Work for All

In 1914 Henry Ford adopted a policy that no one applying for work at his auto plant would be refused on account of physical condition. Of the 7,882 jobs at the factory, he’d found that only 4,287 required “ordinary physical development and strength”:

The lightest jobs were again classified to discover how many of them required the use of full faculties, and we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, 2 by armless men, 715 by one-armed men, and 10 by blind men. Therefore out of 7,882 kinds of jobs, 4,034 — although some of them required strength — did not require full physical capacity.

“That is, developed industry can provide wage work for a higher average of standard men than are ordinarily included in any normal community. If the jobs in any one industry or, say, any one factory, were analyzed as ours have been analyzed, the proportion might be very different, yet I am quite sure that if work is sufficiently subdivided — subdivided to the point of highest economy — there will be no dearth of places in which the physically incapacitated can do a man’s job and get a man’s wage.”

(Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922.)


The BIG Maze, a temporary installation at the National Building Museum in 2014, inverted the idea of the traditional Renaissance maze: Instead of getting more bewildering as you advanced toward the goal, it got easier.

“From outside, the maze’s cube-like form hides the final reveal behind its 18-foot-tall walls,” explained Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. “On the inside, the walls slowly descend towards the center, which concludes with a grand reveal — a 360-degree understanding of your path in and how to get out.”

Kids who wanted an overview could ride on their parents’ shoulders or go up to the building’s mezzanine in order to memorize the layout.

In a Word

adj. winding, sinuous, involved

n. the manner, way, or means

v. to entreat earnestly

adj. plain-speaking

In a 1993 New York Times article lamenting the obscurity of scholarly writing, University of Colorado history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick cited this passage from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind as an example of indecipherable prose:

If openness means to ‘go with the flow,’ it is necessarily an accommodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it.

She wrote, “Is there a reader so full of blind courage as to claim to know what this sentence means?”

Podcast Episode 181: Operation Gunnerside

During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll remember Operation Gunnerside, “one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II.”

We’ll also learn what to say when you’re invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.


Hundreds of students overlooked an error in a Brahms capriccio; a novice found it.

Hesiod’s Theogony gives a clue to the distance between earth and heaven.

Sources for our feature on Operation Gunnerside:

Ray Mears, The Real Heroes of Telemark, 2003.

Knut Haukelid, Skis Against the Atom, 1954.

John D. Drummond, But for These Men, 1962.

Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress, 2016.

Thomas B. Allen, “Saboteurs at Work,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 26:2 (Winter 2014), 64-71.

Ian Herrington, “The SIS and SOE in Norway 1940-1945: Conflict or Co-operation?” War in History 9:1 (January 2002), 82-110.

Neal Bascomb, “Saboteurs on Skis,” World War II 31:2 (July/August 2016), 58-67,6.

Hans Børresen, “Flawed Nuclear Physics and Atomic Intelligence in the Campaign to Deny Norwegian Heavy Water to Germany, 1942-1944,” Physics in Perspective 14:4 (December 2012), 471-497.

“Operation Gunnerside,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, July 28, 2017.

Ray Mears, “Norwegian Resistance Coup,” NOVA (accessed Nov. 19, 2017).

Simon Worrall, “Inside the Daring Mission That Thwarted a Nazi Atomic Bomb,” National Geographic, June 5, 2016.

Andrew Han, “The Heavy Water War and the WWII Hero You Don’t Know,” Popular Mechanics, June 16, 2016.

Gordon Corera, “Last Hero of Telemark: The Man Who Helped Stop Hitler’s A-Bomb,” BBC News, April 25, 2013.

Tim Bross, “Sabotage Slowed Nazi’s Pursuit of Atomic Power, Author Writes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 2016, D.7.

Andrew Higgins, “WWII Hero Credits Luck and Chance in Foiling Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2015.

“Colonel Jens-Anton Poulsson,” Times, Feb. 17, 2010, 65.

Richard Bernstein, “Keeping the Atom Bomb From Hitler,” New York Times, Feb. 12, 1997, 17.

Howard Schneider, “Defusing the Nazi Bomb,” Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2016.

“Norwegian Resistance Hero Helped Halt Nazi Bomb Plans,” Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 13, 2003, A6.

E.W. Fowler, “Obituary: Heroic Saboteur Knut Anders Haukelid,” Guardian, March 15, 1994.

“War Hero Was Last Kon-Tiki Survivor,” Edmonton Journal, Jan. 10, 2010, E.7.

Listener mail:

Modern mudlarkers, from listener Tom Mchugh:

thames mudlarkers 1

thames mudlarkers 2

Wikipedia, “Petroleum Warfare Department” (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

Sir Donald Banks, Flame Over Britain: A Personal Narrative of Petroleum Warfare, 1946.

