Fresh Hell

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Mark_I_male_tank_Somme_25_September_1916.jpg

The Battle of the Somme saw the advent of a frightening new engine of war. “A man came running in from the left, shouting, ‘There is a crocodile crawling in our lines!'” recalled one German infantryman. “The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came, to be a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this Colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next its yawning mouth would rear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.”

Interestingly, the first tanks came in two varieties, “male” and “female.” Males weighed a ton more and bore a cannon that the females lacked; early writers referred to “adventurous males,” “determined males,” “all-conquering females,” and “female man-killers.” Eventually the two merged into one standard design … called a hermaphrodite.

(From Peter Hart, The Great War, 2013. Thanks, Zach.)

Podcast Episode 119: Lost in the Taiga

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In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”

We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

Intro:

The London Review and Literary Journal of August 1796 records a cricket match “by eleven Greenwich Pensioners with one leg against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new Cricket ground, Montpelier Gardens, Walworth.”

The British Veterinary Journal of March 1888 reports that a Manchester horse fitted with eyeglasses “now stands all the morning looking over the half-door of his stable with his spectacles on, gazing around him with an air of sedate enjoyment.”

Sources for our feature on the Lykov family:

Vasily Peskov, Lost in the Taiga, 1994.

Mike Dash, “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II,” Smithsonian, Jan. 28, 2013.

Russia Today, “From Taiga to Kremlin: A Hermit’s Gifts for Medvedev,” Feb. 24, 2010.

Alexis Sostre, “Siberia: Woman Who Lived Her Entire Life in Wilderness Airlifted to Hospital,” Sostre News, Jan. 16, 2016.

Listener mail:

The original article on the 1938 San Cristobál prison break, by Jose Antonio del Barrio, in Esperanto.

An article (in Spanish) about the escape on del Barrio’s blog.

A description (in Spanish) of conditions in San Cristobál, by one of the successful escapees.

A description (in Spanish) of the escape plot, from research carried out by Fermín Ezkieta.

A documentary film (in Spanish) about the escape.

A study (in Esperanto) on the role of Esperanto in the working-class culture in Spain.

Del Barrio’s presentation (in Esperanto) on the use of Esperanto by socialists in the Basque region.

A presentation (in Esperanto) by Ulrich Lins and del Barrio on the use of Esperanto during the Spanish Civil War. Lins is the German author of “La Dangera Lingvo,” on the persecutions suffered by esperantists.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon, who collected these corroborating links (warning: these 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 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 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!

Special Interests

harry burn

In the summer of 1920, as the states were considering whether to grant suffrage to women, Tennessee became a battleground. The 19th amendment would become law if 36 of the 48 states approved it, but only 35 had ratified the measure, and 8 had rejected it. Of the remaining states, only Tennessee was even close to holding the needed votes. When the state senate voted 25 to 4 in favor, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt wrote, “We are one-half of one state away from victory.” The final decision would fall to the state house of representatives, where it appeared poised to fail by a single vote.

On the morning of the vote, the General Assembly’s youngest member, Republican Harry Burn, who had been counted as a certain opponent of the amendment, received a letter from his mother:

Dear Son:

Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.

Your Mother

When his name was called, Burn said “aye” and the measure passed. The next day, he rose to explain his vote: “I want to take this opportunity to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification because: 1) I believe in full suffrage as a right, 2) I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify, 3) I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Building Schemes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Monopoly_Game.jpg

In 1983, East Carolina University mathematicians Thomas Chenier and Cathy Vanderford programmed a computer to find the best strategies in playing Monopoly. The program kept track of each players’ assets and property, and subroutines managed the decisions whether to buy or mortgage property and the results of drawing of Chance and Community Chest cards. They auditioned four basic strategies (I think all of these were in simulated two-player games):

  1. Bargain Basement. Buy all the unowned property that you can afford, hoping to prevent your opponent from gaining a monopoly.
  2. Two Corners. Buy property between Pennsylvania Railroad and Go to Jail (orange, red, and yellow), hoping your opponent will be forced to land on one on each trip around the board.
  3. Controlled Growth. Buy property whenever you have $500 and the color group in question has not yet been split by the two players. Hopefully this will allow you to grow but retain enough capital to develop a monopoly once you’ve acquired one.
  4. Modified Two Corners. This is the same as Two Corners except that you also buy the Boardwalk-Park Place group.

