Freak Waves

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From the log of the S.S. Esso Lancashire, sailing off Durban in the Indian Ocean, Aug. 5, 1968:

At 0845 GMT the vessel entered a wave at an altitude of approx. 20 ft and emerged seconds later very much the worse for wear. If Cdre. W.S. Byles, R.D. has any idea where ‘The One from Nowhere’ went, we found the wave that should be with his trough! The wave passed unbroken over the monkey island (a height of about 60 ft) and we struck it well above the trough. It was preceded by a wave slightly larger than usual and we rode that one fairly comfortably but the wavelengths to the big one appeared much less and we just did not make it.

The log for 0745 had noted swell reaching heights of 20 feet. If the monkey island was 60 feet tall then this wave towered 80 feet above the trough, four times the average wave height.

The “one from nowhere” was a deep trough encountered by RMS Edinburgh Castle in 1964: Commodore W.S. Byles reported that the cruiser had “charged, as it were, into a hole in the ocean at an angle of 30° or more, shoveling the next wave on board at a height of 15 to 20ft before she could recover.”

The photo above was taken in the Bay of Biscay around 1940 — a merchant ship was laboring in heavy seas off the coast of France when a crew member photographed a huge wave behind them.

On May 5, 1916, Ernest Shackleton and three exhausted companions were sailing in a small boat across the South Atlantic, trying to reach a settlement and get help for their shipmates, who were stranded on Elephant Island. At midnight Shackleton, alone at the tiller, looked behind them and noticed a horizontal line in the sky. At first he thought this was a rift in the clouds, but gradually he realized it was the white crest of an enormous wave:

I shouted ‘For God’s sake, hold on! it’s got us.’ Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us.

“During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic,” Shackleton wrote later. “It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.” But they survived the disaster and reached their goal.

So There

E.E. Cummings had to borrow $300 from his mother in order to publish 70 Poems, his 1935 collection of poetry. Vindictively he changed its title to No Thanks and dedicated it to the 14 publishing houses that had rejected it:

cummings dedication

Their names form the shape of a funeral urn.

Word Perfect

St. Louis teacher William Kottmeyer compiled this list of “spelling demons” in 1973. Which of these words is misspelled?

kottmeyer spelling demons

Click for Answer

One Last Thrill

In 2010 Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas designed the Euthanasia Coaster, a 7,500-meter roller coaster designed to kill its riders. After a 2-minute climb to the top of the drop tower, the 24 riders plunge 500 meters into a series of seven loops designed to subject them to 10 g for 60 seconds. This forces the blood away from their brains, causing first euphoria, then loss of consciousness and finally death by cerebral hypoxia.

Here’s what that looks like if you don’t black out:

When the train returns to the station, the corpses are unloaded and a new group of passengers can board. Urbonas says, “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies, and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”

Heaven’s Domain

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In April 2005, when the Vatican began to seek a successor to John Paul II, technology author Rogers Cadenhead registered the domain names ClementXV.com, InnocentXIV.com, LeoXIV.com, BenedictXVI.com, PaulVII.com, and PiusXIII.com, hoping that the new pope would take one of these names.

“Someone else already has JohnPaulIII.com and JohnXXIV.com,” he wrote on his blog, “but otherwise I put a chip down on every name of the past three centuries.”

When Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI, “I felt like my horse had come in first at the Kentucky races,” he told CNN. As owner of the new pope’s domain, he made a few requests, including:

  1. Three days, two nights at the Vatican hotel.
  2. “One of those hats.”
  3. Complete absolution, no questions asked, for the third week of March 1987.

“Whatever decision I make will be guided by the desire not to make 1.5 billion people mad at me … including my grandmother,” he told the Washington Post. As I write this, the domain appears to be unused — perhaps they’re still negotiating.

Hidden Men

Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to a “Mr. W.H.” No one knows who this was — his identity has remained a mystery for 400 years. Most of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, and some seem to contain puns on the names “Will” and “Hughes” (for example, sonnet 20 refers to “a man in hue all hughes in his controlling”), so the 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt suggested that the young man was named William Hughes. Oscar Wilde took this up in his 1889 short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” in which he imagines that Mr. W.H. was one Willie Hughes, “a wonderful boy-actor of great beauty” who played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s company. Unfortunately there’s no evidence that such a person actually existed, though Samuel Butler discovered a real-life William Hughes who served as cook on a ship called the Vanguard in 1634.

In Ulysses, Mr. Best calls Wilde’s the “most brilliant” of all theories to explain the mystery. That’s ironic, because Ulysses contains a mysterious character of its own, a “man in a macintosh” who appears repeatedly but is never identified:

Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know? Now I’d give a trifle to know who he is. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. A fellow could live on his lonesome all his life.

And, later:

Mr Bloom stood far back, his hat in his hand, counting the bared heads. Twelve. I’m thirteen. No. The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death’s number. Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear. Silly superstition that about thirteen.

This being Ulysses, he could be almost anyone, and critics have suggested everyone from Satan to Charles Stewart Parnell. Joyce seemed to delight in his own riddle, asking his friends, “Who was the man in the macintosh?” But he never revealed the answer.

Black and White

hoeg chess problem

By Niels Høeg. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Double Indemnity

This past February, brothers named Elwin and Yohan were arrested for six rapes in France, but both denied the charges. Deciding which is guilty is a tricky affair — they’re identical twins, so the genetic difference between them is very slight. Marseille police chief Emmanual Kiehl said, “It could take thousands of separate tests before we know which one of them may be guilty.”

This is only the latest in a series of legal conundrums involving identical twins and DNA evidence. During a jewel heist in Germany in January 2009, thieves left behind a drop of sweat on a latex glove. A crime database showed two hits — identical twins Hassan and Abbas O. (under German law their last name was withheld). Both brothers had criminal records for theft and fraud, but both were released. The court ruled, “From the evidence we have, we can deduce that at least one of the brothers took part in the crime, but it has not been possible to determine which one.”

Later that year, identical twins Sathis Raj and Sabarish Raj escaped hanging in Malaysia when a judge ruled it was impossible to determine which was guilty of drug smuggling. “Although one of them must be called to enter a defence, I can’t be calling the wrong twin to enter his defence,” the judge told the court. “I also can’t be sending the wrong person to the gallows.”

In 2003, a Missouri woman had sex with identical twins Raymon and Richard Miller within hours of one another. When she became pregnant, both men denied fathering the child. In Missouri a man can be named a legal father only if a paternity test shows a 98 percent or higher probability of a DNA match, but the Miller twins both showed a probability of more than 99.9 percent.

“With identical twins, even if you sequenced their whole genome you wouldn’t find difference,” forensic scientist Bob Gaensslen told ABC News at the time. More recent research shows that this isn’t the case, but teasing out the difference can be expensive — in the Marseilles case, police were told that such a test would cost £850,000.

It goes on. Last month British authorities were trying to decide how to prosecute a rape when DNA evidence identified both Mohammed and Aftab Asghar. “It is an unusual case,” said prosecutor Sandra Beck. “They are identical twins. The allegation is one of rape. There is further work due.”

A Day’s Work

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On April 2, 1931, during an exhibition game between the minor-league Chattanooga Lookouts and the New York Yankees, 17-year-old pitcher Jackie Mitchell found herself facing Babe Ruth.

She struck him out in four pitches. “I had a drop pitch,” she said, “and when I was throwing it right, you couldn’t touch it.”

The New York Times reported that Ruth “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench, registering disgust with his shoulders and chin.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball,” he told a Chattanooga newspaper. “Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Next up was Lou Gehrig. She struck him out, too.

In a Word

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ughten
n. the part of the night immediately before daybreak