova_Scotia,_Canada,_August_1931.jpg

Nova Scotia’s Oak Island hides a famously booby-trapped treasure cache — or so goes the legend. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we review the many attempts to recover the treasure and wonder who could have engineered such a site, what might be hidden there — and whether, indeed, it contains anything at all. We also puzzle over what a woman’s errands can tell us about how her husband died.

Sources for our segment on Oak Island:

“The Secrets of Oak Island”, Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2000.

Richard Joltes, “History, Hoax, and Hype: The Oak Island Legend”, Critical Enquiry, accessed Oct. 19, 2014.

Edwin Teale, “Mystery Island Baffles Treasure Hunters,” Popular Science, May 1939.

D’Arcy O’Connor, The Money Pit, 1978.

The image above shows the dig as it existed in August 1931. Below is 27-year-old Franklin Roosevelt (third from right) at the 1909 dig:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Photograph_of_Franklin_D._Roosevelt_and_Others_at_Oak_Island_in_Nova_Scotia_-_NARA_-_196803.tif

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nicholas Madrid.

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.

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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vitilitigate
v. to be particularly quarrelsome

rixation
n. a quarrel or argument

cavillation
n. the raising of quibbles

snoutband
n. one who constantly contradicts his companions

The Modern Prometheus

jacobson railroad

By 1958 many of the attributes of living things could be found in our technology: locomotion (cars), metabolism (steam engines), energy storage (batteries), perception of stimuli (iconoscopes), and nervous or cerebral activity (computers). The missing element was reproduction: We hadn’t yet created a nonliving artifact that could make copies of itself.

So Brooklyn College chemistry professor Homer Jacobson built one. Using an HO gauge model railroad, he designed an “organism” made of boxcars that could use sensors to select other cars on the track and assemble them on a siding into models of itself. “Head” cars have “brains,” and “tail” cars have “muscles” and “eyes”; together, a head and a tail make an organism in which the head directs the tail to watch for available cars elsewhere on the track and shunt them appropriately onto a siding to create a new organism.

“Any new ‘organisms’ formed continue the propagation in a linear fashion,” Jacobson wrote, “until the environment runs out of parts, or there are no more sidings available, or a mistake is made somewhere in the operation of a cycle, i.e., a ‘mutation.’ Such an effect, like that with living beings, is usually fatal.”

(Homer Jacobson, “On Models of Reproduction,” American Scientist, September 1958.)

Black and White

Herlin chess problem

By Theodore Adrien Louis Herlin. White to mate in two moves.

Click for solution …

An Unexpected Departure

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Irish_Setter_circa_1881.jpg

T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, shared his lonely life with a beloved Irish setter, Brownie, whom he called his child, wife, and mother, “myself with melting eye.” “It is a queer difference between this kind of thing and getting married,” he wrote, “that married people love each other at first (I understand) and it fades by use and custom, but with dogs you love them most at last.” In late November 1944 his friend David A. Garnett received this letter:

Dearest Bunny, Brownie died today. In all her 14 years of life I have only been away from her at night for 3 times, once to visit England for 5 days, once to have my appendix out and once for tonsils (2 days), but I did go in to Dublin about twice a year to buy books (9 hours away) and I thought she understood about this. To-day I went at 10, but the bloody devils had managed to kill her somehow when I got back at 7. She was in perfect health. I left her in my bed this morning, as it was an early start. Now I am writing with her dead head in my lap. I will sit up with her tonight, but tomorrow we must bury her. I don’t know what to do after that. I am only sitting up because of that thing about perhaps consciousness persisting a bit. She has been to me more perfect than anything else in all my life, and I have failed her at the end, an 180-1 chance. If it had been any other day I might have known that I had done my best. These fools here did not poison her — I will not believe that. But I could have done more. They kept rubbing her, they say. She looks quite alive. She was wife, mother, mistress & child. Please forgive me for writing this distressing stuff, but it is helping me. Her little tired face cannot be helped. Please do not write to me at all about her, for very long time, but tell me if I ought to buy another bitch or not, as I do not know what to think about anything. I am certain I am not going to kill myself about it, as I thought I might once. However, you will find this all very hysterical, so I may as well stop. I still expect to wake up and find it wasn’t. She was all I had.

