Take Two


Ulysses, Kansas, moved. Founded in 1885, the town thrived at first, but after four years a drought arrived, and by 1906 the population had dwindled from 1500 to 100. Worse, during the boom years the town had sold thousands of dollars’ worth of bonds to finance improvements that were never made. When East Coast bondholders began to sue, the city fathers were forced to raise the taxes of the remaining residents in order to meet the judgments.

After a year of this, in February 1909, the people of Ulysses decided as a body to give up and start over. They cut their builings into sections, moved them two miles west on horse-drawn sledges, and established “New Ulysses.” The lots on the old site were deeded back to the bondholders, and the new town became the county seat in June.

The Hotel Edwards, above, is the only remaining business building from “Old Ulysses.” It rests today on the grounds of the Grant County Museum.



I just stumbled across this — in May 1938 Weird Tales published an “acrostic sonnet” by H.P. Lovecraft:

Eternal brood the shadows on this ground,
Dreaming of centuries that have gone before;
Great elms rise solemnly by slab and mound,
Arch’d high above a hidden world of yore.
Round all the scene a light of memory plays,
And dead leaves whisper of departed days,
Longing for sights and sounds that are no more.

Lonely and sad, a spectre glides along
Aisles where of old his living footsteps fell;
No common glance discerns him, tho’ his song
Peals down thro’ time with a mysterious spell:
Only the few who sorcery’s secret know
Espy amidst these tombs the shade of Poe.

The lines’ initial letters spell out EDGAR ALLAN POE.

Tech Talk


Reviewing Heathcote Statham’s book Form and Design in Music in 1893, George Bernard Shaw decried the “insufferable affectation” of music criticism. He quoted Statham’s analysis of a Mozart symphony:

The principal subject, hitherto only heard in the treble, is transferred to the bass (Ex. 28), the violins playing a new counterpoint to it instead of the original mere accompaniment figure of the first part. Then the parts are reversed, the violins taking the subject and the basses the counterpoint figure, and so on till we come to a close on the dominant of D minor, a nearly related key (commencement of Ex. 29) and then comes the passage by which we return to the first subject in its original form and key.

“How succulent this is,” Shaw wrote, “and how full of Mesopotamian words like ‘the dominant of D minor.’ I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated ‘analysis’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style”:

Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.

“I break off here, because, to confess the truth, my grammar is giving out,” he wrote. “But I want to know whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; while the more a music critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.”

(From The World, May 31, 1893.)

A Narrowing Window

In 2006 I noted this excerpt from Lillie de Hagermann-Lindencrone’s 1912 book In the Courts of Memory:

I sang, and thought I sang very well; but he just looked up into my face with a very quizzical expression, and said, ‘How long have you been singing, Mademoiselle?’

The bolded section is a “pangrammatic window,” a string of naturally occurring text that contains all the letters of the (English) alphabet. This one is 56 letters long.

That was nine years ago. Can we do better? In 2012 a 42-letter example was discovered in Piers Anthony’s novel Cube Route:

‘We are all from Xanth,’ Cube said quickly. ‘Just visiting Phaze. We just want to find the dragon.’

Last year, Jesse Sheidlower wrote a bot that retweets pangrams that it finds on Twitter. Inspired by this, Google software engineer Malcolm Rowe set out to search first Project Gutenberg and then the web for the shortest possible window. Remarkably, he found one of only 36 letters, in a review of the film Magnolia by Todd Ramlow, for PopMatters:

Further, fractal geometries are replicated on a human level in the production of certain ‘types’ of subjectivity: for example, aging kid quiz show whiz Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and up and coming kid quiz show whiz Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) are connected (or, perhaps, being cloned) in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.

(The link seems to be down at the moment.)

“I’m pretty impressed by this result,” Rowe writes. “It’s only one letter longer than “The quick brown fox …”, and while that’s not the shortest possible pangram by far, it is one of the more coherent ones.”

(Thanks, Malcolm.)

No Waiting

Image: Flickr

For Fuse 18, the experimental typographic publication that appeared in February 2001, type designer Matthew Carter reflected on the grand lettering that appears on public buildings: It’s meant to last for eternity, but inevitably it’s effaced by weather, by other inscriptions, and by the graffiti of vandals.

So, wryly, he offered DeFace, which speeds up the process.

“This typeface,” he wrote, “contains a set of inscriptional capitals that are self-vandalizing: each letter has graffiti associated with it that deface neighboring letters. Depending on the text, the graffiti can vandalize both the underlying capitals and other graffiti to make a palimpsest of marks that are individually legible but obscure in combination.”

Podcast Episode 74: Charley Parkhurst’s Secret


“One-Eyed Charley” Parkhurst drove a stagecoach throughout California during the height of the Gold Rush, rising to the top of a difficult, dangerous, and highly competitive profession at its historic peak. Only after his death in 1879 at age 67 was it discovered that Charley was a woman. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell what’s known of Charley Parkhurst’s courageous and enigmatic life story.

We’ll also hear listeners’ input on the legalities of an anti-Christian town and puzzle over a lucky driver and his passenger.

Sources for our feature on Charley Parkhurst:

Dan L. Thrapp, ed., Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, 1991.

Gloria G. Harris and Hannah S. Cohen, Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present, 2012.

Alton Pryor, Fascinating Women in California History, 2003.

“Thirty Years in Disguise,” New York Times, Jan. 9, 1880.

Mark McLaughlin, “Sierra History: The Strange Tale of Stagecoach Driver Charley Parkhurst,” Tahoe Daily Tribune, July 11, 2015.

“The Secret of One-Eyed Charley,” Palm Beach Post, June 29, 1958.


This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jillian Caldwell, 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!

Ancient Wordplay

The 19th canto of the Sanskrit epic poem Shishupala Vadha is a tour de force of ingenious wordplay, including double meanings, constrained writing, and concrete poetry. The 27th stanza has been called “the most complex and exquisite type of palindrome ever invented” — it produces the same text when read forward, backward, down, or up:


“[That army], which relished battle, contained allies who brought low the bodies and gaits of their various striving enemies, and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments.”

The Babylonian Theodicy is a cuneiform poem of 27 stanzas of 11 lines each. All the sentences in each stanza begin with the same sign, and if these signs are read in order, they produce an acrostic that identifies the author:

a-na-ku sa-ag-gi-il-ki-i-na-am-ub-bi-ib ma-áš-ma-šu ka-ri-bu ša i-li ú šar-ri

“I, Saggil-kīnam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king.”

See also The Star Gauge. (Thanks, Sujan.)