Out With a Bang


Raymond Richards had a peculiar notion of safety — his fire alarm, patented in 1966, consisted of a string of firecrackers:

[I]t is proposed to provide an elongated tube having a plurality of spaced firecrackers disposed in its bore, each firecracker having its own fuse located in proximity to a main fuse, the latter extending longitudinally through the bore of the tube, with its opposite ends being exposed for being ignited by an adjacent fire.

The tube of firecrackers would be pinned to a drape, and caps on the tube would discourage children from playing with it. What could go wrong?

Quick Thinking

Some “ridiculous questions” from Martin Gardner:

1. A convex regular polyhedron can stand stably on any face, because its center of gravity is at the center. It’s easy to construct an irregular polyhedron that’s unstable on certain faces, so that it topples over. Is it possible to make a model of an irregular polyhedron that’s unstable on every face?

2. The center of a regular tetrahedron lies in the same plane with any two of its corner points. Is this also true of all irregular tetrahedrons?

3. An equilateral triangle and a regular hexagon have perimeters of the same length. If the area of the triangle is 2 square units, what is the area of the hexagon?

Click for Answer

The Last Prisoner


After Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to Ulysses Grant in the parlor of Virginia grocer Wilmer McLean, relic hunters descended on the house. “Large sums were offered Major Wilmer S. McLean for the chairs in which the generals sat during the meeting — for the tables on which the writing was done — for substantially every article of furniture,” wrote correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader. Many souvenirs were taken without McLean’s permission — including the rag doll belonging to his 8-year-old daughter, Lula, “which the younger officers tossed from one to the other, and called the ‘silent witness.'”

In a 1951 Saturday Evening Post article, “The Lost Rag Doll of Appomattox,” Dorothy Kunhardt wrote, “Eighty-six years ago a little girl lost her rag doll. It was a very much hugged and slept with and beloved rag doll, homemade; no china head and kid-glove fingers and lacy dress, but stumpy burlap arms and legs, clothes assembled from the family rag bag and a small, potato-shaped head with not much stuffing on it.”

Philip Sheridan’s aide-de-camp Thomas William Channing Moore took the doll home with him to New York, and it was passed down within his family for 128 years. Finally, in 1993, when Moore’s grandson Richard died, his wife called the Appomattox park authorities to say that they were ready to return it. “The men in our family never wanted to give her up,” Marjorie Moore said. “The women thought Appomattox would be the best place for her.”

The doll resides today in the Appomattox visitors’ center, but perhaps that’s too late to redress the harm. Years earlier, after ranger Cynda Carpenter had told the story to one group of visitors, an older woman approached her and identified herself as Lula McLean’s great-granddaughter. “She said that Lula never got over the hurt caused by the loss of her doll,” she said. “She said that Lula told her, ‘The Yankees stole my doll.'”

What’s the Angle?

what's the angle puzzle

AB = XY. Find z°.

Click for Answer

Told You So

New Yorker Kam Brock was sedated and placed in a mental hospital last September because police thought she might be delusional — for one thing, she insisted that Barack Obama was one of her Twitter followers. The hospital set this as an objective for her release: “Patient will verbalize the importance of education for employment and will state that Obama is not following her on Twitter.”

It turns out that @BarackObama does follow Brock on Twitter — but the account doesn’t belong to the president; it was leased to a nonprofit by his campaign.

In 1980, 25-year-old Alfred Lawrence Patterson was admitted to Michigan’s Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital. He said that the Secret Service and Sen. Edward Kennedy had conspired to place him there.

In fact Patterson had been interviewed by the Secret Service after he’d sent a threatening letter to Kennedy; they concluded that he needed psychiatric care. (Impressively, Patterson won that year’s House primary from within the hospital, drawing 50 percent of the vote.)

When Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, began to claim that the White House was engaged in illegal activities, she was rumored to be mentally ill. But events proved her right. Nixon later told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Psychologists remember this as the “Martha Mitchell effect” — when a client insists that she’s being chased by the mob, or that the police have been spying on her, she’s not necessarily delusional. In the words of psychotherapist Joseph Berke, “even paranoids have enemies.”

(Thanks, Jason.)

The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance

Here’s an excerpt from Jude the Obscure:

Jude stood bending over the kettle, with his watch in his hand, timing the eggs, so that his back was turned to the little inner chamber where the children lay. A shriek from Sue suddenly caused him to start round. He saw that the door of the room, or rather closet — which had seemed to go heavily upon its hinges as she pushed it back — was open, and that Sue had sunk to the floor just within it. Hastening forward to pick her up he turned his eyes to the little bed spread on the boards; no children were there. He looked in bewilderment round the room. At the back of the door were fixed two hooks for hanging garments, and from these the forms of the two youngest children were suspended, by a piece of box-cord round each of their necks, while from a nail a few yards off the body of little Jude was hanging in a similar manner. An overturned chair was near the elder boy, and his glazed eyes were slanted into the room; but those of the girl and the baby boy were closed.

Suppose Hardy had added, “And this was all for the good, for there were too many children already.”

Many readers would feel their imaginative engagement with the narrative give out at this point. In reading fiction we seem to be quite willing to believe all manner of outlandish and unnatural things — magic, time travel, fantastic creatures — but when an author invites us to imagine a world in which the moral facts are different, we resist.

