First Steps

The earliest known film comedy, Louis Lumière’s 1895 L’Arroseur arrosé (“The Waterer Watered”) is also one of the first film narratives of any kind — before this, movies tended simply to demonstrate the medium, depicting a sneeze, for example, or the arrival of a train.

This was also the first film with a dedicated poster (below) — making this simple 45-second story the forerunner of all modern film comedies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cin%C3%A9matographe_Lumi%C3%A8re.jpg

Silver and Gold

I know of only one triple pun that is also an accurate touché. A visitor who came in upon the wife of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree while she was giving her daughter a geography lesson, asked the child: ‘What is the capital of the Rothschilds?’ Answered the mother: ‘Bering Straits.’ (The Baring family, it is perhaps permissible to add, were the great rival English bankers.)

— Louis Kronenberger, The Cutting Edge, 1970

Podcast Episode 183: An Everest Mystery

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mount_Everest_from_Kala_Patther.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1924 two British mountaineers set out to be the first to conquer Mount Everest. But they never returned to camp, and to this day no one knows whether they reached the top. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the case of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, which has been called “one of the greatest unsolved adventure mysteries of the 20th century.”

We’ll also learn what to do if attacked by a bear and puzzle over the benefits of a water shortage.

See full show notes …

The Last Digit

A problem from the 1996 Georg Mohr mathematics competition in Denmark:

n is a positive integer. The next-to-last digit in the decimal expression of n2 is 7. What’s the last digit?

Click for Answer

Farewell

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-L15327,_Spanien,_Heinrich_Himmler_bei_Franco.jpg

Politicians and public figures may well care to ponder the story of the death of Franco. Surrounded on his deathbed by his faithful generals, he heard outside, beyond the heavily drawn curtains, a strange subdued noise like the sea, and asked someone to investigate. An aide did. He looked down from the palace balcony and returned with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes and reported: ‘Caudillo, it is the people. Thousands of them. They have come to say goodbye.’ And Franco raised himself on one elbow and barked: ‘Why? Where are they going?’

— British Airways parliamentary affairs officer Norman Lornie to Jack Aspinwall, MP, for his 2004 collection Tell Me Another!

Cameo

https://books.google.com/books?id=lMskAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA525

One more Sherlock Holmes oddity: “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” appeared in the Strand in 1893. In it, Holmes tells Watson, “As a medical man, you are aware, Watson, that there is no part of the body which varies so much as the human ear. Each ear is as a rule quite distinctive and differs from all other ones. In last year’s Anthropological Journal you will find two short monographs from my pen upon the subject.”

Just a few months later, in October and November 1893, the Strand published “A Chapter on Ears,” analyzing the ears of famous Britons. Interestingly, the article carries no byline. Was it inspired by the story, or is it the work of Sherlock Holmes himself?

Christopher Morley noted that one of the featured ears was that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Surely, from so retiring a philosopher, then eighty-four years old, this intimate permission could not have been had without the privileged intervention of Sherlock.”

RSS Quiz

Another holiday challenge: The Royal Statistical Society’s 2017 Christmas quiz presents 13 problems that require general knowledge, logic, and lateral thinking but no particular math skills. For example:

4. CAN YOU DIG IT? [11 points]

Identify the following from the clues. What do all ten answers have in common?

  • A cockerel of human dimensions, performed by a prolific informer
  • William’s book (1956), Charles’s film (1957), or Mike & Al’s song (1971)
  • Challenger first appeared here, over a century ago
  • A cricketer, a rugby player, or a commentator
  • 2001 boy-band album – a remix of “NOW FOR LOUD ROW”
  • The official title of Guinness
  • One who reigned for almost 999 million seconds
  • King’s collection, ordered by cards
  • The Bassett country residence, according to Plum
  • ATR co-founder, name-checked by “The Tiger” between The Slits and Dickens

You can use any tools or resources you like, including books, search engines, and computer programs. Anyone can enter, and you stand to win £150 if you’re an RSS member. The deadline for entries is January 7. The full quiz is here.

(Thanks, Dave.)

Double Dealing

A play is put on that Mr. Baker wants to see. Tickets cost $10. Consider two situations:

  1. Baker buys a ticket but loses it on the way into the theater.
  2. Baker arrives at the ticket window and realizes that he’s lost $10 from his wallet.

What’s the likelihood in each case that Baker will buy a ticket to see the show?

People tend to say that Mr. Baker won’t buy a ticket in Case 1 but will in Case 2, because they see the loss of the money and the purchase of the ticket as unrelated. But in both cases the net outcome is the same: Baker has lost $10 and still has to spend another $10.

This example was made famous by cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky, who exploded many presumptions about how people make decisions about risks, benefits, and probabilities. “The difference between the two cases is due to a psychological bias, which is known as ‘mental budget allocation,'” explains Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in Inevitable Illusions (1994). “As cognitive scientists and economists who study the psychological foundations of negotiation well know — as does (at least implicitly) anyone used to making deals — all of us have a resistance to ‘overspend’ a certain particular budget. In this case, the ticket budget would be overspent by Baker in the first scenario, but not in the second.” It’s a bias, but it seems so natural that many of us tend to overlook it.

Plain Sailing

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dans_la_for%C3%AAt_du_Tron%C3%A7ais_(03)_-_panoramio.jpg

In 1670, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ordered the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to provide masts for the French navy 200 years hence. His order established one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe, carefully interplanted with beeches and larches to encourage them to grow straight, tall, and free of knots.

By the time they matured, in the 19th century, they were no longer necessary. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.”