An Empty Message

“The hardest of all adventures to speak of is music, because music has no meaning to speak of. If music could be translated into human speech it would no longer need to exist. Like love, music’s a mystery which, when solved, evaporates.” — Ned Rorem, Music From Inside Out, 1967

“Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” — Eduard Hanslick

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” — Victor Hugo

But music moves us, and we know not why;
We feel the tears, but cannot trace their source.
Is it the language of some other state,
Born of its memory? For what can wake
The soul’s strong instinct of another world,
Like music?

— Letitia Elizabeth Landon, The Golden Violet, 1827

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Tehachapi Loop, this is a beautiful solution to a nonverbal problem. When the towpath switches to the other side of a canal, how can you move your horse across the water without having to unhitch it from the boat it’s towing?

The answer is a roving bridge (this one is on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire). With two ramps, one a spiral, the horse passes through 360 degrees in crossing the canal, and the tow line never has to be unfastened.

A Bite

From the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemistry World blog: In 1955, when impish graduate student A.T. Wilson published a paper with his humorless but brilliant supervisor, Melvin Calvin, Wilson made a wager with a department secretary that he could sneak a picture of a man fishing into one of the paper’s diagrams. He won the wager — can you find the fisherman?

Love and Reasons

If I love you because you’re smart, kind, and funny, why don’t I love others who are equally smart, kind, and funny? And why does my love persist if you lose these qualities?

On the other hand, if I don’t love you because of the properties you hold, then why do I love you? I feel anger, grief, and sadness for reasons — do I feel romantic love for no reason?

It is true that I meet attractive people and fail to fall in love with them. So perhaps people don’t fall in love based on reasons. But if they do it for no reason, then it seems I might fall in or out of love with anyone, or everyone, at any time.

It seems reasonable to want to be loved for who I am, for properties I hold. But this doesn’t seem to be how it works: It’s not my properties that compel you to love me and not another. So what is it?

(Raja Halwani, Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An Introduction, 2018.)

Podcast Episode 237: The Baseball Spy

Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball — he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Berg’s enigmatic life and its strange conclusion.

We’ll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident.


Johann David Steingruber devised floor plans in the shapes of letters.

At least six of Felix Mendelssohn’s songs were written by his sister Fanny.

Sources for our feature on Moe Berg:

Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher Was a Spy, 1994.

Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald, and Tom Sewell, Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy, 1996.

W. Thomas Smith, Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency, 2003.

Glenn P. Hastedt, Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage, 2011.

Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Fabled Moe,” American Scholar 63:3 (Summer 1994), 433-439.

Alan Owen Patterson, “The Eastern European Jewish Immigrant Experience With Baseball in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century,” Modern Judaism 28:1 (February 2008), 79-104.

“Morris ‘Moe’ Berg,” Atomic Heritage Foundation (accessed Feb. 3, 2019).

“‘Moe’ Berg: Sportsman, Scholar, Spy,” Central Intelligence Agency, Jan. 17, 2013.

Richard Sandomir, “Baseball Hall of Fame to Celebrate a Catcher (and a Spy),” New York Times, July 30, 2018.

Bruce Fretts, “Who Was Moe Berg? A Spy, a Big-League Catcher and an Enigma,” New York Times, June 21, 2018.

Josh Pollick, “Moe Berg — OK Player, Outstanding Individual,” Jerusalem Post, Dec. 30, 2004, 11.

“To Be a Spook,” Justin Ewers, et al., U.S. News & World Report 134:3 (Jan. 27, 2003).

Hal Bock, “A Catcher and a Spy — Journeyman Backstop Was an Operative During WWII — Moe Berg,” Associated Press, June 25, 2000.

Paul Schwartz, “Classic Look at Moe Berg, Catcher & Spy,” New York Post, June 21, 2000, 68.

“An Abstruse Topic Saved His Life,” New York Times, March 21, 2000.

Steve Bailey, “Moe Berg’s Legacy,” Boston Globe, Oct. 6, 1999, D1.

Jonathan Wasserman, “The Enigmatic Life of Moe Berg,” Jewish Advocate, Sept. 29, 1994, 1.

Louis Jay Herman, “‘To Hell With Moe Berg!’,” New York Times, Aug. 14, 1994.

