Creative Housing

In 2003, student Steven Stanzak found that he couldn’t afford to pay for room and board at New York University, so he took up residence in a subbasement of the school’s Bobst Library. He kept his belongings in storage lockers, showered at the gym, and did his homework at a local McDonald’s.

He managed to live this way for eight months. In April 2004, as the NYU student paper was preparing a story on him, the university’s dean asked to see him. Stanzak feared the worst, but the dean told him his initiative was remarkable and gave him a free room in one of the residence halls. “I wasn’t afraid of being thrown out of the library,” Stanzak told the New York Times. “I could have slept in the park. My worst fear was getting kicked out of N.Y.U. I love this school.”

In 2012 entrepreneur Eric Simons lived for two months at AOL headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., sleeping on couches, eating company food, and exercising in the company gym. He’d received a badge in order to participate in an earlier program and found that the badge kept working when the program disbanded.

“There were so many people going in and out each day,” he told CNET. “They’d say, ‘Oh, he just works here, he’s working late every night. Wow, what a hard worker.'”

A security guard finally caught him. He was thrown out, but no charges were filed. AOL vice president David Temkin said, “It was always our intention to facilitate entrepreneurialism in the Palo Alto office — we just didn’t expect it to work so well.”

Food Fight

W.S. Gilbert’s neighbor in the country was a partner in a firm that was famous for its relishes, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves. He had been made a baronet but “had grown very touchy about the source of his wealth and his title,” recalled DeWolf Hopper, “and was rather a hoity-toity neighbor.”

One day Gilbert’s dogs killed some pheasants on the man’s property, and he wrote a curt note of protest to the author. Gilbert wrote back:

Dear Sir Alfred:

I am extremely sorry about the loss of your pheasants, and I am taking steps to prevent my dogs from trespassing on your preserves in the future.


W.S. Gilbert

P.S. You will pardon my use of the word ‘preserves,’ won’t you?

In his 1927 autobiography, Hopper also recalls:

Someone once challenged Gilbert to make up a verse offhand riming the words ‘Timbuctoo’ and ‘cassowary’. He studied for a moment and recited:

If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo,
I’d eat a missionary and his hymn book too.


Many thanks to everyone who has contributed so far to the Patreon campaign to keep the site going. I’m very grateful for every contribution, of any size, but unfortunately the total so far is not enough to justify the many hours a week it takes to run the site.

Ad revenue is now so low that I’m going to have to start limiting the time I put into the site. I’ll continue to post 10-15 posts per month to Patreon, to thank those supporters; and I’ll post here as often as I can, but unfortunately the frequency will probably drop.

This site has always been close to my heart, so I’ve been trying for some time to find a way forward. Unfortunately I’m having to start facing some harsh realities. I’m still hopeful that if either traffic or pledges increase I’ll be able to resume a more normal schedule. I’ll continue to post updates here; you can reach me at

Quick Thinking

From a letter by Lewis Carroll, about 1848:

I have not yet been able to get the second volume Macaulay’s ‘England’ to read. I have seen it however and one passage struck me when seven bishops had signed the invitation to the pretender, and King James sent for Bishop Compton (who was one of the seven) and asked him ‘whether he or any of his ecclesiastical brethren had anything to do with it?’ He replied, after a moment’s thought ‘I am fully persuaded your majesty, that there is not one of my brethren who is not as innocent in the matter as myself.’

“This was certainly no actual lie,” Carroll wrote, “but certainly, as Macaulay says, it was very little different from one.”

Cube Route

You’re planning to make the wire skeleton of a cube by arranging 12 equal lengths of wire as shown and soldering them at the corners.

It occurs to you that you might be able to simplify the job by using one or more longer lengths of wire and bending them into right angles at the cube’s corners.

If you adopt that plan, what’s the smallest number of corners where soldering will still be necessary?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 61: The Strange Custom of Garden Hermits

In 18th-century England, wealthy landowners would sometimes hire people to live as hermits in secluded corners of their estates. In today’s show we’ll explore this odd custom and review the job requirements for life as a poetic recluse.

We’ll also meet a German novelist who popularized an American West he had never seen and puzzle over some very generous bank robbers.

Sources for our feature on ornamental hermits:

Gordon Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden, 2013.

Alice Gregory, “Garden Hermit Needed. Apply Within,” Boston Globe, May 19, 2013.

Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things, 1857.

Edith Sitwell, The English Eccentrics, 1933.

John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1875.

Allison Meier, “Before the Garden Gnome, The Ornamental Hermit: A Real Person Paid to Dress Like a Druid,” Atlas Obscura, March 18, 2014 (accessed June 9, 2015).

