Theme and Variations

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

All of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving brothers were named Johann: Johann Rudolf, Johann Christoph, Johann Balthasar, Johannes Jonas, and Johann Jacob. His father was Johann Ambrosius Bach, and his sister was Johanna Juditha.

By contrast, his other sister, Marie Salome, “stuck out like a sore thumb,” writes Jeremy Siepmann in Bach: Life and Works. “And they all had grandparents and uncles and cousins whose names were also Johann, something. Johann Sebastian’s own children included Johann Gottfried, Johann Christoph, Johann August, Johann Christian, and Johanna Carolina.”

(Thanks, Charlie.)

Fair Play

“I understand that a computer has been invented that is so remarkably intelligent that if you put it into communication with either a computer or a human, it can’t tell the difference!” — Raymond Smullyan

Intrepid

The only surviving exchange between Ulysses Grant and his wife is dated May 22, 1875.

She wrote, “How many years ago to day is that we were engaged? Just such a day as this too was it not?”

He responded, “Thirty-one years ago. I was so frightened however that I do not remember whether it was warm or snowing.”

Great and Small

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When the Seattle Art Museum presented an exhibition of Michelangelo’s early drawings in 2009, it included three menus that the sculptor had scrawled on the back of an envelope in 1518 — grocery lists for a servant.

Oregonian reviewer Steve Duin explained, “Because the servant he was sending to market was illiterate, Michelangelo illustrated the shopping lists — a herring, tortelli, two fennel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quarter of a rough wine’ — with rushed (and all the more exquisite for it) caricatures in pen and ink.”

Related: In the 1490 manuscript below, Leonardo da Vinci tries to list successive doublings of 2 but mistakenly calculates 213 as 8092:

http://www.spoj.com/PROGPY/problems/PROG0237/

“Unmistakable this is a miscalculation of Leonardo and not of some sloppy copyists, as it was found in the original (mirrored) manuscript of da Vinci himself,” notes Ghent University computer scientist Peter Dawyndt. “That it was only discovered right now, five hundred years after da Vinci’s death, is probably due to the late discovery of the manuscript, barely fifty years ago.”

(Thanks, Peter.)

Farewell

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Politicians and public figures may well care to ponder the story of the death of Franco. Surrounded on his deathbed by his faithful generals, he heard outside, beyond the heavily drawn curtains, a strange subdued noise like the sea, and asked someone to investigate. An aide did. He looked down from the palace balcony and returned with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes and reported: ‘Caudillo, it is the people. Thousands of them. They have come to say goodbye.’ And Franco raised himself on one elbow and barked: ‘Why? Where are they going?’

— British Airways parliamentary affairs officer Norman Lornie to Jack Aspinwall, MP, for his 2004 collection Tell Me Another!

Plain Sailing

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In 1670, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ordered the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to provide masts for the French navy 200 years hence. His order established one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe, carefully interplanted with beeches and larches to encourage them to grow straight, tall, and free of knots.

By the time they matured, in the 19th century, they were no longer necessary. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.”

Podcast Episode 182: The Compulsive Wanderer

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In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of “mad travelers” in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We’ll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

See full show notes …

Hill of Crosses

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses has been a site of peaceful protests since 1831, when indigenous peasants began to stage rebellions against their Russian overlords. Even when they lacked bodies to bury they erected crosses on the 33-foot mound as memorials and as symbols of peaceful resistance. The region was freed after World War I but then captured by the Nazis and later incorporated into the U.S.S.R.; again the local population planted crosses of defiance, though they were mown down three times by Soviet bulldozers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the hill has become an important symbol of political and spiritual self-determination. It now bears an estimated 100,000 crosses.

Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Work for All

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In 1914 Henry Ford adopted a policy that no one applying for work at his auto plant would be refused on account of physical condition. Of the 7,882 jobs at the factory, he’d found that only 4,287 required “ordinary physical development and strength”:

The lightest jobs were again classified to discover how many of them required the use of full faculties, and we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, 2 by armless men, 715 by one-armed men, and 10 by blind men. Therefore out of 7,882 kinds of jobs, 4,034 — although some of them required strength — did not require full physical capacity.

“That is, developed industry can provide wage work for a higher average of standard men than are ordinarily included in any normal community. If the jobs in any one industry or, say, any one factory, were analyzed as ours have been analyzed, the proportion might be very different, yet I am quite sure that if work is sufficiently subdivided — subdivided to the point of highest economy — there will be no dearth of places in which the physically incapacitated can do a man’s job and get a man’s wage.”

(Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922.)