Moving Pictures

In 1864 a photographer employed by Mathew Brady used a four-lens camera to record activity at a Union Army wharf along Potomac Creek in Virginia. The four images were taken in quick succession, so staggering them produces a crude time lapse of the events they record:

In effect they present a four-frame film, perhaps the closest we’ll come to a contemporary movie of life during the Civil War. Here are a few more, all taken in Virginia in 1864:

Union cavalry crossing a pontoon bridge over the James River:

Traffic in front of the Marshall House in Alexandria:

Union soldiers working on a bridge over the Pamunkey River near White House Landing:

There’s more information at the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park blog.

Podcast Episode 103: Legislating Pi

In 1897, confused physician Edward J. Goodwin submitted a bill to the Indiana General Assembly declaring that he’d squared the circle — a mathematical feat that was known to be impossible. In today’s show we’ll examine the Indiana pi bill, its colorful and eccentric sponsor, and its celebrated course through a bewildered legislature and into mathematical history.

We’ll also marvel at the confusion wrought by turkeys and puzzle over a perplexing baseball game.

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.

Sources for our feature on the Indiana pi bill:

Edward J. Goodwin, “Quadrature of the Circle,” American Mathematical Monthly 1:7 (July 1894), 246–248.

Text of the bill.

Underwood Dudley, “Legislating Pi,” Math Horizons 6:3 (February 1999), 10-13.

Will E. Edington, “House Bill No. 246, Indiana State Legislature, 1897,” Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 45, 206-210.

Arthur E. Hallerberg, “House Bill No. 246 Revisited,” Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 84 (1974), 374–399.

Arthur E. Hallerberg, “Indiana’s Squared Circle,” Mathematics Magazine 50:3 (May 1977), 136–140.

David Singmaster, “The Legal Values of Pi,” Mathematical Intelligencer 7:2 (1985), 69–72.

Listener mail:

Zach Goldhammer, “Why Americans Call Turkey ‘Turkey,'” Atlantic, Nov. 26, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky, “Turkey,” The Language of Food, Nov. 23, 2010 (accessed April 21, 2016).

Accidental acrostics from Julian Bravo:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
STASIS starts at line 7261 (“Says I to myself” in Chapter XXVI).

CASSIA starts at line 443 (“Certainly; it would indeed be very impertinent” in Letter 4).
MIGHTY starts at line 7089 (“Margaret, what comment can I make” in Chapter 24).

Moby Dick:
BAIT starts at line 12904 (“But as you come nearer to this great head” in Chapter 75). (Note that this includes a footnote.)

The raw output of Julian’s program is here; he warns that it may contain some false positives.

At the paragraph level (that is, the initial letters of successive paragraphs), Daniel Dunn found these acrostics (numbers refer to paragraphs):

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: SEMEMES (1110)

Emma: INHIBIT (2337)

King James Bible: TAIWAN (12186)

Huckleberry Finn: STASIS (1477)

Critique of Pure Reason: SWIFTS (863)

Anna Karenina: TWIST (3355)

At the word level (the initial letters of successive words), Daniel found these (numbers refer to the position in a book’s overall word count — I’ve included links to the two I mentioned on the show):

Les Miserables: DASHPOTS (454934)

Critique of Pure Reason: TRADITOR (103485)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: ISATINES (373818)

Through the Looking Glass: ASTASIAS (3736)

War and Peace: PIRANHAS (507464) (Book Fifteen, Chapter 1, paragraph 19: “‘… put it right.’ And now he again seemed …”)

King James Bible: MOHAMAD (747496) (Galatians 6:11b-12a, “… mine own hand. As many as desire …”)

The Great Gatsby: ISLAMIC (5712)

Huckleberry Finn: ALFALFA (62782)

Little Women: CATFISH (20624)

From Vadas Gintautas: Here is the complete list of accidental acrostics of English words of 8 letters or more, found by taking the first letter in successive paragraphs:

TABITHAS in George Sand: Some Aspects of Her Life and Writings by René Doumic

BASSISTS in The Pilot and his Wife by Jonas Lie

ATACAMAS in Minor Poems of Michael Drayton

MAINTAIN in The Stamps of Canada by Bertram W.H. Poole

BATHMATS in Fifty Years of Public Service by Shelby M. Cullom

ASSESSES in An Alphabetical List of Books Contained in Bohn’s Libraries

LATTICES in History of the Buccaneers of America by James Burney

ASSESSES in Old English Chronicles by J.A. Giles

BASSISTS in Tales from the X-bar Horse Camp: The Blue-Roan “Outlaw” and Other Stories by Barnes

CATACOMB in Cyrano De Bergerac

PONTIANAK in English Economic History: Select Documents by Brown, Tawney, and Bland

STATIONS in Haunted Places in England by Elliott O’Donnell

TRISTANS in Revolutionary Reader by Sophie Lee Foster

ALLIANCE in Latter-Day Sweethearts by Mrs. Burton Harrison

TAHITIAN in Lothair by Benjamin Disraeli

Vadas’ full list of accidental acrostics in the King James Bible (first letter of each verse) for words of at least five letters:

ASAMA in The Second Book of the Kings 16:21
TRAIL in The Book of Psalms 80:13
AMATI in The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 3:9
STABS in The Acts of the Apostles 23:18
ATTAR in The Book of Nehemiah 13:10
FLOSS in The Gospel According to Saint Luke 14:28
SANTA in The First Book of the Chronicles 16:37
WATTS in Hosea 7:13
BAATH in The Acts of the Apostles 15:38
ASSAM in The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 12:8
CHAFF in The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans 4:9
FIFTH in The Book of Psalms 61:3
SAABS in The Third Book of the Kings 12:19
SATAN in The Book of Esther 8:14
TANGS in Zephaniah 1:15
STOAT in The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 16:20
IGLOO in The Proverbs 31:4
TEETH in Hosea 11:11
RAILS in The Book of Psalms 80:14
STATS in The First Book of the Kings 26:7
HALON in The Fourth Book of the Kings 19:12
TATTY in The Gospel According to Saint John 7:30
DIANA in The Second Book of the Kings 5:4
ABAFT in The Third Book of Moses: Called Leviticus 25:39
BAHIA in The Book of Daniel 7:26
TRAILS in The Book of Psalms 80:13
FIFTHS in The Book of Psalms 61:3
BATAAN in The First Book of Moses: Called Genesis 25:6
DIANAS in The Second Book of the Kings 5:4
BATAANS in The Second Book of the Chronicles 26:16

Vadas’ full list of accidental acrostics (words of at least eight letters) found by text-wrapping the Project Gutenberg top 100 books (of the last 30 days) to line lengths from 40 to 95 characters (line length / word found):


Great Expectations



War and Peace

The Romance of Lust: A Classic Victorian Erotic Novel by Anonymous

Steam, Its Generation and Use by Babcock & Wilcox Company

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Republic

A Study in Scarlet

The Essays of Montaigne

Crime and Punishment

Complete Works–William Shakespeare

The Time Machine

Democracy in America, VI

The King James Bible

Anna Karenina

David Copperfield

Le Morte d’Arthur, Volume I

Vadas also points out that there’s a body of academic work addressing acrostics in Milton’s writings. For example, in Book 3 of Paradise Lost Satan sits among the stars looking “down with wonder” at the world:

Such wonder seis’d, though after Heaven seen,
The Spirit maligne, but much more envy seis’d
At sight of all this World beheld so faire.
Round he surveys, and well might, where he stood
So high above the circling Canopie
Of Nights extended shade …

The initial letters of successive lines spell out STARS. Whether that’s deliberate is a matter of some interesting debate. Two further articles:

Mark Vaughn, “More Than Meets the Eye: Milton’s Acrostics in Paradise Lost,” Milton Quarterly 16:1 (March 1982), 6–8.

Jane Partner, “Satanic Vision and Acrostics in Paradise Lost,” Essays in Criticism 57:2 (April 2007), 129-146.

And listener Charles Hargrove reminds us of a telling acrostic in California’s recent political history.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, based on a Car Talk Puzzler credited to Willie Myers.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

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!

