Encounter

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Klee_Eine_Art_Katze_1937.jpg

We had a dark grey cat (Norfolk bred, very Norfolk in character) called Tom. He was reserved, domineering, voluptuous — much as I imagine Tiber to be. When he was middle-aged he gave up nocturnal prowlings and slept on my bed, against my feet. One evening I was reading in bed when I became aware that Tom was staring at me. I put down my book, said nothing, watched. Slowly, with a look of intense concentration, he got up and advanced on me, like Tarquin with ravishing strides, poised himself, put out a front paw, and stroked my cheek as I used to stroke his chops. A human caress from a cat. I felt very meagre and ill-educated that I could not purr. It had never occurred to me that their furry love develops from what was shown them as kittens.

— Sylvia Townsend Warner, letter to David Garnett, June 18, 1973, quoted in The Oxford Book of Friendship

A Magic Jigsaw

A “self-interlocking” geomagic square by Lee Sallows. The 16 lettered pieces pave a single large square, and smaller squares can be produced by various groups of four pieces — those drawn from each row, column, and long diagonal, and 10 other symmetrically chosen quartets.

In a Word

greenswardsmanship
n. the cultivation of an unusually and enviably excellent lawn

Where’s the Father?

A mother is 21 years older than her son. Six years from now, she will be five times his age. Where’s the father?

I won’t give the answer to this one — if you do the math, you’ll know precisely where he is.

Podcast: Episode 25

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On Dec. 1, 1948, a well-dressed corpse appeared on a beach in South Australia. Despite 66 years of investigation, no one has ever been able to establish who the man was, how he came to be there, or even how he died.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll delve into the mystery of the Somerton man, a fascinating tale that involves secret codes, a love triangle, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We’ll also hear Franklin Adams praise the thesaurus and puzzle over some surprising consequences of firing a gun.

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!

Fiction and Feeling

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Green_Slime_(1968_movie_poster).jpg

A puzzle from University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton:

“Charles is watching a horror movie about a terrible green slime. He cringes in his seat as the slime oozes slowly but relentlessly over the earth, destroying everything in its path. Soon a greasy head emerges from the undulating mas, and two beady eyes fix on the camera. The slime, picking up speed, oozes on a new course straight toward the viewers. Charles emits a shriek and clutches desperately at his chair. Afterwards, still shaken, he confesses that he was ‘terrified’ of the slime.”

Was he? Walton says no. Charles may have felt intense fear, even shrieking as the slime approached the camera. But he knew that he was not literally in danger. This was not a half-belief or a “gut” feeling — he never considered leaving the theater or calling the police, for instance. Charles wasn’t motivated to avoid the slime physically. Yet he says that what he felt was fear of the slime.

What are we to make of this? “This issue is of fundamental importance,” Walton writes. “It is crucially related to the basic question of why and how fiction is important, why we find it valuable, why we do not dismiss novels, films, and plays as ‘mere fiction’ and hence unworthy of serious attention.” What is the answer?

(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” Journal of Philosophy, January 1978.)

A Painting Conundrum

painting conundrum

From Stephen Barr’s Experiments in Topology (1989) via Miodrag Petkovic’s Mathematics and Chess (1997):

This apartment contains eight rooms, each measuring 9 square meters, except for the top one, which measures 18 square meters. You have enough red paint to cover 27 square meters, enough yellow paint to cover 27 square meters, enough green paint to cover 18 square meters, and enough blue paint to cover 9 square meters. Can you paint the eight floors in four colors so that each room neighbors rooms of the other three colors?

Click for Answer

“A Rough Justice”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Watson-Watt.JPG

British inventor Sir Robert Watson-Watt pioneered the development of radar, a contribution that helped the Royal Air Force win the Battle of Britain. Ironically, after the war he was pulled over for speeding by a Canadian policeman wielding a radar gun. His wife tried to point out the absurdity of the situation, but the officer wasn’t interested, and the couple drove away with a $12.50 fine. Watson-Watt wrote this poem:

Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot

And thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.

His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly

but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist

and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.

Oh Frankenstein who lost control
of monsters man created whole,

with fondest sympathy regard
one more hoist with his petard.

As for you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,

particularly those whose mission
deals in the realm of nuclear fission,

pause and contemplate fate’s counter plot
and learn with us what’s Watson-Watt.

(Thanks, Chris.)

Black and White

shinkman chess problem

By William Anthony Shinkman. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Round Trip

A time-travel paradox from Robin Le Poidevin’s Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003:

Tim is spending the summer holiday at his grandfather’s house in rural Sussex. Bored one day, he wanders into his grandfather’s library. On one of the more remote shelves, Tim discovers a dusty book with no title on its spine. Opening it, he sees it is a diary, written in a familiar hand. With a growing sense of wonder he realizes that one of the entries provides detailed instructions on how to build a time machine. Over the next few years, following the instructions to the last detail, Tim builds such a machine. It is finally completed, and he steps on board, and throws the switch. Instantly, he is transported back fifty years. Unfortunately, both the machine and book are destroyed in the process. Tim writes down everything he can remember in a diary. He cannot rebuild the machine, however, because it requires technology that is not yet available. Reconciled to getting back to the twenty-first century by the traditional method of doing nothing and letting time carry one back, he marries and has a daughter. The family move to a rambling mansion in rural Sussex. The diary is left to gather dust in the library. Years later, Tim’s grandson, spending his summer holidays with his grandfather, discovers the diary.

“The identity of Tim will be obvious,” writes Le Poidevin, “and this in itself is rather strange. But the question we are concerned with is this: where did the inforation on how to build a time machine come from? From the diary, of course, which itself was written by Tim. But where did he get the information from? From the very same diary! So the information has appeared from nowhere. At no stage has someone worked out for themselves how to build a time machine and passed on the information. The existence of this information is therefore utterly mysterious.”

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