Special Interests

Founded in 1938 by Owen C. Cash and Rupert I. Hall, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America boasts 23,000 members. Its more manageable name is the Barbershop Harmony Society.

The Guild of Former Pipe Organ Pumpers was created in 1927 by “Grand Diapason” Chet Shafer of Detroit, after meeting Sen. James Couzens (R-Mich.) and discovering that both had pumped organs in their youth. “He and Couzens commented on the fact that even in the smallest villages nowadays the organ is usually pumped by electricity, and therefore the profession of organ pumper is dying out.”

Founded in 1936 by public relations man Sidney Ascher, the Society for the Prevention of Disparaging Remarks About Brooklyn held weekly meetings over a local radio station. “Brooklyn has more men in the armed forces than any of 39 states,” Ascher insisted. “Ask anybody about their courage.”

When Crayola announced in 1990 that it would be retiring eight crayon colors, one dismayed fan sent them fax saying he’d be forming a group called RUMPS — the Raw Umber and Maize Preservation Society.

According to Guinness World Records, the labor union with the longest name was the International Association of Marble, Slate and Stone Polishers, Rubbers and Sawyers, Tile and Marble Setters’ Helpers and Marble Mosaic and Terrazzo Workers’ Helpers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Established as a joke in 1916 by lumber baron George W. Dulany, the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George once boasted 33,000 members. At the time, the porters of U.S. sleeping cars were traditionally called George regardless of their given names.

And according to H. Allen Smith’s book People Named Smith, in 1942 University of Minnesota graduate student Glenn E. Smith founded the National Society to Discourage Use of the Name Smith for Purposes of Hypothetical Illustration. He was irritated that his professor’s lectures always centered on characters named James Smith. The society’s hundreds of members pledged themselves to confront offenders with a card that read “When you think of Smith, say John Doe!”

Risk Assessment


Between 1868 and 1870, Mark Twain traveled more than 40,000 miles by rail, dutifully buying accident insurance all the while, and never had a mishap. Each morning he bought an insurance ticket, thinking that fate must soon catch up with him, and each day he escaped without a scratch. Eventually “my suspicions were aroused,” he wrote, “and I began to hunt around for somebody that had won in this lottery. I found plenty of people who had invested, but not an individual that had ever had an accident or made a cent. I stopped buying accident tickets and went to ciphering. The result was astounding. The peril lay not in traveling, but in staying at home.

He calculated that American railways moved more than 2 million people each day, sustaining 650 million journeys per year, but that only 1 million Americans died each year of all causes: “Out of this million ten or twelve thousand are stabbed, shot, drowned, hanged, poisoned, or meet a similarly violent death in some other popular way, such as perishing by kerosene lamp and hoop-skirt conflagrations, getting buried in coal mines, falling off housetops, breaking through church or lecture-room floors, taking patent medicines, or committing suicide in other forms. The Erie railroad kills from 23 to 46; the other 845 railroads kill an average of one-third of a man each; and the rest of that million, amounting in the aggregate to the appalling figure of nine hundred and eighty-seven thousand six hundred and thirty-one corpses, die naturally in their beds!”

The answer, then, is to avoid beds. “My advice to all people is, Don’t stay at home any more than you can help; but when you have got to stay at home a while, buy a package of those insurance tickets and sit up nights. You cannot be too cautious.”

(Mark Twain, “The Danger of Lying in Bed,” The Galaxy, February 1871.)

Podcast Episode 44: Ballooning to the North Pole


In 1897, Swedish patent engineer S.A. Andrée set out in a quixotic bid to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, departing from Norway with two companions and hoping to drift over the top of the world and come down somewhere in the Bering Strait. Instead the expedition vanished. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn what happened to the Eagle and its three brave passengers, and consider the role of hindsight in the writing of history.

We’ll also learn what the White House planned to do if Neil Armstrong became stranded on the moon, and puzzle over why seeing a plane flying upside down would impact a woman’s job.

Sources for our segment on S.A. Andrée’s attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon:

Henri Lachambre and Alexis Machuron, Andrée and His Balloon, 1898.

George Palmer Putnam, Andrée: The Record of a Tragic Adventure, 1930.

Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geology, Andrée’s Story, 1930.

Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geology, The Andrée Diaries, 1931.

Alec Wilkinson, The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, 2011.


