Ready-Made

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Australia was named before it was discovered. Ancient geographers had supposed that land in the north must be balanced by land in the south — Aristotle had written, “there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole” — and Romans told legends of a Terra Australis Incognita, an “unknown land of the South,” more than a millennium before Europeans first sighted the continent.

In 1814 the British explorer Matthew Flinders suggested applying the speculative name, Terra Australis, to the actual place — and in a footnote he wrote, “Had I permitted myself any innovation on the original term, it would have been to convert it to AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.”

Podcast Episode 129: The Voynich Manuscript

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Voynich_Manuscript_(159).jpg

In 1912, bookseller Wilfrid Voynich discovered an illustrated manuscript that was written in a mysterious alphabet that had never been seen before. The text bears the hallmarks of natural language, but no one has ever been able to determine its meaning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about the Voynich manuscript, which has been bewildering scholars for more than a century.

We’ll also ponder some parliamentary hostages and puzzle over a tormenting acquisition.

Intro:

In 1851, George Merryweather invented the Tempest Prognosticator, a rack of bottled leeches who would ring a bell when a storm approached.

Between 1884 and 1896, visitors to Coney Island could stay in a 31-room hotel shaped like an elephant.

Sources for our feature on the Voynich manuscript:

Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, The Voynich Manuscript, 2004.

“Voynich Manuscript,” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Klaus Schmeh, “The Voynich Manuscript: The Book Nobody Can Read,” Skeptical Inquirer 35:1 (January/February 2011).

Diego R. Amancio et al., “Probing the Statistical Properties of Unknown Texts: Application to the Voynich Manuscript,” PLoS One, July 2, 2013.

Andreas Schinner, “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis,” Cryptologia 31:2 (March 2007).

Marcelo A. Montemurro and Damián H. Zanette, “Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis,” PLoS One, June 21, 2013.

Bec Crew, “Researcher Finds Evidence That the ‘World’s Most Mysterious Book’ Is an Elaborate Hoax,” Science Alert, Sept. 23, 2016.

Melissa Hogenboom, “Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Has ‘Genuine Message’,” BBC News, June 22, 2013.

Reed Johnson, “The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript,” New Yorker, July 9, 2013.

Rich McCormick, “Decrypting the Most Mysterious Book in the World,” The Verge, Feb. 28, 2014.

Wikipedia has scans of the entire manuscript, sortable by page, folio, or topic.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Hostage MP” (accessed Nov. 12, 2016).

Wikipedia, “State Opening of Parliament” (accessed Nov. 12, 2016).

Matt Field, “Queen’s Speech: Your Guide to All the Parliamentary Pomp and Pageantry,” Guardian, May 27, 2015.

“Intertwined Love Story: Twins Who Married Twins,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, May 28, 2010.

“Identical Twins Marry, Give Birth to Identical Twins,” Telegraph, July 22, 2008.

Danielle Centoni, “The Secret Life of Pears (in Brandy),” Oregon Live, September 2011.

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

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 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 Margate Shell Grotto

margate shell grotto 1

In the chalky soil under the English seaside town of Margate, someone has hewn an artificial cave and lined it with millions of seashells. No one knows who, when, or why — the popular story is that a laborer was digging in a field in 1835 when his spade disappeared into a void. Alerted to this mystery, James Newlove, the master of the nearby Dane House School, lowered his son Joshua into the darkness bearing a candle. Joshua would have found himself in a domed rotunda lined with shells, beyond which a winding passageway leads to a rectangular chamber of uncertain purpose. Newlove later purchased the land, installed gas lighting, and opened them to the public.

Even then the origins of the grotto were a mystery — and, as no scientific dating has been undertaken, we still don’t know when it was created. R.F. LeGear, who made an assessment for the Kent Archaeological Society, wrote, “Whoever commissioned and/or planned the elaborate designs for the shell panels must have been a well educated person who managed to entwine many different themes into the intricate patterns of literally millions of shells.” He suspects that a medieval denehole, or chalk-mining shaft, was reworked and expanded in the 17th or 18th century.

But “[a]s to the purpose of this enigmatic structure the writer can make no useful comment except that it is highly likely that the Shell Grotto’s original designer, whoever and whenever that was, has accomplished exactly what he set out to achieve i.e., speculation, controversy and conjecture which started with the discovery in 1835 and continues to the present day.”

margate shell grotto 2

(Thanks, Ron.)

