Here’s an oddity: In 1882 Lewis Carroll collaborated on a song with the dreaming imagination of his friend the Rev. C.E. Hutchinson of Chichester. Hutchinson had told Carroll of a strange dream he’d had:

I found myself seated, with many others, in darkness, in a large amphitheatre. Deep stillness prevailed. A kind of hushed expectancy was upon us. We sat awaiting I know not what. Before us hung a vast and dark curtain, and between it and us was a kind of stage. Suddenly an intense wish seized me to look upon the forms of some of the heroes of past days. I cannot say whom in particular I longed to behold, but, even as I wished, a faint light flickered over the stage, and I was aware of a silent procession of figures moving from right to left across the platform in front of me. As each figure approached the left-hand corner it turned and gazed at me, and I knew (by what means I cannot say) its name. One only I recall — Saint George; the light shone with a peculiar blueish lustre on his shield and helmet as he turned and slowly faced me. The figures were shadowy, and floated like mist before me; as each one disappeared an invisible choir behind the curtain sang the ‘Dream music.’ I awoke with the melody ringing in my ears, and the words of the last line complete — ‘I see the shadows falling, and slowly pass away.’ The rest I could not recall.

He played the melody for Carroll, who wrote a suitable lyric of five verses. Hutchinson disclaimed writing the music, but if he didn’t … who did?

(From Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, 1898.)

11/24/2021 UPDATE: Reader Paul Sophocleous provided this MIDI file of the published music. (Thanks, Paul.)

A Good Walk Spoiled

If aliens watched us play golf, what on earth would they think we were doing? We invent an arbitrary, difficult task and then try to perform it, expending vast quantities of money and leisure time in a pursuit that serves no productive purpose and that most players find frustrating. A writer for Punch summed it up in 1892: “The object is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.”

In other pursuits, if people deliberately impede themselves from achieving their own goals, we question their rationality. But this is almost the whole point of golf — rules and courses are deliberately designed to make it extremely difficult to get the ball into the hole (a strange goal to pursue in the first place).

“The intuitive explanation, of course, is that golf wouldn’t be worth playing if it were easy,” writes Washington State University philosopher David Shier. “It simply wouldn’t be fun. Well, maybe much of the time it’s not exactly fun anyway, but it surely wouldn’t be interesting, and it wouldn’t ever be gratifying. Golfers place obstacles in the way of achieving their own goals in order to make the sport more challenging and, consequently, more interesting and enjoyable.” … But why pursue it at all?

(David Shier, “Is Golf Inherently Irrational?”, in Andy Wible, ed., Golf and Philosophy, 2010.)

A Legal Fiction,_with_an_accurate_plan_of_Fort_St._Philip_%26_its_environs,_and_the_French_approaches_and_batteries_in_1756_(5376029626).jpg
Image: Flickr

Sometimes it’s easier to reach a just legal result by reconceiving facts than by rewriting a rule. A classic example is Mostyn v. Fabrigas, decided by the King’s Bench Court in 1774. Fabrigas was a resident of Minorca, a Mediterranean island which was then occupied and controlled by England. He was imprisoned by Mostyn, the governor of the island. Fabrigas wanted to sue him, but no suit could be brought against Mostyn in Minorca without the approval of the governor. So Fabrigas sued him instead in the Court of Common Pleas in London for trespass and false imprisonment, winning a jury verdict of £3,000. Mostyn appealed, claiming correctly that the trial court had jurisdiction only in cases brought by residents of London, and Lord Mansfield, resoundingly, declared that Minorca was part of London for purposes of this action. The assault had occurred “at Minorca, to wit at London, in the parish of St. Mary-le-Bow, in the Ward of Cheap.”

That’s from University of Virginia scholar Frederick Schauer’s “Legal Fictions Revisited,” in Maksymilian Del Mar and William Twining’s Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (2015). He adds this wonderful footnote:

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that, in 1939, the renowned and beloved deer which graze on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, were at risk of being requisitioned during the wartime food shortage by the Ministry of Food. In order to prevent such an occurrence, it is said, influential Magdalen graduates in the government arranged to have the deer reclassified as vegetables and thus be spared from the slaughterhouse. More recently, it is reported that Magdalen’s noisy swinging door has been informally classified as a musical instrument in order to bring it within the prohibition on playing musical instruments at certain hours.


During a lull in the Prussian attack on Paris in December 1870, the Seventh Company of the French National Guard spent a few hours building a “museum” of snow on the southern edge of the city. Among them was 29-year-old sculptor Alexandre Falguière, who spent three hours crafting La Statue de la Résistance, a nine-foot emblem of French resistance in the form of a defiant woman atop a cannon. Félix Philippoteaux sketched the snow woman, Théophile Gautier wrote an essay, Théodore de Banville published a poem, Félix Bracquemond made an etching, and Faustin Betbeder produced a series of lithographs, but none of these captured the essence of the original. Falguière promised to make a permanent version in plaster or marble, but it never appeared. Critic H. Galli wrote in L’Art français in 1895:

As soon as Falguière was back in his studio, he took up his modeling knife, but he sought, worked, and suffered in vain. None of his maquettes had the proud allure, the poetry of his snow statue; he destroyed them. The capitulation, the dismemberment of France, and then the awful civil war had, alas, dissipated his last hopes. The inspiration was dead.

