Things to Come

We can foresee the development of machinery that will make it possible to consult information in a library automatically. Suppose that you go into the library of the future and wish to look up ways for making biscuits. You will be able to dial into the catalogue machine ‘making biscuits.’ There will be a flutter of movie film in the machine. Soon it will stop, and, in front of you on the screen, will be projected the part of the catalogue which shows the names of three or four books containing recipes for biscuits. If you are satisfied, you will press a button; a copy of what you saw will be made for you and come out of the machine.

After further development, all the pages of all books will be available by machine. Then, when you press the right button, you will be able to get from the machine a copy of the exact recipe for biscuits that you choose.

— Edmund Callis Berkeley, Giant Brains, 1949

He adds, “We are not yet at the end of foreseeable development. There will be a third stage. You will then have in your home an auto­matic cooking machine operated by program tapes. You will stock it with various supplies, and it will put together and cook whatever dishes you desire. Then, what you will need from the library will be a program or routine on magnetic tape to control your automatic cook. And the library, instead of producing a pictorial copy of the recipe for you to read and apply, will produce a routine on magnetic tape for controlling your cooking machine so that you will actually get excellent biscuits!”


In August 1942 a students’ nursing brigade discovered 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, weak with hunger, living alone in an apartment in Leningrad, which had been besieged by Hitler since September 1941. She had kept this diary:

  1. Zhenya died on December 18, 1941, at twelve noon.
  2. Grandma died on January 25, 1942, at three in the afternoon.
  3. Leka died on March 17, 1942, at five o’clock in the morning.
  4. Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at two o’clock at night.
  5. Uncle Lesha on May 10, 1942, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
  6. Mama died on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning.
  7. The Savichevs are dead.
  8. Everyone is dead.
  9. Only Tanya is left.

The nurses evacuated her along the narrow lifeline that had been opened that summer by the Soviet army and placed her in an orphanage in a nearby village, but she died there, probably of chronic dysentery, in July 1944. The diary is kept today in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

“The Poets in a Puzzle”

Cottle, in his life of Coleridge, relates the following amusing incident:–‘I led my horse to the stable, where a sad perplexity arose. I removed the harness without difficulty; but, after many strenuous attempts, I could not remove the collar. In despair, I called for assistance, when Mr. Wordsworth brought his ingenuity into exercise; but, after several unsuccessful efforts, he relinquished the achievement as a thing altogether impracticable. Mr. Coleridge now tried his hand, but showed no more skill than his predecessor; for, after twisting the poor horse’s neck almost to strangulation, and the great danger of his eyes, he gave up the useless task, pronouncing that the horse’s head must have grown since the collar was put on; for he said, ‘it was a downright impossibility for such a huge os frontis to pass through so narrow an aperture.’ Just at this instant, a servant-girl came near, and understanding the cause of our consternation, ‘Ha! master,’ said she, ‘you don’t go about the work in the right way: you should do like this,’ when, turning the collar upside down, she slipped it off in a moment, to our great humiliation and wonderment, each satisfied afresh that there were heights of knowledge in the world to which we had not yet attained.

— William Evans Burton, The Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor, 1898

Post Chase

concrete arrow

In 1924, air mail pilots were having trouble finding their way across the featureless American southwest, so the Post Office adopted a brutally low-tech solution: Every 10 miles they built a large concrete arrow illuminated by a beacon. Each arrow pointed the way to the next, so that a pilot could stay on course simply by connecting the dots.

The system was finished by 1929, permitting mail planes to find their way all the way to San Francisco. It was quickly superseded by more sophisticated navigation methods, but today the arrows still dot the American desert, ready to confuse hikers and, probably, future archaeologists.

(Thanks, Ron.)

Two for One

Longfellow thought that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Victorian poet and painter, was two different people. On leaving Rossetti’s house he said, “I have been very glad to meet you, Mr. Rossetti, and should like to have met your brother also. Pray tell him how much I admire his beautiful poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel.'”

In Philosophical Troubles, Saul A. Kripke offers a related puzzle. Peter believes that politicians never have musical talent. He knows of Paderewski, the great pianist and composer, and he has heard of Paderewski the Polish statesman, but he does not know that they are the same person. Does Peter believe that Paderewski had musical talent?

An Ancient Mystery

Around 1275, a native culture known as the Gallina vanished from northern New Mexico. And almost every Gallina skeleton ever found has been that of someone brutally murdered. No one knows why.

“[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time,” U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Tony Largaespada told National Geographic News in 2007.

Seven skeletons found in a remote canyon paint a typical picture — one had a fractured skull, forearm, jaw, thighbone, pelvis, and several broken ribs; another bore cut marks on the upper arm that suggested blows from an ax. A 2-year-old child had had its skull crushed.

In other cases the victims’ necks have been broken, and the bodies are commonly thrown into a house, which is then burned to the ground.

Possibly this was a genocide, or possibly internecine conflict within the Gallina. Either could have been exacerbated by a drought that is known to have gripped the area around this time. But, so far, no one knows the reason.

“Come Wade, Dear Maid”

Cynthia Knight published this dialogue in the Journal of Recreational Linguistics in 1984 — apart from the italicized words, it’s composed entirely from two-letter state postal abbreviations:


MS. INGA LANE, paid cook
NEAL DEMSKY, lame vandal
PA (akin), many-decade lama


Arid moor
Arcade game near Marineland
Concorde de la Mode




Pail, cane, alpaca

NEAL: Decoct, maid! Almond wine! Deal?

INGA (in coma): Ma! Papa! Come near me! Alms!

NEAL (florid): Mine meal! Moil, Inga!

INGA (in pain): Demand in vain!

NEAL aria, or pavane
NEAL lams

INGA (in code): Deny; hide mail; scar me! Oh, inky condor, come! Oh, mend me!

PA came

PA: Hi, Inga. Come ride; wide lane? Mom’s game.

INGA (wail): Candor, OK? Pact?

(“Who can finish this absorbing story?”)

Popularity Contest

popularity contest

Your friends probably have more friends than you do.

The diagram above shows friendships among eight high school girls. The first number in each circle is the girl’s number of friends; the second is the mean number of friends that her friends have. Only Sue and Alice have more friends than their friends do on average, but their popularity, by its very nature, will impress an inordinate number of people, leaving more feeling inadequate by comparison.

“Those with 40 friends show up in each of 40 individual friendship networks and thus can make 40 people feel relatively deprived,” writes SUNY sociologist Scott Feld, “while those with only one friend show up in only one friendship network and can make only that one person feel relatively advantaged.” In general, he finds, in a given network the mean number of friends of friends is always greater than the mean number of friends of individuals. But understanding this phenomenon “should help people to understand that their position is relatively much better than their personal experiences have led them to believe.”

The same phenomenon leads college students to feel that the mean class size is larger than it really is, and all of us to experience restaurants, parks, and beaches as more crowded than they really are. A highway impresses thousands with its congestion at rush hour, but few with its emptiness at midnight. So we tend to think of it as busier than it really is.

(Scott L. Feld, “Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do,” American Journal of Sociology, 96:6, 1464-1477)