On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.
Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.
That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”
A classic puzzle from Jacques Ozanam’s Recreations Mathematiques et Physiques, 1723. Two slits (CD) and two holes (EF) are cut in a slip of paper, and a cherry stem is suspended as shown. The cherries are too large to fit through the holes. How can you free the stem and its cherries intact from the slip?
Belgian novelty restaurant Dinner in the Sky is aptly named: A crane hoists the guests, their table, and the wait staff 180 feet into the air for a 90-minute meal aloft. Founded in 2007 by a marketer and a bungee-jumping impresario, the company has expanded into 47 countries. Most of the food is prepared on the ground, where up to 44 guests sign liability waivers before being strapped into seats around two tables for the duration of the meal; guests are encouraged to use the restroom first, and the foods are chosen to avoid choking hazards.
Ithaa (below) is the world’s first undersea restaurant, an acrylic bubble located 5 meters under the Arabian Sea in the Maldives. Guests enter via a spiral staircase; the 5-by-9-meter main dining room seats 14 and offers a 270-degree view of the surrounding sea (including some of the same seafood that’s on the menu). Lunch for two costs around $120; that’s cheaper than dinner, and the view is best when the sun is shining.
In 2001 avant-garde composer William Basinski was trying to transfer some old tape loops to digital format, but he found that the original recordings had deteriorated so badly that the ferrite simply fell off the plastic backing as it passed the tape head. Intrigued, Basinski let the loops continue to cycle: the sounds grew more and more indistinct with each pass as the tape literally fell apart.
As it happened, the 9/11 attacks occurred on the morning he finished the project, and the devastation he videotaped from his rooftop seemed to sync with the new recordings. “I felt, with my experience being in New York at that time, and what I went through and what I saw my friends go through, I wanted to create an elegy,” he told NPR. “Yes, there’s that tie to 9/11. But the thing that moved me so profoundly in my studio right after this music happened was the redemptive quality. The music isn’t just decaying — it does, it dies — but the entire life and death of each of these unique melodies was recorded to another medium for eternity.”
Related: In 1969 composer Alvin Lucier recorded a paragraph of speech, then repeatedly played it back and re-recorded it, so that his voice merged gradually into a portrait of the room’s resonant frequencies.
Here’s a modern homage to Lucier using YouTube, showing the effects of ripping and uploading the same file 1,000 times:
In his Book of Good Love (1330), Juan Ruiz tells of a silent debate between Greece and Rome. The Romans had no laws and asked the Greeks to give them some. The Greeks feared that they were too ignorant and challenged them first to prove themselves before the wise men of Greece. The Romans agreed to a debate but asked that it be conducted in gestures, as they did not understand the Greek language. The Greeks put forward a learned scholar, and the Romans, feeling themselves at a disadvantage, put forward a ruffian and told him to use whatever gestures he felt inspired to make.
The two mounted high seats before the assembled crowd. The Greek held out his index finger, and the Roman responded with his thumb, index, and middle fingers. The Greek held out his open palm, and the Roman responded with a fist. Then the Greek announced that the Romans deserved to be given laws.
Each side then asked its champion to explain what had happened.
They asked the Greek what he had said to the Roman by his gestures, and what he had answered him. He said: ‘I said that there is one God; the Roman said He was One in Three Persons, and made a sign to that effect.
Next I said that all was by the will of God; he answered that God held everything in his power, and he spoke truly. When I saw that they understood and believed in the Trinity, I understood that they deserved assurance of [receiving] laws.’
They asked the hoodlum what his notion was; he replied: ‘He said that with his finger he would smash my eye; I was mighty unhappy about this and I got mighty angry, and I answered him with rage, with answer, and with fury,
that, right in front of everybody, I would smash his eyes with my two fingers and his teeth with my thumb; right after that he told me to watch him because he would give me a big slap on my ears [that would leave them] ringing.
I answered him that I would give him such a punch that in all his life he would never get even for it. As soon as he saw that he had the quarrel in bad shape, he quit making threats in a spot where they thought nothing of him.’
Ruiz writes, “This is why the proverb of the shrewd old woman says, ‘No word is bad if you don’t take it badly.’ You will see that my word is well said if it is well understood.”
Many German beer brands combine a place name with the word Hell, which means “pale” and indicates a pale lager:
In 2010 German businessman Florian Krause recalled that he’d grown up near an Austrian village called Fucking:
So he brewed a pale lager and named it for the town:
The European Union trademark office initially balked at registering the name, but Krause explained his thinking and they accepted it. “The word combination claimed contains no semantic indication that could refer to a certain person or group of persons,” the office noted. “Nor does it incite a particular act.”
“It cannot even be understood as an instruction that the reader should go to hell.”
Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man’s attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization.
We’ll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake.
In 1978, inspired by this Peanuts cartoon, Nathaniel Hellerstein invented the Linus sequence, a sequence of 1s and 2s in which each new entry is chosen the prevent the longest possible pattern from emerging at the end of the line. Start with 1:
Now if the second digit were also a 1 then we’d have a repeating pattern. So enter a 2:
If we choose 2 for the third entry we’ll have “2 2” at the end of the line, another emerging pattern. Prevent that by choosing 1:
1 2 1
Now what? Choosing 2 would give us the disastrously tidy 1 2 1 2, so choose 1 again:
1 2 1 1
But now the 1s at the end are looking rather pleased with themselves, so choose 2:
1 2 1 1 2
And so on. The rule is to avoid the longest possible “doubled suffix,” the longest possible repeated string of digits at the end of the sequence. For example, choosing 1 at this point would give us 1 2 1 1 2 1, in which the end of the sequence (indeed, the entire sequence) is a repeated string of three digits. Choosing 2 avoids this, so we choose that.