Clearance

In the 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr., a falling facade threatens to flatten Buster Keaton, but he’s spared by the fortunate placement of an open attic window. “As he stood in the studio street waiting for a building to crash on him, he noticed that some of the electricians and extras were praying,” writes Marion Meade in Cut to the Chase, her biography of Keaton. “Afterward, he would call the stunt one of his greatest thrills.”

It’s often said that the falling wall missed Keaton by inches. Is that true? James Metz studied the problem in Mathematics Teacher in 2019. Keaton was 5 feet 5 inches tall; if that the “hinge” of the facade is 5 inches above the surface of the ground, the attic window is 12 feet above that, and the window is 3 feet high, he finds that the top of the window came only within about 1.5 feet of Keaton’s head.

“The window was tall enough to allow an ample margin of safety, so the legend about barely missing his head cannot be true,” Metz writes. “Apparently, Keaton had more headroom than was previously suspected.”

(James Metz, “The Right Place at the Right Time,” Mathematics Teacher 112:4 [January/February 2019], 247-249.)

Fact and Fiction

In 2012, the admissions department at the University of Chicago received a package addressed to Indiana Jones — or to Henry Walton Jones Jr., Indiana’s full name. “The package contained an incredibly detailed replica of ‘University of Chicago Professor’ Abner Ravenwood’s journal from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the university posted on its Tumblr page. It included photos, maps, and even handwritten text (“I was able to speak through an interpreter with the Guardian of Ark who told me that no other man beside himself could lay eyes on the Ark, that it was an absolutely holy object, and that the world would not pollute it by looking at it,” Ravenwood warns. “He added that he and the villagers would protect the Ark with their lives if necessary.”)

“This package was a little perplexing because we couldn’t find the staff member or the professor [it was intended for] in the directory,” undergraduate outreach Garrett Brinker told Wired.

The university set up an email tip line and inquired with Lucasfilm, which only responded, “We were just as surprised to see this package as you were!”

It turned out that the the replica was one of several that had been shipped from Guam to Italy; it had somehow fallen out of the package in Honolulu, and the post office had delivered it faithfully to the address it bore. “We believe that the post office wrote on our Zip code on the outside of the package and, believing the Egyptian postage was real, sent it our way. From Guam to Hawaii en route to Italy with a stopover in Chicago: truly an adventure befitting Indiana Jones.”

In exchange for some University of Chicago merchandise, the original “prop replicator” in Guam agreed to let the school keep the journal — it’s now on display in the main lobby of the Oriental Institute there.

See Afoot.

Two in One

The “Loop” golf course at Michigan’s Forest Dunes Golf Club is reversible: Each of the 18 greens can be approached from either of two directions, so players can play the course clockwise on one day and counterclockwise the next.

There are no defined tee boxes, of the kind that modern golfers are accustomed to, because what serves as a tee area one day may be fairway when playing the opposite direction the next day.”

“Our biggest fear is that people like one course a lot more than the other course,” designer Tom Doak told Golf Advisor. “I’m very happy with what we’ve done. There are a few of the best holes on both courses. I think people will enjoy both of them, and that was a hard thing to do.”

Coming Attractions

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Future_Birthplace_of_Captain_James_T_Kirk.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Riverside, Iowa, claims Star Trek‘s James T. Kirk as a future native. In a 1968 book, series creator Gene Roddenberry had written that Kirk was born in Iowa; in 1985 city council member Steve Miller proposed that this will happen in Riverside, and the motion passed unanimously.

Two Star Trek novels have taken up the conceit, though it’s not considered canon. I guess we’ll see what happens — he’s due to arrive (somewhere!) on March 22, 2228.

Podcast Episode 296: The Little Giants

https://www.flickr.com/photos/22711505@N05/5766880112
Image: Flickr

In 1957, 14 boys from Monterrey, Mexico, walked into Texas to take part in a game of Little League baseball. What followed surprised and inspired two nations. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Monterrey Industrials and their unlikely path into baseball history.

We’ll also have dinner for one in Germany and puzzle over a deadly stick.

See full show notes …

In a Word

viator
n. a wayfarer; traveler

nocuous
adj. likely to cause harm or damage

fulminant
adj. exploding or detonating

aggerose
adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.

In a Word

epinician
adj. celebrating victory

rovery
n. an act of straying in thought

peripeteia
n. a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal

algedonic
adj. pertaining to both pleasure and pain

In the 1934 US Open Championship at Merion, Philadelphia, [Bobby Cruickshank] was leading after two rounds and going well in the third round. His approach to the 11th hole was slightly spared and to his dismay he saw the ball falling short into the brook which winds in front of the green.

The ball landed on a rock which was barely covered by water, rebounded high into the air and landed on the green. Cruickshank jubilantly tossed his club into the air, tipped his cap and shouted ‘Thank you, God.’ Further expressions of gratitude were cut short as the descending club landed on top of his head and knocked him out cold. He recovered his senses but not the impetus of his play and finished third.

— Peter Dobereiner, The Book of Golf Disasters, 1986

Dunsany’s Chess

dunsany's chess

Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish fantasy writer, proposed this alarming chess variant in the 1940s. Black has his usual army, but he’s facing an onslaught of white pawns, without even a king to attack. But he has the first move, and White’s pawns are denied the customary option of advancing two squares on their first move. To win, Black must capture all 32 white pawns; White wins by checkmating Black.

You can experiment with it here, and you can play a close variant, called Horde, on the Internet chess server Lichess.