Duty Calls

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In May 1905 British MP Sir Gilbert Parker insisted that he had seen the astral body of Sir Crane Rasch in the House of Commons while Rasch was ill at home.

Sir Arthur Hayter supported him: “I beg to say that I not only saw Sir Carne Rasch myself sitting below the gangway but I called him to the attention of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, with whom I was talking on the front opposition bench, saying I wondered why all the papers had inserted notices of Sir Carne’s illness while he was sitting opposite, apparently quite well. Sir Henry replied that he hoped his illness was not catching.”

Rasch declared later that he had never left his room.

“It seems that this is not the first instance of the sort that has occurred in the House,” noted the New York Sun. “In 1897 Mr. O’Connor, an Irish member, went to Ireland to be present at the deathbed of one of his parents. Swift McNeill saw his wraith in his usual seat on the third opposition bench. It was also seen from the press gallery.”

Unfolding Hopes

Albert Szent-Györgyi, who knew a lot about maps
according to which life is on its way somewhere or other,
told us this story from the war
due to which history is on its way somewhere or other:

The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees.

Goodbye now.

— From Miroslav Holub, Notes of a Clay Pigeon, reprinted in G.Y. Craig and E.J. Jones, A Geological Miscellany, 1982.

Animal Spirits

Football fans found an unlikely oracle during the 2008 European championship: an octopus named Paul. Before each match his keepers at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, would lower two boxes of food into his tank, each bearing the flag of an upcoming competitor. Surprisingly, Paul correctly chose the winner in four of Germany’s six games.

When some observers expressed skepticism, Paul went on to pick the winners of all seven of Germany’s World Cup games in 2010, as well as the final between Spain and the Netherlands, giving him an overall success rate of 85 percent.

Competitors sprang up around the world, including a Singaporean parakeet, a German parrot, and a saltwater crocodile named Dirty Harry, who predicted the result of Australia’s general election by snatching a chicken carcass dangling beneath a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.

(Thanks, Lauren.)

Looking Up

A problem from the 2000 Moscow Mathematical Olympiad:

Some of the cards in a deck are face down and some are face up. From time to time Pete draws out a group of one or more contiguous cards in which the first and last are both face down. He turns over this group as a unit and returns it to the deck in the position from which he drew it. Prove that eventually all the cards in the deck will be face up, no matter how Pete proceeds.

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 50: The Great Tea Race

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In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the dramatic 14,000-mile clipper ship race of 1866, in which five ships competed fiercely to be the first to London with the season’s tea. We’ll also track the importance of mulch to the readers of the comic book Groo the Wanderer and puzzle over the effects of Kool-Aid consumption on a woman’s relationships.

Jack Spurling’s 1926 painting Ariel & Taeping, China Tea Clippers Race, above, depicts two of the front-runners in the closely contested 1866 race to carry the season’s first tea from China to London. The winner remained uncertain throughout the 14,000-mile course; the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette declared it “the closest run ever recorded … an event of unprecedented occurrence.”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ariel_1866_track_recropped.png

Our sources for that segment:

Basil Lubbock, The China Clippers, 1914.

Mike Dash, “The Great Tea Race of 1866,” smithsonian.com, Dec. 15, 2011 (accessed March 16, 2015).

The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, Sept. 12, 1866.

John T. Irwin, Hart Crane’s Poetry, 2011.

Filing Cabinet of the Damned reports on the significance of mulch to Groo the Wanderer.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Nick Madrid.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Holdouts

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Only three countries have not officially adopted the metric system: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States.

In October 2013 Myanmar announced that it plans to make the switch.

Wish List

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I may as well just tell you a few of the things I like, and then, whenever you want to give me a birthday present (my birthday comes once every seven years, on the fifth Tuesday in April) you will know what to give me. Well, I like, very much indeed, a little mustard with a bit of beef spread thinly under it; and I like brown sugar — only it should have some apple pudding mixed with it to keep it from being too sweet; but perhaps what I like best of all is salt, with some soup poured over it. The use of the soup is to hinder the salt from being too dry; and it helps to melt it. Then there are other things I like; for instance, pins — only they should always have a cushion put round them to keep them warm. And I like two or three handfuls of hair; only they should always have a little girl’s head beneath them to grow on, or else whenever you open the door they get blown all over the room, and then they get lost, you know.

— Lewis Carroll, letter to Jessie Sinclair, Jan. 22, 1878

What Am I?

