The Two Cultures

In 1855 American publisher James T. Fields made the mistake of taking William Thackeray to a dull scientific lecture:

During his second visit to Boston I was asked to invite him to attend an evening meeting of a scientific club, which was to be held at the house of a distinguished member. I was very reluctant to ask him to be present, for I knew he could be easily bored, and I was fearful that a prosy essay or geological speech might ensue, and I knew he would be exasperated with me, even although I were the innocent cause of his affliction. My worst fears were realized. We had hardly got seated, before a dull, bilious-looking old gentleman rose, and applied his auger with such pertinacity that we were all bored nearly to distraction. I dared not look at Thackeray, but I felt that his eye was upon me. My distress may be imagined, when he got up quite deliberately from the prominent place where a chair had been set for him, and made his exit very noiselessly into a small anteroom leading into the larger room, and in which no one was sitting. The small apartment was dimly lighted, but he knew that I knew he was there. Then commenced a series of pantomimic feats impossible to describe adequately. He threw an imaginary person (myself, of course) upon the floor, and proceeded to stab him several times with a paper-folder which he caught up for the purpose. After disposing of his victim in this way, he was not satisfied, for the dull lecture still went on in the other room, and he fired an imaginary revolver several times at an imaginary head. Still, the droning speaker proceeded with his frozen subject (it was something about the Arctic regions, if I remember rightly), and now began the greatest pantomimic scene of all, namely, murder by poison, after the manner in which the player King is disposed of in Hamlet. Thackeray had found a small phial on the mantel-shelf, and out of it he proceeded to pour the imaginary ‘juice of cursed hebenon’ into the imaginary porches of somebody’s ears. The whole thing was inimitably done, and I hoped nobody saw it but myself; but years afterwards a ponderous, fat-witted young man put the question squarely to me: ‘What was the matter with Mr. Thackeray that night the club met at M—-‘s house?’

A Losing Game

You and I each have a stack of coins. We agree to compare the coins atop our stacks and assign a reward according to the following rules:

  • If head-head appears, I win $9 from you.
  • If tail-tail appears, I win $1 from you.
  • If head-tail or tail-head appears, you win $5 from me.

After the first round each of us discards his top coin, revealing the next coin in the stack, and we evaluate this new outcome according to the same rules. And so on, working our way down through the stacks.

This seems fair. There are four possible outcomes, all equally likely, and the payouts appear to be weighted so that in the long run we’ll both break even. But in fact you can arrange your stack so as to win 80 cents per round on average, no matter what I do.

Let t represent the fraction of your coins that display heads. If my coins are all heads, then your gain is given by

GH = -9t + 5(1 – t) = -14t + 5.

If my coins are all tails, then your gain is

GT = +5t – 1(1 – t) = 6t – 1.

If we let GH = GT, we get t = 0.3, and you gain GH = GT = $0.80.

This result applies to an entire stack or to any intermediate segment, which means that it works even if my stack is a mix of heads and tails. If you arrange your stack so that 3/10 of the coins, randomly distributed in the stack, display heads, then in a long sequence of rounds you’ll win 80 cents per round, no matter how I arrange my own stack.

(From J.P. Marques de Sá, Chance: The Life of Games & the Game of Life, 2008.)

Apple Cheeks

Richard Tweddell III patented this “method and apparatus for molding fruits” in 1987. While fruit is growing on a plant, you enclose it in a transparent mold. As the fruit gets larger, it gradually fills the cavity “and in doing so conforms with remarkable fidelity to the internal details of the mold.” He sells it pretty well:

They can be caused to grow in the image of a particular person; in the shape of a different type of produce (e.g., a summer squash grown in the shape of an ear of corn); a fanciful shape such as a heart, or a bottle of pop; or other simple or even quite detailed shapes. A zucchini in the likeness of Clark Gable, for example, complete with mustache, would be no ordinary sight on the dinner table. Similarly, a Christmas tree ornament formed of a small, configured gourd is a very distinctive novelty.

Well, that’s true. Tweddell also suggests that turkey-shaped fruit might be enjoyed at Thanksgiving, or pumpkin-shaped fruit at Halloween. And “the invention also makes possible the concept of molding the logo of, say, a pickle company, directly into the side of a pickle itself.”

Planning Big

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it interrupted one of the most ambitious building projects in history. Situated near the Kremlin, the Palace of the Soviets would have commemorated the founding the U.S.S.R. with a 21,000-seat congress hall, 100 stories of administrative offices, and a crowning statue of Lenin 75 meters tall.

It would have been both the largest and the tallest building in the world. But only the foundation had been built when the war intervened, and the frame was disassembled for its steel. Construction never resumed, and in the 1960s the site was turned into an open-air swimming pool. This must symbolize something.

A Helping Hand

In 1978 a bottlenose dolphin at California’s Marine World swallowed a 3-inch bolt. When the frustrated veterinarian complained that his arms were too short to reach it, the park’s president, Mike Demetrios, had a brainstorm. He called 6’9″ Golden State Warriors center Clifford Ray, whose arms are 45 inches long.

Ray reached into the dolphin’s second stomach and retrieved the bolt while a Los Angeles vet instructed him via intercom (photos here).

“They are a very smart animal and I think he realized he was in trouble,” Ray told the Chicago Tribune. “He was pretty much cooperative through the whole thing.”

Demetrios rewarded Ray with the bolt mounted on a bronze plaque, plus lifetime passes to the park, and named a new tiger cub “Clifford Ray” in his honor. For his part, Ray was convinced the dolphin was grateful. “After that whole incident, whenever I would go to the park, he would always recognize me,” he told sportswriter Howard Beck in 2006. “He would come right up to me without being prompted.”

The Dumbbell Cipher

In 1777, British general Sir Henry Clinton sent this message to his fellow officer John Burgoyne, lamenting that he’d be unable to join him in a plan to divide the colonies along the Hudson River:

dumbbell cipher 1

This was a ruse — Clinton’s real meaning can be revealed by applying a mask:

dumbbell cipher 2

Historians aren’t certain whether the message reached Burgoyne or influenced his decisions. As it happened, Clinton didn’t participate in the conflict, and Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war.

Plan B

As a boy Harry Truman practiced piano for two hours a day. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician,” he said later. “And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

At age 12 he attended a concert by Paderewski. “And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski. And when he got through with his concert — which was a wonder — he played that Chopin A-Flat Waltz, Opus 42, which has always been a favorite of mine. And he played the waltz rendition of the Blue Danube, and so on.”

“When we went back behind the scenes, [my teacher] took me with her, and it almost scared me to death. She told him I didn’t know how to make ‘the turn’ in the minuet, and he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Postdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.”

He gave up piano because “it was a sissy thing to do. So I just stopped. And it was probably all for the best. I wouldn’t ever have been really first-rate. A good music-hall piano player is about the best I’d have ever been. So I went into politics and became president of the United States.”


“Humiliation and indifference, these are conditions every one of us finds unbearable — this is why the Coyote when falling is more concerned with the audience’s opinion of him than he is with the inevitable result of too much gravity.” — Chuck Jones