After You

The Soviet Union established the first regular paratrooper units in the world, forming its first airborne forces in the mid-1930s.

Rather than jumping from the cabin, early troopers slid from the wings of the plane. In this newsreel footage from 1938, troops drop from a Tupolev TB-3.


The poem known as Catullus 16, by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, is so explicit sexually that a full English translation was not published until the late 20th century:

I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,
bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius,
you who think, because my poems
are sensitive, that I have no shame.
For it’s proper for a devoted poet to be moral
himself, [but] in no way is it necessary for his poems.
In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
and can arouse an itch,
and I don’t mean in boys, but in those hairy old men
who can’t get it up.
Because you’ve read my countless kisses,
you think less of me as a man?
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.

Duke classics professor Micaela Wakil Janan renders this in modern English prose:

Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth, you queer Aurelius and you fag Furius! You size me up, on the basis of my poems, because they’re a little sexy, as not really decent. A poet has to live clean — but not his poems. They only have spice and charm, if somewhat sexy and really not for children — if, in fact, they cause body talk (I’m not talking in teenagers, but in hairy old men who can barely move their stiff bums). But you, because you happen to read about ‘many thousands of kisses,’ you think I’m not a man? Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth!

Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messalinus and Marcus Furius Bibaculus had criticized Catullus’ earlier work as effeminate. Writing in the Telegraph in 2009, author Harry Mount called the poet’s response “one of the filthiest expressions ever written in Latin — or in any other language, for that matter.”

Brute Nature
Images: Wikimedia Commons

French painter Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was a student of physiognomy, the notion that a person’s character or personality can be read in the face. In 1671 he presented a lecture to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris in which he drew comparisons between the features of humans and animals. The lecture has been lost, but his sketches survive and are held at the Louvre. Here they are.

Sideways Music

It’s sometimes contended that time is one of four similar dimensions that make up a single manifold that we call spacetime. The four dimensions are orthogonal to one another, and though humans view one of them, time, as distinct from the others in various ways, it’s not intrinsically different.

Philosopher Ned Markosian offers a novel argument against this view: If aesthetic value is an intrinsic feature of an item, and if the four dimensions of spacetime are indeed similar, then rotating an object shouldn’t change its value. Turning a van Gogh painting 90 degrees doesn’t alter its beauty (though we may now have to turn our heads to appreciate it).

But turning a piece of music “out” of time, so that the notes of its melody, for example, occur all at once, changes the aesthetic value of the piece. “Whereas the original series of events had some considerable positive aesthetic value … the resulting series of events has either no aesthetic value or, more likely, negative aesthetic value. … Hence we have a powerful modus tollens argument against The Spacetime Thesis.”

(Ned Markosian, “Sideways Music,” Analysis 80:1 [January 2020], 51-59; and Sean Enda Power, Philosophy of Time: A Contemporary Introduction, 2021.)


The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry contains this resonant scrap of anonymous verse:

John Wesley Gaines!
John Wesley Gaines!
Thou monumental mass of brains!
Come in, John Wesley
For it rains.

In The American Treasury, Clifton Fadiman writes, “Mr. Gaines is believed to have been a Congressman.” And lo, a John Wesley Gaines did indeed serve in the House, representing Tennessee’s 6th district from 1897 to 1909. A Washington journalist wrote in 1907, “Down in Tennessee they started a song about Gaines which found its way to Washington, and every now and then you’ll hear some one giving him a line of it just to liven things up a bit.”

Gaines is largely forgotten today, but I find that gimlet little rhyme in 18 different treasuries. I wonder who wrote it.

Counting Up

A problem from Daniel J. Velleman and Stan Wagon’s excellent 2020 book Bicycle or Unicycle?: A Collection of Intriguing Mathematical Puzzles:

A square grid measures 999×999. Each square is either black or white. Each black square that’s not on the border of the grid has exactly five white squares among its eight immediate neighbors (those that adjoin it horizontally, vertically, or diagonally). Each white square that’s not on the border has exactly four black squares among its immediate neighbors. Of the 999 × 999 = 998001 squares in the grid, how many are black and how many white?

Click for Answer


Somebody said that it couldn’t be done —
But he, with a grin, replied
He’d never be one to say it couldn’t be done —
Leastways, not ’til he’d tried.
So he buckled right in, with a trace of a grin;
By golly, he went right to it.
He tackled The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done!
And he couldn’t do it.

— Anonymous

03/26/2024 This seems to be a reply to Edgar Albert Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t Be Done.” A couple of readers recognized it from The Dick Van Dyke Show (“The Return of Edwin Carp,” April 1964), but I don’t know whether that’s where it originated. (Thanks, Kevin, Chris, and Seth.)


A puzzle by Soviet science writer Yakov Perelman: Six carpenters and a cabinetmaker were hired to do a job. Each carpenter was paid 20 rubles, and the cabinetmaker was paid 3 rubles more than the average wage of the whole group. How much did the cabinetmaker make?

Click for Answer


In an article on secret hiding places in the Strand, December 1894, James Scott describes an ingenious refuge in the space between two matched flights of stairs. The functional set of risers on top can be raised to reveal a false set below, and the fugitive can take his place in the space between the two. When the door is closed again, searchers see only an ordinary staircase, and if they examine the empty cupboard beneath they’ll see only the apparent undersides of the risers above, which match them in number and size. There’s no perspective from which they can view the purported single stair from both above and below, and thus no reason to imagine that it might be double.

“Tapping upon what they believed to be the underside of the proper stairs would produce a hollow sound; but as a similar response must be expected when legitimate stairs are tapped, that point would not be considered a valuable clue,” Scott writes. “The quarters would be truly uncomfortable, as the necessities of the position would demand that the prisoner should lie at full length in the cavity. Perhaps, however, some provision was made whereby slight relief was afforded.”