Podcast Episode 162: John Muir and Stickeen


One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska’s Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir’s most beloved stories.

We’ll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies.


In 1904 a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien sent this rebus to a family friend.

In 1856 Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner with a gold-headed cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Sources for our feature on John Muir and Stickeen:

John Muir, Stickeen, 1909.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, John Muir’s “Stickeen” and the Lessons of Nature, 1996.

Kim Heacox, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, 2014.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, “Stickeen and the Moral Education of John Muir,” Environmental History Review 15:1 (Spring 1991), 25-45.

Hal Crimmel, “No Place for ‘Little Children and Tender, Pulpy People’: John Muir in Alaska,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 92:4 (Fall 2001), 171-180.

Stefan Beck, “The Outdoor Kid,” New Criterion 33:4 (December 2014), 1-6.

Edward Hoagland, “John Muir’s Alaskan Rhapsody,” American Scholar 71:2 (Spring 2002), 101-105.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, “John Muir and Modern Environmental Education,” California History 71:2 (Summer 1992), 170-177.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “John Muir” (accessed July 2, 2017).

“John Muir: Naturalist,” Journal of Education 81:6 (Feb. 11, 1915), 146.

William Frederic Badè, “John Muir,” Science 41:1053 (March 5, 1915), 353-354.

Charles R. Van Hise, “John Muir,” Science 45:1153 (Feb. 2, 1917), 103-109.

Listener mail:

Delta Spirit, “Ballad of Vitaly”:

Wikipedia, Aftermath (2017 Film)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Überlingen Mid-Air Collision” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Anthony Breznican, “‘The Princess Bride’: 10 Inconceivable Facts From Director Rob Reiner,” Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 16, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Charlotte Kate Fox” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, Incubus (1966 film)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Esperanto” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Toño del Barrio, “Esperanto and Cinema” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Phonetical Singing” (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Deliver Us (The Prince of Egypt)” (accessed July 14, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis’ Now I Know enewsletter. (Warning: This link spoils the puzzle.)

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Man of the Hole

For at least the last 20 years, a solitary indigenous man has been living entirely by himself in the Amazon rain forest. Known as “The Man of the Hole,” he’s believed to be the last surviving member of an uncontacted tribe.

His existence first came to light in 1996, and the Brazilian authorities launched expeditions to ensure his safety and preserved a 31-square-mile area in order to protect him from the encroachments of ranchers and loggers.

His nickname derives from the mysterious hole he digs in the floor of each of his palm thatch huts — more than 5 feet deep, rectangular, and serving no clear purpose. (A village of such huts had apparently been destroyed by settlers in 1996.) He’s been spotted a few times, a naked man with a bow and arrow who would now be in his 50s.

In 2009, gunmen believed to be ranchers attacked the man, but he’s believed to have escaped. Survival International director Stephen Corry told the Guardian, “His tribe has been massacred and now the ‘man of the hole’ faces the same fate. The ranchers must allow this man to live out his last days in peace on his own land, and the authorities must do all they can to protect it.”

(Thanks, Steve.)

Late Again

kendall/thomas railroad puzzle

A problem from P.M.H. Kendall and G.M. Thomas’ Mathematical Puzzles for the Connoisseur, 1962: A road runs parallel to a railway until it bends to cross it, as shown. A man normally cycles to work along the road at a constant speed of 12 mph, and when he reaches the crossing he’s normally overtaken by a train traveling in the same direction. One day he was 25 minutes late for work and found that the train passed him 6 miles before the crossing. What was the speed of the train?

Click for Answer

Nothing Doing

forest protest

Invited to participate in São Paulo’s biennial art exhibition in 1973, French artist Fred Forest found a unique way to protest the censorship imposed by Brazil’s ruling junto: He organized a group of marchers to carry blank signs through the city. “Instead of calling on dissidents or students who could have been arrested and tortured, Forest hired fifteen men to carry the signs,” writes Karen O’Rourke in Walking and Mapping. “As professional sandwich-board men who work at street corners in the heart of São Paulo, they could not be held responsible for the content of their signs.”

