Podcast: Episode 21

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In December 1943, American bomber pilot Charlie Brown was flying a severely damaged B-17 out of Germany when he looked out the cockpit window and saw “the world’s worst nightmare” off his right wing — a fully armed German fighter whose pilot was staring back at him.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange drama that ensued, in which German fighter ace Franz Stigler weighed the human impulse to spare the wounded bomber against his patriotic duty to shoot him down. We’ll also consider whether animals follow the 10 commandments and wonder why a man might tell his nephew that his dog will be shot.

You can listen using the player above, 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!

Private Line

The Barossa Reservoir dam in South Australia is a “whispering wall” — sound hugs the arc of the dam, so two people at opposite ends of the 140-meter span can have a conversation that’s inaudible to those in the middle.

There’s a whispering arch outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station — a feature that has some creative uses:

See Oops.

Carper’s Index

No one knows who devised the cross-references in William Hawkins’ 1795 Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, but he was either very wry or very cynical:

Cattle see Clergy.
Chastity see Homicide.
Coin see High Treason.
Convicts see Clergy.
Death see Appeal.
Election see Bribery.
Fear see Robbery.
Footway see Nuisance.
Honour see Constable.
Incapacity see Officers.
King see Treason.
Knaves see Words.
Letters see Libel.
London see Outlawry.
Shop see Burglary.
Threats see Words.
Westminster Hall see Contempt and Lie.

“A plain, unlettered man is led to suspect that the writer of the volume and the writer of the index are playing at cross purposes,” noted the Monthly Magazine. Perhaps they were.

Unlikely Similes

Winston Churchill said that playing golf was “like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.”

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening — any evening — would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

– C.S. Lewis

In 1910, unable to get his one-act play “The First Poet” published, George Sterling prevailed on his friend Jack London to publish it under his own name. London resisted, pointing out that Sterling had already shown the play to Herbert Heron and Mike Williams, who would recognize it. He wrote:

“Your showing ‘The First Poet’ to Heron and Williams, and then coming on and asking me to father it, is equivalent to exposing your penis to a couple of 90¢ alarm clocks, and then trying to rape a quail. I’m the quail. And if I let you rape me, both alarm clocks would immediately go off and tell the news to the world.”

Eventually he relented, and “The First Poet” appeared in the Century Magazine in June 1911 under London’s name. The fact of Sterling’s authorship came to light only later.

Unquote

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“Good can imagine Evil, but Evil cannot imagine Good.” — W.H. Auden

“Good men seek it by the natural means of the virtues; evil men, however, try to achieve the same goal by a variety of concupiscences, and that is surely an unnatural way of seeking the good. Don’t you agree?” — Boethius

“For never, never, wicked man was wise.” — Homer

“Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil.” — G.K. Chesterton

American artist Dennis Oppenheim denied that his 1997 Device to Root Out Evil, above, had an anti-religious message. “Pointing a steeple into the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven,” he told one interviewer. “It’s a very simple gesture.”

‘Cartes Blanche

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At a dinner party, René Descartes’ wife posts him next to the shrimp table and tells him not to let the guests eat until an hour after midnight. When a guest reaches for a shrimp, Descartes stops him and says, “I think they’re for 1 a.m.”

René Descartes is sitting in a bar. The bartender asks him if he’d like another drink. He says, “I think not” — and vanishes.

“I think, therefore Descartes is.” — Saul Steinberg

There was a young student called Fred
Who was questioned on Descartes and said:
“It’s perfect clear
That I’m not really here,
For I haven’t a thought in my head.”

– V.R. Ormerod

In 1988 German artist Rosemarie Trockel offered a 210 x 160-centimeter linen panel on which the words cogito ergo sum had been knitted — by machine.

Black and White

kirtley chess problem

Tim Krabbé calls this “one of the funniest chess problems I ever saw.” Its composer, M. Kirtley, won first prize with it in a Problemist tourney in 1986.

It’s a selfmate in 8, which means that White must force Black to checkmate him 8 moves, despite Black’s best efforts to avoid doing so.

The solution is a single line — all of Black’s moves are forced:

1. Nb1+ Kb3 2. Qd1+ Rc2 3. Bc1 axb6 4. Ra1 b5 5. Rh1 bxc4 6. Ke1 c3 7. Ng1 f3 8. Bf1 f2#

kirtley chess problem - solution

All of White’s pieces have returned to their starting squares!

“Editors Have Troubles”

Editors have troubles like less distinguished folk. One of these, who presides over the destinies of a western newspaper, is mourning the loss of two subscribers. One wrote asking how to raise his twins safely, while the other wanted to know how he might rid his orchard of grasshoppers. The answers went forward by mail, but by accident he put them into the wrong envelopes, so that the man with twins received this answer: ‘Cover them carefully with straw and set fire to it, and the little pests, after jumping in the flames a few minutes will be speedily settled.’ And the man with the grasshoppers was told to ‘give them castor oil and rub their gums with a bone.’

The Typographical Journal, Aug. 15, 1900

(Thanks, Zachary.)

Gear Trouble

A problem from the U.S.S.R. mathematical olympiad:

You’re given 13 gears. Each weighs an integral number of grams. Any 12 of them can be placed on a pan balance, with 6 in each pan, so that the scale is in equilibrium. Prove that all the gears must be of equal weight.

Click for Answer

Niche Publishing

The Epworth Instigator, a monthly publication in Santa Monica, edited by Saml. Carlisle, has probably the smallest sworn circulation statement of any paper in the United States. According to the sworn statement, Forrest Harris, the business manager, says that the number of copies printed and circulated for the month of August, 1907, was one.

The paper is published in the interests of the Epworth league here, and the only copy is taken to the meeting and read aloud, advertisements and all.

Printers’ Ink, Oct. 16, 1907

(Thanks, Craig.)

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