Podcast Episode 63: The Rainmaker

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In 1915 San Diego hired “rainmaker” Charles Hatfield to relieve a four-year drought. After he set to work with his 23 secret chemicals, the skies opened and torrential rains caused some of the most extreme flooding in the city’s history. In this week’s podcast we’ll discuss the effects of “Hatfield’s flood” and ponder how to assign the credit or blame.

We’ll also puzzle over why a flagrant housebreaker doesn’t get prosecuted.

Sources for our feature on “moisture accelerator” Charles Hatfield:

Garry Jenkins, The Wizard of Sun City, 2005.

Cynthia Barnett, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, 2015.

“Hatfield Made the Sky Fall (and Fall),” Kingman [Ariz.] Daily Miner, Nov. 14, 1978.

“Hatfield Again Gambling Upon Making of Rain,” Berkeley [Calif.] Daily Gazette, Jan. 29, 1926.

“Rainmaker Wins Bet With Farmers,” Ellensburg [Wash.] Daily Record, July 28, 1921.

“With the Rainmaker,” Dawson [Yukon] Daily News, July 4, 1905.

“Rainstorms at $50 Each,” St. John [New Brunswick] Daily Sun, March 8, 1904.

This week’s first lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Hanno Zulla, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

The second puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Made to Order

Divide the number 999,999,999,999,999,999,999,998,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999 into 1 and express the result as a decimal expansion, and you’ll find the Fibonacci sequence presented in tidy 24-digit strings:

fibonacci expansion

(Thanks, David.)

Email Feed

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Color Scheme

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Amateur magician Oscar Weigle invented this surprising effect in 1949. Assemble a deck of 20 playing cards, 10 red and 10 black, in strictly alternating colors. Hold this deck under a table. Now turn over the top two cards as one, place them on top, and cut the deck. Repeat this procedure as many times as you like — turn two, cut, turn two, cut. When you’ve finished, the deck will contain an unknown number of reversed cards, distributed randomly.

Now, still holding the deck under the table, shift the top card to the bottom, then turn over the next card and place it on the table. Do this repeatedly — shift a card to the bottom, then reverse the next card and put it on the table — continuing until you’ve put 10 cards on the table. Surprisingly, these cards are sorted by color — the face-up cards are of one color, and the face-down ones are of the other.

You’re still holding 10 cards under the table. Divide these into two stacks and weave them together under the table randomly. Do this as many times as you like — divide the 10 cards into two groups and merge them together however you like, so long as no card is turned upside down. Turn over the packet and shuffle it in the same way a few more times. Give it a final cut if you like.

Now deal these cards out as before: Shift the top card to the bottom, reverse the next card and put it on the table. Like the first group, this one will sort itself by color, with one color face up and the other face down.

“A Distressing Blunder”

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Robert Browning’s 1841 verse drama Pippa Passes, source of the famous lines “God’s in His heaven — All’s right with the world,” ends on a strange note:

But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary inquired delicately how Browning had settled on the word twats, the poet indicated a 1660 rhyme called “Vanity of Vanities”: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.” There the word had been intended as a dismissive insult, but Browning had taken it seriously. Today’s OED still cites Browning’s usage, noting that he’d used the word “erroneously” “under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.”

Editor James A.H. Murray later complained, “Browning constantly used words without regard to their proper meaning. He has added greatly to the difficulties of the Dictionary.”

Podcast Episode 62: Marconi Catches a Murderer

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The discovery of the gruesome remains of a human body buried in a doctor’s cellar shocked London in 1910. In this week’s podcast we’ll recount the dramatic use of the recently invented wireless telegraph in capturing the main suspect in the crime.

We’ll also hear a letter that Winston Churchill wrote to Winston Churchill and puzzle over why a sober man is denied a second beer.

Sources for our feature on the telegraphic nabbing of Edwardian uxoricide Hawley Harvey Crippen:

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck, 2006.

Associated Press, “Wireless Flashes Crippen and Girl Aboard Montrose,” Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1910.

“Captain Sure Suspects are Pair Police Seek,” Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1910.

“Crippen Mystery Remains Despite DNA Claim,” BBC News, Oct. 18, 2007 (accessed June 16, 2015).

