Followup

During World War I, cable censors would sometimes change a word here and there in a telegram, preserving the meaning but hoping to interfere with any enemy codes the messages might contain.

‘Father is dead,’ ran a cablegram from Sweden to New York which passed through the British censorship.

For some inexplicable reason the censor didn’t like the word ‘dead.’ He changed it to ‘deceased.’

Within a short time this question, sent from New York to Sweden, passed through the hands of the same censor: ‘Is father dead or deceased?’

“What did that word ‘dead’ mean? It might have covered a whole volume of enemy news; it might have provoked a disaster on land or sea. And yet the censor had no better reason for cutting it out than a certain ‘hunch’ which came over him that the word ought to be changed.”

(“Our Dear Friend, the Censor,” American Printer, June 5, 1917.)

Balance

balance puzzle

Point P lies within acute angle XOY. How can we find a point A on OX and a point B on OY such that P is the midpoint of a segment drawn between them?

Click for Answer

Elements

https://www.pexels.com/photo/sky-blue-sun-cloud-9236/

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the events of Bloomsday are so carefully worked out that even incidents of weather can be recognized across the various episodes. Episode 1, at the tower:

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green.

In Episode 4, Bloom notices the same thing as he walks home from Dlugacz’s shop:

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly. Grey. Far.

Four paragraphs later the cloud has passed:

Quick warm sunlight came running from Berkeley road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath.

And back at the tower it passes as well:

Stephen, still trembling at his soul’s cry, heard warm running sunlight and in the air behind him friendly words.

“The breeze is therefore approximately from the west, that being the prevailing direction of winds in the British Isles,” observes Ian Gunn in James Joyce’s Dublin (2004).

Principle

A Quaker objector in the Civil War:

I was ordered out and required to fall in line with the company and drill, but I refused. They tried to make me and I sat down on the ground. They reminded me of the orders to shoot me, but I told them my God said to fear them not that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather to fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. The company was then ordered to fall back eight paces, leaving me in front of them. They were then ordered by Colonel Kirkland to ‘Load; Present arms; Aim,’ and their guns were pointed directly at my breast. I raised my arms and prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ Not a gun was fired. They lowered them without orders, and some of them were heard to say that they ‘could not shoot such a man.’ The order was then given, ‘Ground arms.’

After weeks of such punishment, William Hockett was captured at Gettysburg and released to live in Philadelphia. He remained there until the end of the war.

Blow by Blow

https://www.google.com/patents/US543086

In 1895, stung by charges that boxing is a brutal sport, Joseph Donovan patented the training rig on the left. Each boxer wears a harness and headgear with electrical contacts at each of the classic vulnerable points: the heart, the pit of the stomach, the chin, the nose, etc. When a sparring partner hits one of these points, a bell sounds and points are scored.

Donovan argued that this makes the scoring more objective and the sport more civilized. “It renders one of the healthiest and most fascinating athletic exercises absolutely safe,” he wrote, “doing away completely with roughing, bloodletting, brutality, knockdowns, and knockouts, and reducing boxing and the manly art of self-defense to a science, in which rapidity of arm and leg work, endurance, and quick conception are the only factors.”

In the same spirit, in 1956 Willie Roberson patented a glove with a built-in counter (right): “Each time a blow above a predetermined force is struck, such blow will be recorded, whereby the total number of effective blows struck during a boxing match will be readily available to the referee and judges judging the boxing match.” If we combine the two then we can even confirm the counts!

Warm Words

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_angel_leading_a_soul_into_hell._Oil_painting_by_a_followe_Wellcome_L0030887.jpg

Writing in American Speech in 1931, L.W. Merryweather predicted that “hell fills so large a part in the American vulgate that it will probably be worn out in a few years.” He proposed that “clerical circles should take it upon themselves, as a public duty, to invest some other theological term with a shuddering fearsomeness that will qualify it as a successor to hell, when the lamentable decease of the latter actually takes place.” He counted 14 usages:

  1. Hell as “the equivalent of negative adverbs,” or as an intensifier thereof, as in the hell you say and like hell I will.
  2. As a super-superlative, as in colder than hell.
  3. As an adverb of all work, as in run like hell and hate like hell.
  4. As an intensifier of questions, as in what the hell?, who the hell?, where the hell?, etc.
  5. As an intensifier of asseverations, as in hell, yes!
  6. As an intensifier of qualities, as in to be hell on and hell of a price.
  7. As an indicator of intensified experience, as in hell of a time, get the hell, and to play hell with.
  8. In a more or less literal sense, as in wouldn’t it be hell?, go to hell, the hell with, hell on wheels, hell to pay, like a snowball in hell, till hell freezes over, and to beat hell.
  9. As a synonym for uproar or turmoil, as in to raise hell, to give him hell, and hell is loose.
  10. As a verb, as in to hell around.
  11. As an adjective, as in a hellish hurry and hell-bent.
  12. In combination with other nouns, as in hell’s bells, hell and high water, hell and Maria, hell-raiser, hell-diver, hell-bender, and hell-to-breakfast.
  13. In derivatives, as in hellion, hell-cat and heller.
  14. As a simple expletive, as in Oh, hell!

Fourteen years later, in The American Language, H.L. Mencken wrote, “Fortunately, his fears have not been borne out by the event. Hell still flourishes in the Republic, in so far as profanity flourishes at all, and every one of the combinations and permutations of it that he listed remains in use.”

(L.W. Merryweather, “Hell in American Speech,” American Speech 6:6 [August 1931], 433-435.)

Present Company

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

Why do we give gifts during courtship, and what makes a good gift? In 2005, University College London mathematicians Peter D. Sozou and Robert M. Seymour modeled the question with a game. The male begins by offering one of three gifts — valuable, extravagant, or cheap — depending on how attractive he finds the female. After he offers the gift, she decides whether to accept it and mate with him. Afterward, he decides whether to stay with her or seek another partner.

Each is trying to judge the intentions of the other. She must decide whether he wants a serious relationship or only a brief encounter, and he must decide whether she’s really attracted to him or only wants the gift.

According to the courtship game, the most successful strategy for the male is to offer an “extravagant” gift that’s costly to him but intrinsically worthless to the female. This tells the female that he has resources and values her highly, but it protects him from coy fortune-hunters.

“By being costly to the male, the gift acts as a credible signal of his intentions or quality,” write Sozou and Seymour. “At the same time, its lack of intrinsic value to the female serves to deter a ‘gold-digger’, who has no intention of mating with the male, from accepting the gift. In this way, an economically inefficient gift enables mutually suitable partners to be matched.”

(Peter D. Sozou and Robert M. Seymour, “Costly But Worthless Gifts Facilitate Courtship,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272, 1877–1884, July 26, 2005.)

In a Word

concentus
n. a harmonious combination, especially of sounds

catachthonian
adj. subterranean

Reverberating harmonies in Ambleside Cave, Cumbria:

Redesign

We’ve upgraded our look today, to make the podcast and books easier to find and to make the site easier to use on mobile devices. Many thanks to Graph Paper Press for the new design and to the great Von Glitschka for our new logo (about which more in a future post).

Everything should work as it always has (including the RSS and email feeds), but hopefully things are easier to find now, especially for newcomers. If you spot any problems, please let me know.

This site is supported entirely by its readers. If you value Futility Closet and would like to contribute, either with a one-time donation or ongoing patronage, please see the support page. Thanks for reading!