After 200 simulated games, the winner was Controlled Growth, with 88 wins, 79 losses, and 33 draws. Bargain Basement players tended to lack money to build houses, and Two Corners gave the opponent too many opportunities to build a monopoly and was vulnerable to interference by the opponent, but Modified Two Corners succeeded fairly well. In Chenier and Vanderford’s calculations, Water Works was the most desirable property, followed by Electric Co. and three railroads — B&O, Reading, and Pennsylvania. Mediterranean Ave. was last. Of the property groups, orange was most valuable, dark purple least. And going first yields a significant advantage.

“In order for everyone here to become Monopoly Moguls, we offer the following suggestions: If your opponent offers you the chance to go first, take it. Buy around the board in a defensive manner (that is at least one property per group). When trading begins, trade for the Orange-Red corner as well as for the Lt. Blue properties. They are landed on most frequently and offer the best return. The railroads and utilities offer a good chance for the buyer to raise some cash with which he may later develop other properties. Finally, whenever your opponent has a hotel on Boardwalk, never, we repeat, never land on it.”

(Thomas Chenier and Cathy Vanderford, “An Analysis of Monopoly,” Pi Mu Epsilon Journal 7:9 [Fall 1983], 586-9.)

The Absent-Minded Driver’s Paradox

absent-minded driver's paradox

A driver is sitting in a pub planning his trip home. In order to get there he must take the highway and get off at the second exit. Unfortunately, the two exits look the same. If he mistakenly takes the first exit he’ll have to drive on a very hazardous road, and if he misses both exits then he’ll reach the end of the highway and have to spend the night at a hotel. Assign the payoff values shown above: 4 for getting home, 1 for reaching the hotel, and 0 for taking the first exit.

The man knows that he’s very absent-minded — when he reaches an intersection, he can’t tell whether it’s the first or the second intersection, and he can’t remember how many exits he’s passed. So he decides to make a plan now, in the pub, and follow it on the way home. This amounts to choosing between two policies: Exit when you reach an intersection, or continue. The exiting policy will lead him to the hazardous road, with a payoff of 0, and continuing will lead him to the hotel, with a payoff of 1, so he chooses the second policy.

This seems optimal. But then, on the road, he finds himself approaching an intersection and reflects: This is either the first or the second intersection, each with probability 1/2. If he were to exit now, the expected payoff would be

\displaystyle E = \frac{1}{2}\left ( 0 \right ) + \frac{1}{2}\left ( 4 \right ) = 2.

That’s twice the payoff of going straight! “There appear to be two contradictory optimal strategies, one at the planning stage and one at the action stage while driving,” writes Leonard M. Wapner in Unexpected Expectations. “At the pub, during the planning stage, it appears the driver should never exit. But once this plan is in place and he arrives at an exit, a recalculation with no new significant information shows that exiting yields twice the expectation of going straight.” What is the answer?

(Michele Piccione and Ariel Rubinstein, “On the Interpretation of Decision Problems with Imperfect Recall,” Games and Economic Behavior 20 [1997], 3-24.)

A Little Help

In 1987, a Palermo physicist named Stronzo Bestiale published major papers in the Journal of Statistical Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics, and the proceedings of a meeting of the American Physical Society in Monterey.

Why is this remarkable? Stronzo bestiale is Italian for “total asshole.”