“Recapturing that magic would prove to be impossible for the unflagging Falguière,” writes Bob Eckstein in The History of the Snowman. “Eventually he created many variations in wax, plaster, terra cotta, and bronze, ranging in size from two to four feet high, all less successful than the original snow sculpture. Falguière could never duplicate the spontaneity and urgency of that long-gone snow woman. That moment had passed and had melted along with his original masterpiece.”

Supply and Demand

It is interesting to note that there are considerable manufactures of things the direct desire for which seldom or never asserts itself at all. There are immense tracts and Bibles produced, for instance, which are paid for by persons who do not desire to use them but to give them away to other persons whose desire for them is not in any way an effective factor in the proceeding. And there are numbers of expensive things made expressly to be bought for ‘presents,’ and which no sane person is ever expected to buy for himself.

— Philip H. Wicksteed, The Alphabet of Economic Science, 1888

Podcast Episode 363: The Lambeth Poisoner

In 1891, a mysterious figure appeared on the streets of London, dispensing pills to poor young women who then died in agony. Suspicion came to center on a Scottish-Canadian doctor with a dark past in North America. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the career of the Lambeth Poisoner, whose victims remain uncounted.

We’ll also consider a Hungarian Jules Verne and puzzle over an ambiguous sentence.

See full show notes …


In 1984, a diver was working in the beluga whale enclosure at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation when someone shouted “Out, out, out!” On emerging, the diver asked who had told him to exit the tank, and it turned out that the speaker was the whale itself, Noc, who had lived at the facility since his capture in 1977.

Noc’s keepers had previously heard strange sounds coming from the whale and dolphin enclosure that seemed to resemble people talking in the distance, their words just beyond the limit of comprehension. “We were sceptical at first,” neurobiologist Sam Ridgway told New Scientist. “They were definitely unlike usual sounds for a [beluga], and similar to human voices in rhythm and acoustic spectrum.”

The researchers concluded that he was indeed mimicking human speech, though Noc used his nasal tract to produce sounds, rather than a larynx, as humans do. They had only a short window in which to study the behavior: After four years Noc stopped, either because he’d reached maturity or because he’d lost interest.

Just Checking
Image: Flickr

South African statistician J.E. Kerrich’s 1946 textbook An Experimental Introduction to the Theory of Probability has an odd origin: Kerrich happened to be visiting Denmark during the Nazi invasion of 1940, and the Danes agreed to intern him, along with other British citizens, to prevent their being taken to Germany. While in confinement he tossed a coin 10,000 times and recorded the results, and he wrote up his analysis afterward in the book.

For the record, it landed heads 5,067 times.


George Bernard Shaw argued passionately for the reform of English spelling, which he found bewildering and inconsistent. When opponents objected that imposing changes would be too disruptive, he suggested that we might alter or delete just one letter per year, to give the reading public time to adapt. In 1971 writer M.J. Shields sent a letter to the Economist imagining the consequences:

For example, in Year 1, that useless letter ‘c’ would be dropped to be replased by either ‘k’ or ‘s’, and likewise ‘x’ would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which ‘c’ would be retained would be in the ‘ch’ formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might well reform ‘w’ spelling, so that ‘which’ and ‘one’ would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish ‘y’, replasing it with ‘i’, and Iear 4 might fiks the ‘g/j’ anomali wonse and for all.

Jeneralli, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear, with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing the vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai ier 15 or sou, it wud fainali be posible tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez ‘c’, ‘y’ and ‘x’ — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ‘ch’, ‘sh’ and ‘th’ rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers of orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. Haweve, sins xe Wely, xe Airiy, and xe Skots du not spik Ingliy, xei wud hev to hev a speling siutd tu xer oun lengwij. Xei kud, haweve, orlweiz lern Ingliy az a sekond lengwij at skuul!

Iorz feixfuli,

M. J. Yilz

The Blythe Intaglios
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Flying between Las Vegas and Blythe, Calif., in 1932, pilot George Palmer looked down and got a surprise — a group of enormous figures had been carved into the surface of the Colorado Desert. They had lain there for a thousand years, but they’re so large that no one had noticed them before. (The largest human figure is more than 50 meters long.)

No one knows for certain who created them; altogether there are several dozen figures, most probably representing mythic characters from Yuman cosmology. What else have we been overlooking?