Lay of the Land

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Think of it like this: Geography is riding in a car along with Science and Art. Geography is, in fact, riding in the back seat. Science has been driving for seventy-five years, fighting with Art all the way. Science scorns Art; Art sneers at Science. Neither pays much attention to Geography, except for help with reading the map. Geography tries to take a nap, but cannot sleep. Geography tries to understand why Art and Science fight so, but gives up and looks out the window, which is really more interesting than the fight anyway. Art protests that Science drives too fast. Science snaps back that Art does not understand how to make progress. Geography sometimes sides with Art, often with Science, but neither cares much, nor do either of them care when Geography announces that they are now passing Cleveland. (Science grunts, eyes straight ahead; Art faces so as not to see Cleveland.) Finally, Geography can take no more and tells Science to pull in at the next rest stop.

— W.T. Grvaldy-Sczny, “A Diamond Anniversary,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69 (1979), 1-3.

Podcast Episode 209: Lost Off Newfoundland

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In 1883 fisherman Howard Blackburn was caught in a blizzard off the coast of Newfoundland. Facing bitter cold in an 18-foot boat, he passed through a series of harrowing adventures in a desperate struggle to stay alive and find help. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Blackburn’s dramatic story, which made him famous around the world.

We’ll also admire a runaway chicken and puzzle over a growing circle of dust.

Intro:

During Oxfordshire’s annual stag hunt in 1819, the quarry took refuge in a chapel.

With the introduction of electric light, some American cities erected “moonlight towers.”

Sources for our feature on Howard Blackburn:

Joseph E. Garland, Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn, Hero Fisherman of Gloucester, 1963.

Louis Arthur Norton, “The Hero of Gloucester,” American History 35:5 (December 2000), 22.

“The Terrible Odyssey of Howard Blackburn,” American Heritage 33:2 (February/March 1982).

Peter Nielsen, “Howard Blackburn: Heroism at Sea,” Sail, July 31, 2017.

Matthew McKenzie, “Iconic Fishermen and the Fates of New England Fisheries Regulations, 1883-1912,” Environmental History 17:1 (January 2012), 3-28.

R. Guy Pulvertaft, “Psychological Aspects of Hand Injuries,” Hand 7:2 (April 1, 1975), 93-103.

Paul Raymond Provost, “Winslow Homer’s ‘The Fog Warning’: The Fisherman as Heroic Character,” American Art Journal 22:1 (Spring 1990), 20-27.

“Ask the Globe,” Boston Globe, Jan. 24, 2000, B8.

Michael Carlson, “Obituary: Joseph Garland: Voice of Gloucester, Massachusetts,” Guardian, Oct. 6, 2011, 46.

Larry Johnston, “During a Struggle to Survive ’83 Blizzard, a Sailor Becomes a Hero,” Florida Today, June 21, 2006, E.1.

Herbert D. Ward, “Heroes of the Deep,” Century 56:3 (July 1898), 364-377.

“Alone in a Four-Ton Boat,” New York Times, June 19, 1899.

“Passed Blackburn’s Boat,” New York Times, Aug. 11, 1899.

“Capt. Blackburn at Lisbon,” New York Times, July 21, 1901.

Sherman Bristol, “The Fishermen of Gloucester,” Junior Munsey 10:5 (August 1901), 749-755.

Patrick McGrath, “Off the Banks,” Idler 24:3 (March 1904), 522-531.

John H. Peters, “Voyages in Midget Boats,” St. Louis Republic Sunday Magazine, Dec. 11, 1904, 9.

M.B. Levick, “Fog Is Still the Fisherman’s Nemesis,” New York Times, July 19, 1925.

“Capt. Blackburn Dies,” New York Times, Nov. 5, 1932.

James Bobbins, “Two Are Rescued as Boat Capsizes,” New York Times, Jan. 30, 1933.

L.H. Robbins, “Out of Gloucester to the Winter Sea,” New York Times, Feb. 12, 1933.

Robert Spiers Benjamin, “Boats Dare Ice and Fog,” New York Times, Dec. 22, 1935.

Cape Ann Museum, “Captain Howard Blackburn, the Lone Voyager” (accessed July 1, 2018).

Listener mail:

Below the Surface.

Kristina Killgrove, “You Can Virtually Excavate Artifacts From a Riverbed in Amsterdam With This Website,” Forbes, June 30, 2018.

