First Things First

An odd encounter between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford at a Democratic fundraising luncheon at New York’s Biltmore Hotel, 1916, from the memoir of Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels:

I do not suppose anything so strange ever occurred at a luncheon in New York and elsewhere. … After the first course, Edison, pointing to a large chandelier, with many globes, in the middle of the room, said, ‘Henry, I’ll bet anything you want that I can kick the globe off that chandelier.’ It hung high toward the ceiling. Ford said he would take the bet. Edison rose, pushed the table to one side of the room, took his stand in the center and with his eye fixed on the globe, made the highest kick I have ever seen a man make and smashed the globe into smithereens. He then said, ‘Henry, let’s see what you can do.’ The automobile manufacturer took careful aim, but his foot missed the chandelier by a fraction of an inch. Edison had won and for the balance of the meal or until the ice-cream was served, he was crowing over Ford, ‘You are a younger man than I am, but I can out-kick you.’ He seemed prouder of that high kick than if he had invented a means of ending the U-boat warfare.

(Via Edmund Morris’ 2019 biography Edison.) (Thanks, Aditya.)

Family Resemblance

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games.’ I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called “games”‘ — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! — Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Board games, what are some? Consider chess, of course, but think also of Monopoly. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.– Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

— Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953

Images: Wikimedia Commons

In August 1945, a few weeks before the end of World War II, a Soviet delegation presented a replica of the Great Seal of the United States as a gift to American ambassador W. Averell Harriman, who hung it in the study of his Moscow residence.

In 1951, a radio operator at the British embassy overheard American voices on an open radio traffic channel used by the Russian air force. An investigation showed that they’d been beaming radio waves at the ambassador’s office: The gift had contained a passive listening device that could be activated by a radio signal. The Soviets had been listening in on the ambassador’s residence for six years.

When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. displayed the device to show that both sides had been guilty of spying.

“Hannibal, Missouri”

Glimmering, gone — springtime stream
Lapping … road winding down
The shimmering hill. Hometown
Napping … sweet, solemn dream!
Dream solemn, sweet … napping
Hometown … hill shimmering … the
Down-winding road … lapping
Stream … springtime … gone, glimmering.

Willard R. Espy quotes this in his 1999 book The Best of an Almanac of Words at Play without citing the source. It’s by David L. Stephens.

What’s in a Name?

The fastest man on earth is named Bolt. Is that a coincidence, or did his name influence his choice of career?

In 2015, four curious researchers combed the British medical register looking for practitioners whose surnames seemed apt for their specialties (e.g., a neurologist named Brain). Then they compared the frequency of apt names listed under hospital specialties against their frequency in the register in general. They found that “[t]he frequency of names relevant to medicine and to subspecialties was much greater than that expected by chance.” Some examples:

General surgery: Gore, Butcher, Boyle, Blunt
Urology: Ball, Burns, Cox, Dick, Waterfall
Psychiatry: Downs, Lowe, Bhatti, Moodie, Nutt
Cardiology: Hart, Pump, Payne
Dermatology: Boyle, Hickey
Neurology: Counsell, Panicker
Paediatric medicine: Boys, Gal, Child, Kinder

Also: “Paediatric medicine was much more likely to be Wong than White (10:2), whereas anaesthetists were far more likely to be White than Wong (22:4).” And “One wonders if the comforting words of Dr Lie carry less impact because of the name, or whether consultations with Dr Dark in oncology are made any more ominous.”

(C. Limb et al., “Nominative Determinism in Hospital Medicine,” Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 97:1 [2015], 24-26.) (See Doctor Doctor and the Doctor’s Names List.)

Black and White

Smyth-Helms 1915

In 1915 James Ferguson Smyth invited Hermann Helms to play a practice game at the Manhattan Chess Club. They had reached the position above when Helms, as Black, found a brilliant two-move mate. What is it?

Click for Answer

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1997 a series of eruptions by the nearby Soufrière Hills volcano buried most of Plymouth, Montserrat, making it uninhabitable.

The government was moved to the town of Brades, but nominally Plymouth remains the capital, making it the only ghost town that serves as the capital of a political territory.


On May 14, 2008, 19-year-old Brandon Swanson of Marshall, Minnesota, called his parents around 2 a.m. to say he’d driven his car into a ditch and asked them to pick him up. He said he wasn’t hurt and gave them his best estimate of his location.

His parents drove to meet him, keeping in touch by phone, but couldn’t find him. Each party flashed its headlights, but neither could see the other.

Finally Brandon told them he was going to walk toward some lights that he took to be the town of Lynd, 7 miles from Marshall. He named a bar there and asked his father to meet him in the parking lot, and his father began to drive there, talking to Brandon as he did.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m., 47 minutes into the call, Brandon suddenly interrupted himself with the words “Oh, shit!”, and the connection was lost. He has not been seen or heard from since.

Cell phone records showed that he’d been near Porter, 25 miles from the location he’d estimated. His car was found nearby, but years of searching have not found a body. The case remains unsolved.

Podcast Episode 312: The Last of the Yahi

In 1911 an exhausted man emerged from the wilderness north of Oroville, California. He was discovered to be the last of the Yahi, a people who had once flourished in the area but had been decimated by white settlers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Ishi’s sad history and his new life in San Francisco.

We’ll also consider the surprising dangers of baseball and puzzle over a forceful blackout.

See full show notes …