Three Exclusive Clubs

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The Caterpillar Club is an international association of people who have saved their lives by using a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. It was founded in 1922 by Leslie Irvin, inventor of the first free-fall parachute. The name pays tribute to the silkworm, whose contribution made the canopies possible; the club’s motto is “Life depends on a silken thread.” Famous members include Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and John Glenn.

The Goldfish Club accepts people who have escaped an aircraft by parachuting into water, or who have crashed into water and survived by using a life jacket or other device. The club’s stated goal is “to keep alive the spirit of comradeship arising from the mutual experience of members surviving ‘coming down in the drink’.” It was founded in November 1942 by a British manufacturer of air-sea rescue equipment. Gold reflects the value of life, and fish represent water. “Money, position or power cannot gain a man or woman entry to the exclusive circles of the Goldfish Club,” noted the Australian newspaper Burra Record in 1945. “To become a member one has to float about upon the sea for a considerable period with nothing but a Carley Rubber Float between one and a watery death.”

The Guinea Pig Club, above, was a social club for patients who had undergone experimental reconstructive plastic surgery, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft during World War II. It was founded in 1941 by New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe and included patients and their surgeons and anaesthetists at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex. The surgical treatment of burns was in its infancy, and McIndoe wanted to make the patients’ lives as normal as he could. The club continued to meet for 60 years after the war; annual reunions continued until 2007. They had their own theme song, known as “The Guinea Pig Anthem”:

We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
“Per ardua ad astra”
We’d rather drink than fight.

John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields the knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand ready
For all your surgeon’s calls:
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears.

We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles.
We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians –
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.

We are McIndoe’s army …

08/04/2016 One more: Ejection seat manufacturer Martin Baker maintains the Ejection Tie Club, made up of pilots who have ejected from an aircraft in an emergency using a Martin Baker ejection seat and thereby saved their lives. The club has had more than 5800 members. (Thanks, Gareth.)

Two Odd Etymologies

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Nachos are named after a person, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, who owned a restaurant known as El Moderno in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, in the early 1940s. Around 1943 he began serving fried tortilla chips topped with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers, calling the dish “Nacho’s Especiales.”

The taser’s name was inspired by a 1911 adventure book for boys, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, involving a rifle that fires electricity rather than bullets. The taser’s inventor, NASA scientist Jack Cover, thought this was an apt description of his own weapon, so he made an acronym of Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle.

Both origins are borne out by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Five by Five

knuth latin square puzzle

Computer science legend Donald Knuth offered this puzzle at the 29th International Puzzle Party in San Francisco in August 2009. It’s a partially completed Latin square: The challenge is to place letters in the remaining cells so that each row and column contains the same five letters and in the bottom row these spell a common English word. The solution is unique.

Click for Answer

Sperner’s Lemma

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Draw a triangle and color its vertices red, green, and blue. Then divide it into as many smaller triangles as you like (the smaller triangles must meet edge to edge and vertex to vertex). Now color the vertices of these smaller triangles using the same three colors. You can do this however you like, with one proviso: The vertices that lie on a side of the large triangle must take the color of either of its ends (so, for instance, the point at the bottom center of the triangle above must be colored either green or blue, not red).

No matter how this is done, there will always exist a small triangle with vertices of three colors. In fact, there will always be an odd number of such triangles.

Query

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Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife, Mina, in Morse code.

“My later courtship was carried on by telegraph,” he wrote in his diary. “I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word ‘Yes’ is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak of it, she might have found it harder.”

Podcast Episode 115: Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier

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After the Battle of Gettysburg, a dead Union soldier was found near the center of town. He bore no identification, but in his hands he held a photograph of three children. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the efforts of one Philadelphia physician to track down the lost man’s family using only the image of his children.

We’ll also sample a 9-year-old’s comedy of manners and puzzle over a letter that copies itself.

Intro:

The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat named Stubbs.

According to multiple sources, the 3rd Earl of Darnley, an eccentric bachelor, suffered from the delusion that he was a teapot.

