Finger Painting

In the last decade Iris Scott has completed nearly 500 canvases, mostly in oils, using her fingers rather than brushes. “When I see an artwork that makes me gasp — a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, Klimt, or Picasso, for example — my head exits time, space melts, and the moment stretches into a new dimension of hyper-reality,” she writes. “That is a very important sensation: it is the awe of understanding that a human did this, and it empowers you to believe you can do something profound, too.”

More at her website.


A Maths Master, teaching at Rye,
Bought his pupils a succulent π.
But we’re sorry to state
That 3/8
With 6=7 knows why.

Punch, Sept. 29, 1937, via William R. Ransom, One Hundred Mathematical Curiosities, 1953

(I read this as “three overate, with sick sequels, heaven knows why.”)

Venn Primes
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The classic three-circle Venn diagram on the left has threefold rotational symmetry, and the more complex five-ellipse diagram on the right (discovered by Branko Grünbaum in 1975) has fivefold symmetry. Pleasingly, it turns out that if a Venn diagram with n curves has an n-fold rotational symmetry, then n is prime. The proof is here.

(The diagram below has four curves and fourfold symmetry, but properly speaking it’s not a Venn diagram because it doesn’t represent all possible intersections of the sets.)

(Frank Ruskey, Carla D. Savage, and Stan Wagon, “The Search for Simple Symmetric Venn Diagrams,” Notices of the AMS 53:11 [2006], 1304-1311.)

“It Is Not Enough to Mean Well”

Maxims of Theodore Roosevelt:

  • A bad man of ability is worse than a bad man of no ability.
  • It is almost as irritating to be patronized as to be wronged.
  • Timid endurance of wrongdoing may often be to commit one of the greatest evils that one can possibly commit against one’s fellows.
  • The lives of truest heroism are those in which there are no great deeds to look back upon. It is the little things well done that go to make up a successful and truly good life.
  • Our system of government is the best in the world for a people able to carry it on. Only the highest type of people can carry it on.
  • No one ought to submit to being imposed upon, but before you act always stop to consider the rights of others before standing up for your own.
  • The wicked who prosper are never a pleasant sight.
  • It is hard to fail; but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.
  • Don’t let practical politics mean foul politics.
  • For almost every gain there is a penalty.
  • There is grave danger in attempting to establish invariable rules.
  • Woe to all of us if ever as a people we grow to condone evil because it is successful.
  • Remember that the shots that count in war are the ones that hit.
  • What every man needs is robust virtue, that will enable him to go out into the world and remain true to himself.
  • Capacity for work is absolutely necessary, and no man can be said to live in the true sense of the word if he does not work.
  • In doing your work in the great world, it is a safe plan to follow a rule I once heard preached on the football field: Don’t flinch; don’t fall; hit the the line hard.

(More here.)

A Fitting Mascot
Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is almost comically American: Between 1830 and 1836, a bald eagle lived at the Philadelphia Mint. Named Peter, he would roam the city by day and roost in the mint at night. Fatally injured in a coining press, he was stuffed and mounted and is currently on display in the lobby.

He is said (uncertainly) to have been the model for the eagle on U.S. silver dollars issued between 1836 and 1839 and the Flying Eagle cents of 1856-1858.

Podcast Episode 285: The Grasshopper Plagues

In the 1870s, new farmsteads on the American plains were beset by enormous swarms of grasshoppers sweeping eastward from the Rocky Mountains. The insects were a disaster for vulnerable farmers, attacking in enormous numbers and devouring everything before them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the grasshopper plagues and the settlers’ struggles against them.

We’ll also delve into urban legends and puzzle over some vanishing children.


In 2001, a Washington earthquake drew a rose with a pendulum.

In 2003, Japanese web designer Nobuyuki Kayahara created a curiously ambiguous animation.

Sources for our feature on the grasshopper plagues:

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier, 2009.

Annette Atkins, Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota, 1873-78, 2003.

Joanna Stratton, Pioneer Women, 2013.

Samuel Clay Bassett, Buffalo County, Nebraska, and Its People, 1916.

Harold E. Briggs, “Grasshopper Plagues and Early Dakota Agriculture, 1864-1876,” Agricultural History 8:2 (April 1934), 51-63.

Stephen Gross, “The Grasshopper Shrine at Cold Spring, Minnesota: Religion and Market Capitalism Among German-American Catholics,” Catholic Historical Review 92:2 (April 2006), 215-243.

