First Things First

We [Einstein and Ernst Straus] had finished the preparation of a paper and were looking for a paper clip. After opening a lot of drawers we finally found one which turned out to be too badly bent for use. So we were looking for a tool to straighten it. Opening a lot more drawers we came upon a whole box of unused paper clips. Einstein immediately started to shape one of them into a tool to straighten the bent one. When asked what he was doing, he said, ‘Once I am set on a goal, it becomes difficult to deflect me.’

— Ernst Straus, “Memoir,” in A.P. French, ed., Einstein: A Centenary Volume, 1979

(Einstein said to an assistant at Princeton that this was the most characteristic anecdote that could be told of him.)

Podcast Episode 4: Mystery Airships, Marauding Lions, and Nancy Drew

In 1896 a strange wave of airship sightings swept Northern California; the reports of strange lights in the sky created a sensation that would briefly engulf the rest of the country. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine some of the highlights of this early “UFO” craze, including the mysterious role of a San Francisco attorney who claimed to have the answer to it all.

We’ll also examine the surprising role played by modern art in disguising World War I merchant ships and modern cars, discover unexpected lions in central Illinois and southern England, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Our post about the California airships ran on March 27. Note the similarity between the newspaper illustration of the “great airship” (above) and Scientific American‘s illustration of Moses Cole’s “aerial vessel” (below), which was patented on Nov. 9, 1886.

On Nov. 23, 1896, the Call published an interview (3.74 MB PDF) with San Francisco attorney George D. Collins, in which he described his wealthy client as “a resident of Oroville and a man of wealth, about 47 years of age, and a fine looking fellow. He does not talk for five minutes without convincing his hearer that he is a man of more than ordinary intelligence.”

The promised revelation never occurred, and Collins faded from the spotlight. The airship sensation spread east, sowing hoaxes as it went — here’s a photo of the 36-foot ship that “landed” in Waterloo, Iowa, in April 1897:

Thanks to Susan Smith-Josephy for her update on disaffected pedestrian Lillian Alling, whose story we told on Feb. 25. If we learn anything more about Lillian’s fate we’ll share it on a future show.

As we mentioned, Dalhart, Texas, is closer to six other state capitals than to Texas’ own capital, Austin. That’s true, but according to Wolfram Alpha, Mountain City, Tenn., is closer to seven other state capitals than to its own state capital, Nashville. All are also shorter drives, except for Columbus:

Mountain City, TN to Nashville: 278.6 miles, 332.1 driving
Mountain City, TN to Charleston, WV: 130 miles, 198.4 driving
Mountain City, TN to Columbia, SC: 174.9 miles, 207.5 driving
Mountain City, TN to Raleigh, NC: 182.3 miles, 212.1 driving
Mountain City, TN to Frankfort, KY: 206.2 miles, 280 driving
Mountain City, TN to Atlanta, GA: 238.3 miles, 302 driving
Mountain City, TN to Richmond, VA: 250.4 miles, 321.9 driving
Mountain City, TN to Columbus, OH: 250.8 miles, 358.6 driving

And Ewing, Va., is closer to eight:

Ewing, VA to Richmond, VA: 334.6 miles, 406.1 driving
Ewing, VA to Frankfort, KY: 133.2 miles, 172.7 driving
Ewing, VA to Charleston, WV: 153.9 miles, 219.6 driving
Ewing, VA to Nashville, TN: 189.8 miles, 248.6 driving
Ewing, VA to Atlanta, GA: 206 miles, 282.5 driving
Ewing, VA to Columbia, SC: 226.5 miles, 299.5 driving
Ewing, VA to Columbus, OH: 232.1 miles, 331.8 driving
Ewing, VA to Indianapolis, IN: 262.2 miles, 331.7 driving
Ewing, VA to Raleigh, NC: 273.2 miles, 345 driving

The Cumberland Gap region of Virginia is also closer to Montgomery, Ala., raising its total to nine.

Our post on the “dazzle camouflage” applied to merchant ships during World War I ran on April 1. Ron Hughes sent the following image of a car prototype bearing a vinyl “wrap” bearing a similar pattern:

car camouflage

And here are two more links describing the use of camouflage in attempts to thwart auto journalists from photographing prototype cars during road testing.

Our post regarding the lion that attacked the Salisbury mail coach in 1816 ran on Sept. 30, 2012. I’ve published F. Childs’ full poem about the episode in a separate post on this blog. If we learn anything more about “Nellie,” the Illinois lion rumored to be abroad on Robert Allerton’s estate in 1917, I’ll share it in a future podcast.

Futility Closet Challenge: For those looking for more examples of Tom Swifties, the canonical collection is here. Post your original entry below or mail it to by Friday, April 11. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Our post about Edward Stratemeyer and his novel-writing syndicate ran on Sept. 16, 2011. If you’d like to know more, the best source I know is Diedre Johnson’s Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (1993). An interesting side note from that book: In the early years librarians regarded Stratemeyer’s series with dismay and worried about their effect on children. In 1914 Franklin K. Mathiews, chief librarian for the Boy Scouts of America, began a campaign against them, writing:

One of the most valuable assets a boy has is his imagination. In proportion as this is nurtured a boy develops initiative and resourcefulness. … Story books … of the viler and cheaper sort, by over stimulation, debauch and vitiate. … As some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally ‘blown out,’ and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot.

