The Apology Paradox

We ought to apologize for what our ancestors did to other people. This requires that we sincerely regret those deeds. But that means that we would prefer that the deeds had not been done, and if this were the case then world history would be significantly different and we ourselves would probably not exist. Yet most of us are glad to be alive. Can we sincerely regret deeds that are necessary to our own existence?

(That’s from La Trobe University philosopher Janna Thompson. She says the best solution is to interpret the apology as regret for this state of affairs. “[T]he regret expressed is that we owe our existence and other things we enjoy to the injustices of our ancestors. Our preference is for a possible world in which our existence did not depend on these deeds.”)

(Janna Thompson, “The Apology Paradox,” Philosophical Quarterly 50:201 [2000], 470-475.)

Podcast Episode 250: The General Slocum

https://books.google.com/books?id=lHOs2j3cuYwC

In 1904 a Manhattan church outing descended into horror when a passenger steamboat caught fire on the East River. More than a thousand people struggled to survive as the captain raced to reach land. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the burning of the General Slocum, the worst maritime disaster in the history of New York City.

We’ll also chase some marathon cheaters and puzzle over a confusing speeding ticket.

See full show notes …

Breaking

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

The ninth British expedition to Everest brought along a journalist, James Morris of the London Times. To avoid losing a scoop to other journalists who might intercept their wire messages, Morris and the editors worked out a series of code phrases with secret meanings:

Snow conditions bad: Everest climbed
Wind still troublesome: Attempt abandoned
South Col untenable: Band
Lhotse Face impossible: Bourdillon
Ridge camp untenable: Evans
Withdrawal to West Basin: Gregory
Advanced base abandoned: Hillary
Camp 5 abandoned: Hunt
Camp 6 abandoned: Lowe
Camp 7 abandoned: Noyce
Awaiting improvement: Tenzing
Further news follows: Ward

On May 30, 1953, Morris gave a seemingly innocuous message to a Sherpa runner: Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement. On June 2, on an inside page under the headline “Everest Conquered,” the Times reported that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit on May 29. With that the Times won historic credit for breaking the story; it fell to the Daily Express to follow up with front-page coverage.

(From Paul Lunde, ed., The Book of Codes, 2009.)

A Fashion Puzzle

http://scienceblogs.de/klausis-krypto-kolumne/files/2016/05/Censor-Manual-WW2.pdf

According to a British censorship manual from World War II (PDF, page 14), this sketch, published in a wartime newspaper, contained a secret message, ostensibly hidden in Morse code in the arrangement of dots and lines on the women’s dresses. The message is “Heavy reinforcements for the enemy expected hourly,” or, in the German original, “Massive Feindverstärkungen werden stündlich erwartet.”

A second message is hidden in the signature, written in a French shorthand. In English this read “Before Arras”; in German it was probably “Vor Arras.”

Unfortunately, the manual doesn’t explain the method by which these messages were hidden, and to date no one has been able to re-establish it. Where are these messages to be found in the image? Encryption expert Klaus Schmeh writes, “So far, I could neither find the morse message nor the shorthand message. I even went to the British Archive in London to look at the original document and to take high resolution photographs. It didn’t help.”

On his blog, Schmeh presents one of these high-resolution images, as well as a second mystery from the same manual. See the comments on that post for some suggestions from his readers.

Podcast Episode 248: Smoky the War Dog

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Smoky_(dog)_in_helmet.jpg

In 1944, an American soldier discovered a Yorkshire terrier in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea. Adopted by an Army photographer, she embarked on a series of colorful adventures that won the hearts of the humans around her. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Smoky the dog, one of the most endearing characters of World War II.

We’ll also contemplate chicken spectacles and puzzle over a gratified diner.

See full show notes …

Light and Shadow

A striking paragraph from A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, Caroline Davidson’s 1982 history of housework in the British Isles:

One woman actually entered the nascent electrical industry in the 1870s. Pretending to be a man (she assumed the name of Charles Torr) she rose to become managing director of a large Birmingham firm called Winfield’s which produced ornamental brass-work, chandeliers and fittings suitable for interior electric lighting. She joined a dining society of electrical engineers called the ‘Dynamicables’ where many of the problems facing the new industry were discussed. She obviously had the vision to see electricity’s brilliant future, as well as a flair for business and exceptional talent for concealing her sex. For, in the early 1880s, she approached Rookes E.B. Crompton with a proposal that their two firms should go into partnership; Compton’s was to carry out lighting installations and Winfield’s was to supply the capital and fitments. Her plans were extremely grand: she wanted to apply for a Parliamentary act to light Birmingham and to sell electrical goods world-wide. However, after the two firms had co-operated for several years, Winfield’s ran into financial difficulties and Charles Torr committed suicide: only then did her colleagues learn her true sex.

I haven’t been able to learn anything more. Davidson cites Crompton’s Reminiscences of 1928, which is unfortunately rare.

Stolpersteine

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stolperstein_of_Frau_Liebermann.JPG
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The streets of Europe are studded with thousands of brass plates, each marking the last residence of an individual before their extermination or persecution by the Nazis. German artist Gunter Demnig began the project in 1992, installing the first plate before Cologne’s city hall to mark the 50th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s “Auschwitz decree” ordering the deportation of Sinti and Roma to extermination camps. In the ensuing 15 years he laid more than 13,000 stolpersteine in more than 280 cities, and last October the 70,000th stolperstein was installed in Frankfurt, Germany, for Willy Zimmerer, who was “euthanized” in 1944 at age 43.

Each plate is engraved with the victim’s name and dates of birth, deportation, and death, as well as the words Hier wohnte … (“Here lived …”) to emphasize the immediacy of the memorial, “tripping up” passersby (stolperstein means “stumbling stone”). “I wanted to bring back the names of the Jews who lived, loved, had children and a normal life, who lived in these houses,” Demnig has said. “It’s my life. We can’t allow this part of history to pass into oblivion.”

(Thanks, Hanno.)

Podcast Episode 245: Jeanne Baret

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jeanne_Barret.jpg

The first woman to circumnavigate the world did so dressed as a man. In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret joined a French expedition hoping to conceal her identity for three years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of her historic journey around the globe.

We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s shark story and puzzle over a foiled con artist.

See full show notes …

A First

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BDriscoll.jpeg

On Aug. 17, 1896, 44-year-old Bridget Driscoll was crossing Dolphin Terrace on the grounds of London’s Crystal Palace when she was struck and killed by a car belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company.

The car had been traveling at 4 mph, “a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine,” according to one witness.

After a six-hour inquest, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Coroner Percy Morrison said he hoped such a thing “would never happen again.”

Podcast Episode 244: The Women’s Protest

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

In February 1943, hundreds of German women joined in a spontaneous protest in central Berlin. They were objecting to the roundup of some of the city’s last Jews — their husbands. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Rosenstrasse protest, a remarkable example of civil disobedience.

We’ll also ponder whether a computer can make art and puzzle over some unusual phone calls.

See full show notes …