Child of Fortune


You exist because of a fragile string of circumstances: Your parents had to meet and procreate at a particular time, and so did their parents, and so on. If any of these things had not happened, you would not be here.

But the past that produced you also produced a whole series of historical and natural calamities — the Holocaust, World War I, and slavery, for example. Very likely those calamities influenced the delicate causal chain that leads to your existence. Without them, your ancestors would not have met and had children when they did. Properly speaking, then, shouldn’t you regret your own existence, since it required these tragedies to bring it about?

University of Haifa philosopher Saul Smilansky writes: “A ‘package deal’ is involved here: those events, together with oneself; or, the absence of the historical calamity, and the absence of oneself. So, all considered, ought one to prefer never to have existed, and to regret that one exists?”

(Saul Smilansky, “Morally, Should We Prefer Never to Have Existed?”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91:4, 655-666.)



The Viking 1 orbiter brought some surprised attention to the Cydonia region of Mars in 1976 when its cameras discovered what appeared to be an enigmatic face staring up into the heavens.

The “face on Mars” has since been explained as an optical illusion, but it recalls a project conceived 30 years earlier by the American artist Isamu Noguchi. Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars, below, was proposed as a massive earthwork to be constructed in “some unwanted area,” perhaps a desert, at an enormous scale, so that the nose would be 1 mile long. When seen from space, the face would show that a civilized life form had once existed on Earth. Noguchi had been embittered by his experiences as a Japanese-American during World War II and the development of atomic weapons; he had originally called the piece Memorial to Man.

noguchi, sculpture to be seen from mars

If those two don’t have enough to talk about, there’s a newcomer to join them: In 2013, face recognition software discovered the image below in a photo of the moon’s south pole taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Who’s next?


“A Large Turtle”

Captain Augustus G. Hall and the crew of the schooner Annie L. Hall vouch for the following: On March 30, while on the Grand Bank, in latitude 40° 10′, longitude 33°, they discovered an immense live trunk turtle, which was at first thought to be a vessel bottom up. The schooner passed within twenty-five feet of the monster, and those on board had ample opportunity to estimate its dimensions by a comparison with the length of the schooner. The turtle was at least 40 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 30 feet from the apex of the back to the bottom of the under shell. The flippers were 20 feet long. It was not deemed advisable to attempt its capture.

Scientific American, May 12, 1883

Fair Play

An extraordinary scene took place on Saturday last at a small village within three miles of Middleton. A half-witted fellow named James Driscott had cruelly ill-used his donkey. He was told by several of the villagers that he would be brought up before the magistrates and severely punished; but his informants said that if he consented to do penance for his inhuman conduct, no information should be laid against him. Discott gladly agreed to the proposed terms. The donkey was placed in the cart, and its owner, with the collar round his neck, was constrained to drag his four-footed servant through the village. The scene is described by a local reporter as being the most laughter-moving one he had ever witnessed.

Illustrated Police News, Jan. 22, 1876

Night Work


English essayist A.C. Benson had rich, elaborate dreams, a trait common in his family. “Sometimes they would be processions and high ceremonies, diversified by the intervention of old Eton friends, who would whisper dark words more suo during some strange liturgy,” recalled his friend Geoffrey Madan. “Sometimes the distant past would rush upon him and old ecclesiastics, summoned up from the mists of Addington, became involved with him in situations of infinite absurdity; sometimes it would be oneself with whom the drama was played, till its recital at breakfast made one helpless with laughter.”

From one dream he awoke recalling only a strange epigram, “The riddle of life is solved by gliding, and not sliding.” On another morning he found that he had scribbled down these lines in the middle of the night:

A bold and cheerful company of Ogres, Ghosts, and Ghouls
Attacked and smashed to little bits the City of Tomfools:
The Tomfools sailed to Araby, and raised another state;
I can’t say how refined they were, and how considerate.
And now in High Tomfoolery they’re very fond of telling
What an almighty hash the ghosts made of their former dwelling;
They chaunt their great deliverance: they teach and preach and say
How good it was of God to take their former pride away.

His 1894 poem “The Phoenix” was composed entirely while asleep. “I dreamed the whole poem in a dream, in 1894, I think, and wrote it down in the middle of the night on a scrap of paper by my bedside,” he wrote. “It is a lyric of a style which I have never attempted before or since. … I really can offer no explanation either of the idea of the poem or its interpretation. It came to me so (apparently) without any definite volition of my own that I don’t profess to understand or to be able to interpret the symbolism.”

By feathers green, across Casbeen,
The pilgrims track the Phoenix flown,
By gems he strewed in waste and wood
And jewelled plumes at random thrown.

Till wandering far, by moon and star,
They stand beside the fruitful pyre,
Whence breaking bright with sanguine light,
The impulsive bird forgets his sire.

Those ashes shine like ruby wine,
Like bag of Tyrian murex spilt;
The claw, the jowl of the flying fowl
Are with the glorious anguish gilt.

So rare the light, so rich the sight,
Those pilgrim men, on profit bent,
Drop hands and eyes and merchandise,
And are with gazing most content.

Madan added, “I have preserved in one of his letters the concluding stanza which he wrote in waking hours to round it off, but omitted later on the advice of a friend who felt it to be ‘incongruous’; this pleased him very much indeed.”

