“There is nothing so easily made offensive as good reasoning.” — Sir Arthur Helps
“There is nothing so easily made offensive as good reasoning.” — Sir Arthur Helps
The Wheatstone bridge circuit was invented by Samuel Hunter Christie but named after Charles Wheatstone, who developed the Playfair cipher … which was named after Lyon Playfair.
See Who’s On First?
n. a rolling toward
“The ball was my idea,” said Steven Spielberg of the boulder that threatens Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I don’t even know where I came up with it — it might have been deeply in my subconscious from something I saw when I was a kid — but I just said, ‘You know, at some point some huge boulder should start chasing Indy, and it almost squashes him three or four times until he gets out of the cave.'”
The scene was shot 10 times, with the crew replacing fallen stalactites each time. “I didn’t know it was gonna look as good as it did until the day [production designer] Norman Reynolds showed me that he had actually made a boulder that was something like 22 feet in circumference,” Spielberg said. “So I didn’t have Harrison step in the shot until I was completely convinced it was safe. Once we’d rehearsed it several times with a stuntman, Harrison did every shot himself.”
When Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had met in January 1978 to brainstorm ideas, it was quickly clear that Lucas already had an articulate vision of the story. At one point Kasdan asked Lucas why he didn’t direct the film himself. He said, “Because then I’d never get to see it.”
(From J.W. Rinzler, The Complete Making of Indiana Jones, 2008.)
This unit square is divided into four regions by a diagonal and a line that connects a vertex to the midpoint of an opposite side. What are the areas of the four regions?
In 1768, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to move a 3-million-pound granite boulder intact into Saint Petersburg to serve as the pedestal for a statue of Peter the Great. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how some inspired engineering moved the Thunder Stone 13 miles from its forest home to Senate Square, making it the largest stone ever moved by man.
We’ll also learn whether mutant squid are attacking Indiana and puzzle over why a stamp collector would be angry at finding a good bargain.
Our segment on the Thunder Stone is based on Yale linguist Alexander M. Schenker’s impeccably researched 2003 history The Bronze Horseman: Falconet’s Monument to Peter the Great. Here’s an engraving by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe, The Barge With the Thunder Rock Steadied by Two Cutters of the Imperial Navy En Route to St. Petersburg:
And here’s the statue as it appears today:
Intrepid listener Dan Noland has found five newspaper articles on Indiana’s oil pit squids — his page includes background information and commentary.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Please keep sending puzzles — Sharon’s becoming impossible to stump.
Please consider becoming a patron of the Futility Closet podcast — 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.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!
A rather baroque problem by Émile Leonard Pradignat. White to mate in two moves.
The story of a musical misprint, with perhaps a moral:
A student whom Dr Goldovsky describes as ‘technically competent but a poor reader’ prepared a Brahms Capriccio (Op. 76 No. 2) which she brought to her lesson. She began to play the piece through but when she arrived at the C sharp major chord on the first beat of the bar 42 measures from the end, she played a G natural instead of the G sharp which would normally occur in the C sharp major triad. Goldovsky told her to stop and correct her mistake. The student looked confused and said that she had played what was written. To Goldovsky’s surprise, the girl had played the printed notes correctly — there was an apparent misprint in the music.
The error occurred in most published editions of the piece; hundreds of musicians had overlooked it. Goldovsky tested his skilled readers by telling them that the piece contained a misprint and asking them to find it. He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked, but none found the error. Only when he specified the measure were they able to see it.
The misprint is hard to spot because the bar in which it occurs is almost an exact transposition of the preceding bar. The underlying harmony is the very common V-I (G sharp to C sharp) over a C sharp pedal, and the notation in the preceding bar has already “set” the G as a sharp. So there are multiple, powerful cues for an experienced player to interpret the subsequent G as sharp.
“What is important to note about this story is that it was a relatively poor reader who was the first to uncover the error,” notes John Sloboda in The Musical Mind (1988). “Because she did not have the expectations of more accomplished players she required more information from the score to determine her performance, and so, paradoxically, read more accurately than more accomplished players.”
(Thomas Wolf, “A Cognitive Model of Musical Sight-Reading,” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, April 1976.)
