Reader Colin Brown sent this in: In the Harvard Libraries in 2008 he checked out a history of Tillamook County, Oregon, and of cheesemaking in particular, issued in the 1930s by the Oregon Journal. There were two volumes: Volume One was a book titled Cheese Cheddar, and in place of Volume Two he found a note taped to the inside cover:
Note for the Cataloguer:
Vol. II of this work was a two pound piece of Cheddar Cheese. The Librarian can attest to its excellent quality and to the fact that it no longer exists. Sic transit gloria caseii.
Dec. 31, 1933
“The book was noted as a personal gift of Charles H. Taylor, Jr., but it was unclear whose initials those were on the added sheet,” Colin writes. “When I checked the book out in 2008, it had only been checked out one other time since its donation (in 1944).”
He adds, “I informed the library and they have archived it in their protected section of the Widener Depository for unusual addenda or marginal notes.”
In 1890, as the telephone’s influence spread across the United States, Judge Robert S. Taylor of Fort Wayne, Ind., told an audience of inventors that the telephone had introduced an “epoch of neighborship without propinquity.” Scientific American called it “nothing less than a new organization of society.” The New York Times reported that two Providence men “were recently experimenting with a telephone, the wire of which was stretched over the roofs of innumerable buildings, and was estimated to be fully four miles in length”:
They relate that on the first evening of their telephonic dissipation, they heard men and women singing songs and eloquent clergymen preaching ponderous sermons, and that they detected several persons in the act of practising on brass instruments. This sort of thing was repeated every evening, while on Sunday morning a perfect deluge of partially conglomerated sermons rolled in upon them. … The remarks of thousands of midnight cats were borne to their listening ears; the confidential conversations of hundreds of husbands and wives were whispered through the treacherous telephone. … The two astonished telephone experimenters learned enough of the secrets of the leading families of Providence to render it a hazardous matter for any resident of that city to hereafter accept a nomination for any office.
In 1897 one London writer wrote, “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”
(From Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, 1988.)
In 2003, Danish computer scientist Peter Bro Miltersen discussed a surprisingly effective technique by which a player might guess the colors of slips of paper hidden in boxes (PDF). As this circulated in the mathematical community it evolved into a puzzle in which a group of 100 prisoners must find their own names on slips of paper. I wrote about it in 2011.
When Eugene Curtin and Max Warshauer wrote about the prisoner puzzle in The Mathematical Intelligencer in December 2006, reader A.S. Landsberg offered a variant called “The Return of Monty Hall.” On a new game show for couples, there are three curtains, which hide a key, a car, and a goat. One member of the couple is the “car-master” — she must find the car. The other is the “key-master” — he must find the key. If both succeed in their tasks, they win the new car. If either fails, they win the goat.
The key-master is led out of the room, where he can’t observe the proceedings, and then the car-master has two tries to find the car (open one curtain, and if the car isn’t there, open another curtain). If she finds the car, then all the curtains are closed again and the key-master is brought on to find the key. No communication at all is permitted between the two at this point. As before, the key-master has two tries to find the key by opening curtains.
If the couple play optimally, their odds of winning the car are a surprising 2/3. They do this using Miltersen’s technique. The car-master is Player #1, the key-master is Player #2, the car is Prize #1, the key is Prize #2, and the goat is Prize #3. The strategy is simply for each player to start by opening the curtain corresponding to his or her own player number, and if unsuccessful to open the curtain number corresponding to the prize number that the first curtain reveals. So, for example, the car-master, who is Player #1, begins by opening Curtain #1. If she finds the car then she’s done; if she finds the key (Prize #2) then she opens Curtain #2, and if she finds the goat (Prize #3) then she opens Curtain #3. When the curtains are reclosed, the key-master begins his turn by opening Curtain #2 (since he’s Player #2) and following the same plan.
That’s it. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it’s a simple strategy that requires minimal preparation and no communication at all once the game has begun. The universe of possibilities is so small that we can simply count them — here are the various arrangements of prizes and the resulting outcomes:
Landsberg’s letter brought a comment by reader Eric Grunwald, who pointed out that a third person can be introduced to the Monty Hall game without reducing the overall chance of success. Replace the goat with a GPS system and add a third contestant, the “GPS-master.” Following the same rules, and again forbidding any communication among the contestants, Miltersen’s strategy ensures a 2/3 probability that all three players find their prizes.
Consecutive U.S. presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield were all born in Ohio and served as Civil War generals.
Travel due south from Buffalo and you’ll reach the Pacific Ocean.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. shook hands with both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy.
This false statement is not self-referential.
