A Long Visit


Your tedious nephews, Kerry and Kelly, are not honest, but they’re orderly. One of them lies Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and tells the truth on other days, and the other lies on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and tells the truth on other days. At noon, they have the following conversation:

Kerry: I lie on Saturdays.

Kelly: I will lie tomorrow.

Kerry: I lie on Sundays.

On which day of the week does this conversation take place?

Click for Answer

Practical Math

Sample questions from L. Johnson’s 1864 textbook Elementary Arithmetic Designed for Beginners, used in North Carolina during the Civil War:

  1. A Confederate soldier captured 8 Yankees each day for 9 successive days; how many did he capture in all?
  2. If one Confederate soldier kill 90 Yankees how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?
  3. If one Confederate soldier can whip 7 Yankees, how many soldiers can whip 49 Yankees?

Students were also asked to imagine rolling cannonballs out of their bedrooms and dividing Confederate soldiers into squads and companies. Let’s hope they didn’t take field trips.


night gallery

In the 1969 Night Gallery episode “Eyes,” Joan Crawford plays Claudia Menlo, a ruthless dowager who blackmails a doctor into performing a nerve transplant that will grant her vision for 11 hours. Afterward, alone in her apartment, she impatiently removes the bandages prematurely. She catches a glimpse of a crystal chandelier and then everything goes black. She rampages through her suite and collapses in tears, unaware that the city has suffered a power outage. At dawn, through dimming vision, she sees the rising sun, rushes to grasp it, and crashes through a window to her death.

Now: “How many things did Claudia Menlo see?” asks Dartmouth philosopher Roy Sorensen. “Most people say she saw only the chandelier and the sun (and possibly the pavement on the way down). But I say Claudia saw something in between seeing the crystal chandelier and the rising sun: the darkness of her blacked-out apartment. Claudia had never seen darkness before and mistook this visual experience for an absence of visual experience.”

Can we see darkness? Sorensen pictures a cave explorer in a completely dark cave. If the explorer is asleep and dreaming that he is in a completely dark cave, he does not see the darkness — but when he wakes up, he does. If the explorer then stands too quickly and the blood rushes from his head, he sees stars against an accurately perceived black background — the surrounding darkness. In contrast, his blind companion can’t tell whether the cave is dark; “only the sighted man can tell whether the cave is dark just by looking.”

This raises a puzzle: Suppose you’re in a light-tight container that’s suspended within a larger light-tight container. If the interior of the larger container is illuminated, then of course the darkness you see is the darkness of the smaller container. But what happens if the illumination of the larger space is turned off? You certainly can’t see beyond the walls of the small container in any circumstances. And only the larger container is blocking light. Does it follow that you’re seeing the darkness of the large container within the small container?

(Roy Sorensen, “We See in the Dark,” Noûs 38:3 [2004], 456-480.)

Podcast Episode 82: Stealing Abe Lincoln


In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre scheme, and uncover the secret society that was formed afterward to protect Lincoln’s corpse.

We’ll also puzzle over an overlooked way to reduce the odds of dying of a heart attack.

Sources for our feature on Lincoln’s bodysnatchers:

Thomas J. Craughwell, Stealing Lincoln’s Body, 2007.

Bonnie Stahlman Speer, The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack, 1997.

John Carroll Power, History of an Attempt to Steal the Body of Abraham Lincoln, 1890.

Thomas J. Craughwell, “A Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body,” U.S. News, June 24, 2007.

David B. Williams, “The Odd Reburials of Abraham Lincoln,” Seattle Times, April 13, 2007.

Ray Bendici, “Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body,” Connecticut Magazine, Nov. 12, 2013.

Don Babwin, “Presidential Heist,” Associated Press, May 13, 2007.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is adapted from a puzzle in Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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!

Home Free


A baseball poser from Clark Kinnaird’s 1946 Encyclopedia of Puzzles and Pastimes:

“In a spring training game with the Dodgers at bat, the first man up hit a triple, the second man hit a double, the third man hit a double, the fourth man hit a single, the fifth man hit a single, the sixth man hit a single. Yet the Dodgers did not score a run in that inning. How could this have happened? These were the only men who went to bat in the inning.”

Click for Answer

The Thought That Counts

A Mississippi soldier’s incoherent letter to his fiancée, quoted in Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb, 1943:

I can bare the Storms of the wintery Blast for thy sake oh Miss S.J.H be thou ever Bless as Butiful as thou art and idol to my throbbing hart oh had I the mind of the poet So that I could penetrate the verry depts of my hart but I can but express my Simple thoughts I am hear but my heart is Theire, we are in four miles of the yankees … could we not enjoy ourselves better if was at home with the girles … vainley I alas thou woulds soothe the pangs I feel, fond love betrayed what hopes I can poses Death alone my greaf may heal then farewell for ever more welth I have none they Farthers care thearefore I love one on Earth that I adore my only wealth is the love I bare then farewel perhaps for ever more never forsake me I Still will faithfull be Still on thy hand every bliss I will imploy Hence duty calls me they first my only love farewell perhaps for ever more but my hopes if far different I think will again meet if nothing happens more then I expect one thought from you would cheer my dropping mind I have more in my hart then ten thousand toungs can express if I had wings of and Eagle to the I would fly me thinks I can hear in my midnight drams thy Soft and gentle voice but alas when I awake I am in a Soldier tent

He adds, “I have nothing of importance to write you at this time but I will write soon and let you know all that happens.”


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Eight ways to pronounce the letter X, from wordplay maven Dmitri Borgmann:

eks: x-ray
gz: exist
gzh: luxurious
kris: Xmas
ks: sex
ksh: anxious
z: xylophone
__: faux pas

He adds three more: According to Webster’s Second Edition, xeres is an alternate name for sherry wine in which the X can be pronounced either as H or as SH. And arguably the X in except is pronounced like the letter K, as “the sibilant portion of the usual X sound has fused with the sound of the C immediately following.” If we accept these, then the total rises to 11.

(Dmitri A. Borgmann, “The Ultimate Homonym Group,” Word Ways 17:4 [November 1984], 224-228.)