A Better Promise

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge.png

In 1889, the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka introduced a circle dance that he said would drive the whites out of America and restore the country to the Native Americans. As the Ghost Dance spread throughout the West, an alarmed U.S. government ordered it stamped out, which led to several violent encounters. When the Chicago Tribune published an editorial condemning the dance, Massa Hadjo, a Sioux, responded:

You say, ‘If the United States army would kill a thousand or so of the dancing Indians there would be no more trouble.’ I judge by the above language you are a ‘Christian,’ and are disposed to do all in your power to advance the cause of Christ. You are doubtless a worshiper of the white man’s Saviour, but are unwilling that the Indians should have a ‘Messiah’ of their own.

The Indians have never taken kindly to the Christian religion as preached and practiced by the whites. Do you know why this is the case? Because the Good Father of all has given us a better religion — a religion that is all good and not bad, a religion that is adapted to our wants. You say if we are good, obey the Ten Commandments and never sin any more, we may be permitted eventually to sit upon a white rock and sing praises to God forevermore, and look down upon our heathen fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who are howling in hell.

It won’t do. The code of morals as practiced by the white race will not compare with the morals of the Indians. We pay no lawyers or preachers, but we have not one-tenth part of the crime that you do. If our Messiah does come we shall not try to force you into our belief. We will never burn innocent women at the stake or pull men to pieces with horses because they refuse to join in our ghost dances. … You are anxious to get hold of our Messiah, so you can put him in irons. This you may do — in fact, you may crucify him as you did that other one, but you cannot convert the Indians to the Christian religion until you contaminate them with the blood of the white man. The white man’s heaven is repulsive to the Indian nature, and if the white man’s hell suits you, why, you keep it. I think there will be white rogues enough to fill it.

Three weeks later, at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army killed more than 200 Lakota.

(Massa Hadjo, “An Indian on the Messiah Craze,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 5, 1890.)

A Peek Ahead

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winslow_Homer_-_The_Houses_of_Parliament.jpg

Readers of the London Evening Standard saw a startling headline on Nov. 10, 1971: “The Prophecy H.G. Wells Made About Tonight’s Standard.” Wells had published a story in 1932 in which a man unaccountably receives a copy of the newspaper from 40 years in the future. “He found himself surveying a real evening newspaper,” Wells wrote, “which was dealing so far as he could see at the first onset, with the affairs of another world.”

Most of “The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper” is devoted to Wells’ prophecies regarding world events in 1971, and most of these, unfortunately, are misses. Newspapers today are printed in color and the Soviet Union has fallen, but geothermal energy has not replaced the age of combustion, body clothing has not (quite) been reduced to a minimum, finance and nationalism still thrive, gorillas are not extinct, the human birthrate has not dropped to “seven in the thousand,” and there are no plans to add a 13th month to the year.

To be fair, predicting the future is difficult, as even Wells’ narrator points out. “After all, in 1831 very few people thought of railway or steamship travel, and in 1871 you could already go around the world in eighty days by steam, and send a telegram in a few minutes to nearly every part of the earth. Who would have thought of that in 1831?”

In the 1932 story, Brownlow finds that his strange newspaper has been delivered to the correct address but is directed to a Mr. Evan O’Hara — evidently the subscriber who will occupy his own apartment 40 years hence. In November 1971 the newspaper sought the Evan O’Hara in Sussex Court whose paper had (presumably) gone missing that evening, but it found no trace of him. Perhaps he had gone looking for it.

See On Time.

Last Thoughts

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

Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz unveiled a gruesome triptych in 1853: Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head depicts a guillotined head’s impressions of its final three minutes of awareness.

Wietz added a verbal description of each of the panels. Here’s an excerpt from the second minute, “Under the Scaffold”:

For the first time the executed prisoner is conscious of his position.

He measures with his fiery eyes the distance that separates his head from his body and tells himself, ‘My head really is cut off.’

Now the frenzy redoubles in force and energy.

The executed prisoner imagines that his head is burning and turning on itself, that the universe is collapsing and turning with it, that a phosphorescent fluid is whirling around his skull as it melts down.

In this midst of this horrible fever, a mad, incredible, unheard of idea takes possession of the dying brain.

Would you believe it? This man whose head has been chopped off still conceives of a hope. All the blood that remains bubbles, gushes, and courses with fury through all the canals of life to grasp at this hope.

At this moment the executed prisoner is convinced that he is stretching out his convulsive and rage-filled hands toward his expiring head.

I don’t know what this imaginary movement means. Wait … I understand … It’s horrible!

Oh! My God, what is life that it continues the struggle to the very last drop of blood?

In the same year, American author Theodore Witmer had recorded his own impressions of seeing an execution in the 1840s. “Why don’t somebody give us ‘The Reflections of a Decapitated Man?'” he asked. “If it turned out stupid, he might excuse himself for want of a head.”

