• Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys accepted responsibility for any snow that fell in Düsseldorf February 15-20, 1969.
  • Any three of the numbers {1, 22, 41, 58} add up to a perfect square.
  • Nebraska is triply landlocked — a resident must cross three states to reach an ocean, gulf, or bay.
  • The only temperature represented as a prime number in both Celsius and Fahrenheit is 5°C (41°F).
  • “A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.” — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

“I was tossing around the names of various wars in which both the opponents appear: Spanish-American, Franco-Prussian, Sino-English, Russo-Japanese, Arab-Israeli, Judeo-Roman, Anglo-Norman, and Greco-Roman. Is it a quirk of historians or merely a coincidence that the opponent named first was always the loser? It would appear that a country about to embark on war would do well to see that the war is named before the fighting starts, with the enemy named first!” — David L. Silverman

Lost Treasure


Robert Louis Stevenson’s original map of Treasure Island was lost during publication. He sent it to his editor and was “aghast” to learn that it was never received. “I had written it up to the map,” he wrote — most of the novel’s plot had been inspired by the picturesque map he had dreamed up at the start. Now he had to redraw it working backward, inferring the island’s layout from the descriptions in the text.

It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data. I did it; and the map was drawn again in my father’s office, with embellishments of blowing whales and sailing ships, and my father himself brought into service a knack he had of various writing, and elaborately FORGED the signature of Captain Flint, and the sailing directions of Billy Bones. But somehow it was never Treasure Island to me.

“It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important,” Stevenson wrote. “Even with imaginary places, [the author] will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.”

(From Stevenson’s “My First Book: ‘Treasure Island,'” first published in the Idler, August 1894.)

Northwest Passage

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Portland, Oregon, carpeted its airport in 1987, it chose a bold design in blues and greens rather than the unmemorable beige underfoot in most American terminals. Designer John Schleuning composed a pattern that reflected the airport’s intersecting North-South runways as seen from the control tower, and the result became a surprise hit, with its own Twitter account and 20,000 pictures on its Instagram hashtag.

Twenty-six years later, the unthinkable happened: The carpet reached the end of its life, and the airport set about replacing 14 acres of it, fashioning one 11×16-foot section into a memorial collage and giving away much of the rest as keepsakes.

The city went into mourning. “We understand that people have an emotional connection to the carpet,” Port of Portland spokeswoman Annie Linstrom told Portland Monthly, uttering this sentence for the first time in human history. The chief operating officer added, “Normally we do these ribbon cuttings when we’re introducing a new thing, but it’s actually the reverse of that in removing the old carpet. We’re going to miss the carpet and we appreciate the community and the love of this carpet.” The Monthly even published an elegy, “Ode on a Carpet,” by “T.S.A. Eliot.”

You can still keep the old carpet underfoot, though, for a price: Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has added the design to two models of his Adidas D Lillard sneakers, below, and you can buy some socks to go with them.


Polyglot Ten-Squares

Since 1897 wordplay enthusiasts have been seeking an order-10 word square — a 10 × 10 array of letters whose rows and columns, read in order, produce the same set of 10 words. In English this is so difficult that it’s been called the Holy Grail of logology, but the task gets dramatically easier when we increase the vocabulary, and one way to do this is to admit words from multiple languages:

A  A  N  G  E  H  A  R  D  E  Dutch
A  P  E  R  N  A  S  E  I  S  Spanish
N  E  C  E  L  I  S  T  V  I  Czech
G  R  E  N  A  D  E  R  E  N  Norwegian
E  N  L  A  G  U  N  A  R  E  Spanish
H  A  I  D  U  C  E  S  T  E  Romanian
A  S  S  E  N  E  R  A  I  S  French
R  E  T  R  A  S  A  R  S  E  Spanish
D  I  V  E  R  T  I  S  S  E  French
E  S  I  N  E  E  S  E  E  N  Finnish

Graham Toal produced this example, as well as 775 others, in 2004, to prove the concept; Word Ways editor A. Ross Eckler estimated that Toal’s program might produce 135,000 such squares. In 2004 Toal told Eckler that some further efforts were being contemplated using distributed computing, but I haven’t seen anything since then.

(A. Ross Eckler, “The Polyglot Ten-Square,” Word Ways 37:3 [August 2004], 207-208.)



