In a Word

n. a bookseller

adj. slow; tardy; dilatory; causing delay

n. an inquisitive person

adv. from elsewhere; from another source

[Edmund Law] had a book printed at Carlisle; they were a long time about it: he sent several times to hasten them; at last he called himself to know the reason of the delay. ‘Why does not my book make its appearance?’ said he to the printer. ‘My Lord, I am extremely sorry; but we have been obliged to send to Glasgow for a pound of parentheses.’

— Henry Colburn, Personal and Literary Memorials, 1829


king kong

Edgar Wallace died after completing a rough draft of King Kong, and James Ashmore Creelman’s script was slow and dialogue-heavy. So Merian C. Cooper gave the job to Ruth Rose, the wife of his co-producer. Rose had never composed a script before, but she knew how to write tightly — the opening line of dialogue, “Hey! Is this the moving picture ship?”, replaces several pages of exposition with seven words. After Kong is subdued on Skull Island, she accomplishes his transfer to New York with a simple speech by filmmaker Carl Denham:

Send to the ship for anchor chains and tools. Build a raft and float him to the ship. We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear. Why, the whole world will pay to see this! We’re millionaires, boys — I’ll share it with all of you! In a few months it’ll be up in lights: ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!’

Ernest B. Schoedsack said his wife’s script was easy to shoot because “the characters are believable — I didn’t have to ask them to do anything impossible or ridiculous.” And Cooper added, “Ruth used just the kind of romantic dialogue I wanted. It was perfect.”

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Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist

In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.


In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished without a trace.

Many of the foremost intellectuals of the early 20th century frequented the same café in Vienna.

Sources for our feature on the Gardner heist:

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, 2008.

Stephen Kurkjian, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, 2015.

Michael Brenson, “Robbers Seem to Know Just What They Want,” New York Times, March 19, 1990.

Peter S. Canellos, Andy Dabilis, and Kevin Cullen, “Art Stolen From Gardner Museum Was Uninsured, Cost of Theft Coverage Described as Prohibitive,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1990, 1.

Robert Hughes, “A Boston Theft Reflects the Art World’s Turmoil,” Time 135:14 (April 2, 1990), 54.

Peter Plagens, Mark Starr, and Kate Robins, “To Catch an Art Thief,” Newsweek 115:14 (April 2, 1990), 52.

Scott Baldauf, “Museum Asks: Does It Take a Thief to Catch a Degas?,” Christian Science Monitor 89:193 (Aug. 29, 1997), 3.

Steve Lopez and Charlotte Faltermayer, “The Great Art Caper,” Time 150:21 (Nov. 17, 1997), 74.

“Missing Masterpieces,” Security 37:6 (June 2000), 14-18.

Robert M. Poole, “Ripped From the Walls (And the Headlines),” Smithsonian 36:4 (July 2005), 92-103.

Paige Williams, “The Art of the Story,” Boston Magazine, March 2010.

Randy Kennedy, “20th Anniversary of a Boston Art Heist,” New York Times, March 17, 2010.

Mark Durney and Blythe Proulx, “Art Crime: A Brief Introduction,” Crime, Law and Social Change 56:115 (September 2011).

Katharine Q. Seelye and Tom Mashberg, “A New Effort in Boston to Catch 1990 Art Thieves,” New York Times, March 18, 2013.

Tom Mashberg, “Isabella Stewart Gardner: 25 Years of Theories,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2015.

Shelley Murphy, “Search for Artworks From Gardner Heist Continues 25 Years Later,” Boston Globe, March 17, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “Arrest by F.B.I. Is Tied to $500 Million Art Theft From Boston Museum, Lawyer Says,” New York Times, April 17, 2015.

Serge F. Kovaleski and Tom Mashberg, “Reputed Mobster May Be Last Link to Gardner Museum Art Heist,” New York Times, April 24, 2015.

“New Video in 25-Year-Old Art Heist at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum,” New York Daily News, Aug. 6, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “25 Years After Gardner Museum Heist, Video Raises Questions,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 2015.

Rodrigue Ngowi and William J. Kole, “2 Suspects in Boston Art Theft Worth $500 Million Are Dead, FBI Says,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Sarah Kaplan, “Surveillance Video Raises Questions — and Possible Clues — in 25-Year-Old Museum Mystery,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Justin Peters, “Why Is Stolen Art So Hard to Find?,” Slate, Aug. 14, 2015.

Erick Trickey, “The Gardner Museum Heist: Who’s Got the Art?,” Boston Magazine, March 13, 2016.

Shelley Murphy and Stephen Kurkjian, “Six Theories Behind The Stolen Gardner Museum Paintings,” Boston Globe, March 18, 2017.

Graham Bowley, “Gardner Museum Doubles Reward for Recovery of Stolen Masterpieces,” New York Times, May 23, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Stubborn Stand-Off Over Stolen Gardner Museum Art Could End With Sentencing of Hartford Gangster,” Hartford Courant, Sept. 5, 2017.

Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clock Is Ticking on $10 Million Reward in Gardner Art Heist,” New York Times, Dec. 26, 2017.

