Character Building

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“It is astonishing the influence foolish apothegms have upon the mass of mankind, though they are not unfrequently fallacies,” wrote Sydney Smith. He used to amuse himself by collecting them; the first was Because I have gone through it, my son shall go through it also:

A man gets well pummelled at a public school; is subject to every misery and every indignity which seventeen years of age can inflict upon nine and ten; has his eye nearly knocked out, and his clothes stolen and cut to pieces; and twenty years afterwards, when he is a chrysalis, and has forgotten the miseries of his grub state, is determined to act a manly part in life, and says, ‘I passed through all that myself, and I am determined my son shall pass through it as I have done;’ and away goes his bleating progeny to the tyranny and servitude of the long chamber or the large dormitory. It would surely be much more rational to say, ‘Because I have passed through it, I am determined my son shall not pass through it; because I was kicked for nothing, and cuffed for nothing, and fagged for everything, I will spare all these miseries to my child.’ It is not for any good which may be derived from this rough usage; that has not been weighed and considered; few persons are capable of weighing its effects upon character; but there is a sort of compensatory and consolatory notion, that the present generation (whether useful or not, no matter) are not to come off scot-free, but are to have their share of ill-usage; as if the black eye and bloody nose which Master John Jackson received in 1800, are less black and bloody by the application of similar violence to similar parts of Master Thomas Jackson, the son, in 1830. This is not only sad nonsense, but cruel nonsense. The only use to be derived from the recollection of what we have suffered in youth, is a fixed determination to screen those we educate from every evil and inconvenience, from subjection to which there are not cogent reasons for submitting. Can anything be more stupid and preposterous than this concealed revenge upon the rising generation, and latent envy lest they should avail themselves of the improvements time has made, and pass a happier youth than their fathers have done?

(From his memoir.)

That Explains It

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1795 a 56-pound meteorite fell in Yorkshire, a few miles from the village of Wold Newton. No one was hurt, but several people saw it land, and it was still warm and smoking when curious witnesses reached it.

That got Philip José Farmer thinking. In his 1972 book Tarzan Alive, the science fiction author revealed that seven couples and their coachmen had been riding past the village when the meteorite struck only 20 yards away. “The bright light and heat and thunderous roar of the meteorite blinded and terrorized the passengers, coachmen, and horses. … They never guessed, being ignorant of ionization, that the fallen star had affected them and their unborn.”

The coach passengers included:

  • John Clayton, 3rd Duke of Greystoke, and his wife, Alicia Rutherford
  • Sir Percy Blakeney (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and his (second) wife, Alice Clarke Raffles
  • Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Elizabeth Bennet
  • George Edward Rutherford (the 11th Baron Tennington) and his wife, Elizabeth Cavendish, ancestors of Professor Challenger
  • Honoré Delagardie and his wife, Philippa Drummond, ancestors of Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond
  • Dr. Siger Holmes and his wife, Violet Clarke, ancestors of Sherlock Holmes
  • Sir Hugh Drummond and his wife, Lady Georgia Dewhurst, further ancestors of Hugh Drummond

The coachmen included:

  • Louis Lupin, ancestor of Arsène Lupin
  • Albert Lecoq, ancestor of Monsieur Lecoq
  • Albert Blake, ancestor of Sexton Blake

The radiation caused a genetic mutation in all of them, endowing them with extremely high intelligence and strength and producing a family tree of 92 people whose deeds have been documented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jules Verne, and others.

Farmer died in 2009, but he’s credited with pinpointing “the single cause of this nova of genetic splendor, this outburst of great detectives, scientists, and explorers of exotic worlds, this last efflorescence of true heroes in an otherwise degenerate age.” The work of uncovering the links among these remarkable people is carried on by an avid community of researchers.

Murder Most Classificatory

In Anthony Boucher’s short story “QL 696.C9,” a librarian is found dead at her desk. She has been shot, and apparently spent her last moments typing the Library of Congress card catalog number that gives the story its title. The killer evidently saw nothing incriminating in this and so left it alone. The investigators have narrowed the list of suspects to junior librarian Stella Swift, children’s librarian Cora Jarvis, library patron James Stickney, and high school teacher Norbert Utter. Who did it?

Click for Answer

The Ur Sonata

Kurt Schwitters composed this poem in 1922 to show that musical form can be applied to language. The poem consists of four movements (with a cadenza in the fourth), as well as an overture and a finale. Like music it introduces and varies themes — the first movement, in sonata form, develops four main subjects; the largo and the scherzo both have an ABA form; and themes from the first movement reappear in the scherzo. But fundamentally it’s a work of language rather than music — the performer is speaking rather than singing.

“In the first movement I draw your attention to the word for word repeats of the themes before each variation, to the explosive beginning of the first movement, to the pure lyricism of the sung ‘Jüü-Kaa,’ to the military severity of the rhythm of the quite masculine third theme next to the fourth theme, which is tremulous and mild as a lamb, and lastly to the accusing finale of the first movement, with the question ‘tää?'”

Schwitters said he included a written cadenza for those who “had no imagination,” but he preferred that the performer improvise based on the piece’s themes.