From the Daily Telegraph‘s obituary of Charles Dodgson, Jan. 15, 1898:

The sayings attributed to him at Oxford would fill an entertaining volume of Carrolliana. Among other things, his ‘etymology of the bell’ is still quoted with relish by scholars. There was a provisional belfry at Christ Church College, which was familiarly known to Oxonians of the time as ‘the meat safe.’ Mr. Dodgson, undertaking to explain this epithet etymologically, split up the word belfry into two parts — the French word belle and the German word frei (free). Then he went to work as follows:

Belle = beautiful = comely = meet (meat);
Frei = free = secure = safe
Result: ‘Meat-safe.’

His nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, wrote, “No one who was not by nature a lover of logic, and an extreme precisian in the use of words and phrases, could have written the two ‘Alice’ books.”

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Podcast Episode 162: John Muir and Stickeen


One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska’s Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir’s most beloved stories.

We’ll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies.


In 1904 a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien sent this rebus to a family friend.

In 1856 Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner with a gold-headed cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Sources for our feature on John Muir and Stickeen:

John Muir, Stickeen, 1909.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, John Muir’s “Stickeen” and the Lessons of Nature, 1996.

Kim Heacox, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, 2014.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, “Stickeen and the Moral Education of John Muir,” Environmental History Review 15:1 (Spring 1991), 25-45.

Hal Crimmel, “No Place for ‘Little Children and Tender, Pulpy People’: John Muir in Alaska,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 92:4 (Fall 2001), 171-180.

Stefan Beck, “The Outdoor Kid,” New Criterion 33:4 (December 2014), 1-6.

Edward Hoagland, “John Muir’s Alaskan Rhapsody,” American Scholar 71:2 (Spring 2002), 101-105.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, “John Muir and Modern Environmental Education,” California History 71:2 (Summer 1992), 170-177.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “John Muir” (accessed July 2, 2017).

“John Muir: Naturalist,” Journal of Education 81:6 (Feb. 11, 1915), 146.

William Frederic Badè, “John Muir,” Science 41:1053 (March 5, 1915), 353-354.

Charles R. Van Hise, “John Muir,” Science 45:1153 (Feb. 2, 1917), 103-109.

Listener mail:

Delta Spirit, “Ballad of Vitaly”:

Wikipedia, Aftermath (2017 Film)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Überlingen Mid-Air Collision” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Anthony Breznican, “‘The Princess Bride’: 10 Inconceivable Facts From Director Rob Reiner,” Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 16, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Charlotte Kate Fox” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, Incubus (1966 film)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Esperanto” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Toño del Barrio, “Esperanto and Cinema” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Phonetical Singing” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Deliver Us (The Prince of Egypt)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis’ Now I Know enewsletter. (Warning: This link spoils the puzzle.)

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 http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, 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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Man of the Hole

For at least the last 20 years, a solitary indigenous man has been living entirely by himself in the Amazon rain forest. Known as “The Man of the Hole,” he’s believed to be the last surviving member of an uncontacted tribe.

His existence first came to light in 1996, and the Brazilian authorities launched expeditions to ensure his safety and preserved a 31-square-mile area in order to protect him from the encroachments of ranchers and loggers.

His nickname derives from the mysterious hole he digs in the floor of each of his palm thatch huts — more than 5 feet deep, rectangular, and serving no clear purpose. (A village of such huts had apparently been destroyed by settlers in 1996.) He’s been spotted a few times, a naked man with a bow and arrow who would now be in his 50s.

In 2009, gunmen believed to be ranchers attacked the man, but he’s believed to have escaped. Survival International director Stephen Corry told the Guardian, “His tribe has been massacred and now the ‘man of the hole’ faces the same fate. The ranchers must allow this man to live out his last days in peace on his own land, and the authorities must do all they can to protect it.”

(Thanks, Steve.)

Late Again

kendall/thomas railroad puzzle

A problem from P.M.H. Kendall and G.M. Thomas’ Mathematical Puzzles for the Connoisseur, 1962: A road runs parallel to a railway until it bends to cross it, as shown. A man normally cycles to work along the road at a constant speed of 12 mph, and when he reaches the crossing he’s normally overtaken by a train traveling in the same direction. One day he was 25 minutes late for work and found that the train passed him 6 miles before the crossing. What was the speed of the train?

Click for Answer