It had so happened for several days that Major Eckert had been out whenever the President came into the office. Coming in one day and finding the Major counting money at his desk, Mr. Lincoln remarked that he believed the Major never came to the office any more except when he had money to count. The Major declared that his being out when the President happened to come in was simply a coincidence, and this reminded him, the Major, of a story: ‘A certain tailor in Mansfield, Ohio, was very stylish in dress and airy in manner. Passing a shopkeeper’s door one day the shopkeeper puffed himself up, and gave a long blow expressive of the inflation of the conceited tailor, who indignantly turned and said: “I’ll learn you not to blow when I’m passing,” to which the shopkeeper instantly replied: “And I’ll teach you not to pass while I’m blowing.”‘ The President said that was very good — very like a story which he had heard of a man who was driving through the country in an open buggy, and was caught at night in a pouring shower of rain. He was hurrying forward toward shelter as fast as possible; passing a farmhouse, a man, apparently struggling with the effects of bad whisky, thrust his head out of the window and shouted loudly, ‘Hullo! hullo!’ The traveller stopped and asked what was wanted. ‘Nothing of you,’ was the reply. ‘Well, what in the d—- do you shout hullo for when people are passing?’ angrily asked the traveller. ‘Well, what in the d—- are you passing for when people are shouting hullo?’ replied the inebriate.

— T.Y. Crowell, Abraham Lincoln, 1895

Truth Pays

Here are a penny and a quarter. Make a statement. If your statement is true, then I’ll give you one of these coins (not saying which). But if your statement is false, then I won’t give you either coin.

Raymond Smullyan says, “There is a statement you can make such that I would have no choice but to give you the quarter (assuming I keep my word).” What statement will accomplish that?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 224: Lady Death,_1942_(cropped).jpg

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was training for a career as a history teacher when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. She suspended her studies to enlist as a sniper in the Red Army, where she discovered a remarkable talent for shooting enemy soldiers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the career of “Lady Death,” the deadliest female sniper in history.

We’ll also learn where in the world futility.closet.podcast is and puzzle over Air Force One.


Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes creates a host of puzzles in the philosophy of art.

German architect Herman Sörgel wanted to dam the Congo to create two African seas.

Sources for our feature on Lyudmila Pavlichenko:

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper, 2018.

Roger Reese, “Soviet Women at War,” Military History 28:1 (May 2011), 44-53,5.

Drew Lindsay, “Why Not Send Women to War?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 25:3 (Spring 2013), 50-55, 58-61.

Karl E. Friedl, “Biases of the Incumbents: What If We Were Integrating Men Into a Women’s Army?” Military Review 96:2 (March/April 2016), 69-75.

Jonathan W. Jordan, “Master of the Long Rifle,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 18:4 (Summer 2006), 49-53.

D’Ann Campbell, “Women in Combat: The World War II Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union,” Journal of Military History 57:2 (April 1993), 301-323.

E.M. Tenney, “Mrs. Roosevelt, the Russian Sniper, and Me,” American Heritage 43:2 (April 1992), 28.

John Kass, “This Soldier’s Skill Had Nothing to Do With Gender,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 25, 2013.

Peter Sheridan, “Meet Lady Death: The Deadliest Female Sniper That Ever Lived,” Express, Feb. 5, 2018.

Marea Donnelly, “‘Lady Death’ Sniper Made 309 Kills After Young Comrade Shot,” Daily Telegraph, July 12, 2016, 23.

Gilbert King, “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper,”, Feb. 21, 2013.

Alex Lockie, “Meet the World’s Deadliest Female Sniper Who Terrorized Hitler’s Nazi Army,” Independent, March 18, 2018.

“Soviet Girl Sniper Learned to Shoot as University Co-Ed,” [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, August 28, 1942, 2-X.

“Africa a Prelude, Maisky Declares,” New York Times, Nov. 15, 1942.

“Rifle Match Proposed,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 1942.

Public Radio International, “The Life and Myths of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Soviet Russia’s Deadliest Sniper,” PRI’s The World, March 9, 2018.

