Tech Talk
Image: Ozan Kilic

In 2017 research scientist Janelle Shane tried to train a neural network to name kittens:

Snox Boops
Jexley Pickle
Toby Booch
Big Wiggy Bool
Mr Whinkles
Licky Cat
Mr Bincheh
Maxy Fay
Mr Gruffles
Liony Oli
Lasley Goo
Mag Jeggles
Mara Tatters
Mush Jam
Mr. Jubble

Bonus: At one point she accidentally trained the network on a dataset of character names from Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other fantasy authors and got Jarlag, Mankith, Andend of Karlans, and Mr. Yetheract. See the full list.

Podcast Episode 192: The Winchester Diver

Image: Flickr

In 1905 Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapsing as its eastern end sank into marshy ground. The surprising solution was to hire a diver, who worked underwater for five years to build a firmer foundation for the medieval structure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of William Walker and his curious contribution to saving a British landmark.

We’ll also contemplate a misplaced fire captain and puzzle over a shackled woman.


Anthony Trollope became a prolific author by simply demanding it of himself.

Wyoming’s North Two Ocean Creek drains into both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Sources for our feature on William Walker:

Ian T. Henderson and John Crook, The Winchester Diver, 1984.

Barry Shurlock, The Winchester Story, 1986.

Frederick Bussby, William Walker, 1970.

John Crook and Yoshio Kusaba, “The Transepts of Winchester Cathedral: Archaeological Evidence, Problems of Design, and Sequence of Construction,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 50:3 (September 1991), 293-310.

Gwilym Roberts, “How a Diver Saved Winchester Cathedral, UK: And Today’s Solution?” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers — Engineering History and Heritage 166:3 (August 2013), 164-176.

“William Walker: The Diver Who Saved the Cathedral,” Winchester Cathedral (accessed Feb. 25, 2018).

“Images of History,” Journal of Diving History 21:2 (Spring 2013), 40.

John Crook, “William Robert Walker,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

“How a Diver Saved a Cathedral,” Ohio Architect, Engineer and Builder 20:4 (October 1912), 61.

“Foundations: The Use of Divers and the Grouting Machine,” American Architect and Building News 93:1689 (May 6, 1908), 147.

“Portland Cement in the Restoration of Winchester Cathedral,” Cement 13:3 (July 1912), 84.

“Winchester Cathedral,” Journal of the Society of Estate Clerks of Works 19:222 (Dec. 1, 1906), 182.

“Diving at Winchester Cathedral,” American Architect 90:1607 (Oct. 13, 1906), 120.

Charles William Domville-Fife, Submarine Engineering of To-Day, 1914.

J.W. Overend, “Saving a Cathedral With a Diver,” Scientific American 108:19 (May 10, 1913), 428.

“Toilers Beneath the Sea,” Popular Science 3 (1912), 1580.

“Hidden Service,” Expositor and Current Anecdotes 13:5 (February 1912), 302.

“A Great Feat,” Advance 62:2392 (Sept. 7, 1911), 303.

David Newnham, “Statuesque Mistake,” Times Educational Supplement, May 30, 2003, 5.

Jonathan Petre and Hazel Southam, “Cathedral to Replace Statue of ‘Wrong Man’,” Telegraph, May 27, 2001.

“Another Statue in Aid of Cathedral Hero,” [Southampton] Southern Daily Echo, Dec. 21, 2001.

“Croydon Man Helped to Save a Gothic Cathedral,” Croydon Advertiser, May 15, 2014, 32.

Andrew John Davies, “Site Unseen: ‘Diver Bill’, Winchester Cathedral,” Independent, Oct. 4, 1996, L2.

Sally A. Fall, “Winchester Cathedral Owes Debt to Diver,” San Diego Union, June 26, 1988 G-3.

“Diver Who Saved a Cathedral,” New Zealand Herald, Nov. 1, 2011, C.4.

