Unto the Breach


In 2004, engineers Richard Clements and Roger Hughes put their study of crowd dynamics to an unusual application: the medieval Battle of Agincourt, which pitted Henry V’s English army against a numerically superior French army representing Charles VI. In their model, an instability arises on the front between the contending forces, which may account for the relatively large proportion of captured soldiers:

[P]ockets of French men-at-arms are predicted to push into the English lines and with hindsight be surrounded and either taken prisoner or killed. … Such an instability might explain the victory by the weaker English army by surrounding groups of the stronger army.

This description is consistent with the three large mounds of fallen soldiers that are reported in contemporary accounts of the battle. If the model is accurate then perhaps French men-at-arms succeeded in pushing back the English in certain locations, only to be surrounded and slaughtered, rallying around their leaders. By contrast, modern accounts perhaps incorrectly describe a “wall” of dead running the length of the field.

“Interestingly, the study suggests that the battle was lost by the greater army, because of its excessive zeal for combat leading to sections of it pushing through the ranks of the weaker army only to be surrounded and isolated.” The whole paper is here.

(Richard R. Clements and Roger L. Hughes. “Mathematical Modelling of a Mediaeval Battle: The Battle of Agincourt, 1415,” Mathematics and Computers in Simulation 64:2 [2004], 259-269.)

Moving Spirits


Vaudeville ventriloquist Harry Lester made his reputation with feats of vocal dexterity — he would walk among the audience while his dummy whistled a tune, or place telephone calls to heaven and hell, altering his voice to simulate a remote character on the line. Most famously he could drink water and smoke while his dummies talked.

In 1925, during a performance at the Balaban and Katz Theatre in Chicago, Lester’s drinking feat was unexpectedly modified when straight whisky replaced the usual coloured water in his decanter. The orchestra had switched drinks as a joke, trying to catch him off guard. When Lester innocently drank the liquid, not a muscle moved in his face, but the figure exploded into a storm of coughing. This piece of showmanship was so much appreciated by the orchestra that they rose from their seats and applauded; the audience, sensing something unusual, joined in.

(From Valentine Vox, I Can See Your Lips Moving, 1981.)

Sitting In


In 1915, American artist John Singer Sargent donated a blank canvas for auction at a Red Cross benefit, promising to paint a portrait of the donor who purchased it. Sir Hugh Lane bought it for £10,000 but died in the sinking of the Lusitania. He left his art collection to the National Gallery of Ireland, which didn’t know what to do with the blank canvas, so the executors finally held a referendum to ask whose portrait Sargent should paint. The popular choice, to Sargent’s surprise, was Woodrow Wilson.

At the White House Sargent confided his nerves to first lady Edith Wilson, who tried to amuse him at the easel. Still, she didn’t care for the result. “I think it lacks virility and makes Mr. Wilson look older than he did at the time,” she said later. Advisor Edward M. House said he thought it too austere, but then “I think I never knew a man whose general appearance changed so much from hour to hour.” Wilson’s opinion is not recorded.

Bonus blank canvas story: In 1951 Robert Rauschenberg painted a series of “white paintings” with the explicit intention that they appear untouched by human hands. Some patrons considered this an outright swindle when the paintings were first exhibited in 1953, but Rauschenberg wasn’t kidding: In 1962, when curator Pontus Hulten wanted to show them at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, the paintings had been lost, so Rauschenberg simply sent him the measurements and samples of the paint and the canvas, and Hulten remade them from scratch.

The Scenic Route


A thrifty space traveler can explore the solar system by following the Interplanetary Transport Network, a series of pathways determined by gravitation among the various bodies. By plotting the course carefully, a navigator can choose a route among the Lagrange points that exist between large masses, where it’s possible to change trajectory using very little energy.

In the NASA image above, the “tube” represents the highway along which it’s mathematically possible to travel, and the green ribbon is one such route.

The good news is that these paths lead to some interesting destinations, such as Earth’s moon and the Galilean moons of Jupiter. The bad news is that such a trip would take many generations. Virginia Tech’s Shane Ross writes, “Due to the long time needed to achieve the low energy transfers between planets, the Interplanetary Superhighway is impractical for transfers such as from Earth to Mars at present.”

Podcast Episode 168: The Destruction of the Doves Type


In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life’s work — and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it.

We’ll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child.


Gustav Mahler rejected the Berlin Royal Opera because of the shape of his nose.

In 1883, inventor Robert Heath enumerated the virtues of glowing hats.

Sources for our feature on the Doves Press:

Marianne Tidcombe, The Doves Press, 2002.

The Journals of Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, 1926.

“The Doves Press” — A Kelmscott Revival,” New York Times, Feb. 16, 1901, BR9.

“The Revival of Printing as an Art,” New York Tribune, Sept. 14, 1901, 11.

“The Doves Press Bible,” Guardian, March 10, 1904.

