Last Words

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amelia_earhart_1937.jpg

Amelia Earhart left behind what she called “popping off letters,” to be opened in the event of her death. This one, discovered by her husband and biographer, George Putnam, was addressed to her father:

May 20, 1928

Dearest Dad:

Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway. You know that.

I have no faith we’ll meet anywhere again, but I wish we might.

Anyway, good-by and good luck to you.

Affectionately, your doter,

Mill

Another, addressed to her mother, read simply, “Even though I have lost, the adventure was worth while. Our family tends to be too secure. My life has really been very happy, and I don’t mind contemplating its end in the midst of it.”

Human Relations

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Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:

  • To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
  • Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
  • When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
  • When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
  • In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
  • When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
  • Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
  • Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.

Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”

Black and White

loyd chess problem

By Sam Loyd. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gr%C3%BCtzner_Benediktinerm%C3%B6nch_mit_Wein_beim_Fr%C3%BChschoppen.jpg

abbey-lubber
n. a monk living in idleness and self-indulgence

Chinese Magic Mirrors

During China’s Han dynasty, artisans began casting solid bronze mirrors with a perplexing property. The front of each mirror was a polished, reflective surface, and the back featured a design that had been cast into the bronze. But if light were cast from the mirrored side onto a wall, the design would appear there as if by magic.

The mirrors first came to the attention of the West in the early 19th century, and their secret eluded investigators for 100 years until British physicist William Bragg worked it out in 1932. Each mirror had been cast flat with the design on the reverse side, giving the disk a varying thickness. As the front was polished to produce a convex mirror, the thinner parts of the disk bulged outward slightly. These imperfections are invisible to direct inspection; as Bragg wrote, “Only the magnifying effect of reflection makes them plain.”

Joseph Needham, the historian of ancient Chinese science, calls this “the first step on the road to knowledge about the minute structure of metal surfaces.”

Critical Sensitivity

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_Woollcott_(1939).jpg

Alexander Woollcott set a world record for the shortest review of a Broadway play.

The play was titled Wham!

Woollcott’s review, in full, read “Ouch!”

Podcast Episode 49: Can a Kitten Climb the Matterhorn?


In 1950 newspapers around the world reported that a 10-month-old kitten had climbed the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll wonder whether even a very determined kitty could accomplish such a feat.

We’ll also marvel at a striking demonstration of dolphin intelligence and puzzle over a perplexed mechanic.

My own original post about Matt, the kitten who climbed the Matterhorn, appeared on Dec. 17, 2011. Reader Stephen Wilson directed me to this page, which rehearses the original London Times story (from Sept. 7, 1950) and adds a confirming account from a Times reader that appeared on Sept. 10, 1975.

Further sources:

“A Cat Climbs the Matterhorn,” Miami News, Oct. 19, 1950 (reprinting an editorial, I think, from the San Francisco Chronicle).

“Cat-Climbing on the Matterhorn,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 9, 1950.

“Mere Kitten Conquers Matterhorn,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, Sept. 7, 1950.

Here’s a photo of the Solvay hut at 12,556 feet, where the kitten reportedly spent the first night of its three-day climb:

Sources for our feature on porpoise trainer Karen Pryor:

Karen Pryor, Lads Before the Wind, 1975.

Thomas White, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, 2008.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

Also by Loot Crate — go to http://www.lootcrate.com/CLOSET and enter code CLOSET to save $3 on any new subscription.

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.

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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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Turing’s Paintbrush

aaron's garden

Shortly after joining the faculty of UC San Diego in 1968, British artist Harold Cohen asked, “What are the minimum conditions under which a set of marks functions as an image?” He set out to answer this by writing a computer program that would create original artistic images.

The result, which he dubbed AARON, has been drawing new images since 1973, first still lifes, then people, then full interior scenes with color. These have been exhibited in galleries throughout the world.

Carnegie Mellon philosopher David E. Carrier writes, “A majority of the viewers of AARON’s work find recognizable shapes in it; the drawing above appears to contain human figures. But AARON here used only the twenty or thirty rules it usually uses, with no special reference to human beings. Does knowing this tell us something about the structure of representation?”

Cohen asks, “If what AARON is making is not art, what is it exactly, and in what ways, other than its origin, does it differ from the ‘real thing?’ If it is not thinking, what exactly is it doing?”

“At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems to me that one of the things human beings find interesting about drawings in general is that they are made by other human beings, and here you are watching the image develop as if it is being developed by another human being. … When the drawing is finished, it functions as a human drawing. … A large part of what we value in art is not the ability of the artist to communicate special meanings, but rather the ability of the artist to present the viewer with something that stimulates the viewer’s own propensity to generate meaning.”

Unshelved

Nominations are currently open for the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. This year’s candidates:

  • Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen
  • Advanced Pavement Research, edited by Bo Tian
  • The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing-Loh
  • Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson
  • Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the People That Used to Love Them, by Diana Rajchel
  • The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home, by Melissa Margaret Schneider
  • Strangers Have the Best Candy, by Margaret Meps Schulte

Recent winners have included How to Poo on a Date, by Mats & Enzo (2013), Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley (2012), Cooking With Poo, by Saiyuud Diwong (2011), Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way, by Michael R. Young (2010), and Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina (2009).

You can vote here. “This is one of strongest years I have seen in more than three decades of administering the prize, which highlights the crème de la crème of unintentionally nonsensical, absurd and downright head-scratching titles,” said The Bookseller‘s Horace Bent, who organizes the contest. “Let other awards cheer the contents within, the Diagram will always continually judge the book by its cover (title).”

Offside

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen._Sir_William_Howe.jpg

After the Battle of Germantown in 1777, an American soldier approached the British line carrying a white flag, a fox terrier, and a note:

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar, appears to belong to General Howe.

An officer conveyed the dog to British general Sir William Howe:

The General seemed most pleased at the return of the dog. He took him upon his lap, seemingly uncaring that the mud from the dog’s feet soiled his tunic. Whilst he stroked the dog, he discovered a tightly folded message that had been secreted under the dog’s wide collar. The General read the message, which seemed to have a good effect upon him. Although I know not what it said, it is likely to have been penned by the commander of the rebellion.

There’s no record of what this second note said, but Sir William later referred to the incident as “an honorable act of a gentleman.”

(Caroline Tiger, General Howe’s Dog, 2005.)

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