Wikipedia, “KRACK” (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

James Sanders, “KRACK WPA2 Protocol Wi-Fi Attack: How It Works and Who’s at Risk,” TechRepublic, Oct. 16, 2017.

Brad Chacos and Michael Simon, “KRACK Wi-Fi Attack Threatens All Networks: How to Stay Safe and What You Need to Know,” PCWorld, Nov. 8, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Sam Long.

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!

To Each His Own
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan’s Modern Toilet restaurant is so popular that it’s expanding into China and other parts of Asia. Patrons sit on acrylic toilets around glass-topped sinks to eat food from miniature toilet bowls and drink from plastic urinals. The desserts include “diarrhea with dried droppings” (chocolate), “bloody poop” (strawberry), and “green dysentery” (kiwi).

Owner Wang Zi-wei began by selling chocolate ice cream in paper toilets, inspired by a cartoon character. When the idea took off, he opened the full bathroom-themed restaurant in 2004, with shower heads and toilet plungers among the decor.

“It’s a little gross when you see other people eat,” one patron told Time in 2009. But, another added, “They do it tastefully.”
Image: Flickr

Open for Business
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Elijah Bond, patentee of the Ouija board, died in 1921, he was buried in an unmarked grave, and as time passed its location was forgotten. In 1992, Robert Murch, chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, set out to find it, and after a 15-year search he did — Bond had been buried with his wife’s family in Baltimore rather than with his own in Dorsey, Md.

Murch got permission to install a new headstone and raised the necessary funds through donations, and today Bond has the headstone above, with a simple inscription on the front and a Ouija board on the back — in case anyone wants to talk.

Growing Pains

The Greek philosopher Democritus propounded this puzzle in the fourth century B.C.E.:

If a cone were cut by a plane parallel to the base, how must one conceive of the surfaces of the segments: as becoming equal or unequal? For being unequal, they make the cone irregular, taking many step-like indentations and roughnesses. But if they are equal, the segments will be equal and the cone will appear to have the property of the cylinder, being composed of equal, and not unequal, circles; which is most absurd.

If the cone’s cross section is increasing continuously, how can the two faces created by a cut fit together? It seems that one must be larger than the other, and yet at the same time it can’t be. How can we make sense of this?


In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Arthur Conan Doyle created an inadvertent grammatical puzzle: Who does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to? Apart from the title, the phrase appears only twice in the story:

  1. “I will now lay before the reader the facts connected with Miss Violet Smith, the solitary cyclist of Charlington, and the curious sequel of our investigation, which culminated in unexpected tragedy.”
  2. “‘That’s the man!’ I [Watson] gasped. A solitary cyclist was coming towards us. His head was down …”

The first passage describes a woman and the second a man, Bob Carruthers. Which is the solitary cyclist of the title? For 69 years Holmes fans debated the question. Those who argued for Smith read “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” as an appositive phrase, another name for “Miss Violet Smith.” Certainly Carruthers was “a” solitary cyclist, but “the” solitary cyclist was Smith.

Those who argued for Carruthers thought that “the solitary cyclist of Charlington” above was not a description of Smith but the second item in a list — that is, Watson was promising to describe three things: the facts of the case, the cyclist, and the sequel. They allowed, though, that the comma after that phrase was unusual (I gather that the serial comma wasn’t commonly used then). In the story Carruthers pursues Smith, both on bicycles, so either interpretation seems reasonable.

The matter was resolved in 1972, when Andrew Peck tracked down the original manuscript in Cornell University’s rare book room. In the title and in the first passage above Doyle had originally written “man” and then crossed it out and substituted “cyclist.” So the solitary cyclist is definitely Bob Carruthers. Another mystery solved!

(Andrew J. Peck, “The Solitary Man-uscript,” Baker Street Journal, June 1972.)

A Way Through

Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto makes labyrinths out of salt. Working alone, he refines his initial sketches on computer and then builds them meticulously by hand, forming large, intricate mazes that fill entire rooms.

The final effect resembles the surface of the brain. Yamamoto lost his sister in 1994 to brain cancer, and he chose salt, a funeral material in Japan, “to heal my grief.” His first labyrinth had a single path from the exterior to the center; later works have offered multiple paths and often multiple entrances and exits.

After a work has been exhibited, he invites the public to help him destroy it and toss it back into the sea. “Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory,” he says. “Memories seem to change and vanish as time goes by; however, what I seek is to capture a frozen moment that cannot be attained through pictures or writings. What I look for at the end of the act of drawing could be a feeling of touching a precious memory.”

‘Tis the Season

Charles Trigg proposed this festive cryptarithm in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1956:


If each letter is a unique representation of a digit, and each word is a square integer, what are these four numbers?

Click for Answer