“Whatever speculative errors may be found in the polite writings of any age or country, they detract but little from the value of those compositions,” wrote David Hume in 1757. “There needs but a certain turn of thought or imagination to make us enter into all the opinions, which then prevailed, and relish the sentiments or conclusions derived from them. But a very violent effort is requisite to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind from long custom has been familiarized. And where a man is confident of the rectitude of that moral standard, by which he judges, he is justly jealous of it, and will not pervert the sentiments of his heart for a moment, in complaisance to any writer whatsoever.” Why is this?

(Stuart Brock, “The Puzzle of Imaginative Failure,” Philosophical Quarterly 62:248 [July 2012], 443-463.)

Easy Reading

Can you understand the meaning of this passage?

Interlingua se ha distachate ab le movimento pro le disveloppamento e le introduction de un lingua universal pro tote le humanitate. Si o non on crede que un lingua pro tote le humanitate es possibile, si o non on crede que interlingua va devenir un tal lingua es totalmente indifferente ab le puncto de vista de interlingua mesme. Le sol facto que importa (ab le puncto de vista de interlingua mesme) es que interlingua, gratias a su ambition de reflecter le homogeneitate cultural e ergo linguistic del occidente, es capace de render servicios tangibile a iste precise momento del historia del mundo. Il es per su contributiones actual e non per le promissas de su adherentes que interlingua vole esser judicate.

Remarkably, if you’re familiar with a Romance language or are an educated speaker of English, you probably can. It’s Interlingua, a language that combines a minimal grammar with a widely familiar vocabulary, making it unusually easy to learn and comprehend. Here’s a translation of the passage above:

Interlingua has detached itself from the movement for the development and introduction of a universal language for all humanity. Whether or not one believes that a language for all humanity is possible, whether or not one believes that Interlingua will become such a language is totally irrelevant from the point of view of Interlingua itself. The only fact that matters (from the point of view of Interlingua itself) is that Interlingua, thanks to its ambition of reflecting the cultural and thus linguistic homogeneity of the West, is capable of rendering tangible services at this precise moment in the history of the world. It is by its present contributions and not by the promises of its adherents that Interlingua wishes to be judged.

Devised in the early 20th century, the language is now taught in high schools and universities; among international auxiliary languages, it’s the easiest to understand without prior study.

More Fun

If the proportion of blonds among blue-eyed people is greater than among the population as a whole, is it also true that the proportion of blue-eyed people among blonds is greater than among the population as a whole?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 78: Snowshoe Thompson


In the 1850s, settlers in western Nevada were cut off from the rest of the world each winter by deep snow. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about their lifeline, Norwegian immigrant John Thompson, who for 20 years carried mail, medicine, and supplies through 90 miles of treacherous snowdrifts on a pair of homemade skis.

We’ll also hear listener contributions regarding prison camp escape aids in World War II and puzzle over how lighting a cigarette results in a lengthy prison sentence.

Sources for our feature on Snowshoe Thompson:

Alton Pryor, Classic Tales in California History, 1999.

Erling Ylvisaker, Eminent Pioneers, 1934.

Kay Grant, “‘Snowshoe’ Thompson: The Norwegian Who Mastered the Rugged Sierra Nevada to Deliver the U.S. Mail,” Wild West 18:4 (December 2005): 10, 68-69.

“‘Snowshoe’ Thompson Finally Gets His Due,” Deseret News, May 15, 1976.

Alan Drummer, “Miracle on Skis,” Milwaukee Journal, March 1, 1985.

Larry Walsh, “‘Snowshoe’ Thompson Knew How to Carry the Mail,” Pittsburgh Press, Feb. 26, 1992.

“Snowshoe Thompson,” Carroll Herald, Dec. 22, 1886.

Red Smith, “Snowshoe Thompson Would Have Chuckled,” Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 18, 1960.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, Snakes and Ladders.

“Clutty and His Escape Devices,” in Ian Dear, Escape and Evasion, 2004.

H. Keith Melton, Ultimate Spy, 1996.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 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.

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!

In a Word


adj. keeping silence, silent

As a joke, Elbert Hubbard published an “Essay on Silence” that consisted of 12 blank pages, bound in brown suede and stamped with gold. It was advertised with these testimonials:

“Your elaborate work on ‘Silence’ received, and perused this day. The depth of your argument is perceptible from the start. The continued logic is convincing to the end, and makes its impression on the attentive mind. It is singular how much can be said in a limited space. You are certainly master of our language.” — G.E.Nelson

“Kindly accept my heartiest thanks for your little volume on ‘Silence.’ The subject is treated so exhaustively, and in such a quaintly original manner, that it is beyond the pale of criticism.” — Alex L. Pach

“Your valuable ‘Essay on Silence’ is a masterpiece, for it appeals to one in purity, like a cloudless sky. The language is grand as the voice of God; the story it tells is as deep in its meaning as that which is written on the pages of the book of Nature.” — Albert J. Atkins

“Your ‘Essay on Silence’ is all that the bills promised, and could not be more to the point. Thirty cents is exactly the right price.” — Alice L. LeCouver

“It is with great pleasure that I have looked into your ‘Essay on Silence.’ There is nothing in it to prevent its becoming a classic. No word has been wasted, and there is not one line that can be misunderstood. In the perusal of many writings, we realize that the same thought has been framed in our own minds without having been given an utterance; and so it is that this last work of yours has found me most sympathetic and appreciative, for in turning over your pages I am struck frequently with resemblances to my own mental condition. Your little book is simple, direct and convincing. I am reminded, in putting it down, of a certain passage in the biblical story, in which it is set forth that from nothing God made heaven and earth and all that therein is, consequently it is not surprising that you in this case have done so well.” — George W. Stevens