The Boekenkast
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the Kinkerbuurt, Amsterdam, the streets are named after Dutch poets and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Correspondingly, Yugoslavian artist Sanja Medic transformed the façade of a local building into a case holding 250 ceramic “books” by these authors.

It’s a substantial library — each volume weighs more than 25 kg, so the frontage had to be reinforced to support them.

In a Word

adv. not long ago, recently, lately

n. liability to be forgotten

adj. expressed merely by a gesture

n. an inference; conclusion

Norbert Wiener of MIT was well known as an extreme example of someone who could get lost in thought. Once while walking on campus, Wiener met an acquaintance, and after a while he asked his companion: ‘Which way was I walking when we met?’ The man pointed, and Wiener said, ‘Good. Then I’ve had my lunch.’

— Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner, Loving and Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life, 2010

Straight and Narrow

English philanthropist Lady Jane Stanley financed footpaths through her native Knutsford with an odd proviso:

For some unknown reason Lady Jane disliked to see men and women linked together, i.e. walking arm in arm; and in her donations for the pavement of the town, provided that a single flag in breadth should be the limit of her generosity,– but she did not specify how broad the single flag was to be, and I fear her wishes are evaded, and the disapproved linking together often indulged in: the chief security for her order being observed is the disagreeable fact that in many places the streets and consequently the raised pavements are too narrow to allow of more than a very slender foot-path, so that if the lasses occupy the flags, the swains must either walk behind, or pick their way in the channel.

Never married, she composed her own epitaph:

A maid I lived,– a maid I died,–
I never was asked,– and never denied.

(From Henry Green, Knutsford, Its Traditions and History, 1859.)


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Podcast Episode 320: John Hornby and the Barren Lands
Image: Wikimedia Commons

John Hornby left a privileged background in England to roam the vast subarctic tundra of northern Canada. There he became known as “the hermit of the north,” famous for staying alive in a land with very few resources. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll spend a winter with Hornby, who’s been called “one of the most colorful adventurers in modern history.”

We’ll also consider an anthropologist’s reputation and puzzle over an unreachable safe.


In 1902, Ambrose Bierce proposed that we learn to sever our social ties.

Can it make sense to pray for a change in the past?

Sources for our feature on John Hornby:

Malcolm Waldron, Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands, 1931.

Pierre Berton, Prisoners of the North, 2011.

David F. Pelly, Thelon: A River Sanctuary, 1996.

Morten Asfeldt and Bob Henderson, eds., Pike’s Portage: Stories of a Distinguished Place, 2010.

Misao Dean, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: The Canoe in Discourses of English-Canadian Nationalism, 2013.

Michael D. Pitt, Beyond the End of the Road: A Winter of Contentment North of the Arctic Circle, 2009.

Mckay Jenkins, Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness and Murder in the Arctic Barren Lands, 2007.

Clive Powell-Williams, Cold Burial: A True Story of Endurance and Disaster, 2003.

Brook Sutton, “Long Before McCandless, John Hornby Tested Himself in Northern Canada — and Failed,” Adventure Journal, Oct. 27, 2016.

C.B. Sikstrom, “Hjalmar Nelson Hamar (1894–1967),” Arctic 67:3 (2014), 407-409.

Alex M. Hall, “Pike’s Portage: Stories of a Distinguised Place, Edited by Morten Asfeldt and Bob Henderson,” Arctic 63:3 (2010), 364-365.

David F. Pelly, “Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands,” Arctic 53:1 (March 2000), 81-82.

Hugh Stewart, “Arctic Profiles: John Hornby,” Arctic 37:2 (June 1984), 184-185.

M.T. Kelly, “Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands,” Books in Canada 27:7 (October 1998), 29.

Thomas H. Hill, “John Hornby: Legend or Fool,” Torch Magazine 89:2 (Winter 2016), 6-9.

Martin Zeilig, “Touring Canada’s Untouched North a Treat,” [Regina, Sask.] Leader Post, Oct. 27, 2006, F2.

“Privation and Death in ‘the Barrens,'” Toronto Star, Aug. 9, 1987, A8.

Anne Ross, “John Hornby,” Globe and Mail, March 21, 1978, P.6.

George J. Lustre, “Hornby’s Adventures,” Globe and Mail, March 10, 1978, P.7.

Allan Irving, “John Hornby,” Globe and Mail, March 9, 1978, P.6.

“Last Hours of John Hornby Are Pictured by Christian,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, Dec. 31, 1929, 2.

“Bodies of Three Explorers Found,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, Sept. 6, 1928, 29.

“Identity of Bodies Not Entirely Clear,” New Britain [Conn.] Herald, Aug. 15, 1928, 10.

“Musk-Ox Sanctuary,” Montreal Gazette, Aug. 26, 1927.

James Charles Critchell Bullock Archive, Sherborne School, June 1, 2015.

John Ferns, “Hornby, John,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (accessed Nov. 8, 2020).

Listener mail:

“Building Name Review: Kroeber Hall,” Berkeley: Office of the Chancellor (accessed Nov. 7, 2020).

“Proposal to Un-Name Kroeber Hall,” UC Berkeley Building Name Review Committee, July 1, 2020.

Karl Kroeber and Clifton B. Kroeber, Ishi in Three Centuries, 2003.

Vicky Baker, “Last Survivor: The Story of the ‘World’s Loneliest Man,'” BBC News, July 20, 2018.

Dom Phillips, “Footage of Sole Survivor of Amazon Tribe Emerges,” Guardian, July 19, 2018.

Monte Reel, “The Most Isolated Man on the Planet,” Slate, Aug. 20, 2010.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

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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!


In 2014, after receiving dozens of unsolicited emails from the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, scientists David Mazières and Eddie Kohler submitted a paper titled “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List.”

To Mazières’ surprise, “It was accepted for publication. I pretty much fell off my chair.”

The acceptance bolsters the authors’ contention that IJACT is a predatory journal, an indiscriminate but superficially scholarly publication that subsists on editorial fees. Mazières said, “They told me to add some more recent references and do a bit of reformatting. But otherwise they said its suitability for the journal was excellent.”

He didn’t pursue it. And, at least as of 2014, “They still haven’t taken me off their mailing list.”

Fair Exchange

The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay, premiered in 1728 at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, managed by John Rich.

It was an enormous success, becoming one of the most popular plays of the 18th century.

This “had the effect, as was ludicrously said, of making Gay rich and Rich gay.”

(From Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.)

Donkey Sentences

Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it. The pronoun it in this sentence seems to have a clear meaning. But does it? Normally the phrase a donkey refers to some particular donkey; the indefinite article a refers to something that exists. But here its meaning is more abstract — a donkey seems to refer to a whole class of unfortunate donkeys. And in that case the pronoun it seems to have nothing to point to.

Yet most readers have no trouble understanding the sentence. How?