“The Doves Press,” Athenaeum, Jan. 12, 1907, 54-54.

“The Doves Press,” Athenaeum, June 13, 1908, 729-730.

Dissolution of the partnership, London Gazette, July 27, 1909, 5759.

“Doves Press Type in River: Memoirs of T.C. Sanderson Tell How He Disposed of It,” New York Times, Sept. 8, 1926, 27.

Arthur Millier, “Bookbinding Art Proves Inspiration: Doves Press Exhibit Reveals Devotion to Lofty Ideals,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1933, A2.

Charles B. Russell, “Cobden-Sanderson and the Doves Press,” Prairie Schooner 14:3 (Fall 1940), 180-192.

Carole Cable, “The Printing Types of the Doves Press: Their History and Destruction,” Library Quarterly 44:3 (July 1974), 219-230.

Marcella D. Genz, “The Doves Press [review],” Library Quarterly 74:1 (January 2004), 91-94.

“Biographies of the Key Figures Involved in the Doves Press,” International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, Dec. 22, 2009.

“The Doves Type Reborn,” Association Typographique Internationale, Dec. 20, 2010.

“The Fight Over the Doves,” Economist, Dec. 19, 2013.

Justin Quirk, “X Marks the Spot,” Sunday Times, Jan. 11, 2015, 22.

Rachael Steven, “Recovering the Doves Type,” Creative Review, Feb. 3, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, “The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery,” Gizmodo, Feb. 16, 2015.

Rich Rennicks, “The Doves Press Story,” New Antiquarian, Feb. 24, 2015.

“One Man’s Obsession With Rediscovering the Lost Doves Type,” BBC News Magazine, Feb. 25, 2015.

“15 Things You Didn’t Know About the Doves Press & Its Type,” Typeroom, Oct. 20, 2015.

“An Obsessive Type: The Tale of the Doves Typeface,” BBC Radio 4, July 28, 2016.

Sujata Iyengar, “Intermediating the Book Beautiful: Shakespeare at the Doves Press,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67:4 (Winter 2016), 481-502.

“The Doves Type”, Typespec (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“Raised From the Dead: The Doves Type Story,” Typespec (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“History of the Doves Type,” Typespec (accessed Aug. 21, 2017).

“Doves Press,” Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

“Doves Press Collection,” Bruce Peel Special Collections, University of Alberta (accessed Aug. 20, 2017).

Listener mail:

Becky Oskin, “Yosemite Outsmarts Its Food-Stealing Bears,” Live Science, March 3, 2014.

Kristin Hohenadel, “Vancouver Bans Doorknobs,” Slate, Nov. 26 2013.

Jeff Lee, “Vancouver’s Ban on the Humble Doorknob Likely to Be a Trendsetter,” Vancouver Sun, Nov. 19, 2013.

Jonathan Goodman, The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell, 1987.

“Housekeeper Admits Shielding Woman by Hiding Garments in Elwell Home,” New York Times, June 17, 1920.

“Elwell Crime Still Mystery,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1920.

“Housekeeper Gives New Elwell Facts,” New York Times, June 25, 1920.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dean Gootee.

Please visit Littleton Coin Company to sell your coins and currency, or call them toll free 1-877-857-7850.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music 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 we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page 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!

Ends and Means

Image: Flickr

“I find to my delight that I can make my dog happy by wagging its tail for it.” — Reveille, letter to the editor, quoted in Michael Bateman, ed., This England, 1969

Black and White

piccinini chess puzzle

By Augusto Piccinini. Imagine that the board is a vertical cylinder, that is, that the a-file and the h-file are joined so that pieces can move across the border. How can White mate Black in two moves?

Click for Answer


i'm tired of being a zero vector
i'm tired of being a zero vector
with no direction
         no dimension
                and no magnitude;
         what i need is another element
            -- but that would be
                 a contradiction
            of my definition

— Eileen Tupaz, a student at Ateneo University, Quezon City, Philippines, in Crux Mathematicorum 26:6 (June 2000), 337

Wakeful Watchers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xochimilco_Dolls%27_Island.jpg Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas is a floating garden festooned with dolls — the story goes that a local man discovered a drowned girl, hung her doll from a tree as a gesture of remembrance, and was haunted by her spirit ever after, no matter how many dolls he hung. Today, inevitably, it’s a tourist attraction, but it’s still effective — photographer Cindy Vasko called it the creepiest place she’s ever visited.

Below: As her village has dwindled from 300 residents to 30, Japanese artist Ayano Tsukimi has been replacing them with dolls, life-sized figures made of cloth and stuffed with cotton and newspapers. The first was intended to be a scarecrow, but because it resembled her father she found that her neighbors interacted with it. In the ensuing 10 years she’s made hundreds.

“Every morning, I just greet them,” she told NPR. “I say ‘good morning’ or ‘have a nice day!’ I never get a response, but that doesn’t make a difference. I go around talking to them anyway.”