Mallows Bay

mallows bay

About 30 miles south of Washington D.C., on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, lies a curious collection of lozenge-shaped islands, the remains of a mighty fleet of wooden steamships built hurriedly during World War I and made obsolete by the end of the war. The unused ships became the center of a political scandal, “the grandest white elephant” ever built, and for decades the government and various salvage companies dithered over what to do with them. Eventually nature herself decided the question: The sunken hulls had consolidated and enriched the sediment in which they lay, creating a valuable new ecosystem. So the armada remains where it is, the largest collection of wrecked ships in the Western Hemisphere.

(Thanks, Craig.)


perspective puzzle

AB and CD are consecutive ties across a pair of railroad tracks that appear to meet at O on the horizon, H. If the ties are parallel to the horizon and are equally spaced along the tracks, how can we draw the next tie in this perspective figure?

Click for Answer

As Directed

churchill prescription

After being struck by a car in January 1932, Winston Churchill found himself laid up in New York at the height of Prohibition. He convinced his attending physician to write the prescription above.

“I neither want it [brandy] nor need it,” he once said, “but I should think it pretty hazardous to interfere with the ineradicable habit of a lifetime.”


As military and computer technology exploded in the early 1960s, Raytheon compiled a helpful list of 400 “space-age” abbreviations:

CHAMPION — Compatible Hardware And Milestone Program for Integrating Organizational Needs
COED — Computer Operated Electronic Display
DASTARD — Destroyer Anti-Submarine Transportable ARray Detector
PIPER — Pulsed Intense Plasma for Exploratory Research

It published the list in a booklet titled ABbreviations and Related ACronyms Associated with Defense, Astronautics, Business, and RAdio-electronics — or ABRACADABRA for short.

Literate Art
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Spanish artist Jaume Plensa created El Alma del Ebro, above, for a 2008 exposition in Zaragoza on water and sustainable development. (The Ebro River passes through the city.) Visitors can pass in and out of the 11-meter seated figure, but no one has discovered a meaning in the letters that compose it.

lehmann print

Argentine artist Pablo Lehmann cuts words out of (and into) paper and fabric — he spent two years fashioning an entire apartment out of his favorite philosophy books. Reading and Interpretation VIII, above, is a photographic print of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” into which Lehmann has cut his own text — a meditation on “the concept of ‘text.'”
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Buenos Aires native Marta Minujin built a seven-story “Tower of Babel” on a public street to celebrate the city’s designation as a “world book capital.” The tower, 82 feet tall, was made of 30,000 books donated by readers, libraries, and 50 embassies. They were given away to the public after the exhibition.

The Hollowood Function

California high school student Derek Hollowood created this function after considering recurrence relations:

h(-10) = 0.987654321
h(-9)  =  0.87654321
h(-8)  =   0.7654321
h(-7)  =    0.654321
h(-6)  =     0.54321
h(-5)  =      0.4321
h(-4)  =       0.321
h(-3)  =        0.21
h(-2)  =         0.1
h(-1)  =           0
h(0)   =           0
h(1)   =           1
h(2)   =           12
h(3)   =           123
h(4)   =           1234
h(5)   =           12345
h(6)   =           123456
h(7)   =           1234567
h(8)   =           12345678
h(9)   =           123456789

(Thanks to Chris Smith for the tip.)

Blind Date

When I was 10 years old, a time machine appeared in my bedroom and my older self emerged and tried to kill me. He failed, of course, as his own existence must have shown him he would. But ever since I’ve wondered: This means that someday I myself must travel back to that bedroom and try to kill my younger self. And why would I ever do that?

This is not a logical or a metaphysical problem, but a psychological one. I can imagine being someday so depressed or ashamed or angry at myself that I’m motivated to travel back and try to erase my own existence. But I already know that the gun will jam. What earthly reason, then, could I have to go through the motions of a failed assassination? (Certainly we can imagine cases of amnesia, mistaken identity, etc., where such an action would make sense, but we’re interested in the basic straightforward case in which a time traveler interacts with his younger self — which surely would happen if time travel were possible.)

It seems that I must be motivated, somehow, in order for the appointment to take place, and yet the motivation seems to have no source. “In the present case, we have actions coming from nowhere, in the sense that no one decides, in the usual way, to perform them (or decides that they should be performed), and yet they are performed nonetheless,” writes University of Sydney philosopher Nicholas J.J. Smith. “The psychology of self-interaction is essentially different from that of interaction with others — because the former, but not the latter, involves the problem of agents knowing what they will decide to do, before they decide to do it.”

(Nicholas J.J. Smith, “Why Would Time Travelers Try to Kill Their Younger Selves?”, The Monist 88:3 [July 2005], 388-395.)

Podcast Episode 99: Notes and Queries

In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll take a tour through some oddities and unanswered questions from our research, including whether a spider saved Frederick the Great’s life, a statue with the wrong face, and a spectacularly disaster-prone oil tanker.

We’ll also revisit the lost soldiers of World War I and puzzle over some curiously lethal ship cargo.

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 this week’s feature:

The story about Frederick the Great is from Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s The Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, Allusions, References, Proverbs, Plots, Stories, and Poems, 1899.

The footnote about spiders and flashlights accompanies J.D. Memory’s poem “The Eightfold Way, Lie Algebra, and Spider Hunting in the Dark” in Mathematics Magazine 79:1 (February 2006), 74.

The case of the self-abnegating heir is cited as Beamish v. Beamish, 9 H.L.C. 274, 11 Eng. Rep. 735 (1861) in Peter Suber’s 1990 book The Paradox of Self-Amendment.

John Waterhouse’s 1899 proof of the Pythagorean theorem appears in Elisha Scott Loomis’ 1940 book The Pythagorean Proposition. My notes say it’s also in Scientific American, volume 82, page 356.

The story of the ill-starred oil tanker Argo Merchant is taken from Stephen Pile’s 1979 Book of Heroic Failures. For an exceptionally well-reported history of the ship, see Ron Winslow’s 1978 book Hard Aground.

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow recounts the story of Antoine Lavoisier’s statue in The Upright Thinkers (2015). A contemporary description of the unveiling is here, but it mentions nothing amiss.

Ross Eckler addresses accidental acrostics in Making the Alphabet Dance, 1997.

F.R. Benson’s iambic ponging is mentioned in Jonathan Law, ed., Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre, 2013.

William Kendal’s accomplished blanching is described in Eric Johns’ Dames of the Theatre, 1975.

In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson notes that Luigi Ferrari Trecate’s Improvviso da Concerto (1947), for the left hand, is dedicated to harpist Aida Ferretti Orsini, described as grande mutilata di guerre.

Mable LaRose’s 1897 auction is recounted in Pierre Berton’s The Klondike Fever, 2003, and Douglas Fetherling’s The Gold Crusades, 1997.

Listener mail:

Here’s the scene in which the dead of World War I arise in Abel Gance’s 1919 feature J’Accuse:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Price Tipping.

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.

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