In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Noah_Webster_pre-1843_IMG_4412.JPG

cohonestation
n. honouring with one’s company

William Cobbett, a writer who was to plague Noah for many years, probably invented one piece of Websterian apocrypha. Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom Noah had cultivated, supposedly met him upon his arrival and said: ‘How do you do, my dear friend. I congratulate you on your arrival in Philadelphia.’

‘Sir,’ Webster allegedly replied, ‘you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion.’

— John S. Morgan, Noah Webster, 1975

Coming to Terms

Antoni Zygmund once asked if the World Series shouldn’t be called the World Sequence? And shouldn’t a combination lock be called a permutation lock? John Von Neumann once had a dog called Inverse. It would sit when told to stand and go when it was told to come. Von Neumann pronounced the term infinite series as infinite serious.

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998

Choosing Seats

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1835_DanielWebster_byFrancisAlexander_Dartmouth.jpg

Daniel Webster had two chances to become president via the vice presidency. In 1840 the Whig party nominated William Henry Harrison for president and Harrison offered the vice presidency to Webster. Webster turned it down and Harrison died after a single month in office; his death would have made Webster president.

Eight years later Webster competed with Zachary Taylor for the Whig party’s nomination. Taylor won and invited him to be his running mate, and Webster again shunned the office, saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” Taylor won the White House and died 16 months afterward, which again would have made Webster president if he’d accepted.

Related: In the election of 1880 James Garfield simultaneously won the presidency, retained his seat in the House, and won a Senate seat — he’d been elected to all three offices at once.

Illumination

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Geographer.jpg

Starting in the 1970s, neurobiologist Otto-Joachim Grüsser spent 10 years collating the light sources in 2,124 paintings selected at random from Western art originating between the 14th and 20th centuries. He found that in most paintings considered Western works of art, especially those painted around the time of the Scientific Revolution, the light falls from the left.

“At the beginning of modern Western art during the early Gothic period, a preference for diffuse illumination or light sources distributed around the painted scene was found,” Grüsser noted. “In a minority of paintings from the fourteenth century that show a clear light direction, a bias to the left side is present. This left-sided preference increased at the expense of diffuse or middle light sources up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and declined thereafter. In the twentieth century, the diffuse or middle type of light distribution again became dominant.”

It’s not clear what to make of this. It seems reasonable that a right-handed artist might favor light falling from the left, but why should this vary with time? Grüsser found that the left-handed Leonardo da Vinci applied light sources from varying angles, and Hans Holbein the Younger, also a dominant left-hander, favored light falling from the right.

“From such observations in the works of these two left-handed painters who painted, drew, and wrote with the left hand, one gains the impression that the distribution of left, middle, and right light direction in left-handed painters deviates significantly from the average distribution of light found in the paintings of other contemporary painters. It would be interesting to study the drawings and paintings of other confirmed left-handed artists, who worked exclusively with the left hand.”

(Otto-Joachim Grüsser, Thomas Selke, and Barbara Zynda, “Cerebral Lateralization and Some Implications for Art, Aesthetic Perception, and Artistic Creativity,” in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, and David Epstein, Beauty and the Brain, 1988.)

Unquote

“Every time an idiot dies, your IQ goes down.” — Bill Ballance

Hot and Cold

Suppose you have three identical Dewar flasks labeled A, B, and C. (A Thermos is a Dewar flask.) You also have an empty container labeled D, which has thermally perfect conducting walls and which fits inside a Dewar flask.

Pour 1 liter of 80°C water into flask A and 1 liter of 20°C water into flask B. Now, using all four containers, is it possible to use the hot water to heat the cold water so that the final temperature of the cold water is higher than the final temperature of the hot water? How? (You can’t actually mix the hot water with the cold.)

Click for solution …

More Madan

Further excerpts from the notebooks of Geoffrey Madan:

“Curious how much more room dirty clothes take up than clean ones, when you’re packing — quite out of proportion to the amount of dirt they contain.” — Claud Russell

Sworded/sordid: an absurd homonym.

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which has to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” — F.H. Bradley

Hua [French master at Eton] and Warre could neither pronounce the other’s name, but each made the same sound in the attempt.

The fascination, to a crowd, of anything going up the side of a building on a rope or lift: exceedingly primitive.

“A hamper is undoubtedly requisite under the present circumstances. It must contain several pots of superior jam.” — Lord Curzon, aged 9, writing from school

NO ROAD BEYOND THE CEMETERY — Opinion of the Slough Borough Council, placed on a notice-board near Bourne End Church

See Observations.

Coming Soon!

Futility Closet 2 cover

We’ll have another book in time for the holidays this year: a new collection of entertaining oddities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, the perfect gift for people who are impossible to buy gifts for.

Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits contains hundreds of hand-picked favorites from the site’s 10-year archive of the marvelous, the diverting, and the strange: joyous dogs, soul-stirring Frenchmen, runaway balloons, U-turning communists, manful hummingbirds, recalcitrant Ws, intractable biplanes, hairless trombonists, abusive New Zealanders, unreconstituted cannibals, mysterious blimps, thrice-conscripted Koreans, imaginary golf courses, irate Thackerays, and hundreds more. Plus the amusing inventions, curious words, and beguiling puzzles that regularly entertain millions of website visitors and podcast listeners.

“A wild, wonderful, and educational romp through history, science, zany patents, math puzzles, wonderful words (like boanthropy, hallelujatic, and andabatarian), the Devil’s Game, self-contradicting words, and so much more. Buy this book and feed your mind!”
— Clifford A. Pickover, author of The Mathematics Devotional

We’ll launch the new book on Amazon on November 3. It will join our first book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, which reviewers have called “funny, interesting, thought-provoking, and completely original” and “a book to enlighten as well as entertain.” Thanks for your support, and thanks for reading!

A Dice Puzzle

Timothy and Urban are playing a game with two six-sided dice. The dice are unusual: Rather than bearing a number, each face is painted either red or blue.

The two take turns throwing the dice. Timothy wins if the two top faces are the same color, and Urban wins if they’re different. Their chances of winning are equal.

The first die has 5 red faces and 1 blue face. What are the colors on the second die?

Click for solution …

Things to Come

Science fiction writer Murray Leinster predicted the Internet in 1946:

I got Joe, after Laurine nearly got me. You know the logics setup. You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’s hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch ‘Station SNAFU’ on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’s screen. Or you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’ for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation an’ all the recorded telecasts that ever was made — an’ it’s hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country — an’ everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an’ you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an’ keeps books, an’ acts as consultin’ chemist, physicist, astronomer, an’ tea-leaf reader, with a ‘Advice to the Lovelorn’ thrown in. The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice. Logics don’t work good on women. Only on things that make sense.

From Leinster’s story “A Logic Named Joe.” (Thanks, Bob.) See You’ve Got Mail.

Page 2 of 82712345...10203040...Last »