Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States


In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.


Amazon customers have been reviewing a gallon of milk since 2005.

G.W. Blake patented a flyswatter pistol in 1919.

Sources for our feature on Joshua Norton:

William Drury, Norton I: Emperor of the United States, 1986.

William M. Kramer, Emperor Norton of San Francisco, 1974.

Catherine Caufield, The Emperor of the United States of America and Other Magnificent British Eccentrics, 1981.

Benjamin E. Lloyd, Lights and Shades in San Francisco, 1876.

Fred Dickey, “Norton I: Ruler of All He Imagined,” American History 41:4 (October 2006), 65-66,68,70,6.

Robert Ernest Cowan, “Norton I: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (Joshua A. Norton, 1819-1880),” California Historical Society Quarterly 2:3 (October 1923), 237-245.

Eric Lis, “His Majesty’s Psychosis: The Case of Emperor Joshua Norton,” Academic Psychiatry 39:2 (April 2015), 181–185.

Gary Kamiya, “How Emperor Norton Rose to Power,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 1, 2017.

“Street Characters of San Francisco,” Overland Monthly 19:113 (May 1892), 449-459.

“Death of an American Emperor,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 49:1271 (Feb. 7, 1880), 428-429.

“Emperor Norton,” Sacramento Daily Record-Union, Jan. 26, 1880, 1.

“Collections: The Emperor’s Cane,” California History 82:2 (2004), 3, 59.

Alejandro Lazo and Daniel Huang, “Who Is Emperor Norton? Fans in San Francisco Want to Remember,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13, 2015.

David Warren Ryder, “The Strange Story of Emperor Norton,” Saturday Evening Post 218:6 (Aug. 11, 1945), 35-41.

Julian Dana, “San Francisco’s Fabulous Fools,” Prairie Schooner 27:1 (Spring 1953), 45-49.

Jed Stevenson, “Notes Issued by the Self-Crowned Emperor of the United States Have Become Collector’s Items,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 1990, 84.

“Death of an Eccentric Californian,” New York Times, Jan. 10, 1880, 5.


Listener mail:

Leonhard Schmitz, “Hora,” in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1875.

Wikipedia, “Roman Timekeeping” (accessed Sept. 23, 2017).

“A Brief Guide to Roman Timekeeping and the Calendar,” World History (accessed Sept. 23, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Finger-Counting” (accessed Sept. 23, 2017).

Aditya Singhal, “Math Teachers Should Encourage Their Students to Count Using Fingers,” Math Blog, July 20, 2016.

Nancy Szokan, “Think Counting on Your Fingers Is Dumb? Think Again,” Washington Post, July 30, 2016.

An Indian 5-year-old doing mental sums.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Sofia Hauck de Oliveira, 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 http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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Get a free audiobook with a 30-day trial at Audible.

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 Impossible Puzzle

Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal proposed this puzzle in 1969 — at first it appears impossible because so little information is given.

X and Y are two different whole numbers greater than 1. Y is greater than X, and their sum is no greater than 100. S and P are two logicians; S knows the sum X + Y, and P knows the product X × Y. S and P both reason perfectly, and both know everything I’ve just told you.

  • S says, “P does not know X and Y.”
  • P says, “Now I know X and Y.”
  • S says, “Now I also know X and Y.”

What are X and Y?

Click for Answer


Balloonist Andy Collett was floating over South Gloucestershire in July 2012 when he spotted something striking: a heart-shaped meadow in the center of a stand of oaks. “This was the most amazing sight I have ever seen from the sky,” he told the Telegraph. “It was a perfect heart hidden away from view — you would not know it was there.”

It turned out that 70-year-old Winston Howes had planted the wood to commemorate his 33-year marriage to his wife, Janet, who had died 17 years earlier of heart disease. In the months after her death he filled a six-acre field with thousands of oak saplings but left a heart-shaped clearing in the center, its point aimed at her childhood home.

“I came up with the idea of creating a heart in the clearing of the field after Janet died,” Howes said. “Once it was completed we put a seat in the field, overlooking the hill near where she used to live. I sometimes go down there, just to sit and think about things. It is a lovely and lasting tribute to her which will be here for years.”

The clearing was not visible from the road and remained a family secret until Collett spotted it. “You can just imagine the love story,” he said.

Pedal Pushers

Cycling is popular in Trondheim, Norway, but the 130-meter hill Brubakken is more than some riders can manage. So the city installed the world’s first bicycle lift — press the start button and a plate will appear under your right foot and push you up the hill at 3-4 mph, rather like a ski lift.

With a maximum capacity of 6 cyclists per minute, the system has pushed more than 200,000 cyclists to the top of the hill in its 15 years of operation.



On Feb. 24, 1942, a bedraggled carrier pigeon arrived at an RAF bomber base on Scotland’s Fifeshire coast. She was covered with oil and appeared exhausted.

The sergeant who examined her, George Ross, alerted his superior officer. The bird had been carried aboard a Bristol Beaufort bomber that had crashed in the North Sea after taking enemy fire over Norway the previous day. The pilot had been unable to radio his position as they went down, and rescue planes had been searching the freezing waters in vain all night for some sign of the four-man crew.

