night gallery

In the 1969 Night Gallery episode “Eyes,” Joan Crawford plays Claudia Menlo, a ruthless dowager who blackmails a doctor into performing a nerve transplant that will grant her vision for 11 hours. Afterward, alone in her apartment, she impatiently removes the bandages prematurely. She catches a glimpse of a crystal chandelier and then everything goes black. She rampages through her suite and collapses in tears, unaware that the city has suffered a power outage. At dawn, through dimming vision, she sees the rising sun, rushes to grasp it, and crashes through a window to her death.

Now: “How many things did Claudia Menlo see?” asks Dartmouth philosopher Roy Sorensen. “Most people say she saw only the chandelier and the sun (and possibly the pavement on the way down). But I say Claudia saw something in between seeing the crystal chandelier and the rising sun: the darkness of her blacked-out apartment. Claudia had never seen darkness before and mistook this visual experience for an absence of visual experience.”

Can we see darkness? Sorensen pictures a cave explorer in a completely dark cave. If the explorer is asleep and dreaming that he is in a completely dark cave, he does not see the darkness — but when he wakes up, he does. If the explorer then stands too quickly and the blood rushes from his head, he sees stars against an accurately perceived black background — the surrounding darkness. In contrast, his blind companion can’t tell whether the cave is dark; “only the sighted man can tell whether the cave is dark just by looking.”

This raises a puzzle: Suppose you’re in a light-tight container that’s suspended within a larger light-tight container. If the interior of the larger container is illuminated, then of course the darkness you see is the darkness of the smaller container. But what happens if the illumination of the larger space is turned off? You certainly can’t see beyond the walls of the small container in any circumstances. And only the larger container is blocking light. Does it follow that you’re seeing the darkness of the large container within the small container?

(Roy Sorensen, “We See in the Dark,” Noûs 38:3 [2004], 456-480.)


A short animation by Goo-Shun Wang.


Between Grana and Casorzo, Italy, grows a cherry tree atop a mulberry tree.

It’s not uncommon for a small tree to grow on a larger one, but it’s rare for them to reach such a large size. The cherry even flowers in the spring.

The pair are known as the Bialbero de Casorzo, or “double tree of Casorzo.”

Last Words


A letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Light, April 5, 1930:

SIR, — It might interest your readers to know that some weeks ago I had a communication which professed to come from Thomas Hardy. It came through an amateur Medium from whom I had only once before had a message, which was most veridical. Therefore, I was inclined to take Hardy’s message seriously, the more so as intrinsically it was worthy of him. I should place it on the same level of internal evidence as the Oscar Wilde and the Jack London scripts. Hardy gave a posthumous review of his own work, some aspects of which he now desired to revise and modify. The level of his criticism was a very high and just one. He then, as a sign of identity, sent a poem, which seems to me to be a remarkable one. It describes evening in a Dorsetshire village. Without quoting it all I will give here the second verse which runs thus:

Full well we know the shadow o’er the green,
When Westering sun reclines behind the trees,
The little hours of evening, when the scene
Is faintly fashioned, fading by degrees.

The third and fourth lines are in my opinion exquisite. I do not know if they were memories of something written in life. I should be glad to know if anyone recognises them.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Podcast Episode 79: One Square Inch of the Yukon

If you opened a box of Quaker Oats in 1955, you’d find a deed to one square inch of land in northwestern Canada. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story behind the Klondike Big Inch land giveaway, whose bizarre consequences are still being felt today.

We’ll also hear about a time traveler who visited the British Museum in 1997 and puzzle over why a prizewinning farmer gives away his best seed to his competitors.

Sources for our feature on the Klondike Big Inch land promotion:

Jack McIver, “The Great Klondike Big Inch Land Caper,” Ottawa Citizen, March 27, 1975.

“The Great Klondike Rush of ’55,” Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 8, 1955.

“Sgt. Preston Inspired Great Yukon Land Deals,” Reading (Pa.) Eagle, Jan. 1, 1987.

Dave White, “Quaker Oats Klondike Deed Scam Still Sizzling,” Yukon News, Jan. 26, 1990.

“Cereal Giveaway Now a Pain,” Montreal Gazette, May 12, 1971.

“The Klondike Big Inch,” yukoninfo, accessed 10/23/2015.

John Robert Colombo, Canadian Literary Landmarks, 1984.

Big Inch deeds can sometimes be found on eBay — here are two that sold in March.

Sources for our feature on Enoch Soames, time travel, and literary memory:

Max Beerbohm, “Enoch Soames: A Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties,” 1916.

Teller, “A Memory of the Nineteen-Nineties,” Atlantic, November 1997.

Chris Jones, “The Honor System,” Esquire, October 2012.

The Flickr photo of Soames is here, and there’s a bit more background here. 10/27/2015 UPDATE: Listener Steve Winters has found another photo (about midway down the page). (Thanks, Steve.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles are from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1996 book Intriguing Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Told You So

New Yorker Kam Brock was sedated and placed in a mental hospital last September because police thought she might be delusional — for one thing, she insisted that Barack Obama was one of her Twitter followers. The hospital set this as an objective for her release: “Patient will verbalize the importance of education for employment and will state that Obama is not following her on Twitter.”

It turns out that @BarackObama does follow Brock on Twitter — but the account doesn’t belong to the president; it was leased to a nonprofit by his campaign.