Graeme Wood’s article “The Lost Man,” describing the latest efforts to identify the Somerton Man, appeared in the California Sunday Magazine on June 7, 2015. The case concerns an unidentified corpse discovered on a South Australian beach in December 1948; for the full story see our Episode 25.

University of Adelaide physicist Derek Abbott’s Indiegogo campaign to identify the man runs through June 28. There’s also a petition to urge the attorney general of South Australia to exhume the body so that autosomal DNA can be extracted.

Sources for Sharon’s discussion of German author Karl May’s fictional Apache chief Winnetou:

Michael Kimmelman, “Fetishizing Native Americans: In Germany, Wild for Winnetou,” Spiegel Online, Sept. 13, 2007 (accessed June 11, 2015).

Rivka Galchen, “Wild West Germany: Why Do Cowboys and Indians So Captivate the Country?”, New Yorker, April 9, 2012 (accessed June 11, 2015).

winnetou headline

Winnetou is so popular in Germany that the death this month of French actor Pierre Brice, who played him in the movies, was front-page news. (Thanks, Hanno.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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Weighing in Verse

How can you find one bad coin among 12 using only three weighings in a pan balance? We published the classic solution in November 2013, but a clever alternative appeared in Eureka in October 1950. Here the aspiring counterfeiter is named Felix Fiddlesticks, and he’s trying to find the coin for this mother:

F set the coins out in a row
And chalked on each a letter, so,
To form the words: “F AM NOT LICKED”
(An idea in his brain had clicked).

And now his mother he’ll enjoin:

weighing in verse table

This plan will reveal the bad coin no matter which it is. For instance, if the coin marked O is heavy, then in the first two weighings the left pan will drop, and in the third weighing it will rise; no other bad coin will produce this result. The plan will also reveal reliably whether the bad coin is heavy or light.

Such cases number twenty-five,
And by F’s scheme we so contrive
No two agree in their effect,
As is with pen and patience checked:
And so the dud is found. Be as it may
It only goes to show CRIME DOES NOT PAY.

(Cedric Smith, “The Twelve Coin Problem,” The Mathematical Gazette, Vol. 89, No. 515 [July 2005], pp. 280-281. A generalized algorithm for solving such a problem for any number of coins is given by Michael Weatherfield in the same issue, pp. 275-279.)

Riddles in the Dark

In 1904, a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien sent this rebus to a family friend, Father Francis Morgan. What does it say?

Click for Answer

The Road Not Taken

“You know, many a man realizes late in life that if when he was a boy he had known what he knows now, instead of being what he is he might be what he won’t; but how few boys stop to think that if they knew what they don’t know instead of being what they will be, they wouldn’t be?” — Stephen Leacock, How to Make a Million Dollars, 1910

There was a young man of Cadiz,
Who inferred that life is what it is,
For he early had learnt,
If it were what it weren’t,
It could not be that which it is.

— J. St. Loe Strachey (editor of The Spectator)

Practical Politics

On May 22, 1856, South Carolina representative Preston Brooks approached Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the U.S. Senate chamber. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Then he began to beat Sumner savagely with his gold-headed walking cane. Blinded with blood, Sumner at first was trapped under the desk, which was bolted to the floor, but he wrenched it free and staggered up the aisle, Brooks raining blows on his head until the cane snapped and Sumner collapsed unconscious. Even then Brooks held him by the lapel and continued to beat him with half the cane until the two were separated.

Sumner had denounced South Carolina senator Andrew Butler in a speech two days earlier in a dispute over slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Brooks was convicted of assault and fined $300, but he received no prison sentence, and his constituents returned him to office. Pro-slavery Southerners sent him hundreds of new canes, one inscribed “Hit him again.”

On Nov. 9, 1889, Col. A.M. Swope encountered Col. William Cassius Goodloe in the corridor of the Lexington, Ky., post office. The two had been battling for control of the state Republican party, and tragically they had adjoining mailboxes.

“You obstruct the way,” said Goodloe.

“You spoke to me,” said Swope. “You insulted me.”

Goodloe drew a knife. Swope drew a Smith & Wesson .38. Goodloe stabbed Swope 13 times, piercing his heart and nearly cutting off his hand. Swope shot Goodloe twice, tearing up his belly and setting his clothes afire. Swope died on the post office floor, and Goodloe staggered to a doctor’s office. He died two days later.

One witness said he never thought he would witness “such a magnificent display of manly courage and bravery.” Goodloe’s uncle, Cassius M. Clay, said of his nephew’s conduct, “I couldn’t have done better myself.”