In a Word

n. a traveling companion

adj. removed from one’s usual surroundings

n. things to be believed; matters of faith

David Livingstone reaches the Atlantic, May 31, 1854:

The plains adjacent to Loanda are somewhat elevated and comparatively sterile. On coming across these we first beheld the sea: my companions looked upon the boundless ocean with awe. On describing their feelings afterwards, they remarked that ‘we marched along with our father, believing that what the ancients had always told us was true, that the world has no end; but all at once the world said to us, “I am finished; there is no more of me!”‘ They had always imagined that the world was one extended plain without limit.

(From his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, 1857.)

Wild Life

The author of Bambi wrote a pornographic novel. Josephine Mutzenbacher: The Life Story of a Viennese Whore was published anonymously in Vienna in 1906, shortly after Felix Salten moved there. Salten’s authorship has never been proven conclusively, but the consensus of scholars and even the Austrian government supports it.

The book is the fictional memoir of a 50-year-old Viennese prostitute, looking back on her scandalous life. In The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, Harold B. Segel writes, “For those who knew him it was more in character than Bambi.”

It’s remained in print for more than a century now and sold 3 million copies. A sample in English (NSFW) is here.

Villarceau Circles

How many circles can be drawn through an arbitrary point on a torus? Surprisingly, there are four. Two are obvious: One is parallel to the equatorial plane of the torus, and another is perpendicular to that.

The other two are produced by cutting the torus obliquely at a special angle. They’re named after French astronomer Yvon Villarceau, who first described them in 1848.

The Ellsberg Paradox

Here are two urns. Urn 1 contains 100 balls, 50 white and 50 black. Urn 2 contains 100 balls, colored black and white in an unknown ratio. You must choose an urn and draw one ball from it, betting on the ball’s color. There are four possibilities:

  • Bet B1: You draw a ball from Urn 1 and bet that it’s black.
  • Bet W1: You draw a ball from Urn 1 and bet that it’s white.
  • Bet B2: You draw a ball from Urn 2 and bet that it’s black.
  • Bet W2: You draw a ball from Urn 2 and bet that it’s white.

If you win your bet you’ll get $100.

If you’re like most people, you don’t have a preference between B1 and W1, nor between B2 and W2. But most people prefer B1 to B2 and W1 to W2. That is, they prefer “the devil they know”: They’d rather choose the urn with the measurable risk than the one with unmeasurable risk.

This is surprising. The expected payoff from Urn 1 is $50. The fact that most people favor B1 to B2 implies that they believe that Urn 2 contains fewer black balls than Urn 1. But these people most often also favor W1 to W2, implying that they believe that Urn 2 also contains fewer white balls, a contradiction.

Ellsberg offered this as evidence of “ambiguity aversion,” a preference in general for known risks over unknown risks. Why people exhibit this preference isn’t clear. Perhaps they associate ambiguity with ignorance, incompetence, or deceit, or possibly they judge that Urn 1 would serve them better over a series of repeated draws.

The principle was popularized by RAND Corporation economist Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame. This example is from Leonard Wapner’s Unexpected Expectations (2012).

First Person!.jpg

When Elizabeth Thompson married Maj. Sir William Butler in 1877, she was already a respected painter of military subjects. But becoming Lady Butler gave her a unique opportunity: She could now watch maneuvers in person and even stand in front of charging cavalry to study the momentum of the horses.

The startling result, Scotland for Ever, depicts a head-on charge of the Royal Scots Greys, the cavalry regiment that Napoleon had hailed as “those terrible men on grey horses” at Waterloo.

The painting was an enormous success and became a symbol of British military heroism. The scene is a bit exaggerated — in their famous charge the advancing horses had never reached a full gallop due to the broken ground. But then most of the painting’s admirers would never have guessed that the artist had never witnessed a battle.

A Separate Peace

After 30 years of searching, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton thinks he’s found the “quietest square inch in the United States.” It’s marked by a red pebble that he placed on a log at 47°51’57.5″N, 123°52’13.3″W, in a corner of the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in western Washington state. The area is actually full of sounds, but the sounds are natural — by quietest, Hempton means that this point is subject to less human-made noise pollution than any other spot in the American wilderness.