Italian journalist Vito Tartamella wrote to one of “Bestiale’s” co-authors, Lawrence Livermore physicist William G. Hoover, to get the story. Hoover had been developing a sophisticated new computational technique, non-equilibrium molecular dynamics, with Italian physicist Giovanni Ciccotti. He found that the journals he approached refused to publish his papers — the ideas they contained were too innovative. But:

While I was traveling on a flight to Paris, next to me were two Italian women who spoke among themselves, saying continually: ‘Che stronzo (what an asshole)!’, ‘Stronzo bestiale (total asshole)’. Those phrases had stuck in my mind. So, during a CECAM meeting, I asked Ciccotti what they meant. When he explained it to me, I thought that Stronzo Bestiale would have been the perfect co-author for a refused publication. So I decided to submit my papers again, simply by changing the title and adding the name of that author. And the researches were published.

Renato Angelo Ricci, president of the Italian Physical Society, called the joke “an offense to the entire Italian scientific community.” But Hoover had learned a lesson: He thanked “Bestiale” at the end of another 1987 paper, saying that discussions with him had been “particularly useful.”

(From Parolacce, via Language Log. Thanks, Daniel.)

Four-for-All

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an odd bit of African geography: The finger of land in the upper left is Namibia, the region at the top is Zambia, Zimbabwe is at bottom right, and Botswana is at bottom left. Is the border between Zambia and Botswana long enough to permit a bridge to be built between the two? Or do the two peninsulas intrude far enough to make this impossible?

The answer isn’t clear. In 1970 Namibia had insisted that the four nations meet at a single point, meaning that the Kazungula Ferry linking Botswana and Zambia was illegal, as the border between them had no breadth. After an armed confrontation the ferry was sunk. Thirty-five years later Botswana and Zambia proposed building a bridge where the ferry had run. Is that geometrically permissible? The shaky consensus is that the two nations share a brief boundary of 150 meters between two “tripoints.” But the truth is as murky as the Zambezi itself.

(See Point of Interest. Thanks, Steve.)

Black and White

dawson chess puzzle

A curious chess puzzle by T.R. Dawson. White is to mate in four moves, with the stipulation that white men that are guarded may not move.

This seems immediately impossible. The two rooks guard one another, and one of them guards the king. And moving the pawn will place it under the king’s protection, leaving White completely frozen. How can he proceed?

Click for Answer

Eodermdromes

A spelling net is the pattern made when one writes down one instance of each unique letter that appears in a word and then connects these letters with lines, spelling out the word. For instance, the spelling net for VIVID is made by writing down the letters V, I, and D and drawing a line from V to I, I to V, V to I, and I to D.

Different words produce different spelling nets, of course, but every spelling net is an example of a graph, a collection of points connected by lines. A graph is said to be non-planar if some of the lines must cross; in the case of the spelling net, this means that no matter how we arrange the letters on the page, when we connect them in order we find that at least two of the lines must cross.

A word with a non-planar spelling net is called an eodermdrome, an ungainly name that itself illustrates the idea. The unique letters in EODERMDROME are E, O, D, R, and M. Write these down and run a pen among them, spelling out the word. You’ll find that no matter how the letters are arranged, it’s never possible to complete the task without at least two of the lines crossing:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eodermdrome.png
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ross Eckler sought all the eodermdromes in Webster’s second and third editions; another example he found is SUPERSATURATES:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Supersaturates2.png
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since spelling nets are graphs, they can be studied with the tools of graph theory, the mathematical study of such networks. One result from that discipline says that a graph is non-planar if and only if it can be reduced to one of the two patterns marked K5 and K(3, 3) above. Since both EODERMDROME and SUPERSATURATES contain these forbidden graphs, both are non-planar.

A good article describing recreational eodermdrome hunting, by computer scientists Gary S. Bloom, John W. Kennedy, and Peter J. Wexler, is here. One warning: They note that, with some linguistic flexibility, the word eodermdrome can be interpreted to mean “a course on which to go to be made miserable.”