Parenthood

We want to line up our six children for a photograph, but we can’t put Sally and John next to one another because they fight. In how many ways can we arrange the photo with this constraint?

Click for Answer

Longplayer

In 1999, ex-Pogues banjoist Jem Finer composed a piece of music that will take 1,000 years to perform. It’s been playing continuously at Bow Creek Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf on the north bank of the Thames since midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, and will continue until Dec. 31, 2999. (Shown here is an excerpt of 1,000 minutes performed live in 2009 at the Roundhouse in London.)

The piece is essentially a computer-administered series of variations on a core composition that’s 20 minutes and 20 seconds long; the current rendition is played on Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, but in principle it might be played on any instrument and indeed by any means; the conclusion of the piece might be mediated by technologies, and certainly will be by people, that don’t exist today.

It can be heard at various listening stations around the United Kingdom, and a mobile app is available that plays a version synchronized with the Trinity Buoy Wharf performance.

See Larghissimo.

Last Resident

When dredging began off the south Devon village of Hallsands in the 1890s, it destabilized the beach, permitting storms to reach the town. A strong storm in 1917 washed away 37 homes, but a single cottage on a hill was left standing, and a single resident, Elizabeth Prettejohn, lived alone in the ruined village for 47 years, until her death in 1964 at age 80.

“I have all my memories here, but it’s no good sitting down moping,” she said shortly before she died. “It was the dockyard that took all our beach. It blew for four days and four nights. The sea was like mountains. I prayed god that the wind would stop. … Once I thought of moving to Dartmouth, but this is where I belong with my memories.”

(Thanks, Cathy.)

Podcast Episode 281: Grey Owl

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1930s the world’s best-known conservationist was an ex-trapper named Grey Owl who wrote and lectured ardently for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness. At his death, though, it was discovered that he wasn’t who he’d claimed to be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of his curious history and complicated legacy.

We’ll also learn how your father can be your uncle and puzzle over a duplicate record.

See full show notes …

Borrowed Gold

Eunoia is a dictionary of more than 500 untranslatable (or obscurely useful) words:

tsundoku: acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them (Japanese)
sankocha: the feeling of embarrassment due to receiving an inordinate or extravagant gift, making you feel as though you need to return a favor that you can’t (Kannada)
mudita: the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being or happiness (Sanskrit)
Erbsenzähler: literally “pea counter”: a nitpicker (German)
jayus: a joke so unfunny that one has to laugh (Indonesian)
házisárkány: “indoor dragon”: a nagging, restless spouse (Hungarian)
tretår: a third cup of coffee (Swedish)
xiao xiao: the whistling and pattering of rain or wind (Chinese)

There’s a whole subreddit for these.

(Thanks, Sharon.)

Shifting Ground

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A fundamental belief about time is that the future is open while the past is set. But in Emmanuel Carrère’s 1986 novel La Moustache, the main character shaves off his mustache one day only to find that his wife and coworkers don’t react: Reality has twisted so that he has never had a mustache.

As the novel continues, other pieces of his personal history change one by one, as if his life is being replaced by another one. Finally even facts that have been described in earlier chapters begin to change. The hero flees to Macao, where he knows no one and has no history. But his wife is in the room there, and she shows no surprise at seeing him.

“This suggests that the hero has not been taken to Macao by the events reported in the preceding chapters,” writes Marie-Laure Ryan, “but that he is there as a tourist on a completely normal family vacation. At this point the novel becomes a self-destructing artifact that denies what is generally considered to be the main function of narrative: its ability to tell about and to preserve the past.”

(Marie-Laure Ryan, “Impossible Worlds and Aesthetic Illusion,” in Werner Wolf, et al., Immersion and Distance: Aesthetic Illusion in Literature and Other Media, 2013.)

Midnight Oil

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In trying to work out the trajectories of the planets, Johannes Kepler had to do reams of monstrous calculations by hand. In the manuscript pages for his revolutionary Astronomia nova of 1609, he concludes 15 folio pages of computations by writing:

“If thou art bored with this wearisome method of calculation, take pity on me, who had to go through with at least seventy repetitions of it, at a very great loss of time.”

The Writer

One of the most remote forerunners of the modern computer is a mechanical boy that resides in the Muse d’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchtel, in Switzerland. Designed in the 18th century by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, the automaton clutches a goose feather with which it can write any custom text up to 40 characters, guided by a stack of cams in the interior. Its eyes follow the pen, and it shakes extra ink from its quill after dipping it in an inkwell.

With a similar automaton designed by Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet, Jaquet-Droz’s writer helped to inspire Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.

(Thanks, Snehal.)

Dunsany’s Chess

dunsany's chess

Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish fantasy writer, proposed this alarming chess variant in the 1940s. Black has his usual army, but he’s facing an onslaught of white pawns, without even a king to attack. But he has the first move, and White’s pawns are denied the customary option of advancing two squares on their first move. To win, Black must capture all 32 white pawns; White wins by checkmating Black.

You can experiment with it here, and you can play a close variant, called Horde, on the Internet chess server Lichess.