The bird’s arrival told Ross that they’d been searching in the wrong place. She had flown for 16 hours, but with oil-smeared wings couldn’t have covered more than 140 miles in that time. The rescue operation had been searching beyond that range. When they moved closer to shore they discovered the crewmen, freezing but safe, in a rubber dinghy within 15 minutes.

When the fuselage had broken up, the pigeon had somehow escaped into the oily water, struggled free, and then flown across 120 miles of ocean to the base, despite a natural fear of the dark and a dislike of wide expanses of water. When she arrived she was so exhausted that she was closing one eye intermittently.

“Winkie” was awarded the Dickin Medal at a dinner that December. She was cited “for delivering a message under exceptional difficulties and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February 1942.”

The RNA Tie Club


In 1954, James Watson and George Gamow formed a “gentleman’s club” to “solve the riddle of the RNA structure and to understand how it built proteins.” There were 20 members, each of whom was designated by an amino acid:

Member Training Tie Designation
George Gamow Physicist ALA
Alexander Rich Biochemist ARG
Paul Doty Physical Chemist ASP
Robert Ledley Mathematical Biophysicist ASN
Martynas Ycas Biochemist CYS
Robley Williams Electron Microscopist GLU
Alexander Dounce Biochemist GLN
Richard Feynman Theoretical Physicist GLY
Melvin Calvin Chemist HIS
Norman Simons Biochemist ISO
Edward Teller Physicist LEU
Erwin Chargaff Biochemist LYS
Nicholas Metropolis Physicist, Mathematician MET
Gunther Stent Physical Chemist PHE
James Watson Biologist PRO
Harold Gordon Biologist SER
Leslie Orgel Theoretical Chemist THR
Max Delbrück Theoretical Physicist TRY
Francis Crick Biologist TYR
Sydney Brenner Biologist VAL

“We were just drinking California wine and we got the idea,” Gamow recalled. Each member was given a black woolen necktie with an RNA helix embroidered in green and yellow (above are Crick, Rich, Orgel, and Watson).

Each also received a gold tiepin with the three-letter abbreviation of his amino acid (which led several people to ask Gamow why his pin bore the wrong monogram).

Adopting the motto “Do or die, or don’t try,” they met twice a year to share ideas, cigars, and alcohol. Several went on to become Nobel laureates — but it fell to Marshall Nirenberg, a non-member, to finally decipher the code link between nucleic and amino acids.

Initial Velocity


In 2008, University of Michigan psychologist Jesse Chandler and his colleagues examined donations to disaster relief after seven major hurricanes and found that a disproportionately large number of donations came from people who shared an initial with the hurricane (e.g., people named Kate and Kevin after Hurricane Katrina).

It’s not clear why this is. It’s known that generally people attend to information with unusual care if it’s somehow relevant to themselves; in the case of a hurricane this may mean that they’re more likely to remember concrete information about victims and thus be more likely to donate.

Possibly they also feel more intense negative feelings (or a greater sense of responsibility) when the storm shares their initial. In that case, “Exposure to a same-initial hurricane makes people feel worse, and the most salient way to repair this feeling is the opportunity to donate money to Katrina.”

(Jesse Chandler, Tiffany M. Griffin, and Nicholas Sorensen, “In the ‘I’ of the Storm: Shared Initials Increase Disaster Donations,” Judgment and Decision Making 3:5 [June 2008], 404–410.)

A Pi Fractal

Jack Hodkinson, who created the Corpus-Christi-College-shaped prime number that I mentioned last week, has sent along a remarkable followup produced by string rewriting. Here are the rules:

pi fractal - rewriting rules

The top row lists pixels of various colors; on each pass we’ll be replacing each of these with the 3 × 3 square beneath it. Start with a single color:

pi fractal - genesis

Following the associated rule produces a 3 × 3 array:

pi fractal - iteration 1

And so on:

pi fractal - iteration 2

pi fractal - iteration 3

After four iterations the rules produce a portrait of π:

pi fractal - iteration 4

And, charmingly, if we keep going, smaller πs begin to appear, due to the presence of dark pixels in the third image:

pi fractal - iteration 5

pi fractal - iteration 6

pi fractal - iteration 7

pi fractal - iterationl 8

And so on forever. “After iteration 8, it’s turtles all the way down.”

For those who want more information, Jack explains the rewriting rules in detail here.

(Note: To conserve bandwidth I’ve had to reduce the last two images above — you can find the full-resolution PNGs in this imgur gallery.)


Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a 2013 radio interview, Graham Nash recalled visiting Neil Young in 1972:

The man is totally committed to the muse of music. And he’ll do anything for good music. And sometimes it’s very strange. I was at Neil’s ranch one day just south of San Francisco, and he has a beautiful lake with red-wing blackbirds. And he asked me if I wanted to hear his new album, Harvest. And I said sure, let’s go into the studio and listen.

Oh, no. That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said get into the rowboat.

I said get into the rowboat? He said, yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake. Now, I think he’s got a little cassette player with him or a little, you know, early digital format player. So I’m thinking I’m going to wear headphones and listen in the relative peace in the middle of Neil’s lake.

Oh, no. He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard Harvest coming out of these two incredibly large loud speakers louder than hell. It was unbelievable. Elliot Mazer, who produced Neil, produced Harvest, came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil: How was that, Neil?

And I swear to God, Neil Young shouted back: More barn!

Asked in 2016 whether this story was true, Young said, “Yeah, I think it was a little house-heavy.”