Witchery

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

In April 1861, Thaddeus Lowe set out from Cincinnati in the balloon Enterprise, hoping to reach the eastern seaboard. After wandering 900 miles he came down in Unionville, S.C., where he received a rather cold welcome:

Many of them thought Mr. Lowe was an inhabitant of some ethereal or infernal region, who had floated to the earth to do damage to its inhabitants. He thought he would pacify them by showing that he could live on the substantial things of earth just as they did; so he took from the basket a variety of cakes, crackers, bread and butter, cold meats, etc. He also passed out several India-rubber bottles of water which had frozen solid, and to let them realize how cold it was in the upper region of the atmosphere where he had been, he cut one of them open and took out a large mold of ice, shaped exactly like the bottle. This was the worst thing he could have done, for immediately one man asked how any one but a devil could put so large a piece of ice through so small a place as the nozzle. At last an old dissipated man suggested that one who was capable of doing such things was too dangerous to run loose and moved that he be ‘shot on the spot where he had dropped from the skies.’

He won his freedom only by appealing to the officers of South Carolina College, who knew Smithsonian secretary (and ballooning enthusiast) Joseph Henry.

On the way back to Cincinnati, Lowe stopped at a meeting of the Tennessee legislature. He became the first to notify Lincoln of that state’s decision to secede.

(William Jones Rhees, “Reminiscences of Ballooning in the Civil War,” Chautauquan, June 1898.)

Podcast Episode 104: The Harvey’s Casino Bombing

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

In August 1980, an extortionist planted a thousand-pound bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in western Nevada. Unless the owners paid him $3 million within 24 hours, he said, the bomb would go off and destroy the casino. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the tense drama that followed and the FBI’s efforts to catch the criminal behind it.

We’ll also consider some dubious lawn care shortcuts and puzzle over why a man would tear up a winning ticket.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on the Harvey’s bombing:

Jim Sloan, Render Safe: The Untold Story of the Harvey’s Bombing, 2011.

Adam Higginbotham, “1,000 Pounds of Dynamite,” The Atavist 39.

“5 Charged in Harveys Bombing,” Associated Press, Aug. 17, 1981.

“Five Suspects Arrested in Harvey’s Extortion Bombing,” Associated Press, Aug. 17, 1981.

“Son Pitted Against Father in Harvey’s Bombing Trial,” Associated Press, Oct. 17, 1982.

Robert Macy, “Ex-Freedom Fighter Found Guilty of Bombing Hotel,” Telegraph, Oct. 23, 1982.

Melinda Beck, “A Real Harvey’s Wallbanger,” Newsweek, Sept. 8, 1980.

Phillip L. Sublett, “30 Years Later: Trail of Clues Led Authorities to Harvey’s Casino Bombers,” Tahoe Daily Tribune, Aug. 28, 2010.

Guy Clifton, “35 Years Ago Today: The Bomb That Shook Lake Tahoe,” Reno Gazette-Journal, Aug. 26, 2015.

A brief FBI article about the case.

Full text of the extortion note.

Video discussion of the case by retired FBI special agent Chris Ronay (transcript):

Listener mail:

The imgur gallery with the German saboteur cache is here — click the link “Load remaining 44 images” just above the comments to see the photo we mentioned.

The book quoted by Stephanie Guertin is Weapons of the Navy SEALs, by Kevin Dockery, 2004.

Video of workers spray-painting the ground in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Malcolm Moore, “China Officials Caught Spray-Painting Grass Green in Chengdu,” Telegraph, March 4, 2013.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Matt Sargent.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

The Vague Specific

In Collier’s in 1949, Richard B. Gehman identified a troubling feature of American language — the tendency to refer to specific things vaguely.

“Say, what about all those things in the front room?” his wife had asked him, supposing that he knew what she meant. “I didn’t,” Gehman wrote. “For all I knew, ‘those things’ could have been the furniture, books, rugs, magazines, lamps, or the remnants of a sandwich I’d been eating.”