love from TIM

Another letter followed:

Dear Bunny, Please forgive me writing again, but I am so lonely and can’t stop crying and it is the shock. I waked her for two nights and buried her this morning in a turf basket, all my eggs in one basket. Now I am to begin a new life and it is important to begin it right, but I find it difficult to think straight. It is about whether I ought to buy another dog or not. I am good to dogs, so from their point of view I suppose I ought. But I might not survive another bereavement like this in 12 years’ time, and dread to put myself in the way of it. If your father & mother & both sons had died at the same moment as Ray, unexpectedly, in your absence, you would know what I am talking about. Unfortunately Brownie was barren, like myself, and as I have rather an overbearing character I had made her live through me, as I lived through her. Brownie was my life and I am lonely for just such another reservoir for my love. But if I did get such reservoir it would die in about 12 years and at present I feel I couldn’t face that. Do people get used to being bereaved? This is my first time. I am feeling very lucky to have a friend like you that I can write to without being thought dotty to go on like that about mere dogs.

They did not poison her. It was one of her little heart attacks and they did not know how to treat it and killed her by the wrong kindnesses.

You must try to understand that I am and will remain entirely without wife or brother or sister or child and that Brownie supplied more than the place of these to me. We loved each other more and more every year.

He wrote later, “I have found … that the people who consider too close an affection between men and animals to be ‘unnatural’ are basing their prejudice on something real. It is the incompatibility of ages. It is in Lucretius. He says that centaurs cannot exist because the horse part would die before the man part. All I can do now is to remember her dead as I buried her, the cold grey jowl in the basket, and not as my heart’s blood, which she was for the last eight years of our twelve. I shall never be more than half a centaur now.”

The Vacuum Airship

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A conventional balloon rises because its airbag displaces a large volume of air. But the gas that fills the bag has some weight; it, along with the weight of the gondola, reduces the balloon’s total lift.

Realizing this, Italian monk Francesco Lana de Terzi in 1670 proposed a “vacuum airship,” a balloon whose airbag was filled with nothing at all. Since a vacuum weighs nothing, this should maximize the vehicle’s lift — the vacuum could displace a large volume of air without itself adding any weight.

In principle this might work; the problem is that the vacuum would tend to collapse its container, and building a shell sturdy enough to withstand it would leave us with a ship too heavy to lift. It’s not clear whether any material or structure could overcome this problem.

Unquote

“Man is an exception, whatever he is. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.” — G.K. Chesterton

Two Poems for Middle Age

Mezzo Cammin

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,–
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,–
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

— Longfellow

To the Natural World: At 37

Exquisite world, powerful, joyous, splendid,
Where, almost when we learn to live, our life is ended,
Where, when we gather our trophy errors in,
And face the array and cannot again begin
To make another life less fatal, less
Like a poor travesty of some greatness,
World, you rebuke us calmly, ceaselessly,
With mute round of rising sun and mimicking sea,
With flood and ebb and taciturn refrain
In round diurnal rings, waxing to wane.
Our mortal life runs through you its swift line
Closing no circle, marking its scratch design,
Fusiform, the spindle, this is its mortal shape;­–
O lovely world, midway in large landscape
I pause, look forward. Weakness with wisdom lie
Ahead with nodding age; error and energy
Behind, dim in regret and chaos where
I left my early self and got the despair
That seizes all who see how folly gone
Is their sweet youth with darkness sudden on.
World deign, for one moment, O deign to culminate
One wave in me; O in me consummate
Your surge with all beholding happy power.
So, overlapping once, here in the midway hour,
Let me watch outward splendor solemnly for
Life’s brief in all this bigness, O sun’s calm, O
Sea’s roar.

— Genevieve Taggard

Weighty Matters

From the Second All Soviet Union Mathematical Competition, Leningrad 1968:

On a teacher’s desk sits a balance scale, on which are a set of weights. On each weight is the name of at least one student. As each student enters the classroom, she moves all the weights that bear her name to the other side of the scale.

Before any students enter, the scale is tipped to the right. Prove that there’s some set of students that you can let into the room that will will tip the scale to the left.

Click for solution …

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