Mark Townsend, “Appeal Judges Asked to Clear Notorious Murderer Dr. Crippen,” Guardian, June 6, 2009 (accessed June 16, 2015).

Proceedings of Crippen’s 1910 trial at Old Bailey Online.

Here’s Winston Churchill’s June 1899 letter to American author Winston Churchill:

Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle on the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.

From Richard M. Langworth, The Definitive Wit of Winston Churchill, 2009.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle appeared originally on NPR’s Car Talk, contributed there by listener George Parks.

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.

Please take our five-minute survey to help us find advertisers to support the show.

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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Creative Housing

In 2003, student Steven Stanzak found that he couldn’t afford to pay for room and board at New York University, so he took up residence in a subbasement of the school’s Bobst Library. He kept his belongings in storage lockers, showered at the gym, and did his homework at a local McDonald’s.

He managed to live this way for eight months. In April 2004, as the NYU student paper was preparing a story on him, the university’s dean asked to see him. Stanzak feared the worst, but the dean told him his initiative was remarkable and gave him a free room in one of the residence halls. “I wasn’t afraid of being thrown out of the library,” Stanzak told the New York Times. “I could have slept in the park. My worst fear was getting kicked out of N.Y.U. I love this school.”

In 2012 entrepreneur Eric Simons lived for two months at AOL headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., sleeping on couches, eating company food, and exercising in the company gym. He’d received a badge in order to participate in an earlier program and found that the badge kept working when the program disbanded.

“There were so many people going in and out each day,” he told CNET. “They’d say, ‘Oh, he just works here, he’s working late every night. Wow, what a hard worker.'”

A security guard finally caught him. He was thrown out, but no charges were filed. AOL vice president David Temkin said, “It was always our intention to facilitate entrepreneurialism in the Palo Alto office — we just didn’t expect it to work so well.”

Food Fight

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W.S. Gilbert’s neighbor in the country was a partner in a firm that was famous for its relishes, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves. He had been made a baronet but “had grown very touchy about the source of his wealth and his title,” recalled DeWolf Hopper, “and was rather a hoity-toity neighbor.”

One day Gilbert’s dogs killed some pheasants on the man’s property, and he wrote a curt note of protest to the author. Gilbert wrote back:

Dear Sir Alfred:

I am extremely sorry about the loss of your pheasants, and I am taking steps to prevent my dogs from trespassing on your preserves in the future.

Sincerely,

W.S. Gilbert

P.S. You will pardon my use of the word ‘preserves,’ won’t you?

In his 1927 autobiography, Hopper also recalls:

Someone once challenged Gilbert to make up a verse offhand riming the words ‘Timbuctoo’ and ‘cassowary’. He studied for a moment and recited:

If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo,
I’d eat a missionary and his hymn book too.

Thanks

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed so far to the Patreon campaign to keep the site going. I’m very grateful for every contribution, of any size, but unfortunately the total so far is not enough to justify the many hours a week it takes to run the site.

Ad revenue is now so low that I’m going to have to start limiting the time I put into the site. I’ll continue to post 10-15 posts per month to Patreon, to thank those supporters; and I’ll post here as often as I can, but unfortunately the frequency will probably drop.

This site has always been close to my heart, so I’ve been trying for some time to find a way forward. Unfortunately I’m having to start facing some harsh realities. I’m still hopeful that if either traffic or pledges increase I’ll be able to resume a more normal schedule. I’ll continue to post updates here; you can reach me at greg@futilitycloset.com.

Quick Thinking

From a letter by Lewis Carroll, about 1848:

I have not yet been able to get the second volume Macaulay’s ‘England’ to read. I have seen it however and one passage struck me when seven bishops had signed the invitation to the pretender, and King James sent for Bishop Compton (who was one of the seven) and asked him ‘whether he or any of his ecclesiastical brethren had anything to do with it?’ He replied, after a moment’s thought ‘I am fully persuaded your majesty, that there is not one of my brethren who is not as innocent in the matter as myself.’

“This was certainly no actual lie,” Carroll wrote, “but certainly, as Macaulay says, it was very little different from one.”

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