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O Beautiful


What’s more patriotic than Uncle Sam or a bald eagle? A bald eagle with Uncle Sam’s head!

This appalling statuette, patented by Mary Harris in October 1917, was so inspiring that it actually ended World War I. Apparently.


mcalpine folly

In 1976, when the United Kingdom’s Labour government was threatening to institute a wealth tax, Conservative Party treasurer Alistair McAlpine installed a new column at West Green House, his Hampshire estate. The inscription read:



This monument was built with a large sum of money which would otherwise have fallen, sooner or later, into the hands of the tax gatherers.

“The placing of the column so near the public road could with justice be called provocative,” wrote Clive Aslet in his 1986 biography of Quinlan Terry, who designed it. The tax was abandoned.



While on assignment aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Enterprise, Life photographer Bob Landry submitted a dubious expense report. The magazine wired him:


Landry wired back:


A More Perfect Union


The names of the 48 contiguous United States fall neatly into the two halves of the alphabet:

state names alphabetized

16 start with A-L, 16 with M-N, and 16 with O-Z.

Square Dance

paint scheme puzzle

From the 2001 Moscow Mathematical Olympiad:

Two stones, one black and one white, are placed on a chessboard. A move consists of moving one stone up, down, left, or right. The two stones may not occupy the same square. Does a sequence of moves exist that will produce every possible arrangement of the stones, each occurring exactly once?

Click for Answer

Figure and Ground


The tradition of flying a flag at half-staff began when a symbolic space was left at the top of the staff for the “invisible flag of death,” signifying death’s dominion over earthly affairs.

A riderless horse accompanies the funeral procession of U.S. military officers. The horse above, Black Jack, accompanied more than 1,000 such processions, including those for John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur.

When Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova died in 1931, her next show went on as scheduled, with a spotlight circling an empty stage.



“In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.” — William Kingdon Clifford

(He distilled this into a credo: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”)

The Puzzle of the Self-Torturer

You’re fitted with a watch that imparts an electric current to your skin in increments too small to distinguish. Initially it’s set to 0 (off), and the settings run up to 1000. At the start of each week you’re allowed a period of experimentation to compare various settings, and then the watch is returned to its last setting. Then you have the option to increase the setting by 1; if you do this, you get $10,000. You may never reduce the setting.

What should you do? On the first day your experimentation shows you that the highest setting is completely intolerable; at that setting you’d pay any amount of money to get rid of the watch. But on this first week your decision is simply whether to advance from 0 to 1, getting $10,000 for accepting an imperceptible amount of pain. That seems attractive.

The trouble seems to be that your evaluations are “transitive” only at a large scale. If you prefer 0 to 500 and 500 to 1000, then it’s valid to conclude that you’ll prefer 0 to 1000. But if you prefer 51 to 4 (because of the financial reward) and 103 to 51, can we conclude that you’ll prefer 103 to 4? Not necessarily.

Unfortunately for all of us, this describes a lot of life. “The self-torturer is not alone in his predicament,” writes philosopher Warren S. Quinn, who proposed this puzzle in 1990. “Most of us are like him in one way or another. We like to eat but also care about our appearance. Just one more bite will give us pleasure and won’t make us look fatter; but very many bites will. And there may be similar connections between puffs of pleasant smoking and lung cancer, or between pleasurable moments of idleness and wasted lives.” What’s the best course?

(Warren S. Quinn, “The Puzzle of the Self-Torturer,” Philosophical Studies, May 1990)

Open and Shut

pearson shutter puzzle

A poser by Cyril Pearson, puzzle editor for the London Evening Standard at the turn of the 20th century:

Upon the shutters of a barber’s shop the legend above was painted in bold letters. One evening about 8:30, when it was blowing great guns, quite a crowd gathered round the window, and seemed to be enjoying some excellent joke. What was amusing them when the shutter blew open?

Click for Answer

Weird Verse


H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales describe a world that’s literally beyond human understanding — his characters glimpse a universe ruled by monstrous gods whose very aspect imperils our sanity.

For his 2011 experimental poem Cthulhu on Lesbos, David Jalajel reflected this by taking phrases from Lovecraft’s 1928 story “The Call of Cthulhu” and arranging them into Sapphic stanzas without regard to conventional syntax:

Dark to visit faithful But Great had ever
Old The carven idol was great Cthulhu,
None might say or others were like the old but
Things were by word of

Mouth. The chanted secret — was never spoken
Only whispered. chant “In his house at R’lyeh
Dead Cthulhu waits of the found be hanged, and
Rest were committed

It ends, fittingly, on a fearsome but enigmatic note:

Prance and slay around in by sinking black else
World by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.
Knows the end? has risen may sink, and sunk may
Rise. and in deep, and

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