In 1831 this riddle appeared in a British publication titled Drawing Room Scrap Sheet No. 17:

In the morn when I rise, / I open my eyes, / Tho’ I ne’er sleep a wink all night;
If I wake e’er so soon, / I still lie till noon, / And pay no regard to the light.

I have loss, I have gain, / I have pleasure, and pain; / And am punished with many a stripe;
To diminish my woe, / I burn friend and foe, / And my evenings I end with a pipe.

I travel abroad. / And ne’er miss my road, / Unless I am met by a stranger;
If you come in my way, / Which you very well may, / You will always be subject to danger.

I am chaste, I am young, / I am lusty, and strong, / And my habits oft change in a day;
To court I ne’er go, / Am no lady nor beau, / Yet as frail and fantastic as they.

I live a short time, / I die in my prime, / Lamented by all who possess me;
If I add any more, / To what’s said before / I’m afraid you will easily guess me.

It was headed “For Which a Solution Is Required,” perhaps meaning that the editor himself did not know the solution. I think he may have found the riddle in The Lady’s Magazine, which had published it anonymously in September 1780 without giving the answer. Unfortunately he seems to have been disappointed — the Drawing Room Scrap Sheet never printed a solution either.

A century and a half later, in 1981, Faith Eckler challenged the readers of Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics to think of an answer, offering a year’s subscription to the journal as a reward. When no one had claimed the prize by February 2010, Ross Eckler renewed his wife’s challenge, noting that the National Puzzlers’ League had also failed to find a solution.

That’s understandable — it’s tricky. “The author of the riddle cleverly uses ambiguous phrases to mislead the solver,” Ross Eckler notes. “I still lie till noon (inert, or continue to?); evenings I end with a pipe (a tobacco holder, or a thin reedy sound?); to court I ne’er go (a royal venue, a legal venue, or courtship?).”

To date, so far as I know, the riddle remains unsolved. Answers proposed by Word Ways readers have included fame, gossip, chessmen, a hot air balloon, and the Star and Stripes, though none of these seems beyond question. I offer it here for what it’s worth.

UPDATE: A solution has been found! Apparently The Lady’s Diary published the solution in 1783, which Ronnie Kon intrepidly ran to earth in the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He published it in Word Ways in November 2012 (PDF). I’ll omit the solution here in case you’d still like to guess; be warned that it’s not particularly compelling. (Thanks, Ronnie.)

Unquote

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“Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.” — Will and Ariel Durant

Commentary

Reviews of a test pattern on Netflix:

  • “Not as good as the book. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen the whole thing. I hope ‘Downscaling 2998fps: Too Down, Too Scaler’ is better.”
  • “This is truly some of the best acting I’ve ever seen Keanu Reeves do. Hands down.”
  • “Not since Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist has there been such a grim exploration of nihilism, peppered with gratuitous exploitation as ‘Test Pattern: Downscaling 2997fps 10Min.’ I found it beautiful and filthy with a soundtrack that puts Frozen‘s ‘Let it Go’ to shame.”
  • “I had not seen any of the previous test patterns, and I was afraid I would not ‘get’ this one. Boy was I wrong! Talk about exciting! Going in my list. I’ll be watching this one again!”
  • “I turned it off at 01:17:18. Pretty obvious where this thing was going. Really sad to see that cyan has resorted to doing test pattern work, another hue that started out with so much potential. The circle with the spinning colors showed promise and that ‘bleep’ sound was kinda clever.”
  • “What happened Netflix? A year or two ago your test patterns were good clean fun. Yes, you might attract more subscribers with this kind of material, but at what cost? You’re better than this Netflix!”

Reviews of a gallon of milk on Amazon:

  • “Unfortunately, after a terrible night’s sleep, I have concluded that this product is not suitable for use as a pillow.”
  • “This is a fine milk, but the product line appears to be limited in available colors. I could only find white.”
  • “I cannot say that Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 gal, 128 fl. oz. was entirely responsible for my winning the Sveriges Riksbank Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. However, I would be remiss in not mentioning it.”
  • “Has anyone else tried pouring this stuff over dry cereal? A-W-E-S-O-M-E!”
  • “Bought it for my cousin who had cancer, item never arrived and my cousin died.”
  • “You know, if you click on the different image views, it looks like it’s coming to GET you…”
  • “WANTED: Somebody to buy milk on the internets with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we drink it. Must bring your own weapons and be able to crawl through a series of tubes. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

See Beach Reading.

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