Romance Denied

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James Bosworth survived the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 and went on to become a railway stationmaster in Southampton, England, where he died in an accident at age 70. His epitaph reads:

Though shot and shell flew around fast,
On Balaclava’s plain,
Unscathed he passed, to fall at last,
Run over by a train.

(Thanks, Doug.)

A Plea in Disguise

In March 1928, the British steamer City of Eastbourne picked up an SOS from the tanker British Hussar in the Pacific but could not locate her position. Japanese authorities reported that several of their own ships and stations had picked up the SOS but could not understand the geographical information given. In comparing the reports, they estimated that the British Hussar was about 400 miles southwest of Hawaii when she ran into trouble. Two Navy destroyers searched the area for five days but found no trace of her.

When they cabled the bad news to the tanker’s owners, they received a puzzling reply. The British Hussar was safely moored off a landing stage at Adaban in the Persian Gulf. She had been nowhere near the Pacific when the messages were sent. But the SOS signals were undeniable.

The British consul at Yokohama found that four ships had been near Hawaii when the signal was received: the City of Eastbourne, the Niagara, the Ventura, and the Asiatic Prince — and, strangely, the Asiatic Prince was also missing.

Now there were two mysteries: An SOS had been received in the Pacific, seemingly sent from a perfectly sound ship 6,000 miles away; and a second ship, equipped with the latest wireless equipment and lifeboats, had vanished in the same region — which had reportedly been lashed by hurricane-force winds at the time.

The explanation that emerged is that the British Hussar‘s SOS must have been sent by the Asiatic Prince as it foundered in the storm. The SOS had contained the call sign of the British Hussar, GJVR. The call sign of the Asiatic Prince was GJVP. In Morse code, P is ·- -· and R is ·-· Apparently the central dash had been sent twice.

If this is so, the Asiatic Prince must have gone down with astonishing swiftness — the 10,000-ton steamer had a new hull, new engines, and new equipment, yet sank so quickly that she could manage only one brief message.

Podcast Episode 31: Pigs on Trial

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For 500 years of European history, animals were given criminal trials: Bulls, horses, dogs, and sheep were arrested, jailed, given lawyers, tried, and punished at community expense. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore this strange practice and try to understand its significance to the people of the time.

We’ll also rediscover the source of Futility Closet’s name and puzzle over how a ringing bell relates to a man’s death.

Sources for our segment on animal trials:

Anila Srivastava, “‘Mean, Dangerous, and Uncontrollable Beasts’: Mediaeval Animal Trials,” Mosaic, March 2007.

Jen Girgen, “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals,” Animal Law Review, 2003.

Esther Cohen, “Law, Folklore, and Animal Lore,” Past & Present, February 1986.

“Medieval Animal Trials,” medievalists.net, Sept. 8, 2013 (accessed Oct. 20, 2014).

James E. McWilliams, “Beastly Justice,” Slate, Feb. 21, 2013.

E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906.

The Hour of the Pig (released in the United States as The Advocate), BBC, 1993.

Here’s the original UTILITY sign from American University’s administration building that inspired our name:

AU utility sign

(Thanks, Karl.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles come from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles and from listener Meaghan Gerard Walsh.

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!

In a Word

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cohonestation
n. honouring with one’s company

William Cobbett, a writer who was to plague Noah for many years, probably invented one piece of Websterian apocrypha. Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom Noah had cultivated, supposedly met him upon his arrival and said: ‘How do you do, my dear friend. I congratulate you on your arrival in Philadelphia.’

‘Sir,’ Webster allegedly replied, ‘you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion.’

— John S. Morgan, Noah Webster, 1975

Coming to Terms

Antoni Zygmund once asked if the World Series shouldn’t be called the World Sequence? And shouldn’t a combination lock be called a permutation lock? John Von Neumann once had a dog called Inverse. It would sit when told to stand and go when it was told to come. Von Neumann pronounced the term infinite series as infinite serious.

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998

Choosing Seats

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Daniel Webster had two chances to become president via the vice presidency. In 1840 the Whig party nominated William Henry Harrison for president and Harrison offered the vice presidency to Webster. Webster turned it down and Harrison died after a single month in office; his death would have made Webster president.

Eight years later Webster competed with Zachary Taylor for the Whig party’s nomination. Taylor won and invited him to be his running mate, and Webster again shunned the office, saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” Taylor won the White House and died 16 months afterward, which again would have made Webster president if he’d accepted.

Related: In the election of 1880 James Garfield simultaneously won the presidency, retained his seat in the House, and won a Senate seat — he’d been elected to all three offices at once.

Illumination

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Starting in the 1970s, neurobiologist Otto-Joachim Grüsser spent 10 years collating the light sources in 2,124 paintings selected at random from Western art originating between the 14th and 20th centuries. He found that in most paintings considered Western works of art, especially those painted around the time of the Scientific Revolution, the light falls from the left.

“At the beginning of modern Western art during the early Gothic period, a preference for diffuse illumination or light sources distributed around the painted scene was found,” Grüsser noted. “In a minority of paintings from the fourteenth century that show a clear light direction, a bias to the left side is present. This left-sided preference increased at the expense of diffuse or middle light sources up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and declined thereafter. In the twentieth century, the diffuse or middle type of light distribution again became dominant.”

It’s not clear what to make of this. It seems reasonable that a right-handed artist might favor light falling from the left, but why should this vary with time? Grüsser found that the left-handed Leonardo da Vinci applied light sources from varying angles, and Hans Holbein the Younger, also a dominant left-hander, favored light falling from the right.

“From such observations in the works of these two left-handed painters who painted, drew, and wrote with the left hand, one gains the impression that the distribution of left, middle, and right light direction in left-handed painters deviates significantly from the average distribution of light found in the paintings of other contemporary painters. It would be interesting to study the drawings and paintings of other confirmed left-handed artists, who worked exclusively with the left hand.”

(Otto-Joachim Grüsser, Thomas Selke, and Barbara Zynda, “Cerebral Lateralization and Some Implications for Art, Aesthetic Perception, and Artistic Creativity,” in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, and David Epstein, Beauty and the Brain, 1988.)

Unquote

“Every time an idiot dies, your IQ goes down.” — Bill Ballance

Hot and Cold

Suppose you have three identical Dewar flasks labeled A, B, and C. (A Thermos is a Dewar flask.) You also have an empty container labeled D, which has thermally perfect conducting walls and which fits inside a Dewar flask.

Pour 1 liter of 80°C water into flask A and 1 liter of 20°C water into flask B. Now, using all four containers, is it possible to use the hot water to heat the cold water so that the final temperature of the cold water is higher than the final temperature of the hot water? How? (You can’t actually mix the hot water with the cold.)

Click for Answer

More Madan

Further excerpts from the notebooks of Geoffrey Madan:

“Curious how much more room dirty clothes take up than clean ones, when you’re packing — quite out of proportion to the amount of dirt they contain.” — Claud Russell

Sworded/sordid: an absurd homonym.

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which has to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” — F.H. Bradley

Hua [French master at Eton] and Warre could neither pronounce the other’s name, but each made the same sound in the attempt.

The fascination, to a crowd, of anything going up the side of a building on a rope or lift: exceedingly primitive.

“A hamper is undoubtedly requisite under the present circumstances. It must contain several pots of superior jam.” — Lord Curzon, aged 9, writing from school

NO ROAD BEYOND THE CEMETERY — Opinion of the Slough Borough Council, placed on a notice-board near Bourne End Church

See Observations.

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