Warming Up


Chapter 1 of Jack and Alice, a novel written by Jane Austen when she was 13 years old:

Mr. Johnson was once upon a time about 53; in a twelvemonth afterwards he was 54, which so much delighted him that he was determined to celebrate his next Birth day by giving a Masquerade to his Children and Freinds. Accordingly on the Day he attained his 55th year tickets were dispatched to all his Neighbours to that purpose. His acquaintance indeed in that part of the World were not very numerous as they consisted only of Lady Williams, Mr and Mrs Jones, Charles Adams and the 3 Miss Simpsons, who composed the neighbourhood of Pammydiddle and formed the Masquerade.

Before I proceed to give an account of the Evening, it will be proper to describe to my reader, the persons and Characters of the party introduced to his acquaintance.

Mr and Mrs Jones were both rather tall and very passionate, but were in other respects, good tempered, wellbehaved People. Charles Adams was an amiable, accomplished and bewitching young Man; of so dazzling a Beauty that none but Eagles could look him in the Face.

Miss Simpson was pleasing in her person, in ther Manners and in her Disposition; an unbounded ambition was her only fault. Her second sister Sukey was Envious, Spitefull and Malicious. Her person was short, fat and disagreeable. Cecilia (the youngest) was perfectly handsome but too affected to be pleasing.

In Lady Williams every virtue met. She was a widow with a handsome Jointure and the remains of a very handsome face. Tho’ Benevolent and Candid, she was Generous and sincere; Tho’ Pious and Good, she was Religious and amiable, and Tho’ Elegant and Agreable, she was Polished and Entertaining.

The Johnsons were a family of Love, and though a little addicted to the Bottle and the Dice, had many good Qualities.

Such was the party assembled in the elegant Drawing Room of Johnson Court, amongst which the pleasing figure of a Sultana was the most remarkable of the female Masks. Of the Males a Mask representing the Sun, was the most universally admired. The Beams that darted from his Eyes were like those of that glorious Luminary tho’ infinitely Superior. So strong were they that no one dared venture within half a mile of them; he had therefore the best part of the Room to himself, its size not amounting to more than 3 quarters of a mile in length & half a one in breadth. The Gentleman at last finding the feirceness of his beams to be very inconvenient to the concourse by obliging them to croud together in one corner of the room, half shut his eyes by which means, the Company discovered him to be Charles Adams in his plain green Coat, without any mask at all.

When their astonishment was a little subsided their attention was attracted by 2 Domino’s who advanced in a horrible Passion; they were both very tall, but seemed in other respects to have many good qualities. ‘These said the witty Charles, these are Mr and Mrs Jones.’ and so indeed they were.

No one could imagine who was the Sultana! Till at length on her addressing a beautifull Flora who was reclining in a studied attitude on a couch, with ‘Oh Cecilia, I wish I was really what I pretend to be’, she was discovered by the never failing genius of Charles Adams, to be the elegant but ambitious Caroline Simpson, and the person to whom she addressed herself, he rightly imagined to be her lovely but affected sister Cecilia.

The Company now advanced to a Gaming Table where sat 3 Dominos (each with a bottle in their hand) deeply engaged, but a female in the character of Virtue fled with hasty footsteps from the shocking scene, whilst a little fat woman representing Envy, sate alternately on the foreheads of the 3 Gamesters. Charles Adams was still as bright as ever; he soon discovered the party at play to be the 3 Johnsons, Envy to be Sukey Simpson and Virtue to be Lady Williams.

The Masks were then all removed and the Company retired to another room, to partake of elegant and well managed Entertainment, after which the bottle being pretty briskly pushed about by the 3 Johnsons, the whole party not excepting even Virtue were carried home, Dead Drunk.

“Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from truth, were burst by the Brontës or elaborately untied by George Eliot,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. “Yet the fact remains that Jane Austen knew more about men than either of them. Jane Austen may have been protected from truth: but it was precious little of truth that was protected from her.”

A Snow Dam

flateyri dam 1

The Icelandic fishing village of Flateyri was devastated when an avalanche buried 17 homes in 1995. To guard against further trouble, they built an earthen dam in the shape of an enormous A.

