Losing Time


There is no December 30, 2011, in the history of Samoa. The island nation requested that at the end of the year the international date line be redrawn to pass east of it rather than west, so that it could share the same time zone as Australia and New Zealand, now major trade partners. As a result, it jumped directly from December 29 to December 31.

Under the old arrangement, “In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we’re losing out on two working days a week,” explained prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. “While it’s Friday here, it’s Saturday in New Zealand, and when we’re at church on Sunday, they’re already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane.”

The move means Samoa can no longer promote itself as the last place on Earth to see each day’s sunset, but there’s a compensating bonus: Since nearby American Samoa remains on the eastern side of the line, “You can have two birthdays, two weddings, and two wedding anniversaries on the same date — on separate days — in less than an hour’s flight across [the ocean], without leaving the Samoan chain.”

Everything evens out cosmically anyway — Samoa had crossed the line in the other direction in 1892 to promote trade with the United States, and in that year it celebrated the occasion by marking the same day twice: July 4, America’s Independence Day.

Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States


In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

See full show notes …


Balloonist Andy Collett was floating over South Gloucestershire in July 2012 when he spotted something striking: a heart-shaped meadow in the center of a stand of oaks. “This was the most amazing sight I have ever seen from the sky,” he told the Telegraph. “It was a perfect heart hidden away from view — you would not know it was there.”

It turned out that 70-year-old Winston Howes had planted the wood to commemorate his 33-year marriage to his wife, Janet, who had died 17 years earlier of heart disease. In the months after her death he filled a six-acre field with thousands of oak saplings but left a heart-shaped clearing in the center, its point aimed at her childhood home.

“I came up with the idea of creating a heart in the clearing of the field after Janet died,” Howes said. “Once it was completed we put a seat in the field, overlooking the hill near where she used to live. I sometimes go down there, just to sit and think about things. It is a lovely and lasting tribute to her which will be here for years.”

The clearing was not visible from the road and remained a family secret until Collett spotted it. “You can just imagine the love story,” he said.


When blues singer Sally Osman filed for divorce from ventriloquist Herbert Dexter in 1934, she named his dummy, Charlie, as a co-respondent.

When she and Dexter had married two years earlier, she agreed that Dexter could take the puppet along on their honeymoon, as he had often complimented her through Charlie’s voice. But when they developed a new stage act, the dummy began to interrupt her songs with cruel ad libs and rob her of applause by making rude wisecracks. She asked Dexter to change the act so that she could sing without interruption, but he refused.

In I Can See Your Lips Moving, Valentine Vox writes, “She also accused the duo of physical cruelty, telling the court how she constantly received on-stage blows from the mechanical figure, which left her with severe bruises. One night in particular, Charlie had hit her so hard between the shoulder blades that he knocked the wind out of her.”

Osman further testified that Dexter would take the dummy everywhere they went and spent more time talking to it than to her. “I got to hate Charlie so deeply that homicidal thoughts began to haunt my mind,” she said. “Sometimes when I had Charlie alone and helpless, I fear that I would have thrown him out of the window, had I been able to unlock the coffin-like trunk in which he was kept.”

Dexter never contested the case, and Osman got her divorce. When the judge asked why she hadn’t requested alimony, she said, “I wouldn’t be able to collect it anyway; he spends all his money on Charlie.”

Ends and Means

Image: Flickr

“I find to my delight that I can make my dog happy by wagging its tail for it.” — Reveille, letter to the editor, quoted in Michael Bateman, ed., This England, 1969

Wakeful Watchers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xochimilco_Dolls%27_Island.jpg Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas is a floating garden festooned with dolls — the story goes that a local man discovered a drowned girl, hung her doll from a tree as a gesture of remembrance, and was haunted by her spirit ever after, no matter how many dolls he hung. Today, inevitably, it’s a tourist attraction, but it’s still effective — photographer Cindy Vasko called it the creepiest place she’s ever visited.

Below: As her village has dwindled from 300 residents to 30, Japanese artist Ayano Tsukimi has been replacing them with dolls, life-sized figures made of cloth and stuffed with cotton and newspapers. The first was intended to be a scarecrow, but because it resembled her father she found that her neighbors interacted with it. In the ensuing 10 years she’s made hundreds.

“Every morning, I just greet them,” she told NPR. “I say ‘good morning’ or ‘have a nice day!’ I never get a response, but that doesn’t make a difference. I go around talking to them anyway.”

A Tree to Climb

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This enormous kauri tree towered for a thousand years over prehistoric New Zealand before it fell into a swamp, where the lack of oxygen and fungus preserved it for 45,000 years. Workers snapped two 90-ton-capacity winch cables trying to extract it in October 1994; finally they cut it into two sections of 110 and 30 tons and hauled them out separately.

Then David Stewart built a concrete pad 20 inches thick, placed a 50-ton section of log atop it, and spent 300 hours carving it with a chainsaw and 200 hours finishing it. At 12 feet in diameter and 17 feet tall, the result is the world’s largest (and certainly oldest) single-piece circular stairway … built inside the log.

Image: Flickr

(From Spike Carlsen, A Splintered History of Wood, 2008.)

Double Talk

Image: Flickr

In talking about superheroes, these sentences seem natural and right:

(la) Clark Kent went into the phone booth and Superman came out.
(2a) Superman leapt over tall buildings.
(3a) Superman is more successful with women than Clark Kent.
(4a) Batman wears a mask.

But these seem inappropriate or wrong:

(lb) Clark Kent went into the phone booth and Clark Kent came out.
(2b) Clark Kent leapt over tall buildings.
(3b) Clark Kent is more successful with women than Clark Kent.
(4b) Bruce Wayne wears a mask.

Why is this? If we know that Superman is Clark Kent, then those terms should be interchangeable — a statement about Superman is a statement about Clark Kent; they’re the same person.

“At least in some conversational scenarios, utterances of (la)-(4a) strike us as true, and utterances of (lb) (4b) appear to be false,” writes University of Nottingham philosopher Stefano Predelli. “(3a), for instance, seems just the right thing to say when discussing women’s fascination with men in blue leotard; utterances of (3b), on the other hand, seem trivially false. Similarly, during a discussion of why the famed superhero never engages in extraordinary feats when playing the part of the timid journalist, utterances of (2a) seem unobjectionable, but utterances of (2b) will not do.” Why?

(Stefano Predelli, “Superheroes and Their Names,” American Philosophical Quarterly 41:2 [April 2004], 107-123.)

I Got a Feeling

My teenage children are mad about rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t mind, but between them they have socks, pullovers and slacks which are fluorescent, and I am worried in case these are harmful to their health. Surely things that are luminous in the dark are usually radioactive, which, I take it, could be dangerous.

You’ll be relieved to know that these clothes, so popular with teenagers (particularly the rock ‘n’ rollers), have been tested for radioactivity, and there is none. So there should be no danger at all, except to anyone who is sensitive to the kinds of colours they select!

Woman’s Realm, April 12, 1958


Here’s an especially vivid example of the illusion created by Dick Termes’ six-point perspective.

If you can convince yourself that the front half of this sphere is transparent, and that the image is painted on the interior of the back half, you’ll find that you’re inside the cage, turning to your left, while the birds are outside the cage, looking in at you. (To get started, I find it helps to focus on an edge of the sphere, rather than the center.)

There are many more examples on Termes’ YouTube channel.