# Aplomb

Abe Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon said Lincoln told this joke “often and often”:

Well, there was a party once, not far from here, which was composed of ladies and gentlemen. A fine table was set and the people were greatly enjoying themselves. Among the crowd was one of those men who had audacity — was quick-witted, cheeky, and self-possessed — never off his guard on any occasion. After the men and women had enjoyed themselves by dancing, promenading, flirting, etc., they were told that the table was set. The man of audacity — quick-witted, self-possessed, and equal to all occasions — was put at the head of the table to carve the turkeys, chickens, and pigs. The men and women surrounded the table, and the audacious man, being chosen carver, whetted his great carving knife with the steel and got down to business and commenced carving the turkey, but he expended too much force and let a fart — a loud fart so that all the people heard it distinctly. As a matter of course it shocked all terribly. A deep silence reigned. However, the audacious man was cool and entirely self-possessed; he was curiously and keenly watched by those who knew him well, they suspecting that he would recover in the end and acquit himself with glory. The man, with a kind of sublime audacity, pulled off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, put his coat deliberately on a chair, spat on his hands, took his position at the head of the table, picked up the carving knife and whetted it again, never cracking a smile nor moving a muscle of his face. It now became a wonder in the minds of all the men and women how the fellow was to get out of his dilemma. He squared himself and said loudly and distinctly: ‘Now, by God, I’ll see if I can’t cut up this turkey without farting.’

# Forefathers

A problem from the 1996 mathematical olympiad of the Republic of Moldova:

Twenty children attend a rural elementary school. Every two children have a grandfather in common. Prove that some grandfather has not less than 14 grandchildren in this school.

# Noted

The French phrase Mort ici, j’en ai marre translates as “Dead here, I’m fed up” and sounds like “Morrissey, Johnny Marr.”

(Thanks, Ian.)

# Podcast Episode 216: The Tromelin Island Castaways

In 1761 a French schooner was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, leaving more than 200 people stranded on a tiny island. The crew departed in a makeshift boat, leaving 60 Malagasy slaves to fend for themselves and wait for rescue. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Tromelin Island castaways, which one observer calls “arguably the most extraordinary story of survival ever documented.”

We’ll also admire some hardworking cats and puzzle over a racer’s death.

See full show notes …

# The Body Politic

This iconic image of Abraham Lincoln is not authentic — Lincoln never posed in this “heroic” style during his lifetime, so after his death an enterprising artist added Abe’s head to a portrait of South Carolina Democrat John C. Calhoun.

Both men would have been aghast. “Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil,” Calhoun once wrote. “That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

# Magic

A ring that encircles a length of chain will be caught in a loop if it tumbles during its fall. By Newton’s Third Law, when the turning ring strikes the chain it transfers momentum to the loop at the end — which causes it to rise and swallow the ring.

# Geometry

“The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom.” — Samuel Johnson

“I believe the parallelogram between Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Regent Street and Hyde Park encloses more intelligence and human ability, to say nothing of wealth and beauty, than the world has ever collected in such a space before.” — Sydney Smith

# Neat

I just ran across this in an old Mathematical Gazette: R.H. Macmillan of Buckinghamshire shared a tidy expression for the area of a triangle whose vertices have coordinates (x1, y1), (x2, y2), and (x3, y3):

$\displaystyle \pm \frac{1}{2}\left \{ x_{1} \left ( y_{2} - y_{3} \right ) + x_{2} \left ( y_{3} - y_{1} \right ) + x_{3} \left ( y_{1} - y_{2} \right ) \right \}$

The sign is positive if the numbering is counterclockwise and negative if it’s clockwise.

“The expression is readily derived geometrically (using only the fact that the sum of the areas on each side of the diagonal of a rectangle must be equal) and so provides an interesting elementary exercise.”

(R.H. Macmillan, “Area of a Triangle,” Mathematical Gazette 77:478 (March 1993), 88.)

# Unquote

“Talent is luck, what’s important in life is courage.” — Woody Allen

# The Duchenne Smile

Darwin’s colleague Guillaume Duchenne first noticed the difference between smiles that are caused by enjoyment and those that aren’t. Both feature raised lip corners, but a genuine smile also activates the muscles around the eyes (lateral portions of the orbicularis oculi), causing “crow’s feet.”

This “Duchenne marker” is remarkably revealing. By observing it, researchers can predict whether an infant is being approached by its mother or by a stranger, and whether the infant’s mother is smiling at all. It also predicts when people who have lost their airline baggage began to feel less distress, how much a person enjoys being smiled at, whether a child has won or lost a game, and whether a person enjoys certain jokes and cartoons.

Beyond this, in clinical settings Duchenne smiles can predict a wide range of behaviors, including “whether a person will cope successfully with the death of his or her romantic partner; whether a person is an abusive caregiver; and whether a person is depressed, schizophrenic, recovering from an illness in general, or likely to respond successfully to psychotherapy.”

(From Mark G. Frank, “Thoughts, Feelings and Deception,” in Brooke Harrington, ed., Deception, 2009.)