Camila Domonoske, “Got the Scoop on the Gardner Museum Art Heist? You Have 4 Days to Earn $10 Million,” The Two-Way, National Public Radio, Dec. 27, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Museum Extends $10 Million Reward in Notorious Boston Gardner Museum Art Heist,” Hartford Courant, Jan. 11, 2018.

Colin Moynihan, “Gardner Museum Extends $10 Million Reward for Information in Art Heist,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2018.

Nadja Sayej, “Will Boston’s $500m Art Heist Ever Be Solved?,” Guardian, Jan. 19, 2018.

Leah Silverman, “Suspect in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison,” Town & Country, Feb. 28, 2018.

Sarah Cascone, “Paintings Stolen in America’s Biggest Art Heist Have Returned to Their Frames — Thanks to Augmented Reality,” Artnet, March 26, 2018.

“Learn About the Theft,” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (accessed April 29, 2018).

Listener mail:

Derek Lowe, “Understanding Antidepressants — or Not,” Science Translational Medicine, Feb. 12, 2018.

Johnathan Frunzi, “From Weapon to Wonder Drug,” Hospitalist, February 2007.

“Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy,” American Cancer Society (accessed May 17, 2018).

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes Reprinted, With the Author’s Additions, From the Athenaeum, 1872.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, “Medicinal Notes: Honey Works Better Than Cow-Dung,” Independent, May 4, 1999.

Ole Peter Grell, Paracelsus, 1998.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music 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!

Stairs of Knowledge

balamand stairs of knowledge

This staircase near the library at Lebanon’s University of Balamand is painted to resemble a stack of classic texts:

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Republic of Plato
Diwān Abū al-Tayyib al-Mutanbbī
Risālat al-ghufrān / Abī al-Alā al-Ma’arrī
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Muqaddimah-i ibn Khaldūn
The Prince and the Discourses by Niccolò Machiavelli
Discourse on Method by René Descartes
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Faust by Goethe
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
The Meaning of Relativity by Albert Einstein
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
al-Ayyām / Tāhā Husayn
A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee
Cosmos by Carl Sagan
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Les Désorientés by Amin Maalouf
The Road Ahead by Bill Gates

This puts them (almost) in chronological order.


In the afternoon I went upon the river to look after some tarr I am sending down and some coles, and so home again; it raining hard upon the water, I put ashore and sheltered myself, while the King came by in his barge, going down towards the Downs to meet the Queen; the Duke being gone yesterday. But methought it lessened my esteem of a king, that he should not be able to command the rain.

— Samuel Pepys, diary, July 19, 1662

Leaps and Bounds

English cricketer C.B. Fry had a curious party trick: He would stand on the floor facing a mantelpiece, crouch, and leap upward, turning in midair and landing with his feet planted on the shelf, from which he would bow to onlookers. He claimed to be able to do this into his 70s.

On July 17, 1933, John Dillinger walked into the Daleville Commercial Bank in Indiana and told the teller, “Well, honey, this is a holdup. Get me the money.” Told there was no key to the teller’s cage, Dillinger vaulted over the counter himself to investigate. “This would become another of his well-known trademarks,” writes John Beineke in Hoosier Public Enemy, “the quick and graceful vaults over counters that were often several feet high. The feat earned him the nickname ‘Jackrabbit’ in some newspapers.”

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, G.M. Trevelyan, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, remarks on the tradition of trying to leap up the eight semicircular steps of the college hall at one bound. “The only person to succeed of whom I know was the gigantic [William] Whewell, when he was Master of the college; he clapped his mortar-board firmly on his head, picked up his gown with one hand, and leapt.”

Trevelyan had recently learned that Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, later a bishop, had made the jump during his undergraduate career at Trinity, between 1866 and 1870, and “I have heard that the feat was accomplished once or twice in this century; once, I was told, an American succeeded, but I have not the facts or names. It has certainly been done very seldom.”

(Thanks, Chris.)


Georgia’s Savannah airport hit a delicate snag in the 1980s — a planned extension to Runway 10 was delayed because a local family refused to move the graves of Richard and Catherine Dotson, a farming couple who had been laid to rest in the land they’d cultivated for decades.

The solution was to pave over the graves but lay the two headstones in its surface. They read “At rest” and “Gone home to rest” — but there’s a legend among pilots that if you land just after sundown you’ll see two uneasy figures on the runway’s north side.

South Carolina’s newspaper The State notes, “Family members are still escorted to visit them safely, though they cannot leave flowers.”

The Empty Set

Mathematician John Rainwater has published 10 research papers in functional analysis, notably in the geometric theory of Banach spaces and in convex functions. The University of Washington has named a regular seminar after him, and Rainwater’s Theorem is an important result in summability theory.

This is most impressive because he doesn’t exist. In 1952 UW grad student Nick Massey received a blank registration card by mistake, and he invented a fictional student, naming him John Rainwater because it was raining at the time. “Rainwater” was adopted by the other students and began to submit solutions to problems posed in the American Mathematical Monthly, and he’s gone on to a 60-year (so far) career of considerable distinction — his top paper has 19 citations.

Asked why he’d published that paper under Rainwater’s name, John Isbell quoted Friedrich Schiller: “Man is only fully human when he plays.”