“Home to Roost! Clever Hen Takes Flight and Opens a Glass Door After Eyeing Up Chicken Feed Inside,” Daily Mail, June 30, 2018.

Listener Sofia Hauck de Oliveira found this f on the Thames foreshore:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener James Colter.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Peace and Quiet

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Thomas Carlyle required absolute silence to write, and silence was hard to come by in London’s Chelsea district, where he struggled to compose his biography of Frederick the Great. His wife, Jane, postponed her cleaning until Thomas was away and perpetually tried to quiet neighborhood dogs, roosters, and street vendors. But it wasn’t enough.

In 1853 Carlyle wrote to his sister: “At length, after deep deliberation, I have fairly decided to have a top story put upon the house, one big apartment, twenty feet square, with thin double walls, light from the top, etc., and artfully ventilated, into which no sound can come; and all the cocks in nature may crow round it without my hearing a whisper of them!”

Alas, the skylight wasn’t soundproof, and he was assailed by railway whistles, church bells, and steamer sirens from the Thames. Jane wrote, “The silent room is the noisiest room in the house, and Mr. Carlyle is very much out of sorts.” He finished the biography, finally, but he called it “the Nightmare … the Minotaur … the Unutterable book.”

Vicissitude

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In the 1949 Open Championship, Irish golfer Harry Bradshaw led the first round with a 68, but in the second round his drive at the fifth hole came to rest in the bottom of a broken beer bottle on the fairway.

He probably would have been entitled to take a drop, but he elected to play the ball as it lay, shutting his eyes against the broken glass and swinging as hard as he could. The stroke destroyed the bottle but moved the ball only 25 yards. The setback would leave Bradshaw tied with Bobby Locke, and he lost the ensuing playoff. Arguably the experience with the bottle, and its effect on his equanimity in the rest of that round, had cost him the tournament.

Years later writer Peter Dobereiner asked Bradshaw how many hours of sleep he’d lost reproaching himself for playing the ball as it lay. “Never one single second, sir,” he said. “Of course, if I had sent for a ruling I might have won the championship, but it would not have been right. Locke was the better player. He deserved to win.”

Plaudits

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

King Darius of Persia copied orders onto wax-covered tablets and gave them to famously efficient postmen. “Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers,” Herodotus marveled. “These men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to do, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light of the torch-race.”

When New York’s James A. Farley Post Office opened in 1914, architect (and philhellene) William Mitchell Kendall inscribed a modified translation over the door: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

“Many have assumed that this is the motto of the U.S. Postal Service, but the USPS doesn’t have one,” writes Devin Leonard in Neither Snow Nor Rain, his history of the service. “It was just the world’s largest postal service nodding respectfully to one of its most illustrious forbears.”

Unquote

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“Cricket is a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of Eternity.” — Lord Mancroft

Black and White

neuhaus chess problem

By Eugene Neuhaus Jr. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

The Congreve Clock

Sir William Congreve designed this novel clock in 1808. In place of a pendulum, it regulates time using a zigzag track in which a ball oscillates continuously — when the ball reaches either end of the track it trips the escapement, advancing the hands of the clock and reversing the tilt of the tray.

Unfortunately the horizontal tray tends to collect dust, which slows the ball and reduces the clock’s reliability.

The Name-Letter Effect

Driving on a highway in 1977, Belgian experimental psychologist Jozef Nuttin noticed that he preferred license plates containing letters from his own name. In testing this idea, he found that it’s generally so: People prefer letters belonging to their own first and last names over other letters, and this seems to be true across letters and languages.

Nuttin found this so surprising that he withheld his results for seven years before going public. (A colleague at his own university called it “so strange that a down-to-earth researcher will spontaneously think of an artifact.”) But it’s since been replicated in dozens of studies in 15 countries and using four different alphabets. When subjects are asked to name a preference among letters, on average they consistently like the letters in their own name best.

(The reason seems to be related to self-esteem. People prefer things associated with the self — for example, they tend to favor the number reflecting the day of the month on which they were born. People who don’t like themselves tend not to exhibit the name-letter effect.)

(Jozef M. Nuttin Jr., “Narcissism Beyond Gestalt and Awareness: The Name Letter Effect,” European Journal of Social Psychology 15:3 [September 1985], 353-361. See Initial Velocity.)