Sources for our feature on Amos Humiston:

Mark H. Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier, 1999.

Mark H. Dunkelman, “Key to a Mystery,” American History 32:2 (May/June 1997), 16-20.

Errol Morris, “Whose Father Was He?” (parts 1-5), New York Times, March 29-April 5, 2009.

Ronald S. Coddington, “At Gettysburg, Life Imitates Art,” Military Images 34:3 (Summer 2016), 54-55.

“Visit Recalls Wartime Story,” Gettysburg, Pa., Star and Sentinel, Oct. 28, 1914.

The full text of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, including J.M. Barrie’s preface, is on Project Gutenberg.

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

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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, 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!

The Magdeburg Hemispheres

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German scientist Otto von Guericke conducted a memorable experiment on May 8, 1654: He connected two hemispheres, sealed their rims together, and drew out the air between them using a pump of his own devising. The resulting vacuum was so strong that 30 horses could not pull them apart.

At the time the experiment was seen as a strike against Aristotle’s dictum that nature abhors a vacuum. It’s repeated today as a dramatic demonstration of the power of atmospheric pressure.

Sound and Sense

In the early 1970s, Alan Berry and Ronald Morehead visited the Sierra Nevada of eastern California and emerged with “the Sierra Sounds recordings,” 90 minutes of vocalizations and wood knockings that they attributed to Bigfoot. In studying these and other recordings, “Bigfoot language expert” R. Scott Nelson has devised a Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet to record the utterances:

0:4.5 (W) (W)

0:8.62 (W) (W) (W)

0:15.11 RAM HO BÄ RÜ KHÄ HÜ

0:16.70 WAM VO HÜ KHÖ KHU’

0:17.52 NÖ U PLÄ MEN TI KHU

0:18.82 NÄR LÄ

0:20.21 NA GÖ KÜ STEP GÄ KÜ BLEM

0:21.25 Ü KÜ DZJÄ

0:21.76 FRrÄP E KHÜK LE

(A fuller transcription, and Nelson’s notating conventions, are here.)

What should we make of this? Nelson claims that “the creatures mentally process information at a much higher rate than humans do, or at least they are able to communicate their ideas much faster,” which makes their speech impossible for humans to understand, but “we have verified that these creatures use language, by the human definition of it.”

“No, we haven’t,” answers linguist Karen Stollznow in Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic (2014). “Before creating a transcription of this ‘Bigfoot language’, Nelson first needed to demonstrate that this is language. He has tried to authenticate the recordings, rather than analyze them in an unbiased way. Unknown sounds don’t immediately qualify as ‘language’, any more than an Unidentified Flying Object must be extraterrestrial.”

“There is no solid physical evidence to support the existence of Bigfoot. Before we establish the existence of Bigfoot language, we need to establish the existence of Bigfoot.”

Appeals

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Advertisements in the Sing Sing inmate newspaper Star of Hope, May 19, 1900:

WANTED — A home-like home. Present one, not what it is cracked up to be. Address Clinton 4,320.

WANTED — A good night’s rest. Gallery shouters and instrumentalists take note. Nemo, Star Office.

WANTED — An eraser, (must be mighty sharp) to blot out the past. A stock of experience, (fringed and threadbare) given in exchange. For particulars, Auburn 20,101.

WANTED — That rara avis, the con who does not think he is better able to manage the Star than the present Editor. Applications solicited by Sing Sing 51,094.

WANTED — A few blank pages in the Book of Life, wherein we desire to make some new entries — on the Cr. side. Address Summa Summarum, New York State Prisons.

WANTED — Immediately — an Opportunity. Price no object if goods are fair and in good working order. Anxious, Clinton 4,298.

WANTED — Anno Domini 1902. Will give in exchange one and a quarter yards of warranted genuine, homemade Spring po’ms — just too lovely for every day wear. Samantha, Auburn 595 (W. P.)

LOST — Five days’ ‘short time.’ Finder can have same by arranging with the Powers That Be. Address Nostalgic, Auburn 20,210.

(From Karel Weiss, The Prison Experience, 1976.)