Self-Descriptive Squares

Lee Sallows has been working on a new experiment in self-reference that he calls self-descriptive squares, arrays of numbers that inventory their own contents. Here’s an example of a 4×4 square:

self-descriptive square 1

The sums of the rows and columns are listed to the right and below the square. These sums also tally the number of times that each row’s rightmost entry, or each column’s lowermost entry, appears in the square. So, for example, the sum of the top row is 3, and that row’s rightmost entry is 1; correspondingly, the number 1 appears three times in the square. Likewise, the sum of the rightmost column is 2, and the lowermost entry in that column, 4, appears twice in the square.

In this example this property extends to the diagonals — and, pleasingly, each sum applies to both ends of its diagonal. The northwest-southeast diagonal totals 2, and both -2 and 4 appear twice in the square. And the southwest-northeast diagonal totals 3, and both 1 and 0 appear three times.

“Easy to understand, but not so easy to produce!” he writes. “I’m still in the throes of figuring out the surprisingly complicated theory of such squares. It turns out there are just two basic squares of 3×3. One of them can be found at the centre of this 5×5 example, which is therefore a concentric self-descriptive square:”

self-descriptive square 2

(Thanks, Lee.)

Surprise Appearance

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Eight complete perfect dovetail shuffles, breaking pack exactly in center; that is, cutting off just 26 cards each time and dropping cards from each half alternately, brings the pack to its original order.”

— T. Nelson Downs, in a letter to fellow magician Edward G. “Tex” McGuire, 1923

11/14/2016 UPDATE: Sid Hollander and Harold VanAken sent this demonstration:

eight shuffles

Here’s what it looks like in the hands of a skilled shuffler (thanks to reader Sascha Müller):

Emerging Artists

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Tourists traveling the Pan-American Highway can be startled to discover an enormous human hand emerging from the Atacama Desert in Chile. The 36-foot sculpture is Mano del Desierto, installed by artist Mario Irarrázabal in 1992.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A thousand miles away, in the Uruguayan seaside town of Punta del Este, lies La Mano de Punta del Este, completed by Irarrázabal 10 years earlier. One is a left hand, the other a right.

American artist J. Seward Johnson Jr. finished The Awakening (below) at Hains Point near Washington, D.C., in 1980, and a copy near Chesterfield, Mo., in 2009. What’s next?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kubina/413181940
Image: Flickr

Dividing the Spoils

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Ten pirates have 100 gold pieces and want to divide them according to the law of the sea, which says that the spoils go to the strongest. So they arrange themselves from weakest to strongest, P1, P2, …, P10. But these are democratic pirates, so they ask the strongest pirate to make a proposal as to how to divide the loot. All 10 pirates will then vote on it. If at least 50 percent of them support the proposal, then they’ll enact it and that’s that. Otherwise the proposer will be thrown to the sharks.

All pirates value their lives more than gold, all are rational, they cannot cut the gold pieces into smaller pieces, and no pirate will agree to a side bargain to share pieces. What proposal should the strongest pirate make in order to get the most gold?

Click for Answer

“A Postal Problem”

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Browsing the Post Office Guide in June 1891, Lewis Carroll discovered an ambiguity that produces “a very curious verbal puzzle” — he sent this pamphlet to friends and interested parties:

The Rule, for Commissions chargeable on overdue Postal Orders, is given in the ‘Post Office Guide’ in these words, (it is here divided, for convenience of reference, into 3 clauses)—

(a) After the expiration of 3 months from the last day of the month of issue, a Postal Order will be payable only on payment of a Commission, equal to the amount of the original poundage;

(b) with the addition (if more than 3 months have elapsed since the said expiration) of the amount of the original poundage for every further period of 3 months which has so elapsed;

(c) and for every portion of any such period of 3 months over and above every complete period.

You are requested to answer the following questions, in reference to a Postal Order for 10/- (on which the ‘original poundage’ would be 1d.) issued during the month of January, so that the 1st ‘period’ would consist of the months February, March, April; the 2nd would consist of the months May, June, July; and the 3rd would consist of the months August, September, October.

(1) Supposing the Rule to consist of clause (a) only, on what day would a ‘Commission’ begin to be chargeable?

