Podcast Episode 334: Eugene Bullard


Eugene Bullard ran away from home in 1907 to seek his fortune in a more racially accepting Europe. There he led a life of staggering accomplishment, becoming by turns a prizefighter, a combat pilot, a nightclub impresario, and a spy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell Bullard’s impressive story, which won him resounding praise in his adopted France.

We’ll also accidentally go to Canada and puzzle over a deadly omission.

See full show notes …

Waiting in Style


When the local council removed a bus shelter near the village of Baltasound, on the isle of Unst, Shetland, Scotland, in 1996, 7-year-old Bobby Macaulay wrote to the Shetland Times asking them to replace it — he and his friends had been meeting there to wait for their school bus.

When a new shelter appeared, an anonymous donor added a wicker table and a sofa, and a tradition was born. In time a television appeared, as well as a heater and a carpet. Eventually Bobby’s shelter was named the best shelter in Britain, and now it’s redecorated regularly according to chosen themes (2018 marked 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, for example).

It has its own website.

“Short Road to Wealth”

I’ll tell you a plan for gaining wealth,
Better than banking, trade, or leases;
Take a bank-note and fold it across,
And then you will find your money IN-CREASES!
This wonderful plan, without danger or loss,
Keeps your cash in your hands, and with nothing to trouble it;
And every time that you fold it across,
‘Tis plain as the light of the day that you DOUBLE it!

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890



Memory feats of chess master Harry Nelson Pillsbury:

  • On April 28, 1900, he played 20 opponents blindfold (sitting alone in a room without board or pieces while the moves were announced to him), playing 600 moves in six and a half hours. Afterward he corrected several mistakes that his opponents had made in recording their moves. Two opponents had not kept a record at all, but Pillsbury gave the moves of those games “without any serious effort.”
  • In tour spanning 1900 and 1901, he gave about 150 simultaneous displays, many blindfold. In one 16-game blindfold exhibition in Buffalo, in which he won 84.4 percent of the games, he correctly announced mate in eight in one of the games.
  • In Toledo, Ohio, he simultaneously played 12 games of chess and four games of checkers without sight of any board, while at the same time playing duplicate whist with other people.
  • He was prepared to interrupt a blindfold display at any point, have a portion of a deck of cards read out to him, name all the remaining cards, and then resume play.
  • Before one blindfold display in Philadelphia he studied a list of 29 unfamiliar words and phrases; after the exhibition and again the next day he recited the list, first forward and then backward.
  • Two and a half hours into one 12-board blindfold display he suggested a rest for the players. During this time he invited them as a group to compose a numbered list of 30 words and to read them to him. He was then asked, in jumbled fashion, to give the number of a given word or the word of a given number. All his responses were correct. Afterward he recited the whole list backward and then resumed the blindfold display.

“Philadelphia master and organizer William Ruth told Dale Brandreth that he once sat with Pillsbury at a railroad crossing and wrote down the fairly long and different numbers on each of a large group of passing boxcars while Pillsbury attempted to memorize them. Ruth reported to Brandreth that Pillsbury’s memory for the numbers was incredibly accurate and in the correct order.”

(Eliot Hearst and John Knott, Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games, 2009.)

Math Notes

{13, 40, 45}

The square of the sum of any two of these numbers minus the square of the third is a square:

(13 + 40)2 – 452 = 282
(13 + 45)2 – 402 = 422
(40 + 45)2 – 132 = 842

(From Edward Barbeau’s Power Play, 1997.)

Vice Compression


Paramount photographer A.L. Schafer set up this shot in 1940 to simultaneously flout 10 provisions of the Hays Code, Hollywood’s guideline for self-censorship between 1934 and 1968.

When Schafer entered the photo in an industry competition and organizers threatened him with a fine, he pointed out that the judges were hoarding all 18 prints he’d submitted.

(Via Open Culture.)

03/07/2021 UPDATE: Artist Bruce Timm made a similar image combining nine themes barred from Batman: The Animated Series: guns, drugs, breaking glass, alcohol, smoking, nudity, child endangerment, religion, and strangulation:

Do It Yourself

In 1998, Walter Hooper, literary advisor of the estate of C.S. Lewis, was asked to summarize the legacy of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien:

Above all, they were both aware that the type of books they were writing were the type of books they liked to read. As Lewis said on one occasion: ‘I wrote the sort of books I did because they were the sort of books I would have liked to have read when I was growing up.’ When Lewis came across The Hobbit when it was being written he was delighted. This was not only the sort of book he would have liked to have read, but also the sort of book he would like to write. …

They were very honest men. They were not writing to be avant garde. They were writing books that they liked. They, after all, had jobs which left them free so they weren’t depending on writing stories that would sell. In some respects, Tolkien was reluctant to send his work to a publisher so you can hardly call him ambitious for that type of success. They merely wrote the sort of books that they liked which turns out to be the sort of books that many other people like.

From Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien — A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, 2001. Of Middle-earth, Tolkien wrote in a letter, “I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere; not of ‘inventing.'”

“A Friction Paradox”


A curious phenomenon noted in Martyn Cundy and A.P. Rollett’s Mathematical Models (1951):

Two rollers are mounted on perpendicular axles in different planes. An endless thread passes round them and connects them, both directly and with a crossover, as shown in the diagram. The instrument is somewhat capricious, but the following phenomena can be demonstrated with it.

(a) One roller is rotated continuously in one direction. The other starts in one direction, but if temporarily stopped with the finger continues in the opposite direction.

(b) One roller is rotated to and fro through a small angle. The other roller rotates continuously in the same direction.

“The apparatus shows that dynamical friction is less than statical, but a full explanation is complicated, if indeed it is possible, and certainly involves consideration of the elasticity of the connecting belt.”

The Longyou Caves

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In June 1992, farmers draining ponds in Longyou County, Quzhou prefecture, Zhejiang province, China, discovered that they weren’t ponds at all but drowned caverns, apparently created during the Ming Dynasty.

To date 36 such caves have been discovered in a region of 1 square kilometer. They’ve been compared to underground palaces, with rooms, halls, pillars, beds, bridges, and pavilions. But their age and function remain unclear because no historical document mentions them.

(Cheng Zhu et al., “Lichenometric Dating and the Nature of the Excavation of the Huashan Grottoes, East China,” Journal of Archaeological Science 40:5 [2013], 2485-2492.)