“Sharp-Shooting Women Best Soviet Snipers,” USA Today Magazine, 135:2739 (December 2006), 3-4.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Maidenhead Locator System” (accessed Nov. 3, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Contesting” (accessed Nov. 4, 2018).

“An Evaluation of Location Encoding Systems,” GitHub, (accessed Nov. 9, 2018).

Our territory on What3Words.



The Silly Party takes Luton.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg. 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!

Winners and Losers

A puzzle by the Hungarian-Canadian mathematician George Grätzer:

I’m writing an article about a round-robin tennis tournament, in which each player plays each other player once. I decide to pick one player and ask her which players she defeated (in tennis there are no ties). Then I’ll ask each of those players which players they’ve defeated. Is it possible to pick a player so that everyone in the tournament is mentioned in my article?

Click for Answer

Pilot Program

For 50 years, Snoopy has been NASA’s official safety mascot. Every astronaut wears a sterling silver Snoopy pin into space and presents it personally afterward to an employee or contractor as a special commendation for outstanding achievements related to safety.

Each year, fewer than 1 percent of the aerospace program workforce receive the award; it’s the highest honour recognizing the people who work to keep astronauts safe.

Volume Control

I just thought this was interesting: In the 1970s a little spate of studies investigated why men and women carry books in stereotypically different ways. A 1976 study in Tennessee found that by junior high school males tended to carry books at their sides, with the arm relatively straight and the hand cupped under the book’s lower edge. Females cradled a book in the arm at the front side of the body, resting on the hip or pelvic bone.

A second study in the same year ruled out some theories: It found that men and women carried books of roughly equal weight, and that both had hand grips strong enough to carry their books in either position. (Also, carrying purses didn’t significantly alter the way women carried their books.)

A University of Washington study two years later replicated the earlier findings but suggested that “women with hips that extend past the comfortable fall line of the arm along the side of the body will not show the side carry typically seen in males.” (“In effect, the hip in females fills the side space that males fill with their books.”)

But a re-examination 15 years later found that the picture was changing: While 90 percent of the men still carried books at their sides, now so did 43-60 percent of the women. So perhaps it’s not correct to speak of these as intrinsically masculine and feminine styles. But that raises another question: “why … men’s carrying behavior is uniform and stable, whereas women’s behavior is more varied and changing.”

(Thomas P. Hanaway and Gordon M. Burghardt, “The Development of Sexually Dimorphic Book-Carrying Behavior,” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 7:3 [1976], 267-270; Philip J. Spottswood and Gordon M. Burghardt, “The Effects of Sex, Book Weight, and Grip Strength on Book-Carrying Styles,” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 8:2 (1976), 150-152; Judith D. Scheman, Joan S. Lockard, and Bruce L. Mehler, “Influences of Anatomical Differences on Gender-Specific Book-Carrying Behavior,” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 11:1 [1978], 17-20; Evelyne Thommen, Emiel Reith, and Christiane Steffen, “Gender-Related Book-Carrying Behavior: A Reexamination,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 76:2 [1993], 355-362.)


The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows.

— Kafka

A Hidden Door
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Choose any four points on a circle and join them to form a quadrilateral. Drawing the diagonals of this quadrilateral produces four overlapping triangles (each diagonal creates two of them).

Draw the largest possible circle in each of these triangles, and the centers of these circles will always form a rectangle:

The Ben Franklin Effect

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes mollifying a rival legislator in the Pennsylvania statehouse:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

This seems to be a real psychological phenomenon — you can sometimes more reliably make a friend by asking a favor than by doing one, or, as Franklin put it, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

In a 1969 study, subjects who had won money in a question-and-answer competition were asked to return it; those whom the researcher himself approached reported liking him more than those who’d been approached by a secretary. In another study, students were assigned a teaching task using two different methods, one in which they encouraged their students and one in which they insulted and criticized them. In a debriefing they rated the students they’d encouraged to be more likable and attractive than those they’d insulted. That may reveal a converse principle, that we devalue others in order to justify wronging them.

(Jon Jecker and David Landy, “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour,” Human Relations 22:4 [1969], 371-378; John Schopler and John S. Compere, “Effects of Being Kind or Harsh to Another on Liking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 20:2 (1971), 155.)