Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)
But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.
When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his first story, at age 7, “my mother … pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.” It turns out that there’s an unwritten rule in English that governs the order in which we string our adjectives together:
In The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth writes, “So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
Another unwritten rule concerns ablaut reduplication: In terms such as chit-chat or dilly-dally, in which a word is repeated with an altered vowel, the vowels will follow the pattern I-A-O if there are three words and I-A or I-O if there are two. So:
And so on. Interestingly, these rules about precedence seem to follow a precedence rule of their own: The “royal order of adjectives” would require Red Riding Hood to meet the “Bad Big Wolf” (opinion before size). But the rule of ablaut reduplication apparently trumps this, making him the Big Bad Wolf.
“Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists,” Forsyth writes. “It might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.”
In 1941, the BBC established an Eastern Services Committee to discuss programming in India. The meetings were held in Room 101 at 55 Portland Place in London. George Orwell attended at least 12 meetings there and was asked to convene a subcommittee to consider organizing drama and poetry competitions.
Orwell scholar Peter Davison writes, “In Nineteen Eighty-Four O’Brien tells Orwell that the thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. The understandable impression is that this is something like drowning, death by fire, or impalement, but Orwell is more subtle: for many, and for him, the worst thing in the world is that which is the bureaucrat’s life-blood: attendance at meetings.”
Six kilometers south of Dunhuang in western China lies Crescent Lake, an oasis that once served as a waypoint to the West along the Silk Road. British missionaries Mildred Cable and Francesca French recorded their first sight of it during their travels through the Gobi Desert in the 1920s:
All around us we saw tier on tier of lofty sand-hills, giving the lie to our quest, yet when, with a final desperate effort, we hoisted ourselves over the last ridge and looked down on what lay beyond, we saw the lake below, and its beauty was entrancing.
The lake survived for 2,000 years thanks to its low altitude and sheltered position, but it began to shrink in the 20th century due to population pressures — its depth dropped from 7.5 to 0.9 meters between 1960 and the early 1990s. In 2006 the government stepped in to reverse the decline, and now it’s growing again.
Ohio inventor Philip Clover came up with a dramatic way to discourage body snatchers in 1878: a “coffin torpedo.” Basically a live cartridge is attached to the body by hidden wires so that “any attempt to remove the body after burial will cause the … injury or death of the desecrator of the grave”:
The trigger-wires are secured to the arms, legs, or other portion of the body of the corpse in such manner as to induce to the tripping of the trigger should any attempt be made to withdraw the body from the casket. The torpedo is loaded … just prior to the final closing of the casket.
“The torpedo may be placed in variable positions within the casket, and properly concealed by the trimmings of the casket or the apparel of the corpse.” Clover points out that there’s no need to protect the weapon from the elements — by the time it ceases to work, “the body would be of no use to robbers.”
The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”
We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.
This is the Thue–Morse sequence, named after two of its discoverers, Axel Thue and Marston Morse. One interesting property of the sequence is that, no matter how far it’s extended, it contains no “cubes,” no instances in which some nonempty string occurs three times in a row. For example, the last line above contains both 11 and 00 but no instance of 111 or 000. (It also contains 1001 twice in a row, but not three times.)
Max Euwe, the Dutch mathematician who was world chess champion from 1935 to 1937, used this principle to show that chess was not a finite game. Under the rules at the time, a chess game would end in a draw if a sequence of moves (with all pieces in the same positions) were played three times in a row. Euwe used the Thue-Morse sequence to show that this need never happen: If 0 represents one set of moves, and 1 represents another, and each set leaves the board position unchanged, then the Thue-Morse sequence shows that two players might step through these routines forever without ever playing one three times in a row.
Modern chess rules have dropped the threefold sequence provision. Instead a draw results when the same board position occurs three times, or when 50 successive moves occur without a capture or a pawn move. Both of these rules limit a game to a finite length (although one player must actually claim the draw).
This is clever — during Prohibition, moonshiners wore shoes that left hoofprints. From the St. Petersburg, Fla., Evening Independent, May 27, 1922:
A new method of evading prohibition agents was revealed here today by A.L. Allen, state prohibition enforcement director, who displayed what he called a ‘cow shoe’ as the latest thing from the haunts of moonshiners.
The cow shoe is a strip of metal to which is tacked a wooden block carved to resemble the hoof of a cow, which may be strapped to the human foot. A man shod with a pair of them would leave a trail resembling that of a cow.
“The shoe found was picked up near Port Tampa where a still was located some time ago. It will be sent to the prohibition department at Washington. Officers believe the inventor got his idea from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the villain shod his horse with shoes the imprint of which resembled those of a cow’s hoof.”
In a London paper, of the last week, is the following curious apology for a hasty accusation — ‘A paragraph in our last paper, rather precipitously accuses, with ingratitude, a gentleman who gave two-pence as a reward to a waterman for risking his life in saving a lady who had fallen in the River; but had the writer of that paragraph been acquainted with all the particulars, he probably would have suppressed his censure. — The lady to whom the accident happened was the gentleman’s wife.