In 1925, 20 years after completing his work on the airplane, Orville Wright patented a spring-propelled doll:

This invention relates to toys and more particularly to that type of toy in which any object, such as a doll, is projected through the air and caused to engage and to be supported by a swinging bar or other suitable supporting structure.

I don’t know the story behind it. Orville was 53 years old. Neither he nor Wilbur had any children, and their sister didn’t marry until the following year.

Perhaps he was tinkering just to tinker. “Isn’t it astonishing,” he once said, “that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!”


In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.

Likewise, in Johann Tischbein’s 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.$2_reverse-high.jpg

And what has happened to Thomas Jefferson’s left foot on the back of the $2 bill? “Unless Jefferson can bend his leg in the wrong direction at the knee, it is hard to see how this foot can be attached to his leg,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “If it’s someone else’s foot, he is standing in a more incredible position yet.”

The $2 bill engraving is based on John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, below. But “The perspective is easier to judge in that painting, and the foot in question (definitely Jefferson’s) does not look so strange as on the bill.”

Match Point
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In all 50 states, it’s legal for second cousins to marry. So can third cousins, fourth cousins, and cousins of any higher degree.

Alex and Zelda are third cousins but cannot marry. Why? If they were not related, they would be perfectly eligible.

Click for Answer

In a Word

n. wrong opinion or doctrine

n. a recognition, an acknowledgement

adj. speaking the truth

Chlorine was at first thought to be an oxide obtained from hydrochloric acid, then known as muriatic acid, and was hence called oxymuriatic acid.

In 1810 Sir Humphry Davy realized that it’s an element and proposed the name chlorine, meaning green-yellow. Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius resisted this at first but revealed his change of heart unexpectedly one day, as overheard by his colleague Friedrich Wöhler:

One day Anna Sundström, who was cleaning a vessel at the tub, remarked that it smelt strongly of oxymuriatic acid. Wöhler’s earlier surprise sublimed into astonishment when he heard Berzelius correct her, in words that have since become historic: ‘Hark thou, Anna, thou mayest now speak no more of oxymuriatic acid; but must say chlorine: that is better.’

[Hör’ Anna, Du darfst nun nicht mehr sagen oxydirte Salzsäure, sondern musst sagen Chlor, das ist besser.]

In Humour and Humanism in Chemistry, John Read writes, “These words, issuing from the mouth of the great chemical lawgiver of the age, sealed the fate of oxymuriatic acid.”

Fresh Hell

The Battle of the Somme saw the advent of a frightening new engine of war. “A man came running in from the left, shouting, ‘There is a crocodile crawling in our lines!'” recalled one German infantryman. “The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came, to be a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this Colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next its yawning mouth would rear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.”

Interestingly, the first tanks came in two varieties, “male” and “female.” Males weighed a ton more and bore a cannon that the females lacked; early writers referred to “adventurous males,” “determined males,” “all-conquering females,” and “female man-killers.” Eventually the two merged into one standard design … called a hermaphrodite.

(From Peter Hart, The Great War, 2013. Thanks, Zach.)

Podcast Episode 119: Lost in the Taiga

In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”

We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

See full show notes …

Special Interests

harry burn

In the summer of 1920, as the states were considering whether to grant suffrage to women, Tennessee became a battleground. The 19th amendment would become law if 36 of the 48 states approved it, but only 35 had ratified the measure, and 8 had rejected it. Of the remaining states, only Tennessee was even close to holding the needed votes. When the state senate voted 25 to 4 in favor, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt wrote, “We are one-half of one state away from victory.” The final decision would fall to the state house of representatives, where it appeared poised to fail by a single vote.

On the morning of the vote, the General Assembly’s youngest member, Republican Harry Burn, who had been counted as a certain opponent of the amendment, received a letter from his mother:

Dear Son:

Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.

