Coming Soon!

Futility Closet 2 cover

We’ll have another book in time for the holidays this year: a new collection of entertaining oddities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, the perfect gift for people who are impossible to buy gifts for.

Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits contains hundreds of hand-picked favorites from the site’s 10-year archive of the marvelous, the diverting, and the strange: joyous dogs, soul-stirring Frenchmen, runaway balloons, U-turning communists, manful hummingbirds, recalcitrant Ws, intractable biplanes, hairless trombonists, abusive New Zealanders, unreconstituted cannibals, mysterious blimps, thrice-conscripted Koreans, imaginary golf courses, irate Thackerays, and hundreds more. Plus the amusing inventions, curious words, and beguiling puzzles that regularly entertain millions of website visitors and podcast listeners.

“A wild, wonderful, and educational romp through history, science, zany patents, math puzzles, wonderful words (like boanthropy, hallelujatic, and andabatarian), the Devil’s Game, self-contradicting words, and so much more. Buy this book and feed your mind!”
— Clifford A. Pickover, author of The Mathematics Devotional

We’ll launch the new book on Amazon on November 3. It will join our first book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, which reviewers have called “funny, interesting, thought-provoking, and completely original” and “a book to enlighten as well as entertain.” Thanks for your support, and thanks for reading!

Emotion and Belief

If you had to judge by bodily sensations alone, could you distinguish shame from embarrassment? Philosopher William Alston suggests that we need to consult our beliefs in order to do this. “Even if there are in fact subtle differences in the patterns of bodily sensation associated with the two, it seems that what in fact forms the basis of the distinction is that it is necessary for shame but not for embarrassment that the subject take the object to be something which is his fault.”

Similarly, Jerome Shaffer proposes that beliefs are necessary to distinguish admiration from envy. Both involve “the belief that the person who is the object of the emotion has some good, but admiration will involve the belief that the person is worthy of it whereas envy will involve the belief that I am worthy of it instead (or, at least, also).”

Robert Yanal suggests that we might even need to check our beliefs in order to distinguish extreme happiness from extreme sadness. “Since both involve a nearly overwhelming rush of sensation, we might know that we are very happy only when we check our belief that our beloved’s life has been spared, not forfeited.” Sensations themselves are not enough to identify the emotion. “Typically, belief or a belief surrogate is brought in to draw the distinctions that we think must be drawn.”

Alston adds that “the presence of such evaluations seems to be what makes bodily states and sensations emotional” in the first place. “Some sinkings in the stomach are emotional, because they stem from an evaluation of something as dangerous; other sinkings are not emotional because they stem from indigestion.”

[William Alston, “Emotion and Feeling,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967; Jerome A. Shaffer, “An Assessment of Emotion,” American Philosophical Quarterly, April 1983; Robert Yanal, Paradoxes of Emotion and Fiction, 1999.]

Book Sale

book coverThis week our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, is on sale — the print book is $9.99, the ebook $4.99.

The book collects my favorite finds in nine years of dedicated curiosity-seeking: lawyers struck by lightning, wills in chili recipes, a lost manuscript by Jules Verne, dreams predicting horse race winners, softball at the North Pole, physicist pussycats, 5-year-olds in the mail, camels in Texas, balloons in the arctic, a lawsuit against Satan, starlings amok, backward shoes, revolving squirrels, Dutch Schultz’s last words, Alaskan mirages, armored baby carriages, pig trials, rivergoing pussycats, a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, and hundreds more.

Plus a selection of the curious words, odd inventions, and quotations that are regular features on the site, as well as 24 favorite puzzles and a preface explaining how Futility Closet came to be and how I come up with this stuff.

The book is available now on Amazon and in the Apple iBookstore.

I can also send signed copies to recipients in the U.S. for $25 each, and to those elsewhere for a comparable price once we’ve worked out the shipping. If you’re interested, write to me at Thanks for your support, and thanks, as always, for reading!


FYI, I’ve set up a presence on Goodreads, for anyone who wants to follow me there. I’ve begun posting the reading I’m doing in research for this site, and I’d be happy to get recommendations from other readers, and to discuss books there generally.

I’m also running a book giveaway on Goodreads — you can enter to win one of three signed copies of the Futility Closet book. Winners will be announced on February 9.

And I’ll be hosting a Q&A session on Goodreads all day on January 31 — you can ask me anything about the site, the book, future plans, or anything else you like.

I spend so much time in libraries doing research for this site that I thought it might be interesting to discuss books with you. I’m thinking Goodreads might become a place where we can recommend books to each other and discuss reading in general. See you there!

Signed Books

Since the Futility Closet book came out, a number of readers have asked whether I could provide signed copies. I think I’ve now worked out a way to do this for those who are interested. I can send signed copies to U.S. residents for $25 each, and to those elsewhere for a comparable price once we’ve worked out the shipping. If you’re interested, please write to me at (And thanks for asking — I hadn’t expected this!)