When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible. That we were not alone in this thought is evidenced by the fact that the French Peace Society presented us with medals on account of our invention. We thought governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out its enemy.
In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn’t actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like “The ears are too length” and “He has spit in my coat.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Carolino’s phrasebook, which Mark Twain called “supreme and unapproachable.”
We’ll also hear Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” rendered in jargon and puzzle over why a man places an ad before robbing a bank.
Sources for our feature on Pedro Carolino’s disastrous phrasebook:
(This edition, like many, incorrectly names José da Fonseca as a coauthor. Fonseca was the author of the Portuguese-French phrasebook that Carolino used for the first half of his task. By all accounts that book is perfectly competent, and Fonseca knew nothing of Carolino’s project; Carolino added Fonseca’s name to the byline to lend some credibility to his own book.)
As long as we’re at it, here’s Monty Python’s “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch:
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy rendered in jargon, from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916):
To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).
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 via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
A puzzle from J.A.H. Hunter’s Fun With Figures (1956):
A man paddling a canoe upstream sees a glove in the water as he passes under a bridge. Fifteen minutes later, he turns around and paddles downstream. He passes under the bridge and travels another mile before reaching the rock from which he started, which the glove is just passing. If he paddled at the same speed the whole time and lost no time in turning around, what is the speed of the current?
Say the canoeist paddled at x miles per hour through the water and the current moved at y miles per hour relative to the land. Fifteen minutes of paddling took the canoe x/4 miles from the glove, and the glove took 1/y hours to travel the 1 mile between the bridge and the rock. So after the canoeist turned around, the glove took (1/y – 1/4) or (4 – y)/4y hours to reach the rock. During that time the man moved x(4 – y)/4y miles through the water. We know that he was x/4 miles from the glove at the start of that interval, so x/4 = x(4 – y)/4y and hence 1 = (4 – y)/y and y = 2. The speed of the current is 2 miles per hour.
A simpler solution, sent in by reader Peter McLeod: “You need to switch reference frames. Take the reference frame of the river, i.e. that which is moving downstream at the speed of the current. In that frame, the canoeist passes the glove, spends fifteen minutes paddling away from it, then turns and paddles back towards it. How long does he take to reach the glove again? It must be fifteen minutes, since we know his paddling speed is constant. Hence, the canoeist passes the glove half an hour after he left it. We know that in that time, the glove travelled a mile, so the current is going at 2 mph!”
In 1940, just before the release of her film They Knew What They Wanted, Carole Lombard’s press agent, Russell Birdwell, approached the filmmakers with a novel publicity scheme. Lombard would be scheduled to fly to New York for the opening, but they would arrange for the plane to “go down” en route and remain missing for 12 hours.
“And in those twelve hours, fellas, we’re going to be on every goddam front page in the United States of America,” Birdwell said. “Not only Carole Lombard’s name, but the name of the picture and the name of the theatre it’s going to open at and how would you like to foot the bill for that kind of advertising?” He planned that eventually Lombard and the pilot could wander out of the woods saying that the plane’s engines and radio had died.
In his 1967 memoir Hollywood, director Garson Kanin remembers that in the meeting Lombard began to slap her thigh, yelling, “I’ll die! I’ll die! Isn’t that something? I’ll die!”
Birdwell’s plan was considered seriously but finally canceled due to the cost. Two years later, Lombard died in a plane crash in Nevada. “I could hear Carole’s voice and the sound of her hand slapping her thigh, her voice yelling delightedly, ‘I’ll die! I’ll die!'” Kanin wrote. “I remembered Russell Birdwell’s notion of the fake crash for publicity. I stood there hoping against hope that perhaps this was a postponed version of his scheme. … Carole Lombard … could not be dead at thirty-five. But she was.”
One of democracy’s ideals is egalitarianism: Each person gets one vote, and all votes are equally consequential, so that all people have equal power over the world. For that reason we consider it improper for one person to vote twice in the same election. But then shouldn’t we also consider it improper for dual citizens to cast votes in two different places?
It’s true that dual citizens vote in different elections, but they’re still exercising twice as much power over the world as other voters. And it’s true that power is already unequally distributed among the world’s voters, but this is no reason to shrink from the ideal.
The fact that a dual citizen has the legal right to cast two ballots doesn’t mean that this accords with democratic principles. Suppose that Texas passed a law saying that any native-born Texan can vote in Texas, regardless of where he currently lives. Then a Texan living in Pennsylvania could cast ballots in both states, whereas a native Pennsylvanian could vote only once. This might be legal, but we would object morally to the unfairness of such a law.
Given the unequal influence of the world’s nations, one idealistic way to equalize power among all voters would be to give everyone a right to vote in every election, everywhere. This would give each of us an equal amount of power over the world. “That vision remains pretty visionary, we concede,” write Robert E. Goodin and Ana Tanasoca. “Still, visions matter.”
(Robert E. Goodin and Ana Tanasoca, “Double Voting,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 92, no. 4, 743-758.)
Eleven fenmen from the Isle of Ely, being employed by Sir John Griffin, in training a part of his park at Audley End, went one evening to the Inn called The Hoops, to drink. After getting a little spirited, they told the maid, they would give sixpence each to fetch them as much beer they could drink, in half-pints out of the cellar; if they tired her, she was to pay for the liquor; if she tired them, they were to pay for the whole. The girl accepted the bet, although she had been washing all the day, and drew them 517 single half-pints, before they gave out, which were all drank by the said men. The distance from the room where they sat, to the tap, was measured, from which it appears she walked near 12 miles in fetching it; and the quantity of liquor drank by each man was about three gallons in three hours. The above is the real fact.
Now if we add the dark gray regions to the black region, we get triangle BCF, whose area is half that of the whole square (a triangle’s area is one-half base times height). If we add the dark gray areas to the light gray areas, we again produce a region that’s half the area of the square (because it’s the full square minus triangle ABE). So the black part and the light gray part are equal.
By V. Proizvolov, from the Russian science magazine Kvant.