In a Word

ullage
n. the amount a container lacks of being full

Given a 5-gallon jug, a 3-gallon jug, and a limitless supply of water, how can you measure out exactly 4 gallons?

Click for Answer

Recycling Poetry

pimenta anagram

In 1987, Portuguese poet Alberto Pimenta took the sonnet Transforma-se o amador na cousa amada (The lover becomes the thing he loves), by the 16th-century poet Luís de Camões, and rearranged the letters of each line to produce a new sonnet, Ousa a forma cantor! Mas se da namorada (Dare the form, songster! But if the girlfriend).

Here’s Camões’ (curiously apposite) original poem, translated by Richard Zenith:

The lover becomes the thing he loves
by virtue of much imagining;
since what I long for is already in me,
the act of longing should be enough.
If my soul becomes the beloved,
what more can my body long for?
Only in itself will it find peace,
since my body and soul are linked.
But this pure, fair demigoddess,
who with my soul is in accord
like an accident with its subject,
exists in my mind as a mere idea;
the pure and living love I’m made of
seeks, like simple matter, form.

Carlota Simões and Nuno Coelho of the University of Coimbra calculated that the letters in Camões’ sonnet can be rearranged within their lines in 5.3 × 10312 possible ways.

Interestingly, after Pimenta’s anagramming there were two letters left over, L and C, which are the initials of the original poet, Luís de Camões. “It seems that, in some mysterious and magical way, Luís de Camões came to reclaim the authorship of the second poem as well.”

In 2014, when designer Nuno Coelho challenged his multimedia students to render the transformation, Joana Rodrigues offered this:

Related: In 2005 mathematician Mike Keith devised a scheme to generate 268,435,456 Shakespearean sonnets, each a line-by-line anagram of the others. And see Choice and Fiction.

(Carlota Simões and Nuno Coelho, “Camões, Pimenta and the Improbable Sonnet,” Recreational Mathematics Magazine 1:2 [September 2014], 11-19.)

Tech Talk

In 1944 British graduate student John Hellins Quick published a description of the “turbo-encabulator,” a marvelously sophisticated device whose workings are understandable only by engineers:

The original machine had a base-plate of prefabulated aluminite, surmounted by a malleable logarithmic casing in such a way that the two main spurving bearings were in a direct line with the pentametric fan. The latter consisted simply of six hydrocoptic marzelvanes, so fitted to the ambifacient lunar waneshaft that side fumbling was effectively prevented. The main winding was of the normal lotus-o-delta type placed in panendermic semi-bovoid slots in the stator, every seventh conductor being connected by a nonreversible tremie pipe to the differential girdle spring on the ‘up’ end of the grammeters.

General Electric, Chrysler, and Rockwell Automation have all sung the device’s praises, even if no one can quite explain what it does. Actor Bud Haggart shot the video above in 1977 after completing an industrial training film for General Motors.

The rest of us will just have to take its wonders on faith. When Time magazine published the description in 1946, one reader wrote, “My husband says it sounds like a new motor; I say it sounds like a dictionary that has been struck by lightning.”

A Poet’s Arsenal

Noted in passing: In the May 2004 issue of Word Ways, Max Maven notes that “English words containing ‘ag’ almost invariably have negative meanings, usually rather harsh.” He cites BRAG, DRAG, FLAG, GAG, HAG, LAG, NAG, RAG, SAG, SLAG, SNAG, and SWAG, among others.

In May 1984 Bruce Price pointed out that words rhyming with ash tend to be “words of terrible action, of great vigor and violence”:

BASH, BRASH, CLASH, CRASH, DASH, FLASH, GASH, GNASH, HASH, LASH, MASH, PASH, PLASH, RASH, SLASH, SMASH, SPLASH, STASH, THRASH, TRASH

There are exceptions, of course. I wonder if there are any similar patterns among positive words?

Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:General_Gregor_MacGregor_retouched.jpg

In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

Intro:

In 1878, a neurologist noted that French-Canadian lumberjacks tended to startle violently.

Each year on Valentine’s Day, someone secretly posts paper hearts in Montpelier, Vt.

Sources for our feature on Gregor MacGregor:

David Sinclair, Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Land That Never Was, 2003.

