Podcast: Episode 19

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In 1898, 19-year-old W. Reginald Bray made a thorough study of British postal regulations, which laid out rules for mailing everything from bees to elephants and promised that “all letters must be delivered as addressed.” He resolved to give the service “a severe test without infringing its regulations.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the antics that followed, in which Bray sent turnips, bicycle pumps, shoes, and even himself through the British post. We’ll also sympathize with Lucius Chittenden, a U.S. Treasury official who had to sign 12,500 bonds in one harried weekend in 1862, and puzzle over the worrying train journey of a Wall Street banker.

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!

Leonardo’s Robot

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In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci devised a mechanical knight that could sit up, open and close its arms, move its head on flexible neck, and open its visor. The plans have been lost, but we know it was made of wood, brass, and leather and operated by cables, possibly driven by a water wheel. The Duke of Milan displayed it at a pageant near the end of the 15th century, perhaps at the wedding of his niece.

Roboticist Mark Elling Rosheim built a working replica of the knight in 2002 using the sketches that remain, detailed in his book Leonardo’s Lost Robots. He thinks it may have been designed to accost an unwary visitor by remote control. “It is almost like something one would find in an old time amusement park, a piece for the scary haunted mansion or tunnel of love — or a labyrinth, which was the 16th century equivalent. The Knight would be excellent at grabbing someone with its arms in a bear hug. … Perhaps the visor would rise, revealing a hideously contorted, sculpted face.”

“Perhaps the great mystery surrounding this lost robot of Leonardo can be summed up by the master himself in the giant scrapbook known as the Codex Atlanticus. In the sheets for this project, we read an incomplete sentence with which Leonardo tried out his pen: ‘Tell me if ever, tell me if ever anything was built in Rome …’ Leonardo may be expressing his frustration and anxiety about a project near and dear to his heart that because of external pressures could not be born.”

Rich Earth

Why do the elements ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, and erbium have similar names?

Because all four of them were first discovered in ore from the same mine near the Swedish village of Ytterby.

Holmium, thulium, and gadolinium were discovered at the same source — leading some to call Ytterby the Galápagos of the periodic table.

In a Word

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macrobian
adj. long-lived

annosity
n. fullness of years, length of life, agedness

Index entries from A. Lapthorn Smith’s How to Be Useful and Happy From Sixty to Ninety, 1922:

Absurdity of voluntary retirement at sixty
Adding ten years to life
Alcohol as cure for insomnia, very bad
All day in garden
Beard, long white, don’t wear
Carriage and pair shortens life
Cause of insomnia must be found
Cook, good, source of danger to elderly men
Crime to die rich
Engine drivers over sixty, what to do with them
Garrett, Mrs., of Penge, active voter at 102
If no relatives, spend on poor
Young people, company of, at sixty, how to keep

See Jonathan Swift’s “Resolutions — When I Come to Be Old.”

In the Know

You are quite correct in saying it is a long time since you have heard from me: in fact, I find that I have not written to you since the 13th of last November. But what of that? You have access to the daily papers. Surely you can find out negatively, that I am all right! Go carefully through the list of bankruptcies; then run your eye down the police cases; and, if you fail to find my name anywhere, you can say to your mother in a tone of calm satisfaction, ‘Mr. Dodgson is going on well.’

– Lewis Carroll to Edith Blakemore, Jan. 1, 1895

Small World

Willard Wigan makes tiny art. His sculptures are so small that they’re often presented literally in the eye of a needle; the painstaking work requires him to work late at night, when traffic vibrations are minimal, and to slow his own pulse so he can sculpt between hand tremors.

“It began when I was five years old,” he said. “I started making houses for ants because I thought they needed somewhere to live. Then I made them shoes and hats. It was a fantasy world I escaped to. That’s how my career as a micro-sculptor began.”

His tools include a paintbrush fashioned from a hair from the back of a dead fly. “I have to kill my body,” he told the BBC in 2009. “It’s almost like a dead man working. It takes so much out of you it almost sends you mad. I have passed out doing this work.”

Unquote

“Sweet is the remembrance of troubles when you are in safety.” — Euripides

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” — James Thurber

But:

“In every adversity of fortune, to have been happy is the most unhappy kind of misfortune.” — Boethius

Good Measure

Scottish writer Alasdair Gray is a practical joker. As his collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly was going to press in 1984, he called publisher Stephanie Wolfe Murray and said, “I want to have an erratum slip inserted.”

She said, “Oh God! What’s wrong? Surely we corrected everything. What do you want to say on it?”

He said, “I want it to say: THIS ERRATUM SLIP HAS BEEN INSERTED BY MISTAKE.”

“Of course we said yes immediately,” remembered Wolfe Murray, “but it was a hell of a nuisance, having to get it inserted into every single book, and expensive probably, but well worth it. All of us thought so.”

An Untranslatable Poem

In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:

rua
      torta

                       lua
                             morta

                                              tua
                                                    porta.

Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.

“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.

“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”

Math Notes

12 + 22 + 32 + 42 – (52 + 62 + 72 + 82 + 92 + 102 + 112 + 122) + 132 + 142 + 152 = 0

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