It worked: An avalanche struck the dam’s eastern wing in February 1999, and another struck the western wing the following March. Both were deflected harmlessly into the sea.

flateyri dam 2

Good Luck


C. Wiltberger created this allegorical map of temperance in 1838 (click to enlarge). The goal is to get from the Ocean of Animal Appetite in the west to the Ocean of Eternity in the east. It would be natural enough to investigate Indulgence and Generosity Islands, but this will lead you to Evil Company Island, and once you’re through the Devil’s Trap you’ll have to negotiate the Sea of Intemperance, with its islands of Murder, Arson, Larceny, and Quarrel. Beyond the Great Gulf of Wretchedness lies the Sea of Anguish, which puts you out at Suicide Island (and its capital, Spontaneous Combustion).

The better plan is to head north immediately and enter the Cold Water River at Hope Island. Bear south at Knowledge toward Cultureville and Mount Science and take the Tee Total Rail Road to the Sea of Temperance, and then head north through the Old Age Outlet past Comfortville and Restburg and safely into Eternity. (Beware the Gulf of Broken Pledges — even at this late stage, it will lead you directly to Desperation Point.)

My favorite part: Poverty Island has a port called Nosupper.

Podcast Episode 144: The Murder Castle


When detectives explored the Chicago hotel owned by insurance fraudster H.H. Holmes in 1894, they found a nightmarish warren of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which Holmes had killed dozens or perhaps even hundreds of victims. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the career of America’s first documented serial killer, who headlines called “a fiend in human shape.”

We’ll also gape at some fireworks explosions and puzzle over an intransigent insurance company.

See full show notes …

A Launching

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay erected this sculpture in Stuttgart in 1975.

The engraving appears meaningless until it’s viewed across a body of water — and the German word schiff (ship) floats reflected on the surface.

The Music Animation Machine

Berkeley software engineer Stephen Malinowski creates animated graphical scores of musical works.

“The vertical positions of the bars on the screen represent the relative pitches, while the color can represent instruments or voices, thematic material or tonality,” explains Crétien van Campen in The Hidden Sense. “When they are synchronized, the sound and image are easily linked in our perception. Musical structures like Bach’s canons or his many-voiced compositions thus become understood and accessible by means of a visual aid.”

There’s much more on Malinowski’s YouTube channel; here are some of his favorites.

For the Record

At one point in Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, the title character finds himself at the seaside and “lays in a store of sucking stones”:

They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones.

It occurs to him that this method won’t ensure that every stone is eventually sucked, and he works out a plan that will achieve this. This takes eight pages, “one of the longest and most detailed accounts of someone working at a mathematical problem in a work of fiction,” according to Richard Phillips in Numbers: Facts, Figures and Fiction.

Maddeningly, in the end Molloy throws away all the stones but one, “for they all tasted exactly the same.”

Banishing Gloom

quin historical atlas

For his Historical Atlas of 1830, Edward Quin took a different approach than other cartographers: Rather than present history as a series of discrete moments, he illustrates the growth of knowledge by covering the earth in obscuring clouds that are beaten back from panel to panel.

“In Quin’s Historical Atlas, the world is shown first in darkness, with clouds obscuring everything outside the Garden of Eden,” note Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg in Cartographies of Time. “Gradually, as history reveals more of the world, the clouds roll back. Turning the pages of the atlas is a bit like riffling through a flip book, watching darkness recede and the world known to Europeans grow.”

The Value of Research


In 1970, shortly after the first lunar landing, rocket scientist Ernst Stuhlinger received a letter from missionary Sister Mary Jucunda in Zambia asking how the government could justify spending billions of dollars on space exploration when so many children on Earth were starving to death. He responded with a story:

About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. ‘We are suffering from this plague,’ they said, ‘while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!’ But the count remained firm. ‘I give you as much as I can afford,’ he said, ‘but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!’

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

Stuhlinger’s whole letter is here (PDF). “Although our space program seems to lead us away from our earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars,” he wrote, “I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our earth.”

In a Word


n. swiftness, quickness, agility

n. the state of not having a husband

adj. leaping upon

adj. married

The Fenway Millionaires also have a ‘sleeper’ in Norm Zauchin, a massive fellow just out of the Army. Don’t underestimate him. When he was at Birmingham he pursued a twisting foul ball into a front row box. He clutched frantically. He missed grabbing the ball but he did grab a girl, Janet Mooney. This might not be considered a proper introduction by Emily Post but it worked for Zauchin. He married the gal. Nope. Don’t underestimate an opportunist like that.

— Arthur Daley, “Life Among the Millionaires,” New York Times, March 11, 1954