In the 1970 Scientific American article “How Snakes Move,” Carl Gans points out an oddity in a Sherlock Holmes story:
In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ Sherlock Holmes solves a murder mystery by showing that the victim has been killed by a Russell’s viper that has climbed up a bell rope. What Holmes did not realize was that Russell’s viper is not a constrictor. The snake is therefore incapable of concertina movement and could not have climbed the rope. Either the snake reached its victim some other way or the case remains open.
This is indeed perplexing. If it’s not a fact that vipers can climb ropes, then how did Holmes solve the case? If vipers can climb ropes in Holmes’ world but not in ours, then how can we follow his reasoning in other matters? What other features of Holmes’ world differ from ours?
One way out: “The story never quite says that Holmes was right that the snake climbed the rope,” notes philosopher David Lewis. So perhaps the snake did reach its victim in some other way and Holmes was simply wrong.
(David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” American Philosophical Quarterly, January 1978.)
In his landmark paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Claude Shannon experimented with a series of stochastic approximations to English. He started with a sample message in which each of the 26 letters and the space appear with equal probability:
XFOML RXKHRJFFJUJ ZLPWCFWKCYJ FFJEYVKCQSGHYD QPAAMKBZAACIBZLHJQD.
In the next message, the symbols’ frequencies are weighted according to how commonly they appear in English text (for example, E is more likely than W):
OCRO HLI RGWR NMIELWIS EU LL NBNESEBYA TH EEI ALHENHTTPA OOBTTVA NAH BRL.
In the third he linked each letter to its predecessor: After one letter is recorded, the next is chosen in a manner weighted according to how frequently such a pair appears in natural English (a “digram”):
ON IE ANTSOUTINYS ARE T INCTORE ST BE S DEAMY ACHIN D ILONASIVE TUCOOWE AT TEASONARE FUSO TIZIN ANDY TOBE SEACE CTISBE.
In the fourth he applied the same idea to sets of three letters (“trigrams”):
IN NO IST LAT WHEY CRATICT FROURE BIRS GROCID PONDENOME OF DEMONSTURES OF THE REPTAGIN IS REGOACTIONA OF CRE.
In the fifth he shifts from letters to words. Words appear in a manner weighted by their frequency in English (without regard to the prior word):
REPRESENTING AND SPEEDILY IS AN GOOD APT OR COME CAN DIFFERENT NATURAL HERE HE THE A IN CAME THE TO OF TO EXPERT GRAY COME TO FURNISHES THE LINE MESSAGE HAD BE THESE.
Finally, he applies the digram technique to words — each word is chosen based on the frequency with which pairs of words appear in English:
THE HEAD AND IN FRONTAL ATTACK ON AN ENGLISH WRITER THAT THE CHARACTER OF THIS POINT IS THEREFORE ANOTHER METHOD FOR THE LETTERS THAT THE TIME OF WHO EVER TOLD THE PROBLEM FOR AN UNEXPECTED.
Already this is starting to look like English — Shannon notes that the 10-word phrase ATTACK ON AN ENGLISH WRITER THAT THE CHARACTER OF THIS could find a home in a natural sentence without much strain.
He had to stop there, as this was 1948 and he was using paper books. “But the modern availability of computing power has made carrying out such calculations automatically a near-trivial task for reasonably-sized bodies of sample text,” writes UC-Santa Cruz computer scientist Noah Wardrip-Fruin. “As Shannon also pointed out, the stochastic processes he described are comonly considered in terms of Markov models. And, interestingly, the first application of Markov models was also linguistic and literary — modeling letter sequences in Pushkin’s poem ‘Eugene Onegin.’ But Shannon was the first to bring this mathematics to bear meaningfully on communication, and also the first to use it to perform text-generation play.”
(Noah Wardrip-Fruin, “Playable Media and Textual Instruments,” in Peter Gendolla and Jörgen Schäfer, eds., The Aesthetics of Net Literature, 2007.)
Both Futility Closet books — Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements and Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits — are available now on Amazon. Perfect for chasing away winter doldrums or giving as solstice gifts. Thanks for your support!