“When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.” — Cicero
In the 2004 film Shark Tale, the shark Lenny coughs up several items onto a table. Among them is a Louisiana license plate, number 007 0 981. The same plate is retrieved from sharks in both Jaws and Deep Blue Sea.
Where does power come from? To be legitimate, a law must be enacted by a suitably constituted authority. But this authority must be constituted by some previously enacted law. This chain can’t continue backward forever; there must be some highest authority that appeals to a basic norm rather than to a foregoing set of rules. But how can the legal existence of this basic norm be established? There seem to be only two possibilities:
The basic norm is enacted law. Since it’s not enacted by any other authority, this means it’s enacted by the highest authority itself.
The basic norm isn’t enacted law. This means that its validity isn’t derived from that of any other norm but is an “original fact” that’s needed to underwrite the validity of every other norm in the system.
“Two, and only two, answers seem possible,” writes University of Copenhagen philosopher Alf Ross. “But both seem unacceptable. That is the puzzle.”
Somewhat related: The United Kingdom’s High Court of Chivalry was created in the 14th century to consider cases of the misuse of heraldic arms. It had been silent for centuries when suddenly in 1954 it was called on to hear a case: The Palace Theatre was displaying the arms of the Manchester city council on its seal, suggesting a link between the two. Before hearing the case, the court first had to rule on whether it still existed. It decided that it did. (And the city council won.)
(Alf Ross, “On Self-Reference and a Puzzle in Constitutional Law,” Mind 78:309 [January 1969], 457-480.) (Thanks, Julian.)
‘As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning courage. I mean, unprepared courage, that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision.’
— Napoleon, to Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases, Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, 1824
In 1925, Kentucky caver Floyd Collins was exploring a new tunnel when a falling rock caught his foot, trapping him 55 feet underground. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the desperate efforts to free Collins, whose plight became one of the first popular media sensations of the 20th century.
We’ll also learn how Ronald Reagan invented a baseball record and puzzle over a fatal breakfast.
Sources for our feature on Floyd Collins:
Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker, Trapped!, 1979.
Gary Alan Fine and Ryan D. White, “Creating Collective Attention in the Public Domain: Human Interest Narratives and the Rescue of Floyd Collins,” Social Forces 81:1 (September 2002), 57-85.
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 on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
Alexandre Dumas’ cat knew when he was coming home:
At the time I speak of, I held a situation in the service of the Duc d’Orléans, with a salary of 1500 francs. My work occupied me from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. We had a cat in those days, whose name was Mysouff. This cat had missed his vocation; he ought to have been a dog. Every morning I started for my office at half-past nine, and came back every evening at half-past five. Every morning Mysouff followed me to the corner of a particular street, and every evening I found him in the same street, at the same corner, waiting for me. Now the curious thing was that on the days when I had found some amusement elsewhere, and was not coming home to dinner, it was of no use to open the door for Mysouff to go and meet me. Mysouff, in the attitude of the serpent with its tail in its mouth, refused to stir from his cushion. On the other hand, on the days I did come, Mysouff would scratch at the door until some one opened it for him.
“My mother was very fond of Mysouff,” he wrote. “She used to call him her barometer.”
In 1978 the Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned an old exam question:
Q. How far can a dog run into the woods?
A. Halfway. The rest of the time he is running out.
Harvard’s Richard E. Baym wrote in to take issue with the answer:
The correct answer is ‘All the way’. Certainly we understand that the dog is running ‘in’ only until he reaches the middle of the forest, but this is in fact, all the way in. If the dog ran only half ‘in’, he would not yet be at the middle. Indeed if the dog ran halfway in and then ran halfway out, he would still be in the woods.
The editors noted, “It occurs to us that the dog’s continued presence there would be useful, in case something happens to that tree that we’ve been hearing about since high school physics — the one that falls when no one is in the forest and since there is no eardum to register sound waves, makes no noise. You know what a fine sense of hearing a dog has. Let him run halfway in (or as Mr. Baym argues, all the way), settle there, and keep an ear cocked for that tree.”
(from Robert L. Weber, ed., Science With a Smile, 1992.)
In presenting the rules of chess, some writers carelessly say that a pawn that reaches the eighth rank can be promoted to any piece that the player chooses. That’s a bit too generous, as a couple of puzzle composers have noted. In 1941 Leonid Kubbel presented this problem — White is to mate in two moves:
It’s not immediately clear how to release Black from his stalemate and still mate him on the next move. The solution is to promote the e7 pawn to a black king!
Now it’s Black’s move — he has to play 1. … Kd8, and White can mate both kings with 2. Qd7#!
The Polish master Johannes Zukertort offered this one: White is to mate on the move:
Here White promotes the pawn to a black knight, ending the game. (Note that it must be a knight — crazy as it seems, this is the only black piece that produces mate.)