In 1980, 25-year-old Alfred Lawrence Patterson was admitted to Michigan’s Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital. He said that the Secret Service and Sen. Edward Kennedy had conspired to place him there.

In fact Patterson had been interviewed by the Secret Service after he’d sent a threatening letter to Kennedy; they concluded that he needed psychiatric care. (Impressively, Patterson won that year’s House primary from within the hospital, drawing 50 percent of the vote.)

When Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, began to claim that the White House was engaged in illegal activities, she was rumored to be mentally ill. But events proved her right. Nixon later told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Psychologists remember this as the “Martha Mitchell effect” — when a client insists that she’s being chased by the mob, or that the police have been spying on her, she’s not necessarily delusional. In the words of psychotherapist Joseph Berke, “even paranoids have enemies.”

(Thanks, Jason.)

Absent Fiends


The nonexistence of horrific creatures is, so to speak, not only a fact, but it would also appear to be a fact that is readily available to and acknowledged by the consumers of horrific fictions. However, audiences do appear to be frightened by horror fictions; indeed, they would seem to seek out such fictions, at least in part, either in order to be frightened by them or with the knowledge and assent that they are likely to be frightened by them. But how can one be frightened by what one knows does not exist?

— Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, 1990

Amphibious Assault


The U.S. 2nd Marine Division picked up an unlikely member in 1943: Siwash the duck, won in a New Zealand raffle, spent 18 months as the mascot of the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines. He took part in three major engagements: Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, even winning a combat citation for duckly valor:

For courageous action and wounds received on Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, November 1943. With utter disregard for his own personal safety, Siwash, upon reaching the beach, without hesitation engaged the enemy in fierce combat, namely, one rooster of Japanese ancestry, and though wounded on the head by repeated pecks, he soon routed the opposition. He refused medical aid until all wounded members of his section had been care of.

“Siwash holds the rank of sergeant and has a thirst for beer,” reported the Associated Press the following year. “The duck nearly lost its tail feathers on a pier at Tarawa, but since then it learned to jump in a foxhole the minute the marines leaped.”

When his division arrived in Chicago in October 1944, a luncheon party was held in Siwash’s honor, and he gave two radio broadcasts. After the war he helped in recruiting for the Korean War before retiring to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where he died in 1954, 11 years after signing up, modest to the end.

Take Two


Ulysses, Kansas, moved. Founded in 1885, the town thrived at first, but after four years a drought arrived, and by 1906 the population had dwindled from 1500 to 100. Worse, during the boom years the town had sold thousands of dollars’ worth of bonds to finance improvements that were never made. When East Coast bondholders began to sue, the city fathers were forced to raise the taxes of the remaining residents in order to meet the judgments.

After a year of this, in February 1909, the people of Ulysses decided as a body to give up and start over. They cut their builings into sections, moved them two miles west on horse-drawn sledges, and established “New Ulysses.” The lots on the old site were deeded back to the bondholders, and the new town became the county seat in June.

The Hotel Edwards, above, is the only remaining business building from “Old Ulysses.” It rests today on the grounds of the Grant County Museum.

A Late Plea


On July 21, 1904, the London Times published a curious letter from H. Rider Haggard. On the night of Saturday, July 9, he said, he had gone to bed at about 12:30 “and suffered from what I took to be a nightmare”:

I dreamed that a black retriever dog, a most amiable and intelligent beast named Bob, which was the property of my eldest daughter, was lying on its side among brushwood, or rough growth of some sort, by water. In my vision the dog was trying to speak to me in words, and, failing, transmitted to my mind in an undefined fashion the knowledge that it was dying. Then everything vanished, and I woke to hear my wife asking me why on earth I was making those horrible and weird noises. I replied that I had had a nightmare about a fearful struggle, and that I had dreamed that old Bob was in a dreadful way, and was trying to talk to me and to tell me about it.

The following morning Haggard and his wife told the story to their daughters, and it was not until that evening that the family realized that Bob was missing. Haggard began to investigate, and on Thursday morning he and a groom discovered the dog’s body floating in the River Waveney about a mile and a quarter from the author’s home. Haggard was also approached by two railway plate-layers who on Monday had found the dog’s collar atop a bridge that crossed the water between Ditchingham and Bungay. “It would seem that the animal must have been killed by an excursion train that left Ditchingham at 10.25 on Saturday night, returning empty from Harlestone a little after 11.” This was the last train that ran that night, and no trains ran on Sunday.

It appeared that the train had knocked the dog into the reedy margin of the water, where, if it was still alive, “it must have suffocated and sunk, undergoing, I imagine, much the same sensations as I did in my dream, and in very similar surroundings to those that I saw therein — namely, amongst a scrubby growth at the edge of water.”

I am forced to conclude that the dog Bob, between whom and myself there existed a mutual attachment, either at the moment of his death, if his existence can conceivably have been prolonged till after one in the morning, or, as seems more probable, about three hours after that event, did succeed in calling my attention to its actual or recent plight by placing whatever portion of my being is capable of receiving such impulses when enchained by sleep, into its own terrible position.

The full letter is here. Haggard added a certificate by a veterinary surgeon, affirming that Bob must have been in the water three days; from his wife and children, confirming his description of the nightmare on Sunday morning; from the plate-layer who discovered the collar; and from the groom who had found the dog with him. Draw your own conclusions.