The Lawyer’s Prayer

In 1765 Samuel Johnson considered taking up the study of law. In his diary he wrote:

Almighty God, the Giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual, enable me, if it be Thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful and instruct the ignorant, to prevent wrong, and terminate contention; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain to Thy glory and my own salvation; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

He seems to have given up the project, but he maintained his respect for the profession. The following year, when James Boswell mentioned that a friend had jokingly advised him against becoming a lawyer “because I should be excelled by plodding block-heads,” Johnson replied, “Why, Sir, in the formulary and statutory part of law, a plodding block-head may excel; but in the ingenious and rational part of it a plodding block-head can never excel.”

Podcast Episode 189: The “Wild White Man”

In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins, a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called “wild white man” of colonial Australia.

We’ll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters.


Radar pioneer Sir Robert Watson-Watt wrote a poem about ironically being stopped by a radar gun.

The programming language Ook! is designed to be understood by orangutans.

Sources for our feature on William Buckley:

John Morgan, Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852.

R.S. Brain, Letters From Victorian Pioneers, 1898.

Francis Peter Labillière, Early History of the Colony of Victoria, 1878.

James Bonwick, Port Phillip Settlement, 1883.

William Thomas Pyke, Savage Life in Australia, 1889.

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke, Stories of Australia in the Early Days, 1897.

John M. White, “Before the Mission Station: From First Encounters to the Incorporation of Settlers Into Indigenous Relations of Obligation,” in Natasha Fijn, Ian Keen, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael Pickering, eds., Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies II, 2012.

Patrick Brantlinger, “Eating Tongues: Australian Colonial Literature and ‘the Great Silence’,” Yearbook of English Studies 41:2 (2011), 125-139.

Richard Broome, “Buckley, William,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Marjorie J. Tipping, “Buckley, William (1780–1856),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1966.

Reminiscenses of James Buckley Who Lived for Thirty Years Among the Wallawarro or Watourong Tribes at Geelong Port Phillip, Communicated by Him to George Langhorne (manuscript), State Library of Victoria (accessed Jan. 28, 2018).

“William Buckley,” Culture Victoria (accessed Jan. 28, 2018).

Jill Singer, “Here’s a True Hero,” [Melbourne] Herald Sun, June 8, 2001, 22.

“Australia’s Most Brazen, Infamous Jailbreaks,” ABC Premium News, Aug. 19, 2015.

“Extraordinary Tale of Our Early Days,” Centralian Advocate, April 6, 2010, 13.

Bridget McManus, “Buckley’s Story Revisited: Documentary,” The Age, April 8, 2010, 15.

Albert McKnight, “Legend Behind Saying ‘You’ve Got Buckley’s’,” Bega District News, Oct. 21, 2016, 11.

David Adams, “Wild Man Lives Anew,” [Melbourne] Sunday Age, Feb. 16, 2003, 5.

Leighton Spencer, “Convict Still a Controversial Figure,” Echo, Jan. 10, 2013, 14.

“Fed: Museum Buys Indigenous Drawings of Convict,” AAP General News Wire, April 23, 2012.

The drawing above is Buckley Ran Away From Ship, by the Koorie artist Tommy McRae, likely drawn in the 1880s. From Culture Victoria.

Listener mail:

Yoshifumi Sugiyama and Akihiro Seita, “Kanehiro Takaki and the Control of Beriberi in the Japanese Navy,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 106:8 (August 2013), 332–334.

Wikipedia, “Takaki Kanehiro” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018).

Yoshinori Itokawa, “Kanehiro Takaki (1849–1920): A Biographical Sketch,” Journal of Nutrition 106:5, 581–8.

Alan Hawk, “The Great Disease Enemy, Kak’ke (Beriberi) and the Imperial Japanese Army,” Military Medicine 171:4 (April 2006), 333-339.

Alexander R. Bay, Beriberi in Modern Japan: The Making of a National Disease, 2012.

“Scott and Scurvy,” Idle Words, March 6, 2010.

Marcus White, “James Lind: The Man Who Helped to Cure Scurvy With Lemons,” BBC News, Oct. 4, 2016.

Jonathan Lamb, “Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy,” BBC History, Feb. 17, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Vitamin C: Discovery” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Miles, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, 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!

“A Little Saga of Self-Denial”

Hold on to your seats, boys. This one gets complicated.

It seems that on Aug. 12, 1940, there occurred an automobile collision at Forty-second avenue S. and Forty-second street.

A car driven by Leo R. Johnson, Hopkins, and owned by Frank M. Anderson, 2912 Sixteenth avenue S., was in collision with one driven by Francis D. Hall, 3413 E. Minnehaha parkway.

It happened that both owners were insured with the same company, the Westchester Fire Insurance Co., and both had $50 deductible collision policies.

The company paid $65 to Anderson for damages to his car and $300 to Hall for damages to his car.

Then the company started suit in municipal court to recover the money.

Action was started against Hall to recover the $65 paid for damages to Anderson’s car, charging him with negligence, and against Anderson to recover the $300 paid for damages to Hall’s car, charging Johnson, the driver, with negligence. …

Benjamin Rigler, attorney for Hall, then came into court with an answer denying that his client was negligent and charging that the driver of Anderson’s car was the negligent party.

And A.C. Johnston, attorney for Anderson, came into court with an answer denying that Johnson was negligent in driving and charging that Hall was guilty of contributory negligence.

The insurance company then filed replies to both answers, denying them.