(From “A Later Friendship,” by Geoffrey Madan, in Arthur Christopher Benson as Seen by Some Friends, 1925.)

In a Word

adj. devouring knives

John Cummings was a game drunk. In June 1799, having watched a French mountebank pretend to swallow clasped knives, the 23-year-old American sailor boasted that he could do the same, and “after drinking freely” he proceeded to swallow his own pocketknife and three others offered by his friends.

Thus began a memorable career. According to George Budd in the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, Cummings recounted his exploit in Boston six years later and was immediately challenged to repeat it. He swallowed six more knives, and an additional eight the following morning, “so that he had swallowed a knife for every day that the month was old.”

Why stop there? Nine months later, drunk again, he made the same boast in England and swallowed five knives on Dec. 4 and nine clasp knives on Dec. 5 (plus, he was told, another four that he was too drunk to remember).

Through the next four years, in great pain and continually vomiting, Cummings applied to a number of doctors, at least one of whom dismissed his story as incredible. But when he died finally in March 1809, his stomach was opened and “a great many portions of blades, knife-springs, and handles were found in it, and were carefully collected for the museum at Guy’s Hospital, in which they are now preserved,” Budd notes — Cummings’ contribution to medical science.

Podcast Episode 67: Composing Beyond the Grave


In 1933, violinist Jelly d’Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he’d written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the discovery of Schumann’s lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers.

We’ll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises.

Sources for our feature on Jelly d’Aranyi and Rosemary Brown:

Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 1969.

Erik Palmstierna and Adila Fachiri, Horizons of Immortality, 1938.

Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies, 1971.

Douglas Martin, “Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2001.

Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, 1998.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.

Here’s the Schumann violin concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, and here’s a rather blurry interview with Rosemary Brown, in which she transcribes a composition for Beethoven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Jed’s List of Situation 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

The Hasanlu Lovers


In 1972, archaeologists unearthed a plaster-lined brick bin in the Teppe Hasanlu site in northwestern Iran, an ancient city that had been violently sacked and burned at the end of the ninth century B.C. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert Dyson wrote:

Lying in the bottom of the bin were two human skeletons, a male and a female. The male had one of its arms under the shoulder of the female, while the female was looking into the face of the male and reaching out with one hand to touch his lips. Both were young adults. Neither showed any evidence of injury; there were no obvious cuts or broken bones. There were no objects with the skeletons, but under the female’s head was a stone slab. The other contents of the bin consisted of broken pieces of plaster, charcoal, and small pieces of burned brick but nothing heavy enough to crush the bones.

“Two theories have been suggested to explain this unusual scene,” he wrote. “One, that a pair of lovers had crawled into the bin under some light material of some kind to hide in the hope of escaping the destruction of the citadel, and that this is a very tender moment between them. The other is that they were hiding and one is telling the other not to make any noise. In either case it would appear they died peacefully — probably by asphyxiation.”

Alternative Music

Norwegian musician Terje Isungset plays a trumpet and xylophone made of ice. He calls them “the only instruments you can drink after you’ve finished playing.”

The xylophone’s bars are cut from a Norwegian lake with a chainsaw. Isungset explains to Trevor Cox in The Sound Book, “You can have 100 pieces of ice; they will all sound different. Perhaps three will sound fantastic.”

The First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, below, carves its instruments an hour before each show and makes them into soup afterward. There must be some way to combine these two …



Entomologist Alexandre Girault expressed himself in his work. Of the 500 genera he named, many honored artists, poets, and writers whom he admired: Davincia, Shakespearia, Beethovena, Mozartella, Emersonia, Raphaelana, Ovidia, Goetheana, Thoreauella, Tennysoniana, Bachiana, Keatsia, Plutarchia, Schilleria, Aeschylia, Aligheria, Thalesanna, Rubensteina, Carlyleia, Herodotia, Cowperella, and Froudeana.

To mock his supervisor Johann Illingworth, he invented a parasitic mymarid wasp, Shillingsworthia shillingsworthi, which he described as an ephemeral creature lacking a head, abdomen, or mandibles and found only in “the chasms of Jupiter” — in other words, a nonentity. He called it “an airy species whose flight cannot be followed except by the winged mind.”

He understood even women through entomology — one of his privately printed works describes a new species of human, Homo perniciosus, known only from the female sex:

Abnormal female (loveless, without offspring); heart functionless; mammae aborted; psychology novel (as supposed) but artificial; gay, high-coloured, feral, brass-cheeked, shape lovely like Woman but nature hard (selfless, thoughtless, proud, unsympathetic, irresponsible, aggressive, irritant, insensible, luxurious, pugnacious, over-active, inquisitive, mischievous, voracious and even carnivorous; antagonistic, ungentle, immodest, critical, competitive, poisonous); conduct unstable (even inclined to treachery), the lips compressed, body strong. Everywhere but rare in natural habitat.

He was prickly, but he was dedicated — he published much of his work at his own expense, and many of his type specimens are retained today by the Queensland Museum. “Research is a labour of love,” he wrote. “Strange then to find it all done nowadays as a labour of wages! Must love, too, be a matter of cash?”