In this diagram, from Popular Science, 1912, two men operate a large pump at ground level. Below them, standing on a platform just above the water level, the diver’s assistant pulls in and pays out the diver’s air and signal lines as he moves about the trench. Walker, at the bottom, holds a bag of concrete that’s just been lowered to him. The trenches were generally longer and narrower than depicted here, and the water would have been impenetrably clouded with sediment.

Listener mail:

“Police Want Anyone Who May Have Seen Toronto Firefighter on His Journey Across U.S. to Come Forward,” CBC News, Feb. 14, 2018.

Jeff Farrell, “Skier Who Went Missing From New York Mountain Slopes Ends Up Six Days Later in California Still Wearing Ski Clothes,” Independent, Feb. 15, 2018.

“Skier Lost in New York Doesn’t Know How He Got to California,” Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2018.

“Toronto Firefighter Who Disappeared in New York and Wound Up in California, May Have Travelled Across U.S. Thanks to Friendly Truck Driver,” Toronto Star, Feb. 14, 2018.

Sofia Tancredi, “Anorexia Through the Ages: From Sainthood to Psychiatry,” E/I Balance, March 3, 2013.

Muriel Darmon, Becoming Anorexic: A Sociological Study, 2016.

Jane E. Brody, “HEALTH; Personal Health,” New York Times, May 19, 1988.

Fernando Espi Forcen, “Anorexia Mirabilis: The Practice of Fasting by Saint Catherine of Siena in the Late Middle Ages,” American Journal of Psychiatry, April 1, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Fasting Girl” (accessed March 10, 2018).

“Sarah Jacobs: The Fasting Girl,” BBC Wales, March 14, 2011.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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!

Podcast Episode 191: The Longest Flight

timm and cook 1

The world’s longest airplane flight took place in 1958, when two aircraft mechanics spent 64 days above the southwestern U.S. in a tiny Cessna with no amenities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the aerial adventures of Bob Timm and John Cook as they set a record that still stands today.

We’ll also consider a derelict kitty and puzzle over a movie set’s fashion dictates.

See full show notes …

Odd Clocks

With the help of Australian engineer David Cox, the Swedish design firm Humans Since 1982 created this “clock clock,” a clock made of clocks whose hands stop every 60 seconds to display the military time in square numerals.

The clock fountain at Osaka’s South Gate Building, below, “prints” the time (and some surprisingly complex graphics) in sheets of water, somewhat like a dot matrix printer.

Think Pieces

Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi creates digital art in Microsoft Excel. As he neared retirement he decided to take up painting, but he wanted to save the cost of brushes and pencils, so he used a tool he already owned, Microsoft’s popular spreadsheet program.

“I never used Excel at work but I saw other people making pretty graphs and thought, ‘I could probably draw with that,'” he told My Modern Met. “Graphics software is expensive, but Excel comes pre-installed in most computers … And it has more functions and is easier to use than Paint.”

He began painting in Excel in the year 2000. “I set a goal,” he says, “in 10 years, I wanted to paint something decent that I could show to people.” After only six years he took first prize at the Excel Autoshape Art Contest, and he’s been at it now for more than 15 years.

He sells the digital paintings as limited-edition prints that you can see and purchase here.

Podcast Episode 188: The Bat Bomb

During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

See full show notes …


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.”

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

Paper Chase

Izhar Gafni makes bicycles out of cardboard. The Israeli mechanical engineer can make a 20-pound bicycle that will support a rider of nearly 250 pounds, and its low-cost components make it unattractive to thieves — Gafni fashions the frame, wheels, handlebars, and saddle from sheets of cardboard that are folded and glued together; the tires and drive belt are recycled rubber, and the seat and some of the gears are made of recycled plastic bottles. “It’s one of the most green products you can imagine,” his partner Nimrod Elmish told the Times of Israel in 2012.

The company is pursuing partnerships to distribute cardboard bicycles and wheelchairs in Africa at little to no cost for the end user. “There is much to say about cardboard,” Elmish said. “This bicycle is the beginning of a materials revolution.”