Making Luck

The audience was stunned when contestant Michael Larson won $110,237 on Press Your Luck in 1984, easily the largest one-day total ever won on a game show to that date. As lights flashed randomly on the Big Board, somehow Larson was consistently able to stop on squares that led to cash and additional play, and avoid the “whammy” that would bankrupt him.

It turned out that the light indicator wasn’t random. In studying the game at home, Larson had discovered that it followed five recognizable patterns; after memorizing these he could always be sure of landing on winning squares.

CBS producers divined the scheme, but they could find no cause to disqualify Larson, as he had broken no rules. They paid him his money, fixed the board, and established a maximum sum that future contestants could win.

Larson may have congratulated himself, but he didn’t get to enjoy his winnings — he lost the money in bad real estate investments and died of throat cancer at age 49.

In a Word

https://www.google.com/patents/US4022227

calvity
n. baldness

One wonders if there’s a personal story behind this “method of concealing partial baldness,” patented by Donald and Frank Smith in 1977. The hair is grown to a length of 3 or 4 inches, divided into equal portions, and brushed over the bald area, using hair spray to hold it in place. “By lightly sweeping the hair into the desired style as the hair spray dries, an appearance of a full head of hair is given.”

Beyond the Pale

Expressions banned from use in New Zealand parliamentary debate:

1933
Blowfly-minded

1943
Retardate worm

1946
Clown of the House
Idle vapourings of a mind diseased
I would cut the honourable gentleman’s throat if I had the chance

1949
His brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides

1957
Kind of animal that gnaws holes

1959
Member not fit to lick the shoes of the Prime Minister

1963
Energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral

1966
Shut up yourself, you great ape
Snotty-nosed little boy
You are a cheap little twerp
Ridiculous mouse

1974
Could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in
Dreamed the bill up in the bath
Frustrated warlord

The full list is here. In brighter news, saying that a fellow member “scuttles for his political funk hole” was deemed allowable in 1974.

The Inman Diaries

When chronic illness confined Boston poet Arthur Crew Inman to a darkened room, he turned inward, scribbling his thoughts and feelings into an enormous diary that eventually filled 155 volumes with 17 million handwritten words — most of them peevish:

A Lithuanian came to read to me. I disliked her at once. She was common. Her voice sounded like an ungreased axle. She spoke with a pronounced accent. She would start to read fairly well, but in short order she would become interested in the book, forget me, let the reading go as it might. I began to ask her questions. She answered in monosyllables. She used gutter slang. Her father, she said, had fled from Poland to escape the Russian term of army service. He had come to America where he had stayed for a while in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After saving some money, he took his family to Amsterdam, New York, and started a dry goods store. The girl had been one of six children. She had not learned to speak English until she was thirteen. She had gone to public school. Now she is studying music at the Boston Conservatory.

Harvard professor Daniel Aaron, who edited the diaries for publication in 1985, called them “surely one of the fullest and largest diaries ever kept by any American.” Inman would have agreed with him. “I trust to do in nonfiction what Balzac did in fiction,” he said. Perhaps he succeeded — the diaries were turned into an opera in 2007, and a film version starring John Hurt is in development.

Junk Mail

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aftermath_of_San_Francisco_earthquake,_1906.jpg

After the San Francisco earthquake, James Jones wrote this letter on a detachable shirt collar and mailed it without postage to his son and daughter-in-law in New York:

Dear Wayland and Gussie: All safe but awfully scared. Frisco and hell went into partnership and hell came out winner — got away with the sack. Draw a line from Ft Mason along Van Ness Ave. to Market St., out Market to Dolores to Twentieth, thence to Harrison, 16th & Portrero Ave. R.R. Ave. to Channel St. and bay. Nearly everything east and north of this boundary line gone, and several blocks west of it, especially in Hayes Valley as far as Octavia St. from Golden Gate Ave. east. Fire is still burning on the northside but is checked in the Mission. I and a band of 40 or 50 volunteers formed a rope and bucket brigade, back-fired Dolores from Market to 19th, pulled down houses and blanketed westside Dolores and won a great victory. More with paper & stamps. James G. Jones. April 21st, 1906.

It was delivered. The post office had resolved to handle “everything, stamped or unstamped, as long as it had an address to which it could be sent,” remembered William F. Burke, secretary to the city postmaster. When he made the rounds of camps, “the wonderful mass of communications that poured into the automobile was a study in the sudden misery that had overtaken the city. Bits of cardboard, cuffs, pieces of wrapping paper, bits of newspapers with an address on the margin, pages of books and sticks of wood all served as a means to let somebody in the outside world know that friends were alive and in need among the ruins.”

At the close of the first day, “95 pouches of letters carrying mail composed of rags and tatters and odds and ends — and burdened with a weight of woe bigger than had ever left the city in a mail sack — were made up for dispatch. … It came to our knowledge later that not one piece of this mail that was properly addressed failed of delivery.”

A Pleating Feat

kiechle paper man

In 2011 Australian architect Horst Kiechle created an entire human torso from paper, as a geometric sculpture, for the science lab at the International School Nadi in Fiji.

He’s made the templates available for free — you can fold your own paper man, complete with removable organs.

An Invisible Map

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iceal_gene_hambleton.jpg

Shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, Air Force navigator Iceal Hambleton needed to reach the Cam Lo River but was surrounded by enemy forces who might intercept any radio messages sent to him. After some consultation, rescuers told him to play the first hole at the Tucson National Golf Course. “Before you start be damned sure you line your shot up properly,” they said. “Very bad traps on this hole.”

Hambleton was bewildered at first but came to understand. As an avid golfer he was familiar with a number of American courses, and he had a photographic memory of each hole’s length and layout. The first hole at Tucson was 430 yards long and ran southeast, so he set off accordingly across country, following an imaginary fairway.

This worked. By invoking additional holes from three Air Force bases, as well as a par 3 from Augusta National, rescuers led Hambleton to the river, where a Navy SEAL picked him up.

“Two things kept me alive,” he told Golf Digest in 2001. “The will to live, and my wife. And we’re playing golf Friday.”

A Beautiful Belt

Completed in 1997, German artist Jo Niemeyer’s 20 Steps Around the Globe installed 20 high-grade steel columns on a great circle around the earth, establishing the distances between them using the golden ratio φ, 1.61803398875.

The first poles, shown here, were erected in Finnish Lapland, north of the polar circle. The first two were placed 0.458 meters apart; the third was placed 0.458 × φ = 0.741 meters beyond the second; and so on, marching off in a beeline toward the horizon. The first 12 poles are in Finland; the 13th and 14th in Norway; the 15th, 16th, and 17th in Russia; the 18th in China; and the 19th in Australia. The 20th coincides with the first back in Finland.

In this way the project models the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence, tailoring them to our planet. Niemeyer calls it “an interdisciplinary expedition into the secrets of the power of limits.”

Unquote

“My view of life is, that it’s next to impossible to convince anybody of anything.” — Lewis Carroll

Chladni Figures

In 1680 Robert Hooke sprinkled a plate with flour, drew a violin bow across its edge, and saw the flour spring into surprising geometric shapes. The plate was resonating, driving the flour into invisible nodal lines on its surface that were not vibrating.

German physicist Ernst Chladni pursued these experiments in the 18th century and published his results in Discoveries in the Theory of Sound in 1787. Today they’re known as Chladni figures.

“The universe is full of magical things,” wrote Eden Phillpotts, “patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”