Pagan Island

Twenty-six villages are ranged around the coastline of an island. Their names, in order, are A, B, C, …, Z. At various times in its history, the island has been visited by 26 missionaries, who names are also A, B, C, …, Z. Each missionary landed first at the village that bore his name and began his work there. Each village was pagan to begin with but became converted when visited by a missionary. Whenever a missionary converted a village he would move along the coastline to the next village in the cycle ABC-…-ZA. If a missionary arrived at an uncoverted village he’d convert it and continue along the cycle, but there was never more than one missionary in a village at a time. If a missionary arrived at a village that had already been converted, the villagers, feeling oppressed, would kill him and revert to a state of paganism; they would do this even to a missionary who had converted them himself and then traveled all the way around the island. There’s no restriction as to how many missionaries can be on the island at any given time. After all 26 missionaries have come and gone, how many villages remain converted?

Click for Answer

“Sweet-Seasoned Showers”

craig knecht -- shakespeare water-retention square

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. To commemorate it, Craig Knecht has devised a 44 × 44 magic square (click to enlarge). Like the squares we featured in 2013, this one is topographical — if the number in each cell is taken to represent its altitude, and if water runs “downhill,” then a fall of rain will produce the pools shown in blue, recalling the words of Griffith in Henry VIII:

Noble madam,
Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water.

The square includes cells (in light blue) that reflect the number of Shakespeare’s plays (38) and sonnets (154) and the year of his death (1616).

(Thanks, Craig.)

The Public Figure

In 1956 Macedonian poet Venko Markovski was imprisoned under a fictitious name for circulating a poem critical of Marshal Tito.

Among the guards were individuals who were taking correspondence courses in an attempt to earn a degree. One of these guards, knowing I was a writer, came up to me one day and said: ‘I was told you are a writer. You have knowledge of literature. I have a request …’

‘Please, what do you want to know about literature?’

‘Tell me about Macedonian literature.’

‘Whom are you interested in?’

‘Venko Markovski.’

‘Is it possible you don’t recognize Venko Markovski?’

‘I don’t know him.’

There was an unpleasant pause. I felt sorry for this man who was ordered to guard someone without knowing whom he was guarding. I spoke to him as follows:

‘The best way for you to learn about Venko Markovski is to read his poetry written in Croatian. In this way you will understand Markovski the poet, the Partisan, the public figure, and you will pass your exam easily. But if you rely on me to tell you about Venko Markovski, you will find yourself — after you fail your exam — in the very place where Markovski now finds himself.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ the guard asked. ‘Where is he in fact?’

‘Right in front of you, here on Goli Otok.’

‘Can it be that you are really he?’

‘Yes, I am here under another name.’

The guard walked away silent and confused.

“The warden obviously thought that since he had physical possession of his prisoners he disposed of their minds and souls as well,” Markovski wrote after gaining his freedom in 1961. “But he was mistaken; the body is one thing and the soul is another. There is no way to bribe the human conscience once it has committed itself to the struggle for the rights of its people.”

(From Geoffrey Bould, ed., Conscience Be My Guide: An Anthology of Prison Writings, 2005.)


British infantry sergeant Harry Neale says goodbye to his 10-year-old daughter Lucy, April 4, 1917:

At about six o’clock in the evening, my father called me in and said he’d got to go back to Kidderminster, back to barracks. ‘Will you walk with me a little way, just up the hill, will you come with me?’ Of course I would. He said goodbye to my mother, who was crying, and we went off down the road and then up this long hill. It was a ten-minute walk, I suppose, but we didn’t hurry, we just walked slowly up the hill and I really can’t remember what we talked about. I held on to his hand so tight, and when we got to the top, he said, ‘I won’t take you any further, you must go back now, and I’ll stand here and watch you until you’re out of sight,’ and he put his arms round me and held me so close to him; I remember feeling how rough that khaki uniform was.

‘You must go now, wave to me at the bottom, won’t you?’ I went, I left him standing there and I went down the hill and I kept looking back and waving and he was still there, just standing there. I got to the bottom and then I’d got to turn off to go to where we lived, so I stopped and waved to him and he gestured as much as to say, ‘Go on, you must go home now,’ ever so gently gestured and then he waved and he was still waving when I went, and that was the last time I ever saw him.

Badly wounded in battle, he died of dysentery in East Africa that October.

(From Richard van Emden, The Quick and the Dead, 2011.)