Mary K. Fredericksen, “The Grasshopper Wars,” The Palimpsest 62:5 (1981), 150-161.

Cyrus C. Carpenter, “The Grasshopper Invasion,” Annals of Iowa 4:6 (July 1900), 437-447.

Chuck Lyons, “The Year of the Locust,” Wild West 24:6 (April 2012), 44-49.

Wiley Britton, “The Grasshopper Plague of 1866 in Kansas,” Scientific Monthly 25:6 (December 1927), 540-545.

G. Prosper Zaleski, “The Grasshopper Plague,” Scientific American 33:9 (Aug. 28, 1875), 132.

Thomas Hayden, “A Long-Ago Plague of Locusts,” U.S. News & World Report 136:19 (May 31, 2004), 66.

Kathie Bell, “The Grasshopper Plague,” Dodge City Daily Globe, April 15, 2019.

Lance Nixon, “Dakota Life: The Grasshopper and the Plow,” [Topeka, Kan.] Capital Journal, Sept. 3, 2015.

Frank Lee, “Grasshopper Chapel Inspires Faith, Prayer,” St. Cloud [Minn.] Times, Aug. 6, 2005, C.1.

“The Grasshopper Plague,” New York Times, July 1, 1888.

“The Grasshopper Plague,” New York Times, Dec. 29, 1876.

“The Bright Side of the Grasshopper Plague,” New York Times, July 17, 1875.

“The Grasshopper Plague,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 1874.

“The Locusts of the West,” New York Times, July 14, 1874.

“The Grasshopper Plague,” New York Times, July 14, 1874.

“The Grasshopper Plague,” New York Times, July 10, 1874.

“The Grasshoppers,” New York Times, July 10, 1874.

“A Plague of Grasshoppers,” New York Times, June 22, 1874.

Matthew Garcia, Melanoplus spretus: Rocky Mountain Locust,” Animal Diversity Web (accessed Feb. 22, 2020).

R.L. Cartwright, “Grasshopper Plagues, 1873–1877,” MNopedia, Nov. 17, 2011.

Listener mail:

“If you thinking about taking a NIGHT TRAIN in ITALY DON’T,” Lonely Planet (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

“Urgently Need Advice About Trenitalia Sleeper Trains,” Tripadvisor (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Rick Steves” (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

“About Rick Steves,” Rick Steves’ Europe (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

“Sleeping on Trains,” Rick Steves’ Europe (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

John Hooper, “‘Sleeping Gas’ Thieves Target Super-Rich at Italian Billionaires’ Resort,” Guardian, Aug. 30, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Jan Harold Brunvand” (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Urban Legend” (accessed Feb. 14, 2020).

Jan Harold Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, 2003.

Andrew Noymer, “The Transmission and Persistence of ‘Urban Legends’: Sociological Application of Age-Structured Epidemic Models,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 25:3 (2001), 299-323.

Henry B. Dunn and Charlotte A. Allen, “Rumors, Urban Legends and Internet Hoaxes,” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Association of Collegiate Marketing Educators, 2005.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Frequently Asked Questions,” March 21, 2018.

Mayo Clinic, “Carbon Monoxide Poisoning,” Oct. 16, 2019.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Moxie LaBouche, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils 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

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!

“A Remarkable Dream”

On Saturday morning a man about 30 years of age, named Benjamin Collins, was found drowned in a small dam belonging to the Whitehall pit, at Wyke. When found he was kneeling in the water with his head down, being only up to the shoulders in the water. He had been drinking for several days, and became restless. He got up about 2 o’clock in the morning, partly dressed himself, and said he could not sleep. Soon afterwards he went out, and about 4 o’clock his uncle, Mr. Mark Collins, of Lower Car Close farm, went in search of him in the barn and stables, but not finding him there returned to the house. Mrs. Collins then desired her husband to go to the place where the body was found, as she had just dreamt her nephew was drowned there. Mr. Collins acted as his wife requested, and, to his amazement and horror, saw the literal fulfillment of her dream.

York Herald, quoted in The Law Times, Dec. 17, 1864


Futility Closet is supported entirely by its readers. If you value this site, please consider making a contribution to help keep it going.

You can make a one-time donation on our Support Us page, or you can pledge a monthly contribution to get bonus posts and other rewards. You choose the amount to contribute, and you can change or cancel it at any time.

Thanks for your support, and thanks for reading!