There is one very valid test by which we may separate genuine, if perverse and unbalanced, originality and revolt from mere impudent innovation and bluff. The man who really thinks he has an idea will always try to explain that idea. The charlatan who has no idea will always confine himself to explaining that it is much too subtle to be explained.

— G.K. Chesterton, Daily News, December 9, 1911

Point of View

Felice Varini’s anamorphic paintings seem senseless until they’re viewed from the right perspective — the key is to find the correct viewpoint. (One clue is that it’s always 1.62 meters from the ground, the artist’s own eye level.)

“Varini catches our eye by introducing an anomalous element into our field of vision,” writes Céline Delavaux in The Museum of Illusions. “His paintings are like frameless pictures that give the illusion of a single plane in three-dimensional space. In his hands, painting works like photography: it flattens a space while revealing it.”

In a Word

n. strife, conflict, contention

adj. noisy

v. to make proud, arrogant, or haughty

n. a stamping of the feet

New Zealand’s national rugby union team, the All Blacks, performs a haka, a traditional ancestral Māori war cry, before each international match:

Leader: Ears open! Get ready! Line up! Stand fast!
Team: Yeah!
Leader: Slap the hands against the thighs! Stomp the feet as hard as you can!
Team: As hard as we can!
Leader: You die! You die!
Team: We live! We live!
Leader: You die! You die!
Team: We live! We live!
All: Here stands the Hairy Man who can bring back the Sun so it will shine on us again! Rise now! Rise now! Take the first step! Let the sunshine in! Rise!

At the 2003 World Cup in Australia, Tonga met the haka with their own sipi tau, a traditional challenge dance:

It didn’t help, though — the All Blacks went on to win the game 91-7.

Spirits of the Departed


A wine merchant has three sons. When he dies, he leaves them seven barrels that are full of wine, seven that are half-full, and seven that are empty. His will requires that each son receive the same number of full, half-full, and empty barrels. Can this be done?

Click for Answer

A Twist in History

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Swiss artist Max Bill conceived the Möbius strip independently of August Möbius, who discovered it in 1858. Bill called his figure Eindeloze Kronkel (“Endless Ribbon”), after the symbol of infinity, ∞, and began to exhibit it in various sculptures in the 1930s. He recalled in a 1972 interview:

I was fascinated by a new discovery of mine, a loop with only one edge and one surface. I soon had a chance to make use of it myself. In the winter of 1935-36, I was assembling the Swiss contribution to the Milan Triennale, and there was able to set up three sculptures to characterize and accentuate the individuality of the three sections of the exhibit. One of these was the Endless Ribbon, which I thought I had invented myself. It was not long before someone congratulated me on my fresh and original reinterpretation of the Egyptian symbol of infinity and of the Möbius ribbon.

He pursued mathematical inspirations actively in his later work. He wrote, “The mystery enveloping all mathematical problems … [including] space that can stagger us by beginning on one side and ending in a completely changed aspect on the other, which somehow manages to remain that selfsame side … can yet be fraught with the greatest moment.”

Table Talk

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When chemists at the University of California at Berkeley discovered elements 97 and 98, they named them berkelium and californium. The New Yorker suggested that the school showed “a surprising lack of public-relations foresight”: “Now it has lost forever the chance of immortalizing itself in the atomic tables with some such sequence as universitium (97), ofium (98), californium (99), berkelium (100).”

The discoverers sent back a reply: “By using these names first, we have forestalled the appalling possibility that after naming 97 and 98 ‘universitium’ and ‘ofium’, some New Yorker might follow with the discovery of 99 and 100 and apply the names ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium’.”

The magazine answered, “We are already at work in our office laboratories on ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium’. So far we just have the names.”

Podcast Episode 159: The Mozart of Mathematics

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mathematician Paul Erdős had no home, no job, and no hobbies. Instead, for 60 years he wandered the world, staying with each of hundreds of collaborators just long enough to finish a project, and then moving on. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the “magician of Budapest,” whose restless brilliance made him the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century.

We’ll also ponder Japanese cannibalism in World War II and puzzle over a senseless stabbing.

See full show notes …

Fleeting Thoughts


A low-tech model of human cognition, from William James’ The Principles of Psychology, 1890:

If we make a solid wooden frame with the sentence written on its front, and the time-scale on one of its sides, if we spread flatly a sheet of India rubber over its top, on which rectangular co-ordinates are painted, and slide a smooth ball under the rubber in the direction from 0 to ‘yesterday,’ the bulging of the membrane along this diagonal at successive moments will symbolize the changing of the thought’s content in a way plain enough, after what has been said, to call for no more explanation. Or to express it in cerebral terms, it will show the relative intensities, at successive moments, of the several nerve-processes to which the various parts of the thought-object correspond.

He was grappling with the stream of consciousness, the notion that thought is a flowing stream rather than a distinct chain of ideas, and with the realization that studying this by introspection is ultimately futile: “The rush of thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself. … The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch the motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”

The Greatest

Artist Michael Kalish spent three years creating this portrait of Muhammad Ali from 1,300 punching bags.

It appeared in the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles in March 2011.

The SNARC Effect

In 1993, cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene asked respondents to classify a number as larger or smaller than 65, using response keys held in their hands. Interestingly, the subjects who held the “smaller” key in their left hand and the “larger” key in their right responded more quickly and with fewer errors than those in the opposite group. This suggests that we carry around a mental number line in our heads, implicitly associating left with “small” and right with “large”; the subjects in the slower group may have been fighting against this prejudice. Dehaene calls this the SNARC effect, for “spatial-numerical association of response codes.”

The effect was borne out in later studies. When subjects were asked to cross their arms, the group whose “smaller” button lay to their left were still faster than their counterparts. And the effect still obtains regardless of the range of numbers used, and even in tasks where the size of the number is irrelevant: In another experiment subjects were asked to report whether a given number was odd or even; here again, responses to numbers in the upper half of the test range were quicker when the appropriate response key was on the right, and likewise for small numbers on the left.

Interestingly, Iranian students living in France who had initially learned to read from right to left showed a reverse SNARC effect (associating small numbers with the right and large numbers with the left) if they’d recently immigrated, but those who had lived in France for some time showed the same SNARC effect as native French students.

“Very probably, then, this number-space association is learned, not innate,” writes M. Giaquinto in Visual Thinking in Mathematics. “But there may very well be an innate propensity in operation here. A left-right association has been found for familiar ordered sets of non-numerical items, namely, months and letters. This suggests that we have a tendency to form a linear spatial representation of any set of things whose customary presentation is well ordered (in the mathematical sense).”

(S. Dehaene, S. Bossini, and P. Giraux, “The Mental Representation of Parity and Numerical Magnitude,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 122, 371-396. See Number Forms.)