(2) What would be its amount?

(3) Supposing the Rule to consist of clauses (a) and (b), on what day would the lowest ‘Commission’ begin to be chargeable?

(4) What would be its amount?

(5) On what day would a larger ‘Commission’ (being the sum of 2 ‘Commissions’) begin to be chargeable?

(6) What would be its amount?

(7) On what day would a yet larger ‘Commission’ begin to be chargeable?

(8) What would be its amount?

(9) Taking the Rule as consisting of all 3 clauses, in which of the above-named 3 ‘periods’ does clause (c) first begin to take effect?

(10) Which day, of any ‘period,’ is the earliest on which it can be said that a ‘portion’ of the ‘period’ has elapsed?

(11) On what day would the lowest ‘Commission’ begin to be chargeable?

(12) What would be its amount?

(13) On what day would a larger ‘Commission’ begin to be chargeable?

(14) What would be its amount?

(15) On what day would a yet larger ‘Commission’ begin to be chargeable?

(16) What would be its amount?

Signature:

Date:

He followed up with this supplement later that month:

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Complete_Works_of_Lewis_Carroll.djvu/1302

The trouble, as I read it, is that clause (c) is ambiguous. Presumably the postal authorities intended the general rule to be that a patron had three months to redeem a postal order, and beyond this would be charged a commission (here, 1 penny) for every three months that had elapsed since the deadline — including the last such period, which would not be prorated. Unfortunately, the phrase “every complete period” means exactly that — it refers to every completed period on the calendar. This sets the clock going twice as fast as intended. Our patron should owe 1d on May 1, 2d on August 1, and 3d on November 1. But with clause (c) worded as it is, she’ll owe 1d on May 1, 4d on August 1, and 6d on November 1. The final effect is that, beyond the first period, postal patrons who follow these rules will pay twice the intended commission.

I don’t know whether the post office ever learned about this. I imagine most patrons trusted them to do the math, and no one but Carroll recognized the ambiguity.

The Shortest Road

shortest road - 1

We want to build a road between two cities, A and B, that are separated by a river. We can build a bridge, but it must be perpendicular to the river’s banks, as shown. Where along the river’s length should we place the bridge if we want to minimize the total length of the road?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 128: The Battle for Castle Itter

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The closing days of World War II witnessed a bizarre battle with some unlikely allies: American and German soldiers joined forces to rescue a group of French prisoners from a medieval castle in the Austrian Alps. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the Battle for Castle Itter, the only time that Allies and Germans fought together in the war.

We’ll also dodge another raft of aerial bombs and puzzle over a bottled pear.

Intro:

In 1917, Royal Flying Corps trainee Graham Donald fell out of his plane at the top of a loop.

In 1750, the 1st Earl of Hardwicke installed an artificial ruin near his country house, Wimpole Hall.

Sources for our feature on the Battle for Castle Itter:

Stephen Harding, The Last Battle, 2013.

Stephen Harding, “The Battle for Castle Itter,” World War II 23:3 (August/September 2008), 38-45.

George Hodge, “The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe,” Military Review 94:4 (July/August 2014), 100.

John G. Mayer, “12th Men Free French Big-Wigs,” 12th Armored Division Hellcat News, May 26, 1945.

Andrew Roberts, “World War II’s Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together,” Daily Beast, May 12, 2013.

Bethany Bell, “The Austrian Castle Where Nazis Lost to German-US Force,” BBC News, May 7, 2015.

Listener mail:

Roadside America, “Omaha, Nebraska: Plaque: Japanese Balloon Bomb Exploded Here,”.

“B-52 Accidentally Bombs Kansas Lake,” Aero News Network, Dec. 16, 2006.

Bill Kaczor, “Bombs Rained on Florida Family in 1944,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 14, 1994.

Wikipedia, “MOVE: 1985 bombing” (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

Wikipedia, “Pavlovsk Experimental Station” (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

Ian Crofton, A Curious History of Food and Drink, 2014.

Wikipedia, “1958 Tybee Island Mid-Air Collision” (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles were adapted from the Soviet popular science magazine Kvant and the 2000 book Lateral Mindtrap Puzzles and contributed by listener Steve Scheuermann. We refer to this image in the second puzzle:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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 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!