Type designer Hermann Zapf could reproduce a typeface by hand. In The Art of Hermann Zapf, an educational film he produced for Hallmark Cards in 1967, at 14:13 he draws Melior, a serif type used in newspapers such as the Village Voice.

Typeface designer Steve Matteson said, “Zapf was someone who could write 10-point type and it looked like a typeface. It was pretty astounding; his muscle control was so fluid.”

Zapf created around 200 typefaces, including Palatino, Optima, and Zapfino. When he died in 2015, “all the rest of us moved up one,” type designer Matthew Carter told the New York Times. “That’s my way of saying Hermann was on top.”

Spiral Tilings
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to see that a plane can be tiled with squares or hexagons arranged in regular ranks, but in 1936 Heinz Voderberg showed that it can also be tiled in a spiral formation. Each tile in the figure above is the same nine-sided shape, but together they form two “arms” that bound one another. If both arms are extended infinitely, they’ll cover the whole plane.

In 1955 Michael Goldberg showed that spirals might be devised with any even number of arms, and in 2000 Daniel Stock and Brian Wichmann did the same for odd numbers, so it’s now possible to devise a shape that will tile the plane in a spiral with any specified number of arms.

(Daniel L. Stock and Brian A. Wichmann, “Odd Spiral Tilings,” Mathematics Magazine 73:5 [December 2000], 339-346.)

The Lawyer’s Prayer

In 1765 Samuel Johnson considered taking up the study of law. In his diary he wrote:

Almighty God, the Giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual, enable me, if it be Thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful and instruct the ignorant, to prevent wrong, and terminate contention; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain to Thy glory and my own salvation; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

He seems to have given up the project, but he maintained his respect for the profession. The following year, when James Boswell mentioned that a friend had jokingly advised him against becoming a lawyer “because I should be excelled by plodding block-heads,” Johnson replied, “Why, Sir, in the formulary and statutory part of law, a plodding block-head may excel; but in the ingenious and rational part of it a plodding block-head can never excel.”

Think Pieces

Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi creates digital art in Microsoft Excel. As he neared retirement he decided to take up painting, but he wanted to save the cost of brushes and pencils, so he used a tool he already owned, Microsoft’s popular spreadsheet program.

“I never used Excel at work but I saw other people making pretty graphs and thought, ‘I could probably draw with that,'” he told My Modern Met. “Graphics software is expensive, but Excel comes pre-installed in most computers … And it has more functions and is easier to use than Paint.”

He began painting in Excel in the year 2000. “I set a goal,” he says, “in 10 years, I wanted to paint something decent that I could show to people.” After only six years he took first prize at the Excel Autoshape Art Contest, and he’s been at it now for more than 15 years.

He sells the digital paintings as limited-edition prints that you can see and purchase here.

In a Word

n. something written for another person

n. the art of “make-believe”

n. a master of his business

n. something capable of exciting smiles or laughter

Leroy Anderson’s 1950 composition “The Typewriter” uses a manual typewriter as an instrument.

To keep the keys from jamming, the machine is modified so that only two keys work. All the same, Anderson found that percussionists perform it more reliably than typists do.

“We have two drummers,” Anderson said in a 1970 interview. “A lot of people think we use stenographers, but they can’t do it because they can’t make their fingers move fast enough. So we have drummers because they can get wrist action.”

Jerry Lewis famously adopted the piece for his 1963 film Who’s Minding the Store?, below.

Podcast Episode 189: The “Wild White Man”

In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins, a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called “wild white man” of colonial Australia.

We’ll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters.


Radar pioneer Sir Robert Watson-Watt wrote a poem about ironically being stopped by a radar gun.

The programming language Ook! is designed to be understood by orangutans.

Sources for our feature on William Buckley:

John Morgan, Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852.

R.S. Brain, Letters From Victorian Pioneers, 1898.

Francis Peter Labillière, Early History of the Colony of Victoria, 1878.

James Bonwick, Port Phillip Settlement, 1883.

William Thomas Pyke, Savage Life in Australia, 1889.