David A. Hollinger, “How Uncertain Was He?”, New York Times, March 14, 1993.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “Books of the Times: Did a German Scientist Prevent Catastrophe in World War II?,” New York Times, March 8, 1993.

William J. Broad, “New Book Says U.S. Plotted to Kill Top Nazi Scientist,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1993.

Ira Berkow, “Sports of the Times; The Catcher Was Highly Mysterious,” New York Times, Dec. 14, 1989.

Bernard Kogan, “Baseball Anecdotes,” New York Times, June 4, 1989.

William Klein, “The Spy Who Came in From the Diamond,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1985.

Moe Berg, “Baseball: What It’s All About,” New York Times, April 13, 1975.

Jonathan Schwartz, “Catcher Magna Cum Laude,” New York Times, March 30, 1975.

Dave Anderson, “Mysterious Moe Is De-Classified,” New York Times, Jan. 28, 1975.

“Moe Berg, a Catcher in Majors Who Spoke 10 Languages, Dead,” New York Times, June 1, 1972.

Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, June 1, 1972.

Whitney Martin, “‘Mysterious’ Berg Well Equipped for Place of Latin Ambassador,” Wilmington [N.C.] Morning Star, Jan. 17, 1942, 6.

“Moe Berg, Red Sox, Gets Job as Envoy,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 1942.

Richard McCann, “Baseball’s One-Man Brain Trust,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, May 21, 1939, 11.

Tom Doerer, “Nationals Hire Berg as Manush Signs,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, March 10, 1932, D-1.

“Moe Berg Attracts Schalk as Catcher,” Norwalk [Conn.] Hour, Dec. 14, 1927, 17.

“Veteran Scott Will Start at Short for White Sox,” [St. Petersburg, Fla.] Evening Independent, March 24, 1926.

“White Sox Get Moe Berg,” New York Times, Sept. 16, 1925.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, This Is Your Life (UK TV series)” (accessed Feb. 5, 2019).

Wikipedia, This Is Your Life (accessed Feb. 9, 2019).

“Group Captain Sir Douglas BADER CBE, DSO, DFC, FRAeS, DL,” Big Red Book (accessed Feb. 9, 2019).

Douglas Bader on This Is Your Life.

Dick Cavett, “Can You Stand Some More Stan?” New York Times, Oct. 5, 2012.

Wikipedia, “Horse-Flies as Disease Vectors” (accessed Jan. 16, 2019).

Gábor Horváth, Ádám Pereszlényi, Susanne Åkesson, and György Kriska, “Striped Bodypainting Protects Against Horseflies,” Royal Society Open Science 6:1 (Jan. 2, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Manon Molliere. Here’s a 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!

Loose Change

penny puzzle

You’re holding a penny, and you’re standing on an infinite plane. The plane bears a grid of squares, each of which is twice the width of the penny. If you roll the penny out onto the grid, what is the probability that it will come to rest entirely within a square? (Assume the lines are of negligible thickness.)

Click for Answer


Sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz’s Sound Activated Mobile (SAM) was the first moving sculpture that could respond actively to its surroundings. Listening through four microphones in its head, it would twist and crane its neck to face the source of the loudest noise, like an earnest poppy.

Fascinated Londoners spent hours vying for SAM’s attention at the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. Encouraged, Ihnatowicz unveiled the prodigious Senster two years later.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

In 1958 psychologist Robert Plutchik suggested that there are eight primary emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, trust, disgust, surprise, and anticipation. Each of the eight exists because it serves an adaptive role that gives it survival value — for example, fear inspires the fight-or-flight response.

He arranged them on a wheel to show their relationships, with similar emotions close together and opposites 180 degrees apart. Like colors, emotions can vary in intensity (joy might vary from serenity to ecstasy), and they can mix to form secondary emotions (submission is fear combined with trust, and awe is fear combined with surprise).

When all these combinations are included, the system catalogs 56 emotions at 1 intensity level. And in his final “structural model” of emotions, the petals are folded up in a third dimension to form a cone.


Hunters of the 19th century defended their practice in part because it was the only way to identify species that would otherwise remain unknown.

They distilled this into an adage: “What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.”