Letter to the Times, June 26, 2000:

Sir, Travelling near Washington DC about 24 years ago, I saw a large billboard by the roadside. Beautifully painted in letters a foot high, was the legend: ‘DISREGARD THIS SIGN’.

Really and truly,

Ernest Spacey
Bradford, West Yorkshire

A Cool Journey

Reddit user Climatologist49 offered this map in 2015: By starting in Brownsville, Texas, on New Year’s Day and arriving at each waypoint on the day indicated, a heat-sensitive tourist could travel 9,125 miles (14,685 km) through the contiguous United States while experiencing a constant normal daytime high temperature of 70°F (21°C). They’d arrive in San Diego on New Year’s Eve. I wonder how much these temperatures have changed in eight years.

New Markets

Yale economist Paul Krugman published a curious paper in 2010: “The Theory of Interstellar Trade”:

This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer travelling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

He added, “While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.”

(Paul Krugman, “The Theory of Interstellar Trade,” Economic Inquiry 48:4 [October 2010], 1119-1123. See The Telltale Mart.)


Preparing a time capsule in 1939, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company asked Albert Einstein to compose a message for the people of AD 6939. He sent this:

Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilize power also in order to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and we are able to send messages and news without any difficulty over the entire world through electric waves.

However, the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything. Furthermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. This is due to the fact that the intelligence & character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce some thing valuable for the community.

I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.

The message was recorded on microfilm and resides 50 feet below Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in New York City.

(“Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy,” 1939.)

Nonsense Cookery

Edward Lear’s recipe for amblongus pie, 1872:

Take 4 pounds (say 4 1-2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them in a small pipkin.

Cover them with water, and boil them for 8 hours incessantly; after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.

When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out, and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.

Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.

Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become of a pale purple colour.

Then, having prepared the paste, insert the whole carefully; adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.

Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.

Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of window as fast as possible.

Crash Course

Cook bicycle path 1

What is this? It’s the history of 800 successive unsteered bicycles, each traveling from left to right until it falls over. Caltech computer scientist Matthew Cook modeled the behavior in 2004, hoping to learn how we balance, steer, and correct our paths on two wheels. He found that just two artificial neurons were enough to control a bicycle competently — the system even learned to thread a series of waypoints:

Cook bicycle path 2

(Matthew Cook, “It Takes Two Neurons to Ride a Bicycle,” Demonstration at NIPS 4, 2004.) (Thanks, Dan.)


From John Scott, The Puzzle King, 1899:

“A farmer, being asked what number of animals he kept, answered: ‘They’re all horses but two, all sheep but two, and all pigs but two.’ How many had he?”

Click for Answer


Filmmaker Melton Barker started a novel business in the 1930s: He traveled across the United States, shooting a film in each town using local talent. The residents would gladly pay a fee to see themselves immortalized in a two-reel short, and their support financed the production and Barker’s livelihood until he could reach the next town.

He shot the same film, The Kidnappers Foil, 300 times over 40 years, using the same script and largely the same shots. A young girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped on her birthday, and the town’s children organize a search for her. The finished film, 15 to 20 minutes long, would be screened at local theaters. (The example above was shot in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in February 1937.)

Most of these films have been lost, but the project as a whole was added to the National Film Registry in 2012. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image has a collection of surviving films.

(Thanks, Kevin.)