Roughing It

The Duke of Wellington forbade officers to carry umbrellas into battle. On Dec. 10, 1813, during the Peninsular War, he saw a group of Grenadier Guards sheltering from the rain and sent an angry message: “Lord Wellington does not approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the gentlemen’s sons to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.” He later reproved their commander, saying, “The Guards may in uniform, when on duty at St. James’s, carry them if they please, but in the field it is not only ridiculous but unmilitary.”

Spectacles were not allowed in the British army until 1902. “There is little doubt that England will soon realize that she must take her place in company with the Continental people and furnish glasses as they do,” the Medical News had opined that March. It quoted ophthalmologist John Grimshaw, who had asked invalided South African soldiers whether their eyes had given them trouble in shooting on the veldt.

“Fightin’ all day, sir, and never saw a Boer,” one had replied. “Yes, sir, we simply blazed away at the kopjes on the chance of hittin’ a Boer or two.”

Get Out of Jail Free

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In 1941, as the British War Office searched for ways to help Allied prisoners escape from German POW camps, it found an unlikely partner: John Waddington Ltd., the U.K. licensee for Monopoly. “Games and pastimes” was an approved category of item to be included in care packages sent to captured soldiers, so Waddington’s set about creating special sets to be sent to the camps.

Under the paper surface of each doctored board was a map printed on durable silk showing “escape routes from the particular prison to which each game was sent,” Waddington’s chairman Victor Watson told the Associated Press in 1985. “Into the other side of the board was inserted a tiny compass and several fine-quality files.” Real French, German, and Italian currency was hidden in the stacks of Monopoly money.

MI-9, the intelligence division charged with helping POWs escape, smuggled the games into prison camps, where prisoners would remove the aids and then destroy the sets in order to prevent their captors from divining the scheme.

“It is not known how many airmen escaped thanks to these Monopoly games,” writes Philip Orbanes in The Game Makers, his 2004 history of Parker Brothers, “but 35,000 POWs did break out of prison camps and reach partisans who helped them to safety.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Thought Chemistry

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How many ideas hover dispersed in my head of which many a pair, if they should come together, could bring about the greatest of discoveries! But they lie as far apart as Goslar sulphur from East India saltpeter, and both from the dust in the charcoal piles on the Eichsfeld — which three together would make gunpowder. How long the ingredients of gunpowder existed before gunpowder did! There is no natural aqua regia. If, when thinking, we yield too freely to the natural combinations of the forms of understanding and of reason, then our concepts often stick so much to others that they can’t unite with those to which they really belong. If only there were something in that realm like a solution in chemistry, where the individual parts float about, lightly suspended, and thus can follow any current. But since this isn’t possible, we must deliberately bring things into contact with each other. We must experiment with ideas.

— G.C. Lichtenberg, Aphorisms

Almost Home

A drunk man arrives at his doorstep and tries to unlock his door. There are 10 keys on his key ring, one of which will fit the lock. Being drunk, he doesn’t approach the problem systematically; if a given key fails to work, he returns it to the ring and then draws again from all 10 possibilities. He tries this over and over until he gets the door open. Which try is most likely to open the door?

Surprisingly, the first try is most likely. The probability of choosing the right key on the first try is 1/10. Succeeding in exactly two trials requires being wrong on the first trial and right on the second, which is less likely: 9/10 × 1/10. And succeeding in exactly three trials is even less likely, for the same reason. The probability diminishes with each trial.

“In other words, it is most likely that he will get the right key at the very first attempt, even if he is drunk,” writes Mark Chang in Paradoxology of Scientific Inference. “What a surprise!”

Black and White

ramsey chess problem

By Robert Henry Ramsey. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Private Exit

Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:

I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.

Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’

They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’

The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.

It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.

Typecast

In Platoon, Willem Dafoe plays Sgt. Elias, who complains about having to take inexperienced men on patrol.

One of the men says, “Guy’s in three years and he thinks he’s Jesus fucking Christ or something.”

Two years later, Dafoe played the lead in The Last Temptation of Christ.

In a Word

ruelle
n. the space between a bed and the wall

“A Tragic Story”

There lived a sage in days of yore,
And he a handsome pigtail wore;
But wondered much and sorrowed more,
Because it hung behind him.

He mused upon this curious case,
And swore he’d change the pigtail’s place,
And have it hanging at his face,
Not dangling there behind him.

Says he, “The mystery I’ve found!
I’ll turn me round,” — he turned him round;
But still it hung behind him.

Then round and round, and out and in,
All day the puzzled sage did spin;
In vain — it mattered not a pin —
The pigtail hung behind him.

And right and left and round about,
And up and down and in and out
He turned; but still the pigtail stout
Hung steadily behind him.

And though his efforts never slack,
And though he twist and twirl, and tack,
Alas! Still faithful to his back,
The pigtail hangs behind him.

— Thackeray

A New Collectible

In 1961 Italian artist Piero Manzoni offered art buyers 90 tins of his own excrement, signed and numbered, each sold by weight at gold’s daily market price.

That would have been a good investment. A tin that would have cost $37 in 1961 was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $67,000 in 1991 — outperforming gold more than seventyfold.