Non-Fiction

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/440835

Sherlock Holmes is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Holmes did not exist, but he should have existed,” society chief David Giachardi said in bestowing the award in 2002. “That is how important he is to our culture. We contend that the Sherlock Holmes myth is now so deeply rooted in the national and international psyche through books, films, radio and television that he has almost transcended fictional boundaries.”

FYI

I’m the guest on Boing Boing’s Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast this month, discussing the new book and the website — here’s a link.

Tongue Tied

Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:

Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.

If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.

Your

Carl Jensen

It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.

Figure and Ground

Swiss artist Markus Raetz created this innovative portrait of Piero della Francesca. Two mobiles are fitted with aluminum plates that are juxtaposed successively as the mobiles rotate. Piero appears between them.

Raetz’s kinetic sculpture of Kiki de Montparnasse, below, uses a similar idea:

Black and White

meyer chess problem

By Heinrich Friedrich Ludwig Meyer. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Pitching In

At a timber-mill in the Powelltown district (Victoria) it is customary to blow three blasts of the whistle to indicate an accident and six blasts to notify a fatality. One day the six blasts echoed about the hills and men ran from all directions to the mill. But there was no fatality; the ‘whistle’ was produced by a Lyrebird, which had heard the three blasts with some frequency, and, in imitating them, had added three more for good measure. That episode ranks with one related by Mervyn Bill, a forest surveyor, who has written that when he was camped at Hell’s Gates (Victoria), he was annoyed to see, through the theodolite telescope, his men doing certain field operations without the usual instructions. The fact became revealed, subsequently, that they had obeyed ‘instructions’ from a Lyrebird in an adjacent gully, which faultlessly imitated the surveyor’s shrill, staccato code of signals.

— Alec H. Chisholm, Bird Wonders of Australia, 1958

See Technical Fowl.

Digit Jump

digit jump puzzle

Place the digits 1 through 8 into these circles so that no two successive numbers are connected by a line. If we don’t count rotations or reflections, the solution is unique.

Click for Answer

In a Word

monomachy
n. a duel

In 1842, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois lawyer, published a letter in a Springfield newspaper criticizing the performance of the state’s auditor, James Shields. Shields, quick to anger, challenged Lincoln to a duel, and the two met on an island in the Mississippi River. As the challenged party, Lincoln was permitted to choose the weapon, and he requested long cavalry broadswords. As he stood 7 inches taller than Shields, this gave him an enormous advantage, which he demonstrated by cutting a branch above Shields’ head. Accounts differ as to how the auditor responded — he either laughed or quailed — but the two agreed not to fight. Lincoln appears to have been embarrassed by the whole affair, and declined to discuss it in later years.

(Thanks, Aric.)

The Wheel Cipher

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jefferson%27s_disk_cipher.jpg

Thomas Jefferson, already absurdly accomplished by 1795, somehow found time to delve into cryptography, where he devised this cipher system. The letters of the alphabet are printed along the rim of each of 36 disks, which are stacked on an axle. One party rotates the disks until his message can be read along one of the 26 rows of letters, somewhat like a modern cylindrical bike lock. Now he can record the letters in any one of the other 25 rows and send that string safely to another party, who decodes it by reversing this procedure. If the message is intercepted, it’s useless even to someone who has the disks, because he must also know the order in which to stack them, and 36 disks can be stacked in 371,993,326,789,901,217,467,999,448,150,835, 200,000,000 different ways.

This is pretty robust. The cipher below, created in 1915 by U.S. Army cryptographer Joseph Mauborgne, has never been solved. “The known systems from this year (or earlier) shouldn’t be too hard to crack with modern attacks and technology,” writes NSA cryptologist Craig P. Bauer. “So, why don’t we have a plaintext yet? My best guess is that it used a cipher wheel” like Jefferson’s.

mauborgne cipher

(L. Kruh, “A 77-year-old challenge cipher,” Cryptologia, 17(2), 172-174, 1993, quoted in Bauer’s Secret History: The Story of Cryptology, 2013.)

Through the Motions

https://www.google.com/patents/US563578

This “device for teaching swimming,” patented by James Emerson in 1896, teaches good technique mechanically. The teacher places the machine in a swimming pool or open water, the student climbs aboard, the teacher turns crank handle 13, and the machine guides the student through the motions of swimming, “these arm movements being so nearly like those performed by an actual swimmer that the beginner who has these movements mechanically imparted to her arms thereby shortly acquires the swimming arm stroke.” What could go wrong?

https://www.google.com/patents/US563578

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