Stratemeyer kept right on going. When his books were banned from the Newark Public Library, he wrote, “Personally it does not matter much to me. … Taking them out of the Library has more than tripled the sales in Newark.”

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to recount the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Grave Matters

In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?

Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”

But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”

The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”

The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:

First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

Second Clown: But is this law?

First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.


“[John] von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!” — Richard Feynman

He expands on this in Christopher Sykes’ No Ordinary Genius (1994):

“I got the idea of ‘active irresponsibility’ in Los Alamos. We often went on walks, and one day I was with the great mathematician von Neumann and a few other people. I think Bethe and von Neumann were discussing some social problem that Bethe was very worried about. Von Neumann said, ‘I don’t feel any responsibility for all these social problems. Why should I? I’m born into the world, I didn’t make it.’ Something like that. Well, I’ve read von Neumann’s autobiography and it seems to me that he felt perpetually responsible, but at that moment this was a new idea to me, and I caught onto it. Around you all the time there are people telling you what your responsibilities are, and I thought it was kind of brave to be actively irresponsible. ‘Active’ because, like democracy, it takes eternal vigilance to maintain it — in a university you have to perpetually watch out, and be careful that you don’t do anything to help anybody!”

Hans Bethe:

“Feynman somehow was proud of being irresponsible. He concentrated on his science, and on enjoying life. There are some of us — including myself — who felt after the end of the Second World War that we had a great responsibility to explain atomic weapons, and to try and make the government do sensible things about atomic weapons. … Feynman didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I think quite rightly. I think it would be quite wrong if all scientists worked on discharging their responsibility. You need some number of them, but it should only be a small fraction of the total number of scientists. Among the leading scientists, there should be some who do not feel responsible, and who only do what science is supposed to accomplish.”

Marvin Minsky:

“I must say I have a little of this sense of social irresponsibility, and Feynman was a great inspiration to me — I have done a good deal of it since. There are several reasons for a scientist to be irresponsible, and one of them I take very seriously: people say, ‘Are you sure you should be working on this? Can’t it be used for bad?’ Well, I have a strong feeling that good and bad are things to be thought about by people who understand better than I do the interactions among people, and the causes of suffering. The worst thing I can imagine is for somebody to ask me to decide whether a certain innovation is good or bad.”

Langton’s Ant

Set an ant down on a grid of squares and ask it to follow two rules:

  1. If you find yourself on a white square, turn 90° right, change the color of the square to black, and move forward one unit.
  2. If you find yourself on a black square, turn 90° left, change the color of the square to white, and move forward one unit.

That’s it. At first the ant will seem to mill around uncertainly, as above, producing an irregular jumble of black and white squares. But after about 10,000 steps it will start to build a “highway,” following a repeating loop of 104 steps that unfolds forever (below). Computer scientist Chris Langton discovered the phenomenon in 1986.

Will this happen even if some of the starting squares are black? So far the answer appears to be yes — in every initial configuration that’s been tested, the ant eventually produces a highway. If there’s an exception, no one has found it yet.

Rich Talk

Some favorite words of Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall, from his Limits of Language (2006):

  • klunen (Dutch): “to walk or run overland with skates on (usually from one body of frozen water to another)”
  • aɣone (Kuot): “to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle”
  • fringsen (German): “to steal coal from railway wagons or potatoes from fields in order to survive”
  • knedlikový (Czech): “rather partial to dumplings”
  • qamigartuk (Yup’ik): “he goes seal-hunting with a small sled and kayak in the spring”
  • baleŋga (Chavacano): “excessive swinging of arms while walking”
  • kallsup (Swedish): “a gulp of water that a bather accidentally inhales”
  • googly (English): “(of an off-breaking cricket ball) disguised by the bowler with an apparent leg-break action”

Gunwinggu, spoken in northwestern Australia, uses different verbs to describe the hopping of a black wallaroo (Macropus bernardus) (kamurlbardme), the hopping of an agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) (kalurlhlurme), the hopping of a male antilopine wallaroo (Macropus antilopinus) (kamawudme), and the hopping of a female antilopine wallaroo (kadjalwahme).

Asked and Answered

A college professor once offered the following creative final exam: Write a suitable final exam for this course and supply a key. The first paper handed in read ‘Final Exam: Write suitable final exam for this course and supply a key. Key: Any reasonable variation of the previous sentence = 100%.’

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998


Have no parts or joints.
How then can they combine
To form a line?

— J.A. Lindon


If human behavior is essentially rational, what are we to make of procrastination? I have to write a paper; it’s a requirement of the course, and I know I’ll be better off for writing it, but instead I alphabetize my spice rack. “The procrastinator is someone who knows what (s)he wants to do, in some sense can do it, is trying to do it — yet doesn’t do it,” write psychologists Maury Silver and John Sabini. Bewildered by his own delay, Hamlet says

I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do;”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.

“Hamlet knew what he had to do, wanted to do it, had the means to do it, and was prepared to do it — constantly — but was ‘unable’,” they write. Procrastination is “a psychopathology of everyday life, as curious to those who suffer it as to those who would explain it.”

(Maury Silver and John Sabini, “Procrastinating,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 11:2, July 1981.)

Black and White

carpenter chess problem

By George Edward Carpenter. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer
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