The press published the marchers’ route, and the public understood that the blank signs reflected the government’s repression. Although it was against the law for more than three people to congregate in the street, Forest’s march attracted nearly 2,000 followers, and onlookers showered them with ticker tape from their balconies.

The police arrested Forest for holding up traffic, but he was protected by his status as a foreign artist. After several hours of questioning, they let him go.

A Little Story

IBM nanophysicists have made a stop-motion movie using individual atoms — carbon monoxide molecules arranged on a copper substrate and then magnified 100 million times using a scanning tunneling microscope. The molecules remain stationary because they form a bond with the substrate at this extremely low temperature (-268.15° C); each CO molecule stands “on end” so that only one atom is visible.

The result, “A Boy and His Atom,” holds the Guinness world record for the world’s smallest stop-motion film.

07/16/2017 UPDATE: The day I posted this, news broke that researchers have encoded five frames of an 1870s short film into bacterial DNA. (Thanks, Sharon.)


An effle is a grammatical English sentence that no one would ever say — they tend to turn up in textbooks for students learning English as a foreign language:

The farmer kills the duckling.
This is a pencil. This is a boy. Peter is a boy. Peter is not a pencil.
A hat is not food.
A man has a dog.
Is this my finger or your finger?
A tailor sews with a needle.
He’s not very good so I can’t marry him.
One praises a pupil when he works hard.
You can’t go to a restaurant if you don’t have money.
Shall I leave without paying?
These are the people’s lunches.
Ouch! O, foolish bee!

Struck by these absurdities while trying to learn English from a textbook in 1950, Eugene Ionesco wrote a play, The Bald Prima Donna, with the same inane tone:

MARY: I am the maid. I have just spent a very pleasant afternoon. I went to the pictures with a man and saw a film with some women. When we came out of the cinema we went and drank some brandy and some milk, and afterwards we read the newspaper.

MRS. SMITH: I hope you spent a pleasant afternoon. I hope you went to the pictures with a man and drank some brandy and some milk.

Mr. SMITH: And the newspaper.

MARY: Your guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, are waiting at the door. They were waiting for me. They were afraid to come in on their own. They were meant to be dining with you this evening.

In his 1973 book The Language Laboratory and Language Learning, linguist Julian Dakin recalls a school textbook for foreign learners in which two children are continually asking one another their names. In Lesson 6 it turns out they’re brother and sister.

See Can You Do Without Soap?

Never Too Late


Abraham Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling.

The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate was held before Knox College in 1858. As he crawled through a second-story window to reach the platform, he said, “At last I have gone through college.”

Cheryl’s Birthday

This question appeared in the 2015 Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad, a competition for 14-year-old students from Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, and the U.K. (I’ve amended the language a bit):

Albert and Bernard have just become friends with Cheryl, and they want to know when her birthday is. Cheryl gives them a list of 10 possible dates:

May 15 16 19
June 17 18
July 14 16
August 14 15 17

Cheryl then tells Albert and Bernard separately the month and the day of her birthday, respectively.

Albert: I don’t know when Cheryl’s birthday is, but I know that Bernard doesn’t know it either.

Bernard: At first I didn’t know when Cheryl’s birthday is, but I know now.

Albert: Then I also know when Cheryl’s birthday is.

When is Cheryl’s birthday?

Singapore TV presenter Kenneth Kong posted the question online, and it went viral in a matter of days. The competition organizers had intended it to “sift out the better students” and expected that 40 percent of the competitors would find the solution. What is it?

Click for Answer

Patrolling the Palace

A puzzle by James Tanton:

King Tricho lives in a palace in which every room is a triangle:

patrolling the palace

Before retiring for the night he’d like to inspect it. Is there a path that will let him visit each room once and only once? He can start anywhere.

Click for Answer