Extreme Measures

Zürich has a singularly violent way to welcome summer: They roast a snowman until its head explodes.

At the spring holiday Sechseläuten, traditionally celebrated on the third Monday in April, residents build an effigy of winter in the shape of a giant snowman known as the Böögg, pack it with explosives, and set it afire.

“It is believed the shorter the combustion, the hotter and longer summer will be,” writes Bob Eckstein in The History of the Snowman. “When the head of the snowman explodes to smithereens, winter is considered officially over.”

The shortest time on record is 5 minutes 7 seconds, in 1974. The longest, just last year, is 43 minutes 34 seconds.

Podcast Episode 136: The Boston Molasses Disaster

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In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston’s North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city’s history books.

We’ll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.

See full show notes …

Rough

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

SIR, — While surveying in northern Labrador I had occasion to visit the island of Nukusustok, a few miles to seaward of the village of Nain. On the slope of a hill, and about 300ft. inland, I found a golf ball in good condition. How did the ball come to be there, and so far inland? It is possible that the ball was driven by a golfer from an Atlantic liner during practice, drifted northward past Greenland, and was finally carried ashore by the Labrador current which runs from north to south along the Labrador coast.

I have sent the ball to Dunlops, the makers, who suggest that it was probably carried so far inland by a sea bird. Perhaps some of your readers could help in explaining the mystery.

Yours faithfully,

Thos. O. Hampson

The Field, June 29, 1935

Things and Stuff

Anchormen, chairs, dogs, flowers, and comets are things: If I have one anchorman and add another, I have two anchormen. My chair did not exist until it was assembled into that form. And if a comet hits Paraguay, it is no longer a comet.

Helium, gravy, wood, music, and joy are stuff: If some helium escapes my balloon, it seems wrong to say that I’ve lost a thing. If I divide my gravy into two portions, it’s still gravy. And if I chop my cabin into firewood, the amount of wood in the world does not seem to have changed.

We seem to distinguish between these two classes of existence. We can count things, but stuff forms a sort of cumulative mass. Things are made of stuff (crowns are made of gold), but stuff is made of things (gold is made of molecules). What’s at the bottom? And what leads us to make these distinctions?

(Kristie Miller, “Stuff,” American Philosophical Quarterly 46:1 [January 2009], 1-18.)

Keyboard Variations

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Inspired by Isaac Newton’s theory that the seven notes of the diatonic scale were related to the colors of the spectrum, French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel in 1725 invented an “ocular harpsichord” outfitted with lanterns so that “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colours with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” Voltaire devoted Chapter 14 of his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton to the the theory and to Castel’s instrument, and Telemann composed several pieces for it.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia, produces its tones by striking stalactites with rubber mallets. Leland W. Sprinkle spent three years in the 1950s identifying promising stalactites, shaving them to pitch, and wiring solenoids to trigger the mallets. The tones can be heard throughout the cavern even without amplification, but a loudspeaker system is normallly used.

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I think I’ve written elsewhere about the Katzenklavier, a thankfully imaginary instrument first described by Athanasius Kircher in 1650. In the words of one writer, “if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow.”

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Allegedly Louis XI of France challenged Abbé de Baigne to do the same thing with pigs to produce a “piganino”:

That brutal monarch, Louis XI of France, is said to have constructed, with the assistance of the Abbé de Baigne, an instrument designated a ‘pig organ,’ for the production of natural sounds. The master of the royal music, having made a very large and varied assortment of swine, embracing specimens of all breeds and ages, these were carefully voiced, and placed in order, according to their several tones and semitones, and so arranged that a key-board communicated with them, severally and individually, by means of rods ending in sharp spikes. In this way a player, by touching any note, could instantly sound a corresponding note in nature, and was enabled to produce at will either natural melody or harmony!

“The result is said to have been striking, but not very grateful to human ears.”

After our civilization has destroyed itself, the Adriatic will still be playing harmonies on the “sea organ” in Zadar, Croatia. Wind and waves interact with a system of polyethylene tubes to produce sound in a resonating cavity. In 2006 architect Nikola Bašic received the European Prize for Urban Public Space for the project, voted the best among 207 candidate projects from across Europe.

12/17/2016 UPDATE: I completely forgot the mouse organ! (Thanks, Gavin.)

Last Business

http://news.usask.ca/archived_ocn/09-jan-23/see_what_we_found.php

Working alone in his fields on June 8, 1948, Saskatchewan farmer Cecil George Harris accidentally put his tractor into reverse. It rolled backward, pinning his left leg under the rear wheel. His wife didn’t find him until 10:30 that night, and he died at the hospital.

Days later, surveying the scene of the accident, neighbors noticed that Harris had scratched an inscription into the tractor’s fender using his pocketknife:

In case I die in this mess, I leave all to the wife. Cecil Geo Harris.

The courts determined this to be a valid will. The fender was kept at the Kerrobert Courthouse until 1996; today it and the knife are displayed at the University of Saskatchewan law library.

Media Relations

https://books.google.com/books?id=9lQEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA95

One of the most famous cat-and-bird friendships on record was that between Caruso, a canary which belonged to President Coolidge, and Timmie, a black-and-white cat owned by Bascom Timmons, a Washington newspaperman. They became acquainted when Timmons took his cat to the White House, and Coolidge eventually sent the canary to Timmons’ home to live with the cat. After that they spent an hour or two every day together, the canary walking up and down the cat’s back or resting between his paws. According to Timmons, the canary fell over dead while singing to the cat.

— Roger Butterfield, “Cats,” LIFE, April 22, 1946

A Weighty Burden

https://pixabay.com/en/landscape-scenic-petrified-forest-1591043/

Visitors to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park sometimes can’t resist making off with a souvenir or two. Those who do sometimes return the stolen pieces with a “conscience letter” describing the misfortunes that have befallen them. Trinity Christian College art professor Ryan Thompson went through the 1200 pages in the park’s archives and collected the best of them for a 2014 book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks. Some examples:

“Here are your rocks. Nothing but bad trouble.”

“Please put this back so my husband can get well. I tried to keep him from taking it.”

“Found this in my room. You can have it back. It’s bad luck. I got busted the other night.”

“I am sorry I took this. I am only 5 years old and made a bad mistake.”

And simply “You were right!”

There’s more at the website. Strangely, the same thing happens at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where an actual fire goddess will punish you for stealing lava rocks. And see The Conscience Fund.

Podcast Episode 132: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.

We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.

See full show notes …

Togetherness

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly everyone in Whittier, Alaska, lives under the same roof. The 14-story Begich Towers was built after World War II, and the building was converted to a condominium when the military withdrew. About 200 people live in 150 two- and three-bedroom apartments, and they can go weeks without leaving the building, which contains a post office, a grocery, a medical clinic, the mayor’s office, a general store, the police department, a Methodist church, a laundry, a small hotel, a conference room, and a play area with an indoor pool. A tunnel system leads to the community school and a general store.

By most accounts, life in the tower is pretty agreeable. But “because we have four elevators, sometimes people pull pranks on you and hit every button,” resident June Miller told CBC News. “And it’s like, ‘Really? This again?'”

(Thanks, Ginny.)