In a Word

n. faint-heartedness

n. an inability to act decisively

n. a coward


“Heresy is the side that loses.” — J.V. Fleming


Horses are difficult to manage onstage, so in 1901 music hall performer Alexander Braatz invented this ingenious alternative. The actor’s own legs masquerade as those of his horse, and a system of levers and cords moves the hind legs as well.

False human legs are attached at each side to give the appearance that the performer is mounted; his real feet “are advantageously covered by large clumsy hoof-like coverings.” I suppose you could even race these things between rehearsals.

A Point of Law

A gentleman, who had been described as a ‘Pettifogger,’ accused another gentleman, whom he had styled a ‘Fish-fag,’ with an assault. It being a very intricate point, it was of course referred to the Lord Mayor. It stood as follows: — ‘Whether puffing a cloud of tobacco-smoke in a man’s face constituted an assault?’ After some grave consultation with that encyclopaedia of wisdom, Mr. Hobler, the decision ran thus — The Lord Mayor: ‘There has been no assault; nothing but words, words.’ — Complainant: ‘I beg pardon, my Lord.’ — The Lord Mayor: ‘Well, then, all smoke, if you please, or words and puffs. There have been no blows.’ — Now we beg his Lordship’s pardon. Pray what is a puff but a blow?

The Age, Aug. 8, 1830

Pointing Fingers

Only one of these statements is true. Which is it?

A. All of the below
B. None of the below
C. One of the above
D. All of the above
E. None of the above
F. None of the above

Click for Answer


More wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack:

  • Thirst after desert — not reward.
  • Gifts much expected, are paid not given.
  • Children and princes will quarrel for trifles.
  • Praise little, dispraise less.
  • The Child thinks 20 Shillings and 20 Years can scarce ever be spent.
  • Industry need not wish.
  • ‘Tis great Confidence in a Friend to tell him your Faults, greater to tell him his.
  • Neglect kills Injuries, Revenge increases them.
  • Observe all men; thyself most.
  • Do not do that which you would not have known.
  • He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now.
  • The honest Man takes Pains, and then enjoys Pleasures; the knave takes Pleasure, and then suffers Pains.
  • All would live long, but none would be old.
  • Nothing more like a fool, than a drunken man.
  • What e’er’s begun in anger, ends in shame.
  • As often as we do good, we sacrifice.
  • There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him.

And “Cut the Wings of your Hens and Hopes, lest they lead you a weary Dance after them.”

Podcast Episode 14: The Unsinkable Violet Jessop

Stewardess Violet Jessop was both cursed and blessed — during the 1910s she met disaster on all three of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of gigantic ocean liners, but she managed to escape each time.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Violet on her three ill-fated voyages, including the famous sinkings of the Titanic and the Britannic, and learn the importance of toothbrushes in ocean disasters.

We’ll also play with the International Date Line and puzzle over the identity of Salvador Dalí’s brother.

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt discusses his coin-flipping experiment about halfway through this BBC podcast. The associated website is here.

We first wrote about Violet Jessop on March 11, 2009. Maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham interviewed her in 1970 for The Only Way to Cross, his 1978 book about the era of ocean liners. When Violet died in 1971 she left a manuscript to her daughters, which, edited by Maxtone-Graham, came to light in 1997 as Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters. A poetic note from Maxtone-Graham in that book:

“One particular service commemorates the 1500 lost on the Titanic: Every 14th of April, a United States Coast Guard cutter comes to pay the homage of the Ice Patrol, which owes its inception to the disaster. With engines stilled and church pennant at the masthead, officers and men line the deck in full dress, while the commander reads the burial service. Three volleys of rifle fire can be heard, then the cutter passes on, leaving a lone wreath on the waves above the broken hull.”

Lewis Carroll underscored the need for an international date line with this conundrum, which he presented among the mathematical puzzle stories he wrote for the Monthly Packet in the 1880s:

The day changes only at midnight. Suppose it’s midnight in Chelsea; Wednesday has concluded and Thursday is about to begin. It’s still Wednesday in Ireland and America, and it’s already Thursday in Germany and Russia.

That’s fine. But continue in both directions. If it’s Wednesday in America, is it Wednesday in Hawaii? If it’s Thursday in Russia, is it Thursday in Japan? Mustn’t the two days “meet” on the farther side of the globe?

“It isn’t midnight anywhere else; so it can’t be changing from one day to another anywhere else. And yet, if Ireland and America and so on call it Wednesday, and Germany and Russia and so on call it Thursday, there must be some place, not Chelsea, that has different days on the two sides of it. And the worst of it is, the people there get their days in the wrong order: they’ve got Wednesday east of them, and Thursday west — just as if their day had changed from Thursday to Wednesday!”

Carroll normally presented the solution to each problem in the following month’s number. In this case he postponed the solution, “partly because I am myself so entirely puzzled by it,” and then discontinued the column without resolving the problem.

Further curiosities regarding the International Date Line:

Paul Sloane and Des MacHale have written a whole series of books of lateral thinking puzzles. This week’s puzzle on Salvador Dalí’s brother comes from their Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles (1998).

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. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Art Appreciation

thurber drawing

When James Thurber tried to improve his drawings, E.B. White told him, “Don’t do that. If you ever got good you’d be mediocre.”


A conundrum by French puzzle maven Pierre Berloquin:

Caroline leaves town driving at a constant speed. After some time she passes a milestone displaying a two-digit number. An hour later she passes a milestone displaying the same two digits but in reverse order. In another hour she passes a third milestone with the same two digits (in some order) separated by a zero.

What is the speed of Caroline’s car?

Click for Answer

A New Commute

In 1914, Russian physicist Boris Weinberg proposed an electromagnetic vacuum train that could move an individual passenger from New York to San Francisco in half a day. Reasoning that air resistance and friction are the greatest enemies to speed, Weinberg envisioned using electromagnets to suspend a car in a tube from which the air had been partially exhausted. An individual passenger would lie prone in a 300-pound iron cylinder drawn along by a series of solenoids. New passengers could be introduced into the system through an airlock at a rate as high as 12 per minute, “the whole proceeding being not unlike that of feeding cartridges from a belt or clip to a machine gun.”

Weinberg estimated a maximum speed of 500 mph. “Think what that means!” he wrote in The Popular Science Monthly. “New York would be no more distant from Chicago than it is now from Philadelphia, so far as relative times are concerned. Florida might easily become a kind of winter Coney Island for all New York.”

He built a model of the system at the Technological Institute of Tomsk, but the project never got off the ground (so to speak). One reason may have been the cost: In order to slow the cars gradually, each station would have to be 2 miles long.