Parting Words

The 2007 funeral of Amir Vehabović was poorly attended — 46 people had been invited to the ceremony, but only his mother turned up.

The other 45 received this letter:

To all my dear ‘friends,’

Some of you I have known since early school days, others I have only forged a relationship with in the last few years. Until my ‘funeral,’ I considered all of you close friends. So it was with shock and, I admit, sadness and anger that I realized not one of you managed to find the time to come and say goodbye to me when you heard I was to be buried. I would have understood if just some of you came, bearing flowers or words of apology from others who could not make it. But no. Not a single one of you turned up to pay your last respects. I lived for our friendships. They meant as much to me as life itself. But how easy it was for you all to forget the pledges of undying friendship I heard on so many occasions. How different our ideas of friendship seem to be. I paid a lot of money to get a fake death certificate and to bribe undertakers to handle an empty coffin. I thought my funeral would be a good joke — the kind of prank we have all played on one another over the years. Now I have just one last message for you: my ‘funeral’ might have been staged, but you might as well consider me dead, because I will not be seeing any of you again.

Hooverball

http://hoover.archives.gov/education/hooverball.html

Herbert Hoover weighed 200 pounds when he entered the White House in 1929. He couldn’t spare time for golf or tennis, so physician Joel Boone invented a game called Hooverball that could give him a strenuous workout in the minimum time.

On a tennis-like court, two teams of three players throw a 6-pound medicine ball back and forth over an 8-foot net. Sports Illustrated noted, “This cannot be accomplished graciously.” Rules:

  1. The ball is served from the back line.
  2. The ball must be caught in the air and immediately thrown back from the point where it was caught. It cannot be carried or passed.
  3. Points are scored when a team fails to catch the ball, fails to throw it across the net, or throws the ball out of bounds.
  4. A ball caught in the front half of one team’s court must be thrown to the back half of the opponents’ court. If it doesn’t reach the back court, the opponents score a point.
  5. Scoring is exactly like tennis. The serve rotates among one team’s members until a game is won, then passes to the other team.
  6. A ball that hits the line is good.
  7. A player who catches the ball out of bounds can return to the court before throwing it back.
  8. A ball that hits the net but passes over is a live ball.
  9. Teams can make substitutions when the ball is dead.

Hoover played with his friends at 7 a.m. every day, even in snow. The regulars included the president, Boone, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, and journalists such as Mark Sullivan and William Hard. Talking shop was forbidden, and after the game they gathered on the White House lawn for juice and coffee.

“The regimen worked well for the president,” writes biographer Glen Jeansonn. “By the end of the term he had firmed up and slimmed down to 179 pounds. … Hoover looked forward to the games and the camaradarie, although he did not like rising quite so early. But the games were energizing and he began each day refreshed and relaxed.”

The Hoover Presidential Foundation, which co-hosts a national championship each year, has a complete set of rules.

A Poetic Puzzle

On Oct. 25, 1875, Lewis Carroll sent this verse to Mrs. J. Chataway, mother of one of his child-friends, Gertrude. “They embody, as you will see, some of my recollections of pleasant days at Sandown”:

Girt with a boyish garb for boyish task,
Eager she wields her spade — yet loves as well
Rest on a friendly knee, the tale to ask
That he delights to tell.

Rude spirits of the seething outer strife,
Unmeet to read her pure and simple spright,
Deem, if you list, such hours a waste of life,
Empty of all delight!

Chat on, sweet maid, and rescue from annoy
Hearts that by wiser talk are unbeguiled!
Ah, happy he who owns that tenderest joy,
The heart-love of a child!

Away, fond thoughts, and vex my soul no more!
Work claims my wakeful nights, my busy days:
Albeit bright memories of that sunlit shore
Yet haunt my dreaming gaze!

He asked her leave to have it published. The child in the verse is not named — why should he feel obliged to ask permission?

Click for Answer

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_noon_recess_(Boston_Public_Library).jpg

pensum
n. a piece of schoolwork imposed as a punishment

Of Thee I Sing

The editors of the Journal of Organic Chemistry received a novel submission in 1970 — Brown University chemists J.F. Bunnett and Francis Kearsley wrote their paper “Comparative Mobility of Halogens in Reactions of Dihalobenzenes With Potassium Amide in Ammonia” in blank verse:

Reactions of potassium amide
With halobenzenes in ammonia
Via benzyne intermediates occur.
Bergstrom and associates did report,
Based on two-component competition runs,
Bromobenzene the fastest to react,
By iodobenzene closely followed,
The chloro compound lagging far behind,
And flurobenzene to be quite inert
At reflux (-33°).

