Here’s an oddity: In 1882 Lewis Carroll collaborated on a song with the dreaming imagination of his friend the Rev. C.E. Hutchinson of Chichester. Hutchinson had told Carroll of a strange dream he’d had:

I found myself seated, with many others, in darkness, in a large amphitheatre. Deep stillness prevailed. A kind of hushed expectancy was upon us. We sat awaiting I know not what. Before us hung a vast and dark curtain, and between it and us was a kind of stage. Suddenly an intense wish seized me to look upon the forms of some of the heroes of past days. I cannot say whom in particular I longed to behold, but, even as I wished, a faint light flickered over the stage, and I was aware of a silent procession of figures moving from right to left across the platform in front of me. As each figure approached the left-hand corner it turned and gazed at me, and I knew (by what means I cannot say) its name. One only I recall — Saint George; the light shone with a peculiar blueish lustre on his shield and helmet as he turned and slowly faced me. The figures were shadowy, and floated like mist before me; as each one disappeared an invisible choir behind the curtain sang the ‘Dream music.’ I awoke with the melody ringing in my ears, and the words of the last line complete — ‘I see the shadows falling, and slowly pass away.’ The rest I could not recall.

He played the melody for Carroll, who wrote a suitable lyric of five verses. Hutchinson disclaimed writing the music, but if he didn’t … who did?

(From Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, 1898.)

11/24/2021 UPDATE: Reader Paul Sophocleous provided this MIDI file of the published music. (Thanks, Paul.)

A Good Walk Spoiled

If aliens watched us play golf, what on earth would they think we were doing? We invent an arbitrary, difficult task and then try to perform it, expending vast quantities of money and leisure time in a pursuit that serves no productive purpose and that most players find frustrating. A writer for Punch summed it up in 1892: “The object is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.”

In other pursuits, if people deliberately impede themselves from achieving their own goals, we question their rationality. But this is almost the whole point of golf — rules and courses are deliberately designed to make it extremely difficult to get the ball into the hole (a strange goal to pursue in the first place).

“The intuitive explanation, of course, is that golf wouldn’t be worth playing if it were easy,” writes Washington State University philosopher David Shier. “It simply wouldn’t be fun. Well, maybe much of the time it’s not exactly fun anyway, but it surely wouldn’t be interesting, and it wouldn’t ever be gratifying. Golfers place obstacles in the way of achieving their own goals in order to make the sport more challenging and, consequently, more interesting and enjoyable.” … But why pursue it at all?

(David Shier, “Is Golf Inherently Irrational?”, in Andy Wible, ed., Golf and Philosophy, 2010.)

A Legal Fiction,_with_an_accurate_plan_of_Fort_St._Philip_%26_its_environs,_and_the_French_approaches_and_batteries_in_1756_(5376029626).jpg
Image: Flickr

Sometimes it’s easier to reach a just legal result by reconceiving facts than by rewriting a rule. A classic example is Mostyn v. Fabrigas, decided by the King’s Bench Court in 1774. Fabrigas was a resident of Minorca, a Mediterranean island which was then occupied and controlled by England. He was imprisoned by Mostyn, the governor of the island. Fabrigas wanted to sue him, but no suit could be brought against Mostyn in Minorca without the approval of the governor. So Fabrigas sued him instead in the Court of Common Pleas in London for trespass and false imprisonment, winning a jury verdict of £3,000. Mostyn appealed, claiming correctly that the trial court had jurisdiction only in cases brought by residents of London, and Lord Mansfield, resoundingly, declared that Minorca was part of London for purposes of this action. The assault had occurred “at Minorca, to wit at London, in the parish of St. Mary-le-Bow, in the Ward of Cheap.”

That’s from University of Virginia scholar Frederick Schauer’s “Legal Fictions Revisited,” in Maksymilian Del Mar and William Twining’s Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (2015). He adds this wonderful footnote:

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that, in 1939, the renowned and beloved deer which graze on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, were at risk of being requisitioned during the wartime food shortage by the Ministry of Food. In order to prevent such an occurrence, it is said, influential Magdalen graduates in the government arranged to have the deer reclassified as vegetables and thus be spared from the slaughterhouse. More recently, it is reported that Magdalen’s noisy swinging door has been informally classified as a musical instrument in order to bring it within the prohibition on playing musical instruments at certain hours.


In 1984, a diver was working in the beluga whale enclosure at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation when someone shouted “Out, out, out!” On emerging, the diver asked who had told him to exit the tank, and it turned out that the speaker was the whale itself, Noc, who had lived at the facility since his capture in 1977.

Noc’s keepers had previously heard strange sounds coming from the whale and dolphin enclosure that seemed to resemble people talking in the distance, their words just beyond the limit of comprehension. “We were sceptical at first,” neurobiologist Sam Ridgway told New Scientist. “They were definitely unlike usual sounds for a [beluga], and similar to human voices in rhythm and acoustic spectrum.”

The researchers concluded that he was indeed mimicking human speech, though Noc used his nasal tract to produce sounds, rather than a larynx, as humans do. They had only a short window in which to study the behavior: After four years Noc stopped, either because he’d reached maturity or because he’d lost interest.

The Giant of Castelnau

Anthropologist Georges Vacher de Lapouge turned up a surprise in 1890: While excavating a Bronze Age cemetery at Castelnau, near Montpellier, France, he discovered three apparently human bones of gigantic size. On the left is the “giant’s” femur, or thigh bone; on the right is a tibia, or shin bone. Between them is a normal humerus, or upper arm bone, from the same cemetery. At the bottom is a fragment that may belong to either a femur or a humerus; if it’s the latter then it must have belonged to the same giant. If this is right, then the individual would have stood between 10 and 11 feet tall.