So to Speak

What do these words have in common?

DEVIOUS
EFFENDI
ENEMY
ENVIOUS
ESCAPEE
ODIOUS
OPIUM
TEDIOUS
ANEMONE
ARCADIAN
EXCELLENCY
OBEDIENCY
EXPEDIENCY

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 77: The Sourdough Expedition

https://pixabay.com/en/denali-mountains-mount-mckinley-903501/

In 1910, four Alaskan gold miners set out to climb Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, to win a two-cent bar bet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the surprising story of the Sourdough Expedition, a mountaineering effort that one modern climber calls “superhuman by today’s standards.”

We’ll also hear about a ghoulish tourist destination and puzzle over why a painter would blame himself for World War II.

Sources for our feature on the Sourdough expedition:

Bill Sherwonit, “The Sourdough Expedition,” Alaska 68:4 (May/June 2002), 28.

Jason Strykowski, “Impossible Heights: The Alaskan Miners Who Conquered Mount McKinley,” Wild West 24:4 (December 2011), 20.

Terrence Cole, ed., The Sourdough Expedition, 1985.

W.F. Thompson, “First Account of Conquering Mt. McKinley,” New York Times, June 5, 1910.

Listener mail:

The Telegraph has a photo of the mummies in the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily.

Wikipedia has a photo of Rosalia Lombardo, the immaculately preserved 2-year-old embalmed in 1920, and another appears here:

Karen Lange, “Lost ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Formula Found,” National Geographic News, Jan. 26, 2009 (accessed 10/10/2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 2005 book Outstanding Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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

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.

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!

Black and White

von meyenfeldt chess puzzle

A poser by F.H. von Meyenfeldt, 1967. What move must Black play to enable a forced mate in two by White?

Click for Answer

The Hydra Game

hydra game

Hercules is battling a hydra. He manages to sever a head, but finds that a new head is generated according to the following rule: We move down one segment from the point where the head was severed and make a copy of the entire subtree above that point. Worse, the rate is increasing — the nth stroke of Hercules’ sword produces n new subtrees.

What will happen? The situation certainly looks dire, but, amazingly, Hercules cannot lose. No matter how large the hydra is, and no matter the order in which he severs the heads, he will always kill the hydra in finitely many turns.

Why? With each step, the complexity in the network is migrating toward the root — and that can’t continue forever. “We basically say that whenever something goes on K steps away from the root, it’s infinitely times worse than anything that is going on K-1 steps away from the root,” Comenius University computer scientist Michal Forišek explains in Slate.

“Now, whenever you kill a head, you very slightly simplified something that is K steps away. And even though you get a lot of new stuff in return, all that stuff is only K-1 steps away, and hence the entire result is still simpler than it was before.”

(Laurie Kirby and Jeff Paris, “Accessible Independence Results for Peano Arithmetic,” Bulletin of the London Mathematical Society 14 [1982], 285-293.)

In a Word

idoneous
adj. apt, fit, or suitable

tripudiary
adj. pertaining to dancing

Hermit crabs adopt other creatures’ castoff shells for protection. But as they grow, crabs must move into successively larger shells. This produces a curious phenomenon: When a crab finds a shell that’s too big for it, it waits nearby. Other crabs may accumulate, forming a little conga line of dissatisfied shell seekers. Finally a “Goldilocks” crab arrives — a crab large enough to claim the new shell — and now each waiting crab can move into the shell abandoned by its larger neighbor. By cooperating to share a scarce resource, the whole species benefits.

The same thing happens in human societies — when one person finds a new apartment, car, or job, she leaves behind her old one, and the vacancy passes down through society until the final unit is cast away or destroyed. It’s called a vacancy chain.

(Thanks, Duncan.)

Fundamental Things Apply

casablanca

In the final scene of Casablanca, the airplane is made of plywood. The film was shot shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and California was bracing for a new attack, so movie studios were severely restricted from shooting on location and forbidden entirely from filming at airports. So the movie was shot on soundstages at the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, and Soundstage #1, as it turned out, was too small to accommodate a real airplane.

So prop men built a half-size Lockheed Electra 12A out of plywood and balsa, and little people in jumpsuits were hired to bustle around it. The fog — a rarity in Morocco — helped to sell the effect.

Also: Dooley Wilson was an accomplished singer, but he couldn’t play the piano. “During the filming of Casablanca, a Warners staff musician, Elliott Carpenter, played the piano to the side of the set so that Wilson could get his bearings,” writes Jeff Siegel in The Casablanca Companion. “It’s also Carpenter’s playing that was dubbed into the film. The charade went off so well that when Wilson appeared for a nightclub gig after the movie was released, the club’s manager asked him why he wasn’t going to play the piano in his act.”