Sky Pirates

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The only instance during World War I of an airship capturing a merchant vessel occurred on April 23, 1917, when the German zeppelin L 23 descended on the civilian Norwegian schooner Royal off the Danish coast. At the airship’s approach the crew abandoned the Royal in boats, and the zeppelin made a water landing to capture them.

The ship turned out to be carrying pit-props, a contraband lading, and Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt saw her conducted into the Elbe escorted by two German destroyers. “The capture of the Royal — actually a schooner of only 688 tons — hardly affected the trade war against England,” writes historian Douglas H. Robinson, “but Bockholt’s flamboyant gesture appealed particularly to the men, and tales of the exploit were told from Tondern to Hage.”

(Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat, 1962.)

Truth in Advertising

Another feat of self-reference — reader Hans Havermann devised these true sentences:

“The odds of randomly picking four letters from this statement and having them be F, O, U, and R, are two out of two hundred nineteen thousand six hundred eighty-seven.”

“The odds of randomly picking four letters from this statement and having them be F, O, U, and R, are three out of two hundred ninety-two thousand nine hundred sixteen.”

These two are in lowest terms. He has seven more.

(Thanks, Hans.)

That Solves That

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French conductor Louis-Antoine Jullien was the son of a violinist, who at the time of the boy’s baptism had been invited to play with the Sisteron Philharmonic Society. When he decided to ask one of the orchestra to be the boy’s godfather, all 36 members wanted to be considered.

So the boy was baptized Louis George Maurice Adolphe Roche Albert Abel Antonio Alexandre Noë Jean Lucien Daniel Eugène Joseph-le-brun Joseph-Barême Thomas Thomas Thomas-Thomas Pierre Arbon Pierre-Maurel Barthélemi Artus Alphonse Bertrand Dieudonné Emanuel Josué Vincent Luc Michel Jules-de-la-plane Jules-Bazin Julio César Jullien.

12/20/2019 UPDATE: In 2009 all 11 cricketers playing for England’s Dewsbury Young Stars were named Patel. “A lot of our team originate from India,” club secretary Yunus Patel told the Mirror, “but none of the players are related and it’s just a coincidence.” (Thanks, Nick.)

The Jankó Keyboard

Hungarian engineer Paul von Jankó offered this alternative to the traditional keyboard layout in 1882. Within each row, the notes ascend by whole steps, and each vertical column of identical-sounding keys is a half-step in pitch from its neighbors. This means that each chord and scale gets the same fingering regardless of key, and wide stretches aren’t as necessary. The example above has four rows, but the full Jankó keyboard has six:

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This is all appealingly sensible, but music educators were skeptical and performers were reluctant to learn the new fingerings, so manufacturers stayed away. Today it’s largely a curiosity.

Gregarious

A problem proposed by Ashay Burungale of Satara, Maharashtra, India, in the November 2008 issue of American Mathematical Monthly: In a certain town of population 2n + 1, all relations are reciprocal: If Person 1 knows Person 2, then Person 2 knows Person 1. For any set A that consists of n citizens, there’s some person among the remaining n + 1 who knows everyone in A. Prove that there’s some citizen of the town who knows all the others.

Click for Answer

Ups and Downs

An Edinburgh startup called Gravitricity is hoping to create a “virtual battery” by hoisting and dropping weights in disused mine shafts. If the weights are hoisted when renewable energy is plentiful, and dropped when it’s expensive, then they can help to balance the energy grid with an efficient source of “gravity energy.”

Managing director Charlie Blair told the Guardian, “The beauty of this is that this can be done multiple times a day for many years, without any loss of performance. This makes it very competitive against other forms of energy storage — including lithium-ion batteries.”

Dropping 12,000 tonnes to a depth of 800 meters would produce enough electricity to power 63,000 homes for more than an hour. Oliver Schmidt of Imperial College London said, “I don’t expect Gravitricity to displace all lithium batteries on grids, but it certainly looks like a compelling proposition.”

(Via Tom Whitwell’s “52 Things I Learned in 2019.”)

Turn, Turn, Turn

Austin game developer Frank Force has won the Neural Correlate Society’s 2019 Best Illusion of the Year Contest with this “dual axis illusion”:

“This spinning shape appears to defy logic by rotating around both the horizontal and vertical axis at the same time! To make things even more confusing, the direction of rotation is also ambiguous. Some visual cues in the video will help viewers change their perception.”

The top 10 finalists are here.

12/18/2019 UPDATE: Good heavens, people are making these things. Five years ago Bill Gosper created the Lissajoke ambiguous roller, which rolls in a perplexing way:

And reader Joe Kisenwether has rendered Force’s illusion in reality — here the shape on the left spins about a horizontal axis while the one on the right spins about the vertical one:

The same thing rendered more slowly:

(Thanks, Joe.)

A New Find

From Lee Sallows, a remarkable new self-inventorying list:

ONE A, ONE B, ONE C, ONE D, TWENTYEIGHT E, SEVEN F, FIVE G, FIVE H, EIGHT I, ONE J, ONE K, ONE L, ONE M, EIGHTEEN N, EIGHTEEN O, ONE P, ONE Q, FOUR R, TWO S, TEN T, FOUR U, FIVE V, FOUR W, ONE X, TWO Y, ONE Z

“I may be wrong, but I believe it to be the most concise self-descriptive (or ‘self-enumerating’) English pangram yet discovered, with as many as 12 of its 26 letters occurring just once.”

(Thanks, Lee!)

12/18/2019 UPDATE: We’ve learned that the same self-descriptive pangram had already been found in 1998 by Gilles Esposito-Farese, in collaboration with Eric Angelini and Nicolas Graner.

Now Showing

This is neat — Eric Harshbarger finds that a list of the 12 top-performing movies in the U.S. last weekend (Dec. 13-15, 2019) contains all 26 letters of the alphabet:

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL
FROZEN II
KNIVES OUT
RICHARD JEWELL
BLACK CHRISTMAS
FORD V FERRARI
QUEEN & SLIM
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
DARK WATERS
21 BRIDGES
MIDWAY
PLAYING WITH FIRE

The top 8 alone contain all the letters but P.

(Thanks, Eric.)

Podcast Episode 277: The Mad Trapper of Rat River

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In the winter of 1931, a dramatic manhunt unfolded in northern Canada when a reclusive trapper shot a constable and fled across the frigid landscape. In the chase that followed the mysterious fugitive amazed his pursuers with his almost superhuman abilities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the hunt for the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.”

We’ll also visit a forgotten windbreak and puzzle over a father’s age.

See full show notes …