Your Mother

When his name was called, Burn said “aye” and the measure passed. The next day, he rose to explain his vote: “I want to take this opportunity to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification because: 1) I believe in full suffrage as a right, 2) I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify, 3) I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Building Schemes

In 1983, East Carolina University mathematicians Thomas Chenier and Cathy Vanderford programmed a computer to find the best strategies in playing Monopoly. The program kept track of each players’ assets and property, and subroutines managed the decisions whether to buy or mortgage property and the results of drawing of Chance and Community Chest cards. They auditioned four basic strategies (I think all of these were in simulated two-player games):

  1. Bargain Basement. Buy all the unowned property that you can afford, hoping to prevent your opponent from gaining a monopoly.
  2. Two Corners. Buy property between Pennsylvania Railroad and Go to Jail (orange, red, and yellow), hoping your opponent will be forced to land on one on each trip around the board.
  3. Controlled Growth. Buy property whenever you have $500 and the color group in question has not yet been split by the two players. Hopefully this will allow you to grow but retain enough capital to develop a monopoly once you’ve acquired one.
  4. Modified Two Corners. This is the same as Two Corners except that you also buy the Boardwalk-Park Place group.

After 200 simulated games, the winner was Controlled Growth, with 88 wins, 79 losses, and 33 draws. Bargain Basement players tended to lack money to build houses, and Two Corners gave the opponent too many opportunities to build a monopoly and was vulnerable to interference by the opponent, but Modified Two Corners succeeded fairly well. In Chenier and Vanderford’s calculations, Water Works was the most desirable property, followed by Electric Co. and three railroads — B&O, Reading, and Pennsylvania. Mediterranean Ave. was last. Of the property groups, orange was most valuable, dark purple least. And going first yields a significant advantage.

“In order for everyone here to become Monopoly Moguls, we offer the following suggestions: If your opponent offers you the chance to go first, take it. Buy around the board in a defensive manner (that is at least one property per group). When trading begins, trade for the Orange-Red corner as well as for the Lt. Blue properties. They are landed on most frequently and offer the best return. The railroads and utilities offer a good chance for the buyer to raise some cash with which he may later develop other properties. Finally, whenever your opponent has a hotel on Boardwalk, never, we repeat, never land on it.”

(Thomas Chenier and Cathy Vanderford, “An Analysis of Monopoly,” Pi Mu Epsilon Journal 7:9 [Fall 1983], 586-9.)


flip floppers 1

The leaders of Russia have been alternately bald and hairy since 1881.

And monarchs’ profiles on British coins have faced alternately left and right since 1653.

(The exception is Edward VIII, who stares obstinately at the back of George V’s head.)

flip floppers 2

The Absent-Minded Driver’s Paradox

absent-minded driver's paradox

A driver is sitting in a pub planning his trip home. In order to get there he must take the highway and get off at the second exit. Unfortunately, the two exits look the same. If he mistakenly takes the first exit he’ll have to drive on a very hazardous road, and if he misses both exits then he’ll reach the end of the highway and have to spend the night at a hotel. Assign the payoff values shown above: 4 for getting home, 1 for reaching the hotel, and 0 for taking the first exit.

The man knows that he’s very absent-minded — when he reaches an intersection, he can’t tell whether it’s the first or the second intersection, and he can’t remember how many exits he’s passed. So he decides to make a plan now, in the pub, and follow it on the way home. This amounts to choosing between two policies: Exit when you reach an intersection, or continue. The exiting policy will lead him to the hazardous road, with a payoff of 0, and continuing will lead him to the hotel, with a payoff of 1, so he chooses the second policy.

This seems optimal. But then, on the road, he finds himself approaching an intersection and reflects: This is either the first or the second intersection, each with probability 1/2. If he were to exit now, the expected payoff would be

\displaystyle E = \frac{1}{2}\left ( 0 \right ) + \frac{1}{2}\left ( 4 \right ) = 2.

That’s twice the payoff of going straight! “There appear to be two contradictory optimal strategies, one at the planning stage and one at the action stage while driving,” writes Leonard M. Wapner in Unexpected Expectations. “At the pub, during the planning stage, it appears the driver should never exit. But once this plan is in place and he arrives at an exit, a recalculation with no new significant information shows that exiting yields twice the expectation of going straight.” What is the answer?

(Michele Piccione and Ariel Rubinstein, “On the Interpretation of Decision Problems with Imperfect Recall,” Games and Economic Behavior 20 [1997], 3-24.)