Since it denied the answers, it also denied each answer’s charge that the other party was guilty of negligence, and thus denied its own original complaint.

Today the attorneys moved for dismissal on the ground that the reply to the answers was ‘sham and frivolous.’

Municipal Judge William A. Anderson dismissed both cases.

(From William L. Prosser’s The Judicial Humorist, 1952. The author is unknown.)


One more example of the trials of 19th-century house servants — in 1832 Elizabeth Fox, Baroness Holland, strained a sinew in her back:

Lady Hardy … said to her hostess after dinner, in the presence of the gentlemen, ‘Is it very painful? Where is it?’ Upon which her Ladyship called her page, made him turn his back to her, put her finger on his posterior regions, and said, ‘Here, Lady Hardy.’

(From Giles Fox-Strangways’ 1937 Chronicles of Holland House, 1820-1900.)


During World War I the Red Cross solicited contributions by literally sucking them out of a crowd with a vacuum cleaner.

The stunt took place on May 25, 1917, before the New York Public Library. From Scientific American: “While a soldier and a sailor urged the public to hand in their contributions the suction tube of the machine was reached out over the crowd. The suction was sufficient to draw up pieces of money of any denomination and deposit them in the bag of the vacuum cleaner. By this means it was possible to reach the crowd readily and it was unnecessary for a contributor to elbow his way through the jam in order to reach the Red Cross workers.”

The National Archives notes, “So great was the eagerness of the people to have their coins taken in by the cleaner that the bag inside the vacuum cleaner had to be emptied several times.”

Podcast Episode 187: A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 — a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We’ll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

See full show notes …

Equality in Death

It is like a play. But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others — they are all quite alike, all one and the same; actors. And when in death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality … then they also are all one; they are human beings. All are that which they essentially were, something we did not see because of the difference we see. They are all human beings. The stage of art is like an enchanted world. But just suppose that some evening a common absent-mindedness confused all the actors so they thought they really were what they were representing. Would this not be, in contrast to the enchantment of art, what one might call the enchantment of an evil spirit, a bewitchment? And likewise suppose that in the enchantment of actuality (for we are, indeed, all enchanted, each one bewitched by his own distinctions) our fundamental ideas became confused so that we thought ourselves essentially to be the roles we play. Alas, but is this not the case? It seems to be forgotten that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.

— Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 1847

Prior Art

karl krøyer patent

On Sept. 14, 1964, a Kuwaiti freighter capsized, drowning its cargo of sheep and threatening to contaminate the drinking water of Kuwait City. To raise the ship quickly, Danish inventor Karl Krøyer proposed using a tube to fill it with buoyant bodies. Accordingly, 27 million plastic balls were airlifted from Berlin and pumped into the freighter’s hold, and on Dec. 31 the ship rose, saving the insurance company nearly $2 million.

Krøyer patented his technique in the United Kingdom and Germany, but (the story is told) the Dutch application was rejected because a Dutch examiner found the 1949 Donald Duck comic The Sunken Yacht, by Carl Barks, in which Donald and his nephews raise a yacht by filling it with ping-pong balls.

Ping-pong balls are buoyant, and the ducks used a tube to feed them into the yacht, so the Dutch office ruled that this destroys the novelty of Krøyer’s invention — it may be just a comic book, but it had made the essential idea public 15 years before Krøyer tried to claim it.

No one quite seems to know whether this story is true — Krøyer, his patent attorney, and the examiner have now passed away; the documentation was destroyed years ago; and the grounds for the Dutch rejection aren’t clear. But it still makes a vivid example for intellectual property lawyers.

carl banks donald duck comic

The Machine Prayer

In his 1953 book The Impact of Science on Society, Bertrand Russell warned that modern life was subordinating people to the technical requirements of their work. “What science has done is to increase the proportion of your life in which you are a cog,” he warned. “You can only justify the cog theory by worship of the machine.”

In time men will come to pray to the machine: ‘Almighty and most merciful Machine, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost screws; we have put in those nuts which we ought not to have put in, and we have left out those nuts which we ought to have put in, and there is not cogginess in us’ — and so on.

“You must make the machine an end in itself, not a means to what it produces,” he wrote. “Human beings then become like slaves in The Arabian Nights.”

Image: Mare Milin / Museum of Broken Relationships

When Croatian artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišic ended their four-year relationship in 2003, they joked about creating a museum to house all their leftover personal items. “We were thinking of how to preserve the beautiful moments we had together and not destroy everything,” Vištica said. Three years later, Grubišic suggested that they do this in earnest, and they created the Museum of Broken Relationships, displaying items left over from breakups around the world.

After ending an 18-month relationship with an abusive lover, a Toronto woman sent in a necklace and earrings he had given her. “The necklace was given as an apology after one night of abuse. He used it as leverage that I should do as he said. I finally broke it off. I keep the necklace as a reminder of what to look out for.”

A Berlin women donated the ax she’d used to chop up her partner’s furniture after she left her for another woman. “Every day I axed one piece of her furniture. I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt. Two weeks after she left, she came back for the furniture. It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood. She took that trash and left my apartment for good. The axe was promoted to a therapy instrument.”

Between 2006 and 2010, the collection toured the world and was seen by 200,000 people. It’s now found a permanent home in Zagreb, and in 2016 it opened another location in Los Angeles, next to the theater that hosts the Oscars. “I think in periods of suffering people become creative, and I think this is a catharsis,” Vištica told The Star. “I think that relationships, especially love relationships, influence us so much and they make us the people we are.”