Here’s the Eagle after its downfall, as recorded by Nils Strindberg’s cartographic camera. Even if he’d succeeded, Andrée’s bid would have tested the limits of balloon flight: 750 miles separated Spitzbergen from the pole, and the three men would have had to cross another thousand miles to reach the Bering Strait. To get to the pole and then return safely to land in almost any direction would have meant traveling 1,500 miles aloft, and a balloon must travel almost always directly to leeward.

Here’s the eulogy that William Safire prepared for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the event they became stranded on the moon in July 1969:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

The last line is an allusion to Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent these associated links (warning — they spoil the puzzle).

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!

Time Passages


In ordinary life we shift frequently between observing the world before us and summoning impressions from memory. Reproducing this experience in fiction can require an immense sophistication of the reader. In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1983), Gérard Genette examines a passage from Proust’s Jean Santeuil in which Jean finds the hotel in which lives Marie Kossichef, whom he once loved, and compares his impressions with those that he once thought he would experience today:

“Sometimes passing in front of the hotel he remembered the rainy days when he used to bring his nursemaid that far, on a pilgrimage. But he remembered them without the melancholy that he then thought he would surely someday savor on feeling that he no longer loved her. For this melancholy, projected in anticipation prior to the indifference that lay ahead, came from his love. And this love existed no more.”

Understanding this one paragraph requires shifting our focus between the present and the past nine times. If we designate the sections by consecutive letters, and if 1 is “once” and 2 is “now,” then A goes in position 2 (“Sometimes passing in front of the hotel he remembered”), B goes in position 1 (“the rainy days when he used to bring his nursemaid that far, on a pilgrimage”), C in 2 (“But he remembered them without”), D in 1 (“the melancholy that he then thought”), E in 2 (“he would surely some day savor on feeling that he no longer loved her”), F in 1 (“For this melancholy, projected in anticipation”), G in 2 (“prior to the indifference that lay ahead”), H in 1 (“came from his love”), and I in 2 (“And his love existed no more”).

This produces a perfect zigzag: A2-B1-C2-D1-E2-F1-G2-H1-I2. And defining the relationships among the elements reveals even more complexity:

If we take section A as the narrative starting point, and therefore as being in an autonomous position, we can obviously define section B as retrospective, and this retrospection we may call subjective in the sense that it is adopted by the character himself, with the narrative doing no more than reporting his present thoughts (‘he remembered …’); B is thus temporally subordinate to A: it is defined as retrospective in relation to A. C continues with a simple return to the initial position without subordination. D is again retrospective, but this time the retrospection is adopted directly by the text: apparently it is the narrator who mentions the absence of melancholy, even if this absence is noticed by the hero. E brings us back to the present, but in a totally different way from C, for this time the present is envisaged as emerging from the past and ‘from the point of view’ of that past: it is not a simple return to the present but an anticipation (subjective, obviously) of the present from within the past; E is thus subordinated to D as D is to C, whereas C, like A, was autonomous. F brings us again to position 1 (the past), on a higher level than anticipation E: simple return again, but return to 1, that is, to a subordinate position. G is again an anticipation, but this time an objective one, for the Jean of the earlier time foresaw the end that was to come to his love precisely as, not indifference, but melancholy at loss of love. H, like F, is a simple return to 1. I, finally, is (like C), a simple return to 2, that is, to the starting point.

All in a passage of 71 words! And Genette points out in passing that a first reading is made even more difficult because of the apparently systematic way in which Proust eliminates simple temporal indicators such as once and now, “so that the reader must supply them himself in order to know here he is.”

Round and Round

Army ants are blind; they follow the pheromone tracks left by other ants. This leaves them vulnerable to forming an “ant mill,” in which a group of ants inadvertently form a continuously rotating circle, each ant following the ones ahead and leading the ones behind. Once this happens there’s no way to break the cycle; the ants will march until they die of exhaustion.

American naturalist William Beebe once came upon a mill 365 meters in circumference, a narrow lane looping senselessly through the jungle of British Guiana. “It was a strong column, six lines wide in many places, and the ants fully believed that they were on their way to a new home, for most were carrying eggs or larvae, although many had food, including the larvae of the Painted Nest Wasplets,” he wrote in his 1921 book Edge of the Jungle. “For an hour at noon during heavy rain, the column weakened and almost disappeared, but when the sun returned, the lines rejoined, and the revolution of the vicious circle continued.”