This goes on for three pages. The journal published it with a note: “Although we are open to new styles and formats for scientific publication, we must admit to surprise upon receiving this paper. However, we find the paper to be novel in its chemistry, and readable in its verse. Because of the somewhat increased space requirements and possible difficulty to some of our nonpoetically inclined readers, manuscripts in this format face an uncertain future in this office.”

(Thanks, Bob.)

The Long View

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aerial_cutaway_view_of_Soane%27s_Bank_of_England_by_JM_Gandy_1830.jpg

In redesigning the Bank of England in the early 19th century, British architect Sir John Soane presented the governors with three sketches of the building he planned: one as it was new, another as it was weathered, and a third as a 1,000-year-old ruin.

That vision became a reality sooner than he realized — his interiors were demolished in the 1920s.

Below: Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander 1872 was inspired by a remark by Thomas Macaulay: “She [the Roman Catholic Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”

dore - the new zealander 1872

See Fixer-Upper and Instant Romance.

Small Wonder

Playing baseball for the St. Louis Browns, Eddie Gaedel had a career on-base percentage of 1.000, but most people have never heard of him.

Why? Because he had only one at-bat. Gaedel was a dwarf signed by the Browns as a publicity stunt in 1951. He had a legitimate contract, so the umpire had to let him play, but since he was only 3’7″, his strike zone measured an inch and a half.

“Three thoughts went through my mind that day,” said Frank Saucier, for whom Gaedel was pinch-hitting. “One, this is more like a carnival or a circus than a professional baseball game. Two, this is the greatest bit of showmanship I’ve ever seen. Three, this is the easiest money I’ll ever make.”

Tigers pitcher Bob Cain threw four balls, all high. The Tigers won 6-2, but Gaedel got a standing ovation. “For a minute,” he said, “I felt like Babe Ruth.” Today his jersey (number “1/8″) hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball,” wrote Browns owner Bill Veeck, who had cooked up the scheme. “He was also the only one.”

Genaille-Lucas Rulers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genaille-Lucas_rulers_full_600.png

French civil engineer Henri Genaille introduced these “rulers” in 1891 as a way to perform simple multiplication problems directly, without mental calculation.

A set consists of 10 numbered rulers and an “index.” To multiply 52749 by 4, arrange rulers 5, 2, 7, 4, and 9 side by side next to the index ruler. We’re multiplying by 4, so go to the 4th row and start at the top of the rightmost column:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genaille-Lucas_rulers_example_3.png

Now just follow the gray triangles from right to left:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genaille-Lucas_rulers_example_5.png

The answer is 210996. “[Édouard] Lucas gave these rulers enough publicity that they became quite popular for a number of years,” writes Michael R. Williams in William Aspray’s Computing Before Computers. “Unfortunately he never lived to see their popularity grow, for he died, aged 49, shortly after Genaille’s demonstration.”

Podcast Episode 27: The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

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

In September 1940 Polish army captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. His reports first alerted the Allies to the horrors at the camp and helped to warn the world that a holocaust was taking place.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Pilecki into the camp, hear his reports of the atrocities he witnessed, and learn why his name isn’t better known today. We’ll also meet the elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and puzzle over how hitting a target could save thousands of lives.

Sources for our segment on Polish army captain Witold Pilecki:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. By Witold Pilecki, translated by Jarek Garlinski, 2012.

Timothy Snyder, “Were We All People?”, New York Times, June 22, 2012.

“Meet The Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz,” National Public Radio, Sept. 18, 2010.

Listener mail: The hoax site on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was created by these researchers at the University of Connecticut. (Thanks to listener David Brooks for telling us about this story.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White. Related links (warning: these spoil the puzzle) are here, here, and here.

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. 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!

Writing History

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MADISON,_James-President_(BEP_engraved_portrait).jpg

James Madison wrote George Washington’s first inaugural address.

Then he wrote the House’s reply to the address.

Then he wrote Washington’s reply to the reply.

“Notwithstanding the conviction I am under of the labour which is imposed upon you by Public Individuals as well as public bodies,” Washington apologized, “yet, as you have began, so I would wish you to finish, the good work in a short reply to the … House … that there may be an accordance in this business.”

“We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,” Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson. “Our successors will have an easier task.”

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