Shop Talk

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From a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son Kermit, Oct. 2, 1903:

There! You will think this a dreadfully preaching letter! I suppose I have a natural tendency to preach just at present because I am overwhelmed with my work. I enjoy being President, and I like to do the work and have my hand on the lever. But it is very worrying and puzzling, and I have to make up my mind to accept every kind of attack and misrepresentation. It is a great comfort to me to read the life and letters of Abraham Lincoln. I am more and more impressed every day, not only with the man’s wonderful power and sagacity, but with his literally endless patience, and at the same time unflinching resolution.

Corner Market

corner market diagram

From Martin Gardner, via Michael Stueben: Obtain a slab of gold measuring 10″ x 11″ x 1″. Divide it diagonally and then cut a triangular notch in two corners as shown. Remove these notches as profit, and slide the remaining halves together to produce a new 10″ x 11″ x 1″ slab. The process can be repeated to yield any amount of money you like!

Podcast Episode 5: Mailing People, Alien Shorthand, and Benjamin Franklin

Henry Brown found a unique way to escape slavery: He mailed himself to Pennsylvania. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Brown on his perilous 1849 journey from Richmond to Philadelphia, follow a 5-year-old Idaho girl who was mailed to her grandparents in 1914, and delve deeper into a mysterious lion sighting in Illinois in 1917.

We’ll also decode a 200-year-old message enciphered by Benjamin Franklin, examine an engraved ball reputed to have fallen out of the Georgia sky in 1887, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

The story about Dr. Seyers’ alien ball appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1887 — here’s a reprint from the American Stationer.

Our posts on Henry Box Brown and May Pierstorff appeared on Feb. 2, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2008.

Here’s Samuel Rowse’s 1850 lithograph The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, depicting Brown’s climactic emergence from his box on March 24, 1849:

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And our post about Benjamin Franklin’s cipher appeared originally on July 23, 2008. Satoshi Tomokiyo’s description of the solution is here.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to recount the story of the U.S. Camel Corps, an enterprising attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American West in the 1850s. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Unquote

“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” — J.M. Barrie

“No, Sir, not a day’s work in all my life. What I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it.” — Mark Twain, New York Times interview, 1905

From a letter by Isaac Asimov, July 20, 1965:

You have a vacation when you do something you like better than your work. But there isn’t anything I like better than my work. My vacation therefore exists all year long — except when I am forced to go away.

But James Thurber wrote, “I suppose that even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building, would pall a little as the days ran on.”

Another Equivoque

This poem takes a pretty dark view of marriage — unless you read only the alternate lines:

That man must lead a happy life
Who’s free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.
Adam could find no solid peace
When Eve was given for a mate;
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.
In all the female race appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
In woman never did reside.
What tongue is able to unfold
The failings that in woman dwell;
The worths in woman we behold
Are almost imperceptible.
Confusion take the man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness,
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of earthly blessedness.

— W.S. Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

Silent Films

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The word zombie is never used in Night of the Living Dead.

The word Mafia is never used in The Godfather.

Absentee Ballots

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Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Maj. John Cartwright, June 5, 1824

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.

— G.K. Chesterton

No Attraction

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Kepler’s second law holds that a line segment connecting an orbiting planet to its sun sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time: In the diagram above, if the time intervals t are equal, then so are the areas A.

If gravity were turned off, would this still be true?

Click for Answer

Book Sale

book coverThis week our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, is on sale — the print book is $9.99, the ebook $4.99.

The book collects my favorite finds in nine years of dedicated curiosity-seeking: lawyers struck by lightning, wills in chili recipes, a lost manuscript by Jules Verne, dreams predicting horse race winners, softball at the North Pole, physicist pussycats, 5-year-olds in the mail, camels in Texas, balloons in the arctic, a lawsuit against Satan, starlings amok, backward shoes, revolving squirrels, Dutch Schultz’s last words, Alaskan mirages, armored baby carriages, pig trials, rivergoing pussycats, a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, and hundreds more.

Plus a selection of the curious words, odd inventions, and quotations that are regular features on the site, as well as 24 favorite puzzles and a preface explaining how Futility Closet came to be and how I come up with this stuff.

The book is available now on Amazon and in the Apple iBookstore.

I can also send signed copies to recipients in the U.S. for $25 each, and to those elsewhere for a comparable price once we’ve worked out the shipping. If you’re interested, write to me at gregblog@gmail.com. Thanks for your support, and thanks, as always, for reading!

Shy

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Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.

In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.

“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”

(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)