The Friendly Floatees

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a storm in January 1992, a container was swept overboard from a ship in the North Pacific. As it happened, it contained 28,800 children’s bath toys, and oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer realized they offered the basis for a serendipitous study of surface currents. Working with his colleague James Ingraham, Ebbesmeyer began to track the toys as they drifted around the globe, accumulating reports from beachcombers, coastal workers, and local residents as they began to wash up on beaches. Using computer models, they were able to predict correctly that toys would make landfall in Washington state, Japan, and Alaska, and even become trapped in pack ice and spend years creeping across the top of the world before making an eventual reappearance in the North Atlantic. “Ultimately,” Ebbesmeyer wrote, “the toys will turn to dust, joining the scum of plastic powder which rides the global ocean.”

For some reason, media accounts of the story always carried the image of a solitary rubber duck, though the toys had also included beavers, turtles, and frogs. “Maybe it’s a kind of racism,” Ebbesmeyer speculated to journalist Donovan Hohn in 2007. “Speciesism.”

A Double Disaster

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The high-altitude glacial lake Roopkund, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, contains a large number of human skeletons. Local legend tells of a royal party who were killed by a large hailstorm near here, and many of the skeletons show signs of blows by large round objects falling from above. Radiocarbon dating estimates that these people died around 850 CE.

But another set of victims seem to have succumbed much more recently, a group from the eastern Mediterranean who died only 200 years ago. So the casualties can’t all be attributed to a single catastrophic event, but the full truth is still emerging.

An Urgent Question

Based on a James Blish short story, The Beast Must Die (1974) is a curious twist on the Clue genre: A millionaire invites a group of people to a remote island and reveals that one of them is a werewolf, and they must work out who it is.

The movie includes a 30-second “werewolf break” near the end, in which the audience are asked to guess the werewolf’s identity based on the clues.

Counterpoint

In 1924 British journalist William Norman Ewer published an antisemitic couplet:

How odd of God
To choose the Jews.

It’s been met with at least six responses. From Leo Rosten:

Not odd of God.
Goyim annoy ‘im.

From Cecil Brown:

But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews.

Three anonymous replies:

Not odd of God
His son was one.

Not odd, you sod
The Jews chose God.

How strange of man
To change the plan.

And Yale political scientist Jim Sleeper wrote:

Moses, Jesus, Marx, Einstein, and Freud;
No wonder the goyim are annoyed.

Who’s There?

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In some parts of Amsterdam, residents mount mirrors on the sides of parlor windows in order to monitor neighborly activities. This window bears two, one directed sideward and the other down. They’re called spionnetjes, or “little spies.”

“Little spies are relics of an earlier period when they enabled residents to preview visitors, but they are now used to see what is going on up and down the block,” writes John L. Locke in Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (2010). “At one time, similar mirrors were used in America, including Society Hill in Philadelphia.”

Black and White

visserman chess puzzle

A “grid-chess” problem by E. Visserman, from Fairy Chess Review, 1954. A grid divides the board into 16 large squares, and each move by each side must cross at least one line of the grid. For example, in this position it would be illegal for the black king to move to f3. How can White mate in two moves?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 275: A Kidnapped Painting

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In 1961, Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington went missing from London’s National Gallery. The case went unsolved for four years before someone unexpectedly came forward to confess to the heist. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the greatest art thefts in British history and the surprising twists that followed.

We’ll also discover Seward’s real folly and puzzle over a man’s motherhood.

See full show notes …