He calculated that each ant would require 2.5 hours to make one circuit. “All the afternoon the insane circle revolved; at midnight the hosts were still moving, the second morning many had weakened and dropped their burdens, and the general pace had very appreciably slackened. But still the blind grip of instinct held them. On, on, on they must go! Always before in their nomadic life there had been a goal — a sanctuary of hollow tree, snug heart of bamboos — surely this terrible grind must end somehow. In this crisis, even the Spirit of the Army was helpless. Along the normal paths of Eciton life he could inspire endless enthusiasm, illimitable energy, but here his material units were bound upon the wheel of their perfection of instinct. Through sun and cloud, day and night, hour after hour there was found no Eciton with individual initiative enough to turn aside an ant’s breadth from the circle which he had traversed perhaps fifteen times: the masters of the jungle had become their own mental prey.”

Problem Solved


Auric and I played all that Satie had written for the piano; one of us would play with him what he composed for four hands. Once, after we had played Morceau en forme de poire, I asked our hero, whom we called mon bon Maître, why he gave such a title, Pieces in the shape of a pear, to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes: ‘You do know that I visit Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed, he remarked, “Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had a great influence on our writing. … Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form.” All I did,’ added Satie, ‘was to write Morceau en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, “Why such a title?” Why? simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless.’

— Vladimir Golschmann, “Golschmann Remembers Erik Satie,” High Fidelity/Musical America, August 1972

(Thanks, Dan.)

Fascinating Rhythm

The theme music for the British television series Inspector Morse starts with a motif based on the Morse code for the word Morse:

-- --- ·-· ··· ·

“It was just a little in-joke,” composer Barrington Pheloung told Essex Life & Countryside in 2001. “I put his name at the beginning and then it recurred all the way through.”

Encouraged, he carried the idea into subsequent episodes. “Sometimes I got a bit cheeky and spelled out the killer’s name in the episode. In the episode ‘WHOK,’ which was a bit of an enigma, the culprit was called Earle. So he got plastered all over the orchestra.” When viewers caught on to this, occasionally he’d insert another character’s name to fool them.

And sometimes he’d give them the slip entirely. When the episode aired in which the detective was due to reveal his first name, 20 million people tuned in to listen for clues in the music, and a national newspaper enlisted the Royal College of Signalling to decipher the notes. They found nothing. (The inspector’s name is Endeavour.)

(Thanks, Dave.)

UPDATE: In the same spirit, the theme to the 1970s British sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (below) spells out the series’ title in Morse code (minus the apostrophes). (Thanks, Nick.)


1!, 22!, 23!, and 24! contain 1, 22, 23, and 24 digits, respectively.

266!, 267!, and 268! contain 2 × 266, 2 × 267, and 2 × 268 digits, respectively.

2,712! and 2,713! contain 3 × 2,712 and 3 × 2,713 digits, respectively.

27,175! and 27,176! contain 4 × 27,175 and 4 × 27,176 digits, respectively.

271,819!, 271,820!, and 271,821! contain 5 × 271,819, 5 × 271,820, and 5 × 271,821 digits, respectively.

2,718,272! and 2,718,273! contain 6 × 2,718,272, and 6 × 2,718,273 digits, respectively.

27,182,807! and 27,182,808! contain 7 × 27,182,807, and 7 × 27,182,808 digits, respectively.

271,828,170! 271,828,171!, and 271,828,172! contain 8 × 271,828,170, 8 × 271,828,171, and 8 × 271,828,172 digits, respectively.

2,718,281,815! and 2,718,281,816! contain 9 × 2,718,281,815, and 9 × 2,718,281,816 digits, respectively.

27,182,818,270! and 27,182,818,271! contain 10 × 27,182,818,270 and 10 × 27,182,818,271 digits, respectively.

271,828,182,830! and 271,828,182,831! contain 11 × 271,828,182,830, and 11 × 271,828,182,831 digits, respectively.

The pattern continues at least this far:

271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,655!, 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,656!, and 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,657! contain 59 × 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,655, 59 × 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,656, and 59 × 271,828,182,845,904,523,536,028,747,135,266,249,775,724,657 digits, respectively.

(By Robert G. Wilson. More at the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. Thanks, David.)