Media Relations

One of the most famous cat-and-bird friendships on record was that between Caruso, a canary which belonged to President Coolidge, and Timmie, a black-and-white cat owned by Bascom Timmons, a Washington newspaperman. They became acquainted when Timmons took his cat to the White House, and Coolidge eventually sent the canary to Timmons’ home to live with the cat. After that they spent an hour or two every day together, the canary walking up and down the cat’s back or resting between his paws. According to Timmons, the canary fell over dead while singing to the cat.

— Roger Butterfield, “Cats,” LIFE, April 22, 1946


Diagnosed with autism at 3, Stephen Wiltshire quickly became fascinated with drawing London buildings, and by age 8 he was sketching Salisbury Cathedral for former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Known as “the living camera,” he can draw an accurate, detailed picture of a subject after seeing it once — including subjects as complex as major cities. He’s completed enormous canvases of Tokyo, Rome, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, and London, drawing each from memory after a helicopter ride.

Below is the full time-lapse of his portrait of Singapore, drawn from memory over five days in 2014. “That he has a gift makes no sense at all to Stephen,” his sister Annette told the New York Times. “He knows that he draws very well, but he picks that up from other people — he sees the warmth on their faces, they tell him how much they like his work, and that makes him very happy. He loves the attention.”

A Weighty Burden

Visitors to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park sometimes can’t resist making off with a souvenir or two. Those who do sometimes return the stolen pieces with a “conscience letter” describing the misfortunes that have befallen them. Trinity Christian College art professor Ryan Thompson went through the 1200 pages in the park’s archives and collected the best of them for a 2014 book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks. Some examples:

“Here are your rocks. Nothing but bad trouble.”

“Please put this back so my husband can get well. I tried to keep him from taking it.”

“Found this in my room. You can have it back. It’s bad luck. I got busted the other night.”

“I am sorry I took this. I am only 5 years old and made a bad mistake.”

And simply “You were right!”

There’s more at the website. Strangely, the same thing happens at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where an actual fire goddess will punish you for stealing lava rocks. And see The Conscience Fund.

Fence Work
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1951, Arthur B. Brown of Queens College noted that the number 3 can be expressed as the sum of one or more positive integers in four ways (taking the order of terms into account):

1 + 2
2 + 1
1 + 1 + 1

As it turns out, any positive integer n can be so expressed in 2n – 1 ways. Brown asked, how can this be proved?

William Moser of the University of Toronto offered this insightful solution:

Imagine the digit 1 written n times in a row. For example, if n = 4:

1 1 1 1

This is a picket fence, with n pickets and n – 1 spaces between them. At each space we can choose either to insert a plus sign or leave it blank. So that gives us n – 1 tasks to perform (i.e., making this choice for each space) and two options for each choice. Thus the total number of expressions for n as a sum is 2n – 1, or, in the case of n = 4, eight:

1 1 1 1 = 4
1 + 1 1 1 = 1 + 3
1 1 + 1 1 = 2 + 2
1 1 1 + 1 = 3 + 1
1 + 1 + 1 1 = 1 + 1 + 2
1 + 1 1 + 1 = 1 + 2 + 1
1 1 + 1 + 1 = 2 + 1 + 1
1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

(Pi Mu Epsilon Journal 1:5 [November 1951], 186.)

Light Exercise

Artist Akinori Goto created this 3D-printed zoetrope, a rotating design that produces an animation when illuminated with a slice of light.

It won both the Runner-up Grand Prix and the Audience Award at the 2016 Spiral Independent Creators Festival in Tokyo.

He followed it up with “Ballet”:

Podcast Episode 132: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.

We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.


Enterprise, Ala., erected an $1,800 monument to the boll weevil.

In the late 1930s, a plaster mannequin named Cynthia archly toured the New York social scene.

Sources for our feature on the mad gasser of Mattoon:

Bob Ladendorf and Robert E. Bartholomew, “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: How the Press Created an Imaginary Chemical Weapons Attack,” Skeptical Inquirer 26:4 (July/August 2002), 50-54.

Robert E. Bartholomew and Jeffrey S. Victor, “A Social-Psychological Theory of Collective Anxiety Attacks: The ‘Mad Gasser’ Reexamined,” Sociological Quarterly 45:2 (March 2004), 229–248.

Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode, “Phantom Assailants & the Madness of Crowds: The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County,” Skeptic 7:4 (1999), 50.

D.M. Johnson, “The ‘Phantom Anesthetist’ of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 40:2 (April 1945), 175-186.

Debbie Carlson, “The Mattoon Mad Gasser — Looking Back at a Textbook Case of Mass Hysteria,” Belt Magazine, June 4, 2015.

Romeo Vitelli, “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” James Randi Educational Foundation Swift Blog, April 23, 2011.

Robert E. Bartholomew, Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics, 2001.

Mike Dash, Borderlands, 2000.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Battle of Blair Mountain” (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, “Shelton Brothers Gang” (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, “Tulsa race riot” (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, “The Patty Duke Show” (accessed December 2, 2016).

The Dubliners — The Sick Note:

The Corries — The Bricklayer’s Song:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg, who gathered these corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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

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 Thanks for listening!

Still Life

john fulton

After each of his victories as a matador, John Fulton would paint a portrait of the bull he had slain using its own blood, after the manner of the hunter-painters who had decorated the cave walls of Altamira.

Fulton grew up in a Philadelphia rowhouse but became captivated by the bullring after seeing the 1941 Tyrone Power film Blood and Sand. “The movie so stirred his sense of gallantry and romance that he decided on the spot to become a bullfighter,” reported the New York Times. “If a Rita Hayworth was the reward, he told friends years later, it was worth the effort and the risk.”

He spent a year at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, won a scholarship to a Mexican art school, and began to study bullfighting. In 1956 he went to Spain, where he became the first American to qualify as a matador and spent 40 years fighting professionally in the ring.

The paintings were decidedly a sideline, as he regarded bullfighting itself as an art. “It is the most difficult art form in the world,” he once said. “You are required to create a work of art spontaneously with a semi-unknown medium, which can kill you, in front of one of the most critical audiences around. And it all leaves only a memory.”