In 1927 Albert Einstein sent a photograph of himself to his friend Cornelia Wolf. He inscribed these lines:

Wherever I go and wherever I stay,
There’s always a picture of me on display.
On top of the desk, or out in the hall,
Tied round a neck, or hung on the wall.

Women and men, they play a strange game,
Asking, beseeching: “Please sign your name.”
From the erudite fellow they brook not a quibble,
But firmly insist on a piece of his scribble.

Sometimes, surrounded by all this good cheer,
I’m puzzled by some of the things that I hear,
And wonder, my mind for a moment not hazy,
If I and not they could really be crazy.

A Promising Paradox

The dean of a university is searching for a new chair for his chemistry department. He offers the job to one candidate, who says she’ll accept only if she can hire three new faculty members. The dean makes a commitment to support these hires.

Such arrangements are common, but that’s troubling: By making a promise, the dean has made a future act obligatory for himself, and that changes its moral status. What if the promised act would otherwise have been wrong? In this case, what if the funding for these three hires ought otherwise properly to have gone to another department?

“The fact that our moral system permits agents to dictate in this manner the moral status of their future actions seems an astonishing power to build into a moral system,” writes University of Arizona philosopher Holly M. Smith. “It is especially troubling when one notes that agents apparently can exploit promises in order to legitimize otherwise objectionable courses of action. What would we say, for example, about a moral system in which an agent may render A obligatory by simply declaring, ‘My doing A next week will be, by virtue of this declaration, morally obligatory’?”

(Holly M. Smith, “A Paradox of Promising,” Philosophical Review 106:2 [April 1997], 153-196.)

One Nation, Indivisible

The second professor of mathematics in the American colonies suggested reckoning coins, weights, and measures in base 8.

Arguing that ordinary arithmetic had already become “mysterious to Women and Youths and often troublesome to the best Artists,” the Rev. Hugh Jones of the College of William and Mary wrote that his proposal was “only to divide every integer in each species into eight equal parts, and every part again into 8 real or imaginary particles, as far as is necessary. For tho’ all nations count universally by tens (originally occasioned by the number of digits on both hands) yet 8 is a far more complete and commodious number; since it is divisible into halves, quarters, and half quarters (or units) without a fraction, of which subdivision ten is uncapable.”

Successive powers of 8 would be called ers, ests, thousets, millets, and billets; cash, casher, and cashest would be used in counting money, ounce, ouncer, and ouncest in weighing, and yard, yarder, and yardest in measuring distance (so “352 yardest” would signify 3 × 82 + 5 × 8 + 2 yards).

Jones pressed this system zealously, arguing that “Arithmetic by Octaves seems most agreeable to the Nature of Things, and therefore may be called Natural Arithmetic in Opposition to that now in Use, by Decades; which may be esteemed Artificial Arithmetic.” But he seems to have had no illusions about its prospects, acknowledging that “there seems no Probability that this will be soon, if ever, universally complied with.”

(H.R. Phalen, “Hugh Jones and Octave Computation,” American Mathematical Monthly 56:7 [August-September 1949), 461-465.)

Podcast Episode 329: The Cock Lane Ghost

In 1759, ghostly rappings started up in the house of a parish clerk in London. In the months that followed they would incite a scandal against one man, an accusation from beyond the grave. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cock Lane ghost, an enduring portrait of superstition and justice.

We’ll also see what you can get hit with at a sporting event and puzzle over some portentous soccer fields.

See full show notes …

Navy Barrage

In 2014, Australian TV presenter Karl Stefanovic wore the same blue suit every morning for a year on Channel Nine’s Today program. Not a single viewer asked about it.

In the same period viewers sent regular criticisms of co-host Lisa Wilkinson’s wardrobe. “Who the heck is Lisa’s stylist?” one wrote. “Today’s outfit is particularly jarring and awful. Get some style.”

“I’m judged on my interviews, my appalling sense of humour — on how I do my job, basically,” Stefanovic told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Whereas women are quite often judged on what they’re wearing or how their hair is. … Women are judged much more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say and what they wear.”

(Thanks, Rini.)

Student Debt

Around 1220, Oxford University proposed this form letter for young scholars seeking money from their patrons:

To his venerable master A., greeting. This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with great diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands. I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun.

One father wrote, “A student’s first song is a demand for money, and there will never be a letter which does not ask for cash.”

(From Charles H. Haskins, The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by Their Letters, 1898.) (Thanks, Paul.)


But for the next [Maryland] assembly in 1638 the records show that some free men attended in person while others delegated representatives, each of whom was entitled to his own vote and also to all the votes of those who had selected him as their representative. …

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. One one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

— Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, 1988

(Thanks, Keith.)

The Value of Disagreement

In 1907, Francis Galton famously found that when a crowd were asked to guess the weight of an ox, the average value of their responses was surprisingly accurate — in Galton’s experiment, it fell within 1 percent of the ox’s true weight. This is “the wisdom of crowds”: By canceling errors across individuals, the mean response often proves more accurate than individual estimates.

Interestingly, the same phenomenon can arise when we aggregate multiple estimates made by a single person (the “wisdom of the inner crowd”). And organizational behavior researchers Philippe van de Calseyde and Emir Efendić now find that the accuracy can be refined still further when people are asked to consider a question from the perspective of someone they often disagree with.

“In explaining its accuracy, we find that taking a disagreeing perspective prompts people to consider and adopt second estimates they normally would not consider as viable option, resulting in first and second estimates that are highly diverse (and by extension more accurate when aggregated),” the researchers write. “Our results suggest that disagreement, often highlighted for its negative impact, can be a powerful tool in producing accurate judgments.”

(Philippe van de Calseyde and Emir Efendić, “Taking a Disagreeing Perspective Improves the Accuracy of People’s Quantitative Estimates,” PsyArXiv, Nov. 15, 2019.)


“It tires me to talk to rich men. You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing; but as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own businesses.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Straight and Narrow

English philanthropist Lady Jane Stanley financed footpaths through her native Knutsford with an odd proviso:

For some unknown reason Lady Jane disliked to see men and women linked together, i.e. walking arm in arm; and in her donations for the pavement of the town, provided that a single flag in breadth should be the limit of her generosity,– but she did not specify how broad the single flag was to be, and I fear her wishes are evaded, and the disapproved linking together often indulged in: the chief security for her order being observed is the disagreeable fact that in many places the streets and consequently the raised pavements are too narrow to allow of more than a very slender foot-path, so that if the lasses occupy the flags, the swains must either walk behind, or pick their way in the channel.

Never married, she composed her own epitaph:

A maid I lived,– a maid I died,–
I never was asked,– and never denied.

(From Henry Green, Knutsford, Its Traditions and History, 1859.)