In a Word

rosarian
n. a rose fancier; one interested or engaged in the cultivation of roses

The rose cultivar “Whitfield” is named for English comedy actress June Whitfield.

She said, “There is a rose named after me. The catalogue describes it as ‘superb for bedding, best up against a wall.'”

Sweet Story

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In 1987, paleontologist Tom Rich was leading a dig at Dinosaur Cove southwest of Melbourne when student Helen Wilson asked him what reward she’d get if she found a dinosaur jaw. He said he’d give her a kilo (2.2 pounds) of chocolate. She did, and he did.

Encouraged, the students asked Rich what they’d get if they found a mammal bone. These are fairly rare among dinosaur fossils in Australia, so Rich rashly promised a cubic meter of chocolate — 35 cubic feet, or about a ton.

The cove was “dug out” by 1994, and paleontologists shut down the dig. Rich sent a curious unclassified bone, perhaps a turtle humerus, to two colleagues, who recognized it as belonging to an early echidna, or spiny anteater — a mammal.

Rich now owed the students $10,000 worth of chocolate. “It turns out that it is technically impossible to make a cubic meter of chocolate, because the center would never solidify,” he told National Geographic in 2005. So he arranged for a local Cadbury factory to make a cubic meter of cocoa butter, and then turned the students loose in a room full of chocolate bars.

“It was a bit like Willy Wonka,” Wilson said. “There were chocolate bars on the counters, the tables. We carried out boxes and boxes of chocolate.”

Fittingly, the new echidna was named Kryoryctes cadburyi.

Getaway

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The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries the Capitol Beltway across the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., connecting Maryland on the eastern shore with Virginia on the western.

The southern tip of Washington’s jurisdiction just touches the bridge’s westbound lanes — a 90-meter section of that span belongs to the District of Columbia. This makes the Wilson the only bridge in the United States that occupies three jurisdictions.

This sounds like an opportunity for some sort of perfect crime, but I can’t quite work it out.

An Old Story

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Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.

— James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895

In the 1860s, workers discovered the remains of a cat and a rat behind the organ in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.

There’s no telling how long they’d been there. Their bodies had been desiccated in the dry air of the church.

Self-Determination

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Did Socrates commit suicide? Philosopher R.G. Frey argues that he did. Socrates’ final conversations with Phaedo and his friends show that he intended to drink the hemlock, and he drank it intentionally, knowing its effect and without being forced. It’s true that he had been sentenced to die, but still he chose to accept the cup rather than compel another to take his life.

“The fact that Socrates died a noble and dignified death does not show that he did not commit suicide,” writes Frey, “but rather that suicide need not be ignoble and undignified.”

(R.G. Frey, “Did Socrates Commit Suicide?”, Philosophy 53:203 [January 1978], 106-108.)

Podcast Episode 12: The Great Race, Grace Kelly’s Tomahawk, and Dreadful Penmanship

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The New York Times proposed an outrageous undertaking in 1908: An automobile race westward from New York to Paris, a journey of 22,000 miles across all of North America and Asia in an era when the motorcar was “the most fragile and capricious thing on earth.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the six teams who took up the challenge and attempted “the most perilous trip ever undertaken by man.”

We’ll also see how a tomahawk linked Alec Guinness and Grace Kelly for 25 years and hear poet Louis Phillips lament his wife’s handwriting.

Sources for our segment on the Great Race:

Julie M. Fenster, Race of the Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race, 2005.

George Schuster, The Longest Auto Race, 1966. (Schuster was the mechanic for the American team and drove much of the way.)

Dermot Cole, Hard Driving: The 1908 Auto Race from New York to Paris, 1991.

The New York Times, which co-sponsored the race, has a lot of archived coverage.

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The race ran from New York City west to Seattle, then from Vladivostok to Paris, 22,000 miles of almost continuous misery. “No effort so arduous, so heroic in the Homeric sense of the word, was ever so easy to quit,” Fenster writes. “All that an entrant had to do to drop out was order breakfast in bed at the hotel — and stay there. Unlike mountain climbers or polar explorers, who are long beyond the pull of comfort, the New York-to-Paris racers had to fight the constant temptation to opt for sense and civilization, both of which beckoned from very close range.”