Marine Warfare

Humans tend to abuse sea creatures, so digital artist Neil Mendoza gave them a way to fight back. As Smashie the fish swims around his aquatic habitat, he takes aim at the human habitat outside; the hammer drops periodically when a rotating cam releases it.

Mendoza created the project through Autodesk’s artist-in-residence program. You can build your own “fish hammer actuation device” with the instructions here.

Podcast Episode 177: Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

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Image: Flickr

New York’s Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We’ll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

Intro:

A surprising number of record releases have been made of sandpaper.

In high school, Ernest Hemingway wrote a poem consisting entirely of punctuation.

Sources for our feature on the Citicorp Tower:

Joseph Morgenstern, “The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis,” New Yorker, May 29, 1995.

“All Fall Down,” The Works, BBC, April 14, 1996.

Eugene Kremer, “(Re)Examining the Citicorp Case: Ethical Paragon or Chimera?” Arq: Architectural Research Quarterly 6:3 (September 2002), 269-276.

Joel Werner, “The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out an NYC Skyscraper,” Slate, April 17, 2014.

Sean Brady, “Citicorp Center Tower: How Failure Was Averted,” Engineers Journal, Dec. 8, 2015.

Michael J. Vardaro, “LeMessurier Stands Tall: A Case Study in Professional Ethics,” AIA Trust, Spring 2013.

P. Aarne Vesilind and Alastair S. Gunn, Hold Paramount: The Engineer’s Responsibility to Society, 2010.

Caroline Whitbeck, Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research, 1998.

Ibo van de Poel and Lambèr Royakkers, Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction, 2011.

Matthew Wells, Skyscrapers: Structure and Design, 2005.

Gordon C. Andrews, Canadian Professional Engineering and Geoscience: Practice and Ethics, 2009.

“William J. LeMessurier,” American Society of Civil Engineers, July 1, 2007.

David Langdon, “Citigroup Center / Hugh Stubbins + William Le Messurier,” ArchDaily, Nov. 5, 2014.

Vanessa Rodriguez, “Citicorp Center – New York City (July 1978),” Failures Wiki (accessed Oct. 28, 2017).

Jason Carpenter, “The Nearly Fatal Design Flaw That Could Have Sent the Citigroup Center Skyscraper Crumbling,” 6sqft., Aug. 15, 2014.

Stanley H. Goldstein and Robert A. Rubin, “Engineering Ethics,” Civil Engineering 66:10 (October 1996), 40.

“Selected Quotes,” Civil Engineering 66:10 (October 1996), 43.

“Readers Write,” Civil Engineering 66:11 (November 1996), 30.

James Glanz and Eric Lipton, “A Midtown Skyscraper Quietly Adds Armor,” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2002.

“F.Y.I.,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 1997, CY2.

Anthony Ramirez, “William LeMessurier, 81, Structural Engineer,” New York Times, June 21, 2007, C13.

Henry Petroski, “Engineering: A Great Profession,” American Scientist 94:4 (July-August 2006), 304-307.

Richard Korman, “LeMessurier’s Confession,” Engineering News-Record 235:18 (October 30, 1995), 10.

Richard Korman, “Critics Grade Citicorp Confession,” Engineering News-Record 234:21(Nov. 20, 1995), 10.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Relative Hour (Jewish Law)” (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“The Jewish Day,” chabad.org (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“Hours,” chabad.org (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“Zmanim Briefly Defined and Explained,” chabad.org (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Twenty Questions” (accessed Nov. 11, 2017).

“Two Types: The Faces of Britain,” BBC Four, Aug. 1, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Kelly Bruce.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

False Alarm

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When William Makepeace Thackeray was five years old, his aunt was alarmed to discover that his uncle’s hat fit him.

“Don’t be afraid,” the doctor told her. “He has a large head, but there’s a good deal in it.”

He Who Falls

French acrobat and dancer Yoann Bourgeois created “Celui qui tombe” for the 2014 International Dance Biennial of Lyon. He calls the six dancers “a mankind in miniature.”

“It’s clear that if you do it ‘your way’ rather than the group’s way, you imperil and unbalance the joint venture,” wrote Luke Jennings in a Guardian review. “But you also get freedom. Or do you?”

Twice Missed

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Union general Joseph Hooker had an eventful day at the Battle of Chancellorsville:

I was standing on this step of the portico on the Sunday morning of the 3d of May, and was giving direction to the battle, which was now raging with great fury, the cannon-balls reaching me from both the east and the west, when a solid shot struck the pillar near me, splitting it in two, and throwing one-half longitudinally against me, striking my whole right side, which soon turned livid. For a few moments I was senseless, and the report spread that I had been killed. But I soon revived, and to correct the misapprehension, I insisted on being lifted upon my horse, and rode back towards the white house, which subsequently became the center of my new position. Just before reaching it, the pain from my hurt became so intense, that I was likely to fall, when I was assisted to dismount, and was laid upon a blanket spread out upon the ground, and was given some brandy. This revived me, and I was assisted to remount. Scarcely was I off the blanket, when a solid shot, fired by the enemy at Hazel Grove, struck in the very center of that blanket, where I had a moment before been lying, and tore up the earth in a savage way.

In Strange Tales of the Civil War, Michael Sanders writes, “In this way, Joseph Hooker avoided being instantly killed by two cannon balls within minutes of each other.”