Lapouge published his discovery in La Nature that year. “I think it unnecessary to note that these bones are undeniably human, despite their enormous size,” he wrote. “The volumes of the bones were more than double the normal pieces to which they correspond.”

The specimens were examined by zoologists and paleontologists at the University of Montpellier and passed eventually to pathological anatomist Paul Kiener of the Montpellier School of Medicine; the London Globe noted that “Kieger, who, while admitting that the bones are those of a very tall race, nevertheless finds them abnormal in dimensions and apparently of morbid growth.”

“There has been an old tradition among the peasants of the vicinity that a cavern in the valley was, in olden times, occupied by a giant,” noted Popular Science News. “It would be curious if the discovery of M. Lapouge should show it to be founded on fact.”

Interestingly, the bones of further French giants were reported to have turned up near the same location a few years later. From the Princeton Union, Oct. 11, 1894: “In a prehistoric cemetery recently uncovered at Montpellier, France, while workmen were excavating a waterworks reservoir, human skulls were found measuring 28, 31 and 32 inches in circumference. The bones which were found with the skulls were also of gigantic proportions. These relics were sent to the Paris academy, and a learned ‘savant’ who lectured on the find says that they belonged to a race of men between ten and fifteen feet in height.”

But that seems to be the end of it. Was the whole thing a hoax?

Enduring Advice
Image: Flickr

During the Great Depression, Babson College founder Roger Babson commissioned unemployed stonecutters to carve inspiring inscriptions on 25 boulders in Dogtown, an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts:

  • SAVE
  • WORK

Babson did some of the work himself. “Another thing I have been doing, which I hope will be carried on after my death, is the carving of mottoes on the boulders at Dogtown, Gloucester, Massachusetts,” he wrote in 1935. “My family says that I am defacing the boulders and disgracing the family with these inscriptions, but the work gives me a lot of satisfaction, fresh air, exercise and sunshine. I am really trying to write a simple book with words carved in stone instead of printed paper. Besides, when on Dogtown common, I revert to a boyhood which I once enjoyed when driving cows there many years ago.”

The boulders are extant today and can be visited on a hiking trail.

Podcast Episode 360: Haggard’s Dream

In 1904, adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard awoke from a dream with the conviction that his daughter’s dog was dying. He dismissed the impression as a nightmare, but the events that followed seemed to give it a grim significance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Haggard’s strange experience, which briefly made headlines around the world.

We’ll also consider Alexa’s expectations and puzzle over a college’s name change.

See full show notes …

Triple Threat
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Designed in Belgium in 1860, the Apache centerfire revolver attracted a following in the French underworld because it combined three weapons in one: a single-action six-shot revolver, a dual-edged bayonet, and a set of brass knuckles that doubles as the revolver’s grip. The knife and the knuckle duster fold inward, so the whole apparatus can fit easily into a pocket or bag.

Without sights, trigger guard, or safety, the gun is tricky to operate, but then you probably won’t want it for long-range shootouts. “It was designed for self-defence and to be used at very close quarters,” said Charles Hartley, who auctioned off one of the few specimens in 2014. “There is no barrel to the gun so the user would have had to have had it pressed up against someone’s chest.”

Though its pinfire bullets are now obsolete, the weapon’s novelty still attracts collectors — another Apache, auctioned in 2013, drew $2,850.

(Thanks, Carlos.)

Miniatures Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Russian artist Anatoly Konenko works on an absurdly, almost unthinkably tiny scale. Trained as an engineer, he took up microminiature art in 1981, inventing his own instruments and techniques. Soon he was writing on grains of rice, poppy seeds, and even a human hair, and in 1994 he began to publish miniature versions of books by Mikhail Koltsov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Alexander Pushkin. His 1996 edition of Chekhov’s Chameleon assembled 29 pages, three color illustrations, and a portrait of the author into a volume 0.9 millimeters square, at the time the smallest book in the world.

In other media, his feats include a 10-milliliter aquarium, a shod flea, a 1:40,000 scale balalaika, and a 17-millimeter chess set with 2-millimeter pieces. Above: a 3.2-millimeter proboscis midge holds a model of the Eiffel Tower. See his website for more — including a caravan of camels passing through the eye of a needle.


Pains and other such sensory processes may be long or short, continuous or intermittent; but in spite of Longfellow’s ‘long, long thoughts’, I do not think a thought (say, that the pack of cards is on the table, or that Geach’s arguments are fallacious) can significantly be called long or short; nor are we obliged to say that in that case every thought must be strictly instantaneous.

… [W]hat I am suggesting is that thoughts have not got all the kinds of time-relations that physical events, and I think also sensory processes, have. One may say that during half an hour by the clock such-and-such a series of thoughts occurred to a man; but I think it is impossible to find a stretch of physical events that would be just simultaneous, or even simultaneous to a good approximation, with one of the thoughts in the series. I think Norman Malcolm was right when he said at a meeting in Oxford that a mental image could be before one’s mind’s eye for just as long as a beetle took to crawl across a table; but I think it would be nonsense to say that I ‘was thinking’ a given thought for the period of the beetle’s crawl — the continous past of ‘think’ has no such use.

— Peter Geach, God and the Soul, 1969