Hempton hopes to protect the space by creating a law that would prohibit air traffic overhead. “From a quiet place, you can really feel the impact of even a single jet in the sky,” he told the BBC. “It’s the loudest sound going. The cone of noise it drags behind it expands to fill more than 1,000 square miles. We wanted to see if a point of silence could ripple out in the same way.”

His website, One Square Inch, has more information about his campaign. “Unless something is done,” he told Outside Online, “we’ll see the complete extinction of quiet in the U.S. in our lifetime.”

Podcast Episode 114: The Desperation of Donald Crowhurst

donald crowhurst

In 1968 British engineer Donald Crowhurst entered a round-the-world yacht race, hoping to use the prize money to save his failing electronics business. Woefully unprepared and falling behind, he resorted to falsifying a journey around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the desperate measures that Crowhurst turned to as events spiraled out of his control.

We’ll also get some updates on Japanese fire balloons and puzzle over a computer that turns on the radio.


The stones at Pennsylvania’s Ringing Rocks Park chime like bells when struck with a hammer.

Sand dunes that “sing” when walked upon are found at 35 sites around the world. In 1884 two scientists notated the sounds on a musical scale.

Sources for our feature on Donald Crowhurst:

Peter Nichols, A Voyage for Madmen, 2001.

Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, 1970.

Associated Press, “Briton Missing in Global Race,” July 10, 1969.

Associated Press, “Mystery Shrouds Lone Sailor’s Fate,” July 12, 1969.

Associated Press, “Search Ends for Voyager,” July 12, 1969.

Associated Press, “Lost Yacht Racer Sent Fake Reports,” July 25, 1969.

Associated Press, “Log Shows Yachtsman Never Left Atlantic in Race Round World,” July 28, 1969.

AAP-Reuters, “Lost Sailor ‘Stayed in Atlantic,'” July 28, 1969.

“Mutiny of the Mind,” Time 94:6 (Aug. 8, 1969), 59.

Ed Caesar, “Drama on the Waves: The Life and Death of Donald Crowhurst,” Independent, Oct. 27, 2006.

Robert McCrum, “Deep Water,” Guardian, April 4, 2009.

Alex Ritman, “First Look: Colin Firth Cast Adrift as Ill-Fated Amateur Sailor Donald Crowhurst in ‘The Mercy’,” Hollywood Reporter, June 17, 2016.

Listener mail:

Bob Greene, “The Japanese Who Bombed Oregon,” Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1988.

Nicholas D. Kristof, “Nobuo Fujita, 85, Is Dead; Only Foe to Bomb America,” New York Times, Oct. 3, 1997.

Ross Coen, Fu-Go, 2014.

James sent these additional links on Nobuo Fujita:

Tatiana Danger, “Visit the Samurai Sword of the WWII Japanese Pilot Who Bombed Oregon,” Roadtrippers, April 25, 2014.

Larry Bingham, “Oregon Coast Trail Dedicated for World War II Bombing,” Oregonian, Oct. 2, 2008.

Finn J.D. John, “The Flying Samurai Who Attacked Oregon,” Offbeat Oregon History, May 12, 2013.

Finn J.D. John, “A Town’s Special Friendship With Its Onetime Would-Be Destroyer,” Offbeat Oregon History, May 18, 2013.

William McCash, Bombs Over Brookings, 2005.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Doug Shaw.

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

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.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Road Work

Fed up with endless traffic detours in 1830, London printer Charles Ingrey published a pointed puzzle, Labyrinthus Londoninensis, or The Equestrian Perplexed.

“The object is to find a way from the Strand [lower left] to St. Paul’s [center], without crossing any of the Bars in the Streets supposed to be under repair.”

Mending our Ways, our ways doth oft-times mar,
So thinks the Traveller by Horse or Car,
But he who scans with calm and patient skill
This ‘Labyrinthine Chart of London’, will
One Track discover, open and unbarred,
That leads at length to famed St. Pauls Church Yard.

The image above is a bit too small to navigate, but the British Library has an interactive zoomable version (requires Flash).

I don’t have the solution, but The Court Journal of Dec. 14, 1833, hints that “the farthest way round is the nearest way home.”