Some more examples:

  • “Here,” my wife said, “you can take these. … Put them with those things behind the others.”
  • “Remember the girl from the place with the stuff? Well, she’s here.”
  • “The men came today.” (Gehman tried asking, “What did you tell them?”, but she only answered, “I told them to go ahead.”)
  • “Do you remember that time we were at the shore, and it rained?”
  • “When was it that we had the Coes over?”
  • “The woman’s here for the money.”
  • “What was the name of that couple we met the time we went to the Zeamers’?”
  • “What’s the name of that fellow who drives the truck?”

A neighbor appeared at Gehman’s door one day and asked his help in repairing a washing machine — his wife had said that the thing on its side was acting funny. “He sighed, and asked if I had anything to drink in the house.”

“A Victim of Irregularity”

Though no great catch, this man was caught,
And neighbors tell, I’m told,
That oft, with scratch, his face was scraught,
Till fearful yells he yold.

In sink of sadness almost sunk,
To quit all strife he strove —
And after he a think had thunk,
A happier life he love.

To steal a kiss, no more he stole;
To make a break, he broke;
To remedy the deal he’d dole,
A secret sneak he snoke.

Fate’s dice with crafty shake he shook;
As gamblers feel he felt;
But ere the final stake he stook
A bitter squeal he squelt.

Of earlier days, I think, he thought,
Ere Hymen’s bonds had bound —
Before his links were firmly lought —
When he by blond was blound.

A stroke for liberty he struck;
For in a fly he flew —
But though full many a joke he juck,
A secret cry he crew.

Then stings of conscience no more stung,
And so in peace he slept;
For, on the wings of Morpheus brung,
In Paradise he pept.

— George B. Moregood, Puck, Oct. 2, 1912

Good Boy

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Briton_Rivi%C3%A8re_-_Requiescat_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

The best dog breeds to sit for paintings, according to British artist Briton Rivière:

The best dog to sit is an animal which I am afraid I must admit I thoroughly dislike — an intelligent poodle. Many dogs are a long time before they grasp what is wanted of them, and one has to go through no small amount of patience to get them to behave themselves. The most restless sitters are the collie and the deerhound. Still, notwithstanding their restlessness, I am very fond of both, and have frequently painted them. Perhaps the dog I admire most is the bloodhound; but, as a matter of fact, I am fond of all short-haired dogs.

He also found greyhounds and fox terriers to be restless. “Some dogs are very difficult to manage, but however awkward and ill-tempered a dog may be, in time he gets used to the studio. I have watched a dog for hours at a time, until I have been able to get exactly what I wanted, for however troublesome an animal may be, it is only a question of waiting, when you will be sure to get what you want.”

(From The Strand, January 1896.)

“Courage”

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/File:Amelia_Earhart_-_GPN-2002-000211.jpg

A poem written by Amelia Earhart in 1928:

Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote in a final letter left to her husband. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

The Discursive Dilemma

The employees of a company are trying to decide whether to give up a pay raise so they can afford to install a workplace safety measure. Each employee will vote for the sacrifice if she thinks the danger is sufficiently serious, if the safety measure is sufficiently effective, and if the pay sacrifice is sufficiently bearable. Otherwise she’ll vote against it. The three employees come to this result:

discursive dilemma

This is troubling: A majority of employees supports each of the criteria, and yet each of the three resolves to reject the proposal. If the employees reach their decision by comparing their views about the measure as a whole, then they’ll reject the pay sacrifice. But if they compare their views about each criterion, they’ll accept it.

Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit worries that this phenomenon makes it impossible for us to make confident statements about the beliefs of a group. “Going the conclusion-driven way means adopting a course that is inconsistent with the premises endorsed by the group, and going the premise-driven way means adopting a course that a majority individually reject.”

Both outcomes are undesirable. “Going the first way means sacrificing collective rationality for the sake of responsiveness to individuals, going the second means sacrificing responsiveness to individuals for the sake of collective rationality.”

(Philip Pettit, “Deliberative Democracy and the Discursive Dilemma,” Philosophical Issues 11:1 [2001], 268-299.)