Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is floating on the web — I don’t know who came up with it:

The geographical center of Boston is in Roxbury. Due north of the center is the South End. This is not to be confused with South Boston, which lies directly east from the South End. North of the South End is East Boston, and southwest of East Boston is the North End.

“We say the cows laid out Boston,” wrote Emerson. “Well, there are worse surveyors.”

Water Colors

Hawaiian artist Sean Yoro paints murals positioned near or in large bodies of water. He paints on the sides of shipwrecks, abandoned docks, and submerged walls, often on themes of climate change and rising sea levels, balancing on a paddleboard and using environmentally friendly materials.

“Combining both my art and environmental passions happened almost by accident at first, when I started creating murals along ocean walls,” he told the Met. “I always had underlying messages of sustainability and awareness, but this was the first concept I could literally combine these two aspects of my life influences into one. Every project since then has seamlessly integrated both values into their own unique stories naturally.”

“A Chess Packing Problem”

In 2006 Martin Gardner asked: Can you arrange the 16 non-pawn pieces in a standard chess set on a 5 × 5 board so that no piece attacks a piece of the opposite color? As in a conventional game, the two bishops of each color must stand on squares of opposite colors.

Click for Answer

The Dark Half

A puzzle from the 1997 Ukrainian Mathematical Olympiad:

Cells of some rectangular board are coloured as chessboard cells. In each cell an integer is written. It is known that the sum of the numbers in each row is even and the sum of numbers in each column is even. Prove that the sum of all numbers in the black cells is even.

Click for Answer


I just noticed this last night in Joseph Wood Krutch’s Treasury of Bird Lore — in 1832 ornithologist Alexander Wilson encountered a flock of passenger pigeons near Frankfort, Kentucky, that he estimated at 2,230,270,000 birds. If each bird ate only a pint of beech nuts in the course of a day, the flock would consume nearly 35 million bushels a day. A century and a half earlier, in 1687, Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan, reported that pigeons had “so swarmed and ravaged the colonists’ crop near Montreal that a bishop was constrained to exorcise them with holy-water, as if they had been demons.”

Yet by 1914 human rapacity had reduced the species to a single bird, Martha, who died that year at the Cincinnati Zoo.

See The Eighth Plague.

Podcast Episode 254: The Porthole Murder
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1947 actress Gay Gibson disappeared from her cabin on an ocean liner off the coast of West Africa. The deck steward, James Camb, admitted to pushing her body out a porthole, but insisted she had died of natural causes and not in a sexual assault. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the curious case of the porthole murder, which is still raising doubts today.

We’ll also explore another fraudulent utopia and puzzle over a pedestrian’s victory.


Soldiers in World War I described “shell sense” — an uncanny foreknowledge of imminent shellfire.

British artist Patrick Hughes creates three-dimensional paintings that reverse the traditional rules of perspective.

Sources for our feature on the death of Gay Gibson:

Geoffrey Clark, ed., Trial of James Camb, 1949.

Colin Evans, The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, 2007.

Robin Odell and Wilfred Gregg, Murderers’ Row: An International Murderers’ Who’s Who, 2011.

J.F. Northey, “Murder. Proof of Corpus Delicti,” Modern Law Review 15:3 (July 1952), 348-351.

Lee Aitken, “Interpreting R V Baden-Clay: ‘Discovering the Inward Intention’, or ‘What Lies Under the Veil’?”, University of Queensland Law Journal 35:2 (2016) 301-311.

Robert Kennaugh, “Proving Murder Without a Body,” De Rebus Procuratoriis 1969:24 (1969), 485-491.

Basil Hearde, “The Vanished Redhead in Cabin 126,” Sea Classics 35:2 (February 2002), 54.

T. Mervyn Jones, “Trial of James Camb (The Port-Hole Murder) by Geoffrey Clark [review],” Cambridge Law Journal 10:3 (1950), 492-494.

H.A. Hammelmann, “The Trial of James Camb by Geoffrey Clark [review],” Modern Law Review 13:4 (October 1950), 546-547.

Richard Latto, “Porthole Murder: Did Gay Gibson Die From Natural Causes?”, BBC News, March 22, 2018.

Laura Connor, “The Lady Vanishes,” Paisley [Scotland] Daily Express, April 7, 2018, 8.

John Macklin, “Deathly Nightmare Comes True; The Murder He Saw in His Dreams Was Soon to Become a Brutal Fact,” [Moncton, N.B.] Times & Transcript, Nov. 30, 2002.

“Murder Most Foul on Durban Castle: Liner Gains Notoriety After ‘Porthole Killer’ Dumps Woman’s Body Overboard,” [Durban, South Africa] Independent on Saturday, May 30, 2015, 11.

“Murder Conviction Without a Body,” [Wellington, New Zealand] Dominion Post, May 5, 2018, A.8.

Listener mail:

Cory Turner and Clare Lombardo, “The Town That Hanged an Elephant Is Now Working to Save Them,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, May 15, 2019.

Bill Metcalf, “Utopian Fraud: The Marquis de Rays and La Nouvelle-France,” Utopian Studies 22:1 (2011), 104-124.

Jordan Goodman, “Phantom Pacific Paradise: Was the Marquis De Rays’ New France a Cleverly Plotted Scam or a Fantasy That Went Horribly Wrong?” Geographical 83:6 (June 2011), 26.

Wikipedia, “Marquis de Rays” (accessed June 13, 2019).

Wikipedia, “De Rays Expedition” (accessed June 13, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Karl Hiscock. Here are two related links.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page 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 Thanks for listening!

Black and White

By K. Makovsky. White to mate in two moves.

In The Two-Move Chess Problem (1890), Benjamin Glover Laws calls the first move here “ideal” and “splendid.” “[I]t is not always a composer’s good fortune to strike a vein which is susceptible of such an excellent opening move as is illustrated in this problem.” What is it?

Click for Answer

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Reader David Kastelan just let me know about this — in 2015 someone scammed €80 million from wealthy victims by donning a silicone mask to impersonate French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Ostensibly he was asking for financial help in raising ransoms for journalists held hostage by Islamists.

“Everything about the story is exceptional,” Le Drian’s lawyer told the BBC. “They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it!”

Early contacts were made by phone, but eventually “Le Drian” appeared on Skype in a brief call from a poorly lit ministerial office. Many of the targets refused, but the Aga Khan lost €18 million, and an unnamed Turkish businessman lost at least €40 million.

No one knows who’s responsible, but one suspect is French-Israeli con man Gilbert Chikli. He’s currently in jail in Paris, and the calls have stopped, but it’s possible that other gang members are still at large.

Slime Computing

In 2012 computer scientist Andrew Adamatzky set a plasmodium of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum into a maze with an oat flake at its center. By following a gradient of chemo-attractants given off by the flake, the plasmodium was able to solve the maze in one pass, extending a protoplasmic tube to the target.

The original recording was made at one frame per five minutes; this playback is 25-30 frames per second.

(Andrew Adamatzky, “Slime Mold Solves Maze in One Pass, Assisted by Gradient of Chemo-Attractants,” IEEE Transactions on Nanobioscience 11:2 [2012], 131-134.)


“I once spent all day thinking without taking food and all night thinking without going to bed, but I found that I gained nothing from it. It would have been better for me to have spent the time in learning.” — Confucius