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke, Stories of Australia in the Early Days, 1897.

John M. White, “Before the Mission Station: From First Encounters to the Incorporation of Settlers Into Indigenous Relations of Obligation,” in Natasha Fijn, Ian Keen, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael Pickering, eds., Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies II, 2012.

Patrick Brantlinger, “Eating Tongues: Australian Colonial Literature and ‘the Great Silence’,” Yearbook of English Studies 41:2 (2011), 125-139.

Richard Broome, “Buckley, William,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Marjorie J. Tipping, “Buckley, William (1780–1856),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1966.

Reminiscenses of James Buckley Who Lived for Thirty Years Among the Wallawarro or Watourong Tribes at Geelong Port Phillip, Communicated by Him to George Langhorne (manuscript), State Library of Victoria (accessed Jan. 28, 2018).

“William Buckley,” Culture Victoria (accessed Jan. 28, 2018).

Jill Singer, “Here’s a True Hero,” [Melbourne] Herald Sun, June 8, 2001, 22.

“Australia’s Most Brazen, Infamous Jailbreaks,” ABC Premium News, Aug. 19, 2015.

“Extraordinary Tale of Our Early Days,” Centralian Advocate, April 6, 2010, 13.

Bridget McManus, “Buckley’s Story Revisited: Documentary,” The Age, April 8, 2010, 15.

Albert McKnight, “Legend Behind Saying ‘You’ve Got Buckley’s’,” Bega District News, Oct. 21, 2016, 11.

David Adams, “Wild Man Lives Anew,” [Melbourne] Sunday Age, Feb. 16, 2003, 5.

Leighton Spencer, “Convict Still a Controversial Figure,” Echo, Jan. 10, 2013, 14.

“Fed: Museum Buys Indigenous Drawings of Convict,” AAP General News Wire, April 23, 2012.

The drawing above is Buckley Ran Away From Ship, by the Koorie artist Tommy McRae, likely drawn in the 1880s. From Culture Victoria.

Listener mail:

Yoshifumi Sugiyama and Akihiro Seita, “Kanehiro Takaki and the Control of Beriberi in the Japanese Navy,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 106:8 (August 2013), 332–334.

Wikipedia, “Takaki Kanehiro” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018).

Yoshinori Itokawa, “Kanehiro Takaki (1849–1920): A Biographical Sketch,” Journal of Nutrition 106:5, 581–8.

Alan Hawk, “The Great Disease Enemy, Kak’ke (Beriberi) and the Imperial Japanese Army,” Military Medicine 171:4 (April 2006), 333-339.

Alexander R. Bay, Beriberi in Modern Japan: The Making of a National Disease, 2012.

“Scott and Scurvy,” Idle Words, March 6, 2010.

Marcus White, “James Lind: The Man Who Helped to Cure Scurvy With Lemons,” BBC News, Oct. 4, 2016.

Jonathan Lamb, “Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy,” BBC History, Feb. 17, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Vitamin C: Discovery” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Miles, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Do It Yourself

In the 19th century scientists were increasingly interested in comparing personality with brain anatomy, but they faced a problem: Lower-class brains could be acquired fairly easily from hospital morgues, but people with exceptional brains had the means to protect them from the dissecting knife after death.

The solution was the Society of Mutual Autopsy (Société d’autopsie mutuelle), founded in 1876 “for the purpose of furnishing to the investigations of medicists brains superior to those of the common people.” Anatomists bequeathed their brains to each other, and the results of each investigation were read out to the other members of the club. (An early forerunner was Georges Cuvier, whose brain was found to weigh 1830 grams and displayed a “truly prodigious number of convolutions.”)

Similar “brain clubs” sprang up in Munich, Paris, Stockholm, Philadelphia, Moscow, and Berlin before the practice began to die out around World War I. Until then, writes anthropologist Frances Larson in Severed, her 2014 history of severed heads, “Members could die happy in the knowledge that their own brain would become central to the utopian scientific project they had pursued so fervently in life.”