Book Sale

book coverThis week our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, is on sale — the print book is $9.99, the ebook $4.99.

The book collects my favorite finds in nine years of dedicated curiosity-seeking: lawyers struck by lightning, wills in chili recipes, a lost manuscript by Jules Verne, dreams predicting horse race winners, softball at the North Pole, physicist pussycats, 5-year-olds in the mail, camels in Texas, balloons in the arctic, a lawsuit against Satan, starlings amok, backward shoes, revolving squirrels, Dutch Schultz’s last words, Alaskan mirages, armored baby carriages, pig trials, rivergoing pussycats, a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, and hundreds more.

Plus a selection of the curious words, odd inventions, and quotations that are regular features on the site, as well as 24 favorite puzzles and a preface explaining how Futility Closet came to be and how I come up with this stuff.

The book is available now on Amazon and in the Apple iBookstore.

I can also send signed copies to recipients in the U.S. for $25 each, and to those elsewhere for a comparable price once we’ve worked out the shipping. If you’re interested, write to me at gregblog@gmail.com. Thanks for your support, and thanks, as always, for reading!

Shy

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.

In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.

“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”

(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)

Black and White

loyd chess problem

By Sam Loyd. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Math Notes

Prove that log10 5 is irrational.

Click for Answer

Second Chances

A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as the throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in the neck immediately opened and the man came back to life again although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the aldermen assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. O my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilization.

— Russian exile Nicholas Ogarev, writing to his English mistress Mary Sutherland, 1860, quoted in Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sweet_Siesta_of_a_Summer_Day.jpg

meridiation
n. a midday rest

Worth Remembering

William D. Harvey offered this in Omni in 1980 — a mnemonic for spelling mnemonics:

Mnemonics neatly eliminate man’s only nemesis: insufficient cerebral storage.

Neighbors

China and Afghanistan share a border. The Wakhan Corridor, a slender panhandle only 40 miles wide, reaches between Tajikistan and Pakistan to touch Afghanistan’s eastern border.

Because China does not use conventional time zones, that border requires the greatest time change of any international frontier — travelers must reset their watches by 3.5 hours.

Fast Forward

http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=id8fAAAAEBAJ

If a “dog year” is equivalent to seven human years, then time passes seven times more quickly for dogs than for humans. So in 1990 Rodney Metts invented a novelty watch that reflects this by advancing at seven times normal speed. This is a reminder as much to you as to your pet:

If a dog is kept locked in the basement of a house during an eight or nine hour day, for example, while its owner is away, the elapsed time on the dog watch will be 56 to 63 hours, or approximately two and one-half days. A one-hour ride in an automobile will register seven hours on a dog watch. Thus the value in dog time of a human activity will become quickly apparent.

That’s the actual patent figure. Part 10 is “dog.”

Giant Steps

In 1959 pianist Tommy Flanagan was living on 101st Street in Manhattan while John Coltrane lived on 103rd Street. “He came by my apartment with this piece, ‘Giant Steps.’ I guess he thought there was something different about it, because he sat down and played the changes. He said, ‘It’s no problem. I know you can do it, Maestro’ — which is what he called me. ‘If I can play this, you can.'”

If that sounds ominous, it was: The piece marked the culmination of the “Coltrane changes,” a sophisticated scheme of chord substitutions in which the root descends by major thirds, creating a much richer and more demanding harmonic landscape.

“There was no problem just looking at the changes,” Flanagan said. “But I didn’t realize he was going to play it at that tempo! There was no time to shed on it, there was no melody; it was just a set of chords, like we usually get. So we ran it down and we had maybe one take, because he played marvelous on everything. He was ready.”

“It still remains a heck of a document,” remembered drummer Arthur Taylor. “People all around the world look to that, and musicians also; that’s the thing. … John was very serious, like a magician too. He was serious and we just got down to the business at hand.”

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