“While there is a chance of the world getting through its troubles, I hold that a reasonable man has to behave as though he was sure of it. If at the end your cheerfulness is not justified, at any rate you will have been cheerful.” — H.G. Wells

Free Air Conditioning


Between the 1880s and the 1960s, the flag of the Turks and Caicos Islands featured an igloo. When Britain decided that the colony needed its own flag, it commissioned an artist to paint a suitable local scene. At the time, the salt industry dominated the local economy, so he sketched a man working on a quay between two piles of salt. When this was sent to London, the Admiralty artist apparently mistook these for ice, not knowing that the Turks and Caicos lie southeast of the Bahamas, and he helpfully added a door to the right pile.

Amazingly, the error remained in place until 1966, when it was discreetly removed before a state visit by Queen Elizabeth.

(Thanks, Charles.)

Current Events

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Squaring the square” refers to tiling a square with other squares, each with sides of integer length.

In a “perfect” squared square, like the one above, each smaller square is of a different size. The Cambridge University team that first sought perfect squares found a novel way to go about it — they transformed the square tiling into an electrical circuit in which each square is a resistor that connects to its neighbors above and below, and then applied Kirchhoff’s circuit laws to that circuit.

The example below isn’t perfect, but the technique did succeed — the smallest perfect square they found is 69 units on a side.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

(Rowland Leonard Brooks, et al., “The Dissection of Rectangles into Squares,” Duke Mathematical Journal 7:1 [1940], 312-340.)

In a Word


n. a person of great and varied learning

n. one who may be depended upon

n. a dispute about or concerning words

v. to speak of with disparagement or contempt

In 1746 Samuel Johnson set out to write a dictionary of the English language. He proposed to finish it in three years.

Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued.

ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies? JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a Welch gentleman who has published a collection of Welch proverbs, who will help me with the Welch. ADAMS. But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see: forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

(From Boswell.) (In the end it took him seven years.)

Podcast Episode 187: A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo


The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 — a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We’ll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

See full show notes …

Breathing Room


In 1928 Cleveland’s Cunningham Sanitarium erected the largest hyperbaric chamber ever built, five stories tall and weighing 900 tons. It was inspired by Kansas City physician Orval J. Cunningham’s belief that diabetes and cancer are caused by anaerobic organisms that would die off if patients could be sequestered in a highly oxygenated environment.

After a year of work and a million dollars, the finished sphere was ready. It could accommodate 40 patients at a time in a climate-controlled environment of 68° and 65% humidity. With steel doors and circular portholes, it had the atmosphere of a ship. To minimize the risk of fire, none of the 36 patient rooms contained any wooden components.

Unfortunately, Cunningham ran into financial straits and had to sell the chamber after only five years. Renamed the Ohio Institute of Oxygen Therapy, it failed to attract patients, operated briefly as a general hospital, and closed finally in 1936. In 1942 the U.S. War Production Board ordered it scrapped, and the metal went into military tanks.

Some photos are here.

More Odd Fiction

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang contains no commas. (“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”)

Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence is a single sentence of 120 pages.

Mathias Enard’s Zone is a single sentence of 517 pages.

Michel Thaler’s Le Train de Nulle Part contains no verbs. (“Quelle aubaine! Une place de libre, ou presque, dans ce compartiment. Une escale provisoire, pourquoi pas! Donc, ma nouvelle adresse dans ce train de nulle part: voiture 12, 3ème compartiment dans le sens de la marche. Encore une fois, pourquoi pas?”)

Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon is a “pragmatic lipogram” — all its verbs are conditional, future, subjunctive, etc., so that nothing is actually happening in the present: “I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.”

Adam Adams’ 2008 novel Unhooking a DD-Cup Bra Without Fumbling contains no Es.

My notes say that Iegor Gran’s Les Trois Vies de Lucie can be read straight through, recto pages only, or verso pages only, yielding three different stories, but I haven’t managed to find a copy to check.

Equality in Death


It is like a play. But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others — they are all quite alike, all one and the same; actors. And when in death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality … then they also are all one; they are human beings. All are that which they essentially were, something we did not see because of the difference we see. They are all human beings. The stage of art is like an enchanted world. But just suppose that some evening a common absent-mindedness confused all the actors so they thought they really were what they were representing. Would this not be, in contrast to the enchantment of art, what one might call the enchantment of an evil spirit, a bewitchment? And likewise suppose that in the enchantment of actuality (for we are, indeed, all enchanted, each one bewitched by his own distinctions) our fundamental ideas became confused so that we thought ourselves essentially to be the roles we play. Alas, but is this not the case? It seems to be forgotten that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.

— Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 1847

Curioser and Curioser


“I’m sure I’m not Ada, for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and — oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!”

So frets Alice outside the garden in Wonderland. Is the math only nonsense? In his book The White Knight, Alexander L. Taylor finds one way to make sense of it: In base 18, 4 times 5 actually is 12. And in base 21, 4 times 6 is 13. Continuing this pattern:

4 times 7 is 14 in base 24
4 times 8 is 15 in base 27
4 times 9 is 16 in base 30
4 times 10 is 17 in base 33
4 times 11 is 18 in base 36
4 times 12 is 19 in base 39

And here it becomes clear why Alice will never get to 20: 4 times 13 doesn’t equal 20 in base 42, as the pattern at first seems to suggest, but rather 1X, where X is whatever symbol is adopted for 10.

Did Lewis Carroll have this in mind when he contrived the story for Alice? Perhaps? In The Magic of Lewis Carroll, John Fisher writes, “It is hard … not to accept Taylor’s theory that Carroll was anxious to make the most of two worlds; the problem as interpreted by Taylor interested him, and although it wouldn’t interest Alice there was no reason why he shouldn’t use it to entertain her on the level of nonsense. It is even more difficult to suppose that he, a mathematical don, inserted the puzzle in the book without realising it.”