Ebook

FC book thumbnail

The electronic version of the Futility Closet book is now available on Amazon, and will be forthcoming in the Apple bookstore — I’ll post updates on the book page.

Many thanks to those who are supporting the book — that’s a great help in keeping this whole enterprise going.

I’m planning another big miscellany for next year, but I thought it might also be fun to do a specialty book of some kind. What would you like to see? A collection of obscure words? Quotations? Puzzles? Odd inventions? Let me know on the blog.

Ship of State

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Resolute.jpg

In 1855, American whaler James Buddington came across an abandoned vessel stuck in the ice off Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. It was HMS Resolute, a British exploration ship that had been abandoned two years earlier and drifted rudderless through 1200 miles of the Canadian Arctic.

The U.S. Congress returned the ship to Queen Victoria, and in 1879 its timbers were made into two desks with admirable pedigrees: One resides in Buckingham Palace … and the other is in the Oval Office, where it’s been used by almost every president since Rutherford B. Hayes.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barack_Obama_sitting_at_the_Resolute_desk_2009.jpg

Turnabout

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Landscape_with_Lake_and_Boatman_by_Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot,_1839,_Getty_Center.JPG

No other painter’s works have been forged as frequently as Corot’s. One day a gentleman shows up in the master’s studio, who, having bought a painting signed ‘Corot’ in a small art shop, wants to know whether it has really been painted by Corot. After one brief look at the canvas Corot shakes his head. Transported by rage, the buyer declares that he will report the art dealer to the police. ‘Report to the police?,’ the painter vents his annoyance. ‘Nonsense, that man has a wife and a child. Do you want to ruin the life of that fellow?’ ‘What do I care about wife and child? A fraud is a fraud and the law ….’ ‘The law? Bah, it won’t take much to turn this little painting into an original Corot.’ With that, the master puts the canvas on the easel and adds a few brush strokes, thus turning the fake Corot into a genuine one. ‘There,’ he murmurs in a satisfied voice, returning the painting to the buyer, ‘now you won’t be able to say anymore that this is forgery and fraud. You could see it with your own eyes how I painted it.’

– Alfred Georg Hartmann, Das Künstlerwäldchen. Maler-, Bildhauer- und Architekten-Anekdoten, 1917, quoted in Sándor Radnóti, The Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art, 1999

The Pyramid Cemetery

willson pyramid

In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”

Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.

“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.

“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Black and White

friedlander chess problem

By Louis Friedländer. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Character Study

There is a game — in the 1950s it used to be played by members of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — called ‘Smoke.’ It works as follows. The player who is ‘it’ chooses some famous person with whom everyone playing is surely acquainted (Harry Truman, Marlon Brando, Chairman Mao, Charles DeGaulle, for instance) and tells the other players, ‘I am a dead American,’ ‘I am a living American,’ ‘I am a dead Asian,’ ‘I am a dead European’; and then each of the other players in turn asks one question of the person who is ‘it,’ such as, ‘What kind of smoke are you?’ (cigarette, pipe, cigar — or, more specifically, L&M, Dunhill, White Owl) or ‘What kind of weather are you?’ ‘What kind of insect are you?’ or ‘What kind of transportation?’ The person who is ‘it’ answers not in terms of what kind of smoke his character would like, if any, but what kind of smoke he would be if, instead of being human, he were a smoke, or what kind of weather, insect, transportation, and so forth, he would be if reincarnated as one of those. Thus, for example, Kate Smith if an insect would be a turquoise beetle; Marlon Brando, if weather, would be sultry and uncertain, with storm warnings out; and as a vehicle of transporation Harry Truman would be (whatever he may in fact have driven) a Model T Ford. What invariably happens when this game is played by fairly sensitive people is that the whole crowd of questioners builds a stronger and stronger feeling of the character, by unconscious association, until finally someone says the right name — ‘Kate Smith!’ or ‘Chairman Mao!’ — and everyone in the room feels instantly that that’s right. There is obviously no way to play this game with the reasoning faculty, since it depends on unconscious associations or intuition; and what the game proves conclusively for everyone playing is that our associations are remarkably similar. When one of the players falls into some mistake, for instance, saing that Mr. Brezhnev of the U.S.S.R. is a beaver instead of, more properly, a crafty old woodchuck, all the players at the end of the game are sure to protest, ‘You misled us when you said “beaver.”‘ The game proves more dramatically than any argument can suggest the mysterious rightness of a good metaphor — the one requisite for the poet, Aristotle says, that cannot be taught.

– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 1978

A Letter Home

Young telegraph operator Joseph Orton Kerbey was enlisted as a spy for the federal forces during the Civil War. In 1861, laid up in a sick bed in Richmond, he needed a way to communicate his latest discoveries to his friends in the north. The message would have to appear innocent and contain the key to its own decipherment. Here’s what he sent:

http://books.google.com/books?id=GvMRAAAAYAAJ

He directed it, not to his father’s name and address, but to a friend in the telegraph office at Annapolis. What was the hidden message?

Click for Answer

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wuchzenhofen_Pfarrkirche_Chor_Fenster_rechts_3.jpg

nullipara
n. a childless woman

vagitus
n. a newborn child’s cry

deiparous
adj. giving birth to a god

Transcendence

In Western religion we seek to attain immortality; in Eastern religion we seek to escape it.

“The secret of religious enlightenment, revealed to the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bo tree, is the suppression of desire, a systematic elimination of all our attachments to the world,” writes Gordon Graham in his Eight Theories of Ethics. “In such turning away comes moksha or release and eventually, for it may take more than one life to achieve it, entry to Nirvana — a term which captures both the idea of nothingness and of heaven. The Buddhist ideal, then, finds supreme value in personal extinction. (Whether this amounts to total extinction is a further matter.) In so doing it wholly discounts subjective values because it is these, after all, that keep us chained to the unending cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

“It is of great interest to note that, while Western minds are accustomed to think of religious faith as entailing the belief and hope that we will be saved from eternal death and live for ever, the belief of Eastern religions is that, other things being equal, we do live for ever and it is from this dreadful fate that we must look to spirituality to save us.”

Required Reading

In 1990, Spanish philosopher Jon Perez Laraudogoitia submitted an article to Mind entitled “This Article Should Not Be Rejected by Mind.” In it, he argued:

  1. If statement 1 in this argument is trivially true, then this article should be accepted.
  2. If statement 1 were false, then its antecedent (“statement 1 in this argument is trivially true”) would be true, which means that statement 1 itself would be true, a contradiction. So statement 1 must be true.
  3. But that seems wrong, since Mind is a serious journal and shouldn’t publish trivial truths.
  4. That means statement 1 must be either false or a non-trivial truth. We know it can’t be false (#2), so it must be a non-trivial truth, and its antecedent (“statement 1 in this argument is trivially true”) is false.
  5. What then is the truth value of its consequent, “this article should be accepted”? If this were false then Mind shouldn’t publish the article; that can’t be right, since the article consists of a non-trivial truth and its justification.
  6. So the consequent must be true, and Mind should publish the article.

They published it. “This is, I believe, the first article in the whole history of philosophy the content of which is concerned exclusively with its own self, or, in other words, which is totally self-referential,” Laraudogoitia wrote. “The reason why it is published is because in it there is a proof that it should not be rejected and that is all.”

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