Matthew Brown, “Inca, Sailor, Soldier, King: Gregor MacGregor and the Early Nineteenth-Century Caribbean,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 24:1 (January 2005), 44-70.

T. Frederick Davis, “MacGregor’s Invasion of Florida, 1817,” Florida Historical Society Quarterly 7:1 (July 1928), 2-71.

Emily Beaulieu, Gary W. Cox, and Sebastian Saiegh, “Sovereign Debt and Regime Type: Reconsidering the Democratic Advantage,” International Organization 66:4 (Fall 2012), 709-738.

R.A. Humphreys, “Presidential Address: Anglo-American Rivalries in Central America,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 18 (1968), 174-208.

Courtenay de Kalb, “Nicaragua: Studies on the Mosquito Shore in 1892,” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York 25:1 (1893), 236-288.

A.R. Hope Moncrieff, “Gregor MacGregor,” Macmillan’s Magazine 92:551 (September 1905), 339-350.

“The King of Con-Men,” Economist 405:8816 (Dec. 22, 2012), 109-112.

“Sir Gregor MacGregor,” Quebec Gazette, Oct. 18, 1827.

Guardian, “From the Archive, 25 October 1823: Settlers Duped Into Believing in ‘Land Flowing With Milk and Honey,'” Oct. 25, 2013.

Maria Konnikova, “The Con Man Who Pulled Off History’s Most Audacious Scam,” BBC Future, Jan. 28, 2016.

“Thomas Strangeways”, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, 1822.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bank_of_Poyais-1_Hard_Dollar_(1820s)_SCAM.jpg

A Bank of Poyais dollar, printed by the official printer of the Bank of Scotland. MacGregor traded these worthless notes for the settlers’ gold as they departed for his nonexistent republic.

Listener mail:

Robert McCrum, “The 100 Best Novels: No 42 – The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915),” Guardian, July 7, 2014.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis’ Now I Know newsletter. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — both links spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music 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 we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page 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. Thanks for listening!

Far From Home

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/26/john-daniel-gorilla-drank-tea-school-uley-gloucestershire?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Email

The English village of Uley had a remarkable citizen in 1917: a lowland gorilla, captured in Gabon by the French soldiers who had shot his parents. Uley resident Rupert Penny spotted him for sale in a London department store, paid £300, and named him John Daniel, and his sister Alyce raised him like a human boy.

“Until recently, we had people that remembered him walking around the village with the children,” said Margaret Groom, an archivist at the Uley Society, who unearthed a collection of old photographs. “He used to go into gardens and eat the roses. The children used to push him around in a wheelbarrow. He knew which house was good for cider, and would often go to that house to draw a mug of cider. He was also fascinated by the village cobbler, and would watch him repairing shoes. He had his own bedroom, he could use the light switch and toilet, he made his own bed and helped with the washing up.”

She had to sell him when he reached full size, and he passed into the hands of a circus. Eventually Alyce received an urgent message reading “John Daniel pining and grieving for you. Can you not come at once? Needless to say we will deem it a privilege to pay all your expense. Answer at once.”

She set out immediately, but he died of pneumonia before she arrived. His body was given to the American Museum of Natural History for preservation and remains on display there today.

(Thanks, Steve.)

History Search

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Treval.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, Michigan Technological University physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson thought up a novel way to detect time travelers: Search the Internet.

They searched for mentions of “Comet ISON,” a sun-grazing comet discovered in September 2012, and for “Pope Francis,” whose papacy began in March 2013 and who is the first of his name. Both of these subjects are historically momentous enough that they might be known even to people in the far future; if those people travel into our past, then they might mention them inadvertently in, say, 2011, before we could plausibly have done so ourselves.

“Given the current prevalence of the Internet … this search might be considered the most sensitive and comprehensive search yet for time travel from the future,” they reported, acknowledging that “technically, what was searched for here was not physical time travellers themselves, but rather informational traces left by them.”

And they note that our failure to detect travelers doesn’t mean they’re not there. “First, it may be physically impossible for time travellers to leave any lasting remnants of their stay in the past, including even non-corporeal informational remnants on the Internet. Next, it may be physically impossible for us to find such information as that would violate some yet-unknown law of physics. … Furthermore, time travellers may not want to be found, and may be good at covering their tracks.”

See Regrets and The Telltale Mart.