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Posts Tagged ‘World War II

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s deep affection and respect for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here), so will understand his inability to pass up this appreciation:

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation…

Read on for Ted Gioia‘s (@tedgioia) appreciation of Gardner’s autobiogrphical works: “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we add it up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. H. C. (Henry) Whitehead; he was born on this date in 1904. A mathematician (and nephew of Alfred North Whitehead), he was a topographer, one of the founders of homotopy theory, an approach to mapping of topological spaces.

Born in Chennai and educated at Oxford and Princeton, he joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and by 1945 was one of some fifteen mathematicians working in the “Newmanry,” a section headed by Max Newman that was responsible for breaking a German teleprinter cipher using machine methods– which included the use of Colossus machines, early digital electronic computers.

He spent the rest of his career at Oxford (where he was Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics at Magdalen College). He served as president of the London Mathematical Society, which created two prizes in his memory: the annually-awarded Whitehead Prize and the biennially-awarded Senior Whitehead Prize.


“Gentlemen, you need to add armor-plate where the holes aren’t, because that’s where the holes were on the airplanes that didn’t return”*…

Diagram of bullet-holes in WWII bombers that returned

Allied bombers were key to Britain’s air offensive against Germany during the second world war. As such, the RAF wanted to armour their bombers to prevent them from being shot down. But armour is heavy – you cannot reinforce an entire bomber and still have it fly. So statistician Abraham Wald was asked to advise on where armour should be placed on a bomber.

After each wave of bombing, every returning aircraft was meticulously examined and a note was made of where each aircraft had sustained damage by the Germans. The image [above] conceptualises what Wald’s data might have looked like visually.

So what was Wald’s advice? Where should armour be added?

He essentially advised the RAF to add armour to places where you do not find bullet holes. Wait… what?!

Wald wisely understood that the data was based only on planes that survived. The planes that did not survive were likely to have sustained damage on the areas where we do not observe bullet holes – such as around the engine or cockpit…

Making better decisions: one of the most prevalent– and insidious– forms of selection bias, survivorship bias, illustrated: “How to armour a WWII bomber.”

See also: “How to avoid being duped by survivorship bias.”


As we think clearly, we might send productive birthday greetings to W. Edwards Deming; he was born on this date in 1900. An engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant, he helped develop the sampling techniques still used by the U.S. Department of the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But he is better remembered as the champion of statistically-based production management techniques that first gained traction in post-WWII Japan, where many credit Deming as a key ingredient in what has become known as the Japanese post-war economic miracle of 1950 to 1960, when Japan rose from the ashes of war onto the its path to becoming the second-largest economy in the world– through processes shaped by the ideas Deming taught. In 1951, the Japanese government established the Deming Prize in his honor.

While his impact in Japan (finally) brought him to the attention of business leaders in the U.S., he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death in 1993.


“All business sagacity reduces itself in the last analysis to judicious use of sabotage”*…




Since World War II, US intelligence agencies have devised innovative ways to defeat their adversaries. In 1944, CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

This classified booklet described ways to sabotage the US’ World War II enemies. The OSS Director William J. Donovan recommended that the sabotage guidance be declassified and distributed to citizens of enemy states via pamphlets and targeted broadcasts.

Many of the sabotage instructions guide ordinary citizens, who may not have agree with their country’s wartime policies towards the US, to destabilize their governments by taking disruptive actions. Some of the instructions seem outdated; others remain surprisingly relevant. Together they are a reminder of how easily productivity and order can be undermined.

Here’s a list of five particularly timeless tips from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual:

  1. Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

  2. Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

  3. Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

  4. Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.

  5. Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument…

From the CIA, a “classic” that can be read (as Veblen suggests) as a guide to what an executive should avoid in his/her own organization and what s/he might encourage in others: “Timeless Tips for ‘Simple Sabotage’.” Download the full Simple Sabotage Field Manual here.

(TotH to David Perell)

* Thorstein Veblen


As we muse on the fragility of it all, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that Thomas Edison was gratnted his first patent (U.S. Patent 90,646) for an “electric vote recorder.”  He was in Louisville, KY at the time, where he had as a night shift employee of Western Union, assigned to the Associated Press; Edison preferred graveyard duty, as it left him lots of unsupervised time to read and experiment.  He had been fired a few moths earlier, when one of his projects leaked sulfuric acid onto the floor… where ran between the floorboards and onto his boss’s desk below.   When his vote recorder failed to find a market, Edison moved to the New York City area, where his career as we all know it began in earnest.

vote recorder source


“The future isn’t what it used to be”*…


Blade runner


When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in 1982, its dystopian future seemed light years away. But fans of the critically-acclaimed science fiction film might [be] feeling a little funny. As its opening sequence informs us, the movie takes place in Los Angeles, November 2019…

That’s to say, from now on, Blade Runner is no longer set in the future.


For a list of other works whose futures are already past, visit Screen Crush (the source of the image at the top); and for a more complete list, click here.

* variously attributed to Paul Valéry, Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and (with the substitution of “ain’t” for “isn’t”) Yogi Berra


As we adjust our expectations, we might send imaginative birthday greetings to Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler; she was born on this date in 1914.  Better known by her stage name, Hedy Lamarr, she became a huge movie star at MGM.

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” – Hedy Lamarr

220px-Hedy_Lamarr_Publicity_Photo_for_The_Heavenly_Body_1944 source


Written by LW

November 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Great necessities call out great virtues”*…



Fatebenefratelli Hospital, Tiber Island, Rome


Behind the closed doors of the Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome was a ward filled with patients being treated for K Syndrome. This new and unfamiliar disease – whose name evoked Koch Syndrome (tuberculosis) – was a strong deterrent to the occupying Nazi soldiers who carried out routine searches of the hospital for Jews, partisans and anti-fascists. Fearing infection, the Nazis did not dare enter the ward, turning their attention elsewhere.

Patients in this ward had been hospitalised and classified as suffering from K Syndrome in late 1943. On 16 October of that year, the Nazis combed the Jewish ghetto and other areas of Rome, deporting about 1,200 Jews. Only 15 survived the camps. After this, the hospital’s doctors and friars welcomed ever-increasing numbers of patients. These patients were, however, refugees. K Syndrome was an invented illness…

The remarkable story of hundreds hidden from the Nazis: “K Syndrome, the Disease that Saved.”

* Abigail Adams


As we admire audacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1932 that Germany held a Presidential election.  With six million unemployed, chaos in Berlin, starvation and ruin, the threat of Marxism, and  a very uncertain future, the German people turned to Hitler by the millions.

Incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg was 84 years old and in poor health. Never enthusiastic about the presidency (or public office in general), Hindenburg had planned to stand down after his first term. But the prospect of Adolf Hitler being elected President of Germany persuaded the reluctant incumbent to seek a second term.  In the first round of voting, Hindenberg received 49.6% of the vote, just shy of the majority necessary to avoid a run-off.  Hitler polled 30%; Thälmann, the Communist candidate, 16%, and other candidates, 7%.

Hitler took to the skies, criss-crossing Germany by airplane in the run-off campaign.  He raised his total to 37% of the vote.  Although Hitler lost the presidential election of 1932, he achieved his goals when he was appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933.  Then on February 27, Hindenburg paved the way to dictatorship and war by issuing the Reichstag Fire Decree which nullified civil liberties.  Hitler succeeded Hindenburg as head of state upon Hindenberg’s death in 1934, whereafter he abolished the office entirely, and replaced it with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Reich Chancellor”), cementing his rule.


1932 Ballot



Written by LW

March 13, 2019 at 12:01 am

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