Of the 13 teams that entered, six showed up on race day, Feb. 12, 1908. A Times writer said the European entries each carried enough gear to “build another car or start an iron foundry.”

One particular bit of craziness amid all the other craziness: An enormous explosion took place over Siberia as the racers were crossing it. The so-called Tunguska event, probably caused by a spaceborne object striking the earth, released 1,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Americans were just leaving Omsk, having already passed south of that location, and heard nothing about it, but still — if you’re going to visit Siberia once in your life, summer 1908 is not the time to do it.

Sources for the Grace Kelly/Alec Guinness tomahawk story:

James Spada, Grace: Secret Lives of a Princess, 1987.

Donald Spoto, High Society, 2009.

Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography, 2005.

I don’t know where the tomahawk came from: Spada says that their co-star Jessie Royce Landis had picked it up from a local Indian reservation; Spoto that Landis had got it from a local souvenir shop; and Read that it had been presented to Guinness by “a visiting troupe of Indians.”

Louis Phillips is a poet, playwright and short story writer who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. We ran his poem “On Not Being Able to Read My Wife’s Handwriting” in July 2013 and have presented his humorous verses occasionally since then.

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. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Unquote

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“It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety.” — Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1856

The Telltale Mart

The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”

In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.

If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.

So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.

Wheels of Justice

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In 1962 a Swedish motorist was fined for leaving his car too long in a space with a posted time limit. The motorist objected, saying that he had removed the car in time and then happened to return to the same spot later, resetting the time limit. The policeman defended his charge, saying that he had noted the positions of the valves on two of the tires — the front-wheel valve was in the 1 o’clock position, the rear-wheel valve at 8 o’clock. If the car had been moved, he argued, the valves were unlikely to take the same positions.

The court accepted the motorist’s claim, calculating that the chance that the valves would return to the same positions by chance was 1/12 × 1/12 = 1/144, great enough to establish reasonable doubt. The court added that if all four valves had been found to be in the same position, the lower likelihood (1/12 × 1/12 × 1/12 × 1/12 = 1/20,736, it figured) would have been enough to uphold the fine.

Is this right? In evaluating this reasoning, University of Chicago law professor Hans Zeisel notes that this method is biased in favor of the defendant, since the positions of the valves are not perfectly independent. He later added, “The use of the 1/144 figure for the probability of the constable’s observations on the assumption that the defendant had driven away also can be questioned. Not only may the rotations of the tires on different axles be correlated, but the figure overlooks the observation that the car was in the same parking spot. When a person leaves a parking place, it is far from certain that the spot will be available later and that the person will choose it again. For this reason, it has been said that the probability of a coincidence is even smaller than a probability involving only the valves.”

(Hans Zeisel, “Dr. Spock and the Case of the Vanishing Women Jurors,” University of Chicago Law Review, 37:1 [Autumn 1969], 1-18)

Shadow Play

I am watching a double solar eclipse. The heavenly body Far, traveling east, passes before the sun. Beneath it passes the smaller body Near, traveling west. Far and Near appear to be the same size from my vantage point. Which do I see?

Common sense says that I see Near, since it’s closer. But Washington University philosopher Roy Sorensen argues that in fact I see Far. Near’s existence has no effect on the pattern of light that reaches my eyes. It’s not a cause of what I’m seeing; the view would be the same without it. (Imagine, for example, that Far were much larger and Near was lost in its shadow.)

“When objects are back-lit and are seen by virtue of their silhouettes, the principles of occlusion are reversed,” Sorensen concludes. “In back-lit conditions, I can hide a small suitcase by placing a large suitcase behind it.”

See In the Dark.

(Roy Sorensen, “Seeing Intersecting Eclipses,” Journal of Philosophy XCVI, 1 (1999): 25-49.)

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