Podcast Episode 258: The First Great Train Robbery

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/steam-train-locomotive-train-502120/

In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century.

We’ll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen.

See full show notes …

Poetic Justice

After being caught driving at 91 mph on the 60 mph A361 North Devon Link road in 2011, filmmaker and traffic legislation activist Martin Cassini presented his case at Barnstaple Magistrates Court in a series of rhymed couplets:

Before you today stands a man in the dock
To whom this bleak chapter’s a terrible shock

Kind and aware on the road as a rule
He tripped up that day and transgressed a rule.

The outlandish speed was but a short burst
On a dual lane stretch to get up there first

To the top of the hill to avoid getting stuck
Down the single lane stretch by a slow moving truck.

If you averaged my speed over hillock and dale
You’d find it to be not at all yon the pale

The law’s quick to judge if you’re over the limit
No praise if you’re under — one sided, innit?

The design of the road is dubious at most
It’s the link for Pete’s sake from M5 to coast

Why only three lanes? There was good room for four
The vision was lacking, the carriageway’s poor.

The limit is 60 for one lane downhill
And 60 — the same — for two lanes uphill

Until this dark day my licence was clean
Too late for considering what might have been.

They say that speed kills, but throughout these lands
Inappropriate speed kills, or speed in the wrong hands

I wasn’t lacking due care and attention
Indeed I was using true care and attention

I was watching the road, not checking the speed
Could this be a safer, superior creed.

They fined him £175. “I wanted to challenge one-size-fits-all regulation that ignores the spirit of the law, and at the same time recognise that I had disobeyed the letter,” he told the Daily Mail. But “Now I’m taking greater pains to follow the letter of the law.”

(Thanks, Volodymyr.)

The Parallel Climbers Problem

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mountain_climbing_problem.gif
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Two climbers stand on opposite sides of a two-dimensional mountain range. Is it always possible for both of them to make their way through the mountains, remaining constantly at the same altitude as one another, and arrive together at the top of the tallest peak?

The example shown here looks relatively straightforward, but that doesn’t prove that it’s possible in every mountain range. Each time either climber reaches a peak or a valley, she must decide whether to go forward or back, and in a complex range it’s not always clear whether there’s a series of choices that will lead both climbers to the goal.

As it turns out, though, the answer is yes. Alan Tucker gave an accessible explanation, using graph theory, in the November 1995 issue of Math Horizons.

“The Dead Alive in the Biograph”

A pathetic incident in connection with a biograph scene occurred in Detroit, Mich., March 17th last. A view made at the occupation of Peking was being flashed across the screen. It represented a detachment of the Fourteenth United States Infantry entering the gates of the Chinese Capital. As the last file of soldiers seemed literally stepping out of the frame on to the stage, there arose a scream from a woman who sat in front.

‘My God!’ she cried hysterically, ‘there is my dead brother Allen marching with the soldiers.’

The figure had been recognized by others in the audience as that of Allen McCaskill, who had mysteriously disappeared some years before. Subsequently Mrs. Booth, the sister, wrote to the War Department and learned that it really was her brother whose presentment she so strangely had been confronted with.

“Photography,” Popular Science News, October 1901

All Together Now

When London’s Millennium Bridge opened in 2000, it began to sway unexpectedly under the footsteps of the inaugural crowds. The danger of vibration in bridges was well known — the Albert Bridge (below) still bears a sign dating from 1873 that warns soldiers to break step while crossing. But the Millennium Bridge revealed a new phenomenon: As the pedestrians felt the bridge swing beneath them, they altered their movements to maintain their balance and began to sway together in step. This increased the amplitude of the bridge’s oscillations, a factor called synchronous lateral excitation.

The bridge was closed on opening day and underwent $9 million in repairs to increase its damping. It reopened in February 2002 and is now free of vibration, but it’s still known affectionately as the “wobbly bridge.”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Bridge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_466035.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Photophone

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Alexander Graham Bell believed that his greatest achievement was the photophone, a device that could transmit speech on a beam of light. The speaker’s voice would strike the back of a mirror, modulating a reflected ray. When the ray reached the receiver the process was reversed, producing sound waves.

“I have heard articulate speech by sunlight!” Bell wrote to his father in 1880. “I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing! … I have been able to hear a shadow and I have even perceived by ear the passage of a cloud across the sun’s disk. You are the grandfather of the Photophone and I want to share my delight at my success.”

Bell hoped the invention might supplant expensive telephone lines, but it proved too vulnerable to weather conditions and fell by the wayside. That didn’t surprise the New York Times, which wrote in an editorial, “Until [the public] sees a man going through the streets with a coil of No. 12 sunbeams on his shoulder, and suspending them from pole to pole, there will be a general feeling that there is something about Professor Bell’s photophone which places a tremendous strain on human credulity.”

The Pizza Effect

Modern pizza toppings are commonly thought to have originated in Italy, but in fact they were developed by Italian immigrants in the United States and then exported back to Italy. Syracuse University anthropologist Agehananda Bharati calls this the “pizza effect” — the elements of a nation’s culture are sometimes developed elsewhere and then reimported. Further examples:

  • Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade was invented for the James Bond film Spectre and then adopted by the city.
  • American blues music influenced English musicians in the 1960s, who then exported blues-rock to the United States.
  • Adapted from India’s chicken tikka, chicken tikka masala became one of the most popular dishes in Britain before being re-exported to India.
  • Yoga became popular in India after its adoption in the West.
  • Salsa music originated largely among Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to New York in the 1920s and then spread throughout the Americas.
  • Teppanyaki, the Japanese style of cooking on an iron griddle, grew to prominence in America in “Japanese steakhouses.”

The pizza example continues to “echo” between the Italian and American cultures: American tourists sought out “authentic” (non-American) pizza in Italy, and the Italians met the demand by creating brick-oven pizzerias. The Americans then carried these back to their own country. Stephen Jenkins of Humboldt State University writes, “Hence, Americans met their own reflection in the other and were delighted.”

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Greg

House Debate

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On seeing two women screaming at one another across an Edinburgh alley, Sydney Smith paused.

“Those two women will never agree,” he said. “They are arguing from different premises.”