Postal Constraints

Letter from Lewis Carroll to Gertrude Chataway, Dec. 9, 1875:

This really will not do, you know, sending one more kiss every time by post: the parcel gets so heavy it is quite expensive. When the postman brought in the last letter, he looked quite grave. ‘Two pounds to pay, sir!’ he said. ‘Extra weight, sir!’ (I think he cheats a little, by the way. He often makes me pay two pounds, when I think it should be pence). ‘Oh, if you please, Mr. Postman!’ I said, going down gracefully on one knee (I wish you could see me go down on one knee to a postman — it’s a very pretty sight), ‘do excuse me just this once! It’s only from a little girl!’

‘Only from a little girl!’ he growled. ‘What are little girls made of?’ ‘Sugar and spice,’ I began to say, ‘and all that’s ni–‘ but he interrupted me. ‘No! I don’t mean that. I mean, what’s the good of little girls, when they send such heavy letters?’ ‘Well, they’re not much good, certainly,’ I said, rather sadly.

‘Mind you don’t get any more such letters,’ he said, ‘at least, not from that particular little girl. I know her well, and she’s a regular bad one!’ That’s not true, is it? I don’t believe he ever saw you, and you’re not a bad one, are you? However, I promised him we would send each other very few more letters — ‘Only two thousand four hundred and seventy, or so,’ I said. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘a little number like that doesn’t signify. What I meant is, you mustn’t send many.’

So you see we must keep count now, and when we get to two thousand four hundred and seventy, we mustn’t write any more, unless the postman gives us leave.

A Step Up

addison patent

Shropshire furniture maker Henry Addison patented these “elevators” in 1902:

My invention has for its object a new or improved device or stand for attaching to the foot by means of which those people who are at the rear of, or short people who are in the midst of a large gathering or crowd are enabled to easily and comfortably see over the heads of the people in front thus enabling them to witness a procession or game or other sight without any inconvenience or crushing which will be found of considerable advantage.

Addison thought they’d be particularly valuable at football matches, race meetings, sports, “or games of any kind where a crowd of spectators are assembled.” Of course, the people behind you will have to get stilts.

Misc

  • Denver International Airport is larger than Manhattan.
  • C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy died on the same day.
  • Shakespeare mentions America only once, in Act 3, Scene 2 of The Comedy of Errors.
  • π4 + π5e6
  • “All styles are good except the boring kind.” — Voltaire

(Thanks, Larry.)

Unquote

“The really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.” — Albert Einstein

“Aside from purely technical analysis, nothing can be said about music, except when it is bad; when it is good, one can only listen and be grateful.” — W.H. Auden

Podcast Episode 24: The World’s Worst Poet

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

William McGonagall has been called “the only truly memorable bad poet in our language,” responsible for tin-eared verse that could “give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading”:

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample McGonagall’s writings, follow the poor poet’s sadly heroic wanderings, and wonder whether he may have been in on the joke after all. We’ll also consider a South Carolina seventh grader’s plea to Ronald Reagan and puzzle over a man’s outrageous public behavior.

Our segment on William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, is drawn from Norman Watson’s beautifully researched 2010 book Poet McGonagall: A Biography. The best online source on McGonagall is Chris Hunt’s site McGonagall Online, which contains extensive biographical materials, a map of the poet’s travels, and a complete collection of his poems.

South Carolina seventh grader Andy Irmo’s 1984 letter to Ronald Reagan asking that his room be declared a disaster area appears in Dwight Young’s 2007 book Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office from the Files of the National Archives. Our post about it ran on Aug. 14, 2006.

Thanks to listener Nick Madrid for this week’s lateral thinking puzzle.

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!

Versatile

What’s unusual about this magic square?

heath invertible square 1

It works just as well upside down:

heath invertible square 2

From Royal V. Heath, Scripta Mathematica, March-June 1951. See Topsy Turvy.

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Vernet_-_A_Seastorm_-_WGA24737.jpg

haliography
n. a description of the sea

Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield climaxes with a dramatic tempest at Yarmouth:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Tolstoy wrote, “If you sift the world’s prose literature, Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.” The scene formed the conclusion of Dickens’ public readings from the novel, and was often hailed as the grandest moment in his performances. Thackeray’s daughter Annie said the storm scene was more thrilling than anything she had ever seen in a theater: “It was not acting, it was not music, nor harmony of sound and color, and yet I still have an impression of all these things as I think of that occasion.”

Small Business

To help interest young students in chemistry, James Tour of Rice University devised “NanoPutians,” organic molecules that take the form of stick figures. The body is a series of carbon atoms that join two benzene rings; the arms and legs are acetylene units, each terminating in an alkyl group; and the head is a 1,3-dioxolane ring.

This gets even better — by using microwave irradiation, Tour found a way to vary the heads, creating a range of NanoProfessionals:

The synthesis is detailed on the Wikipedia page.

Lights Out

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/499187

I pass on to Eclipses. When the Moon (see above) gets between the Earth (see below) and the Sun (do what you like), the resulting phenomenon is called an Eclipse of the Sun. When the Sun gets between the Earth and the Moon there will be the devil to pay. It will be called the Eclipse of the Earth and is likely to be total.

— H.F. Ellis, So This Is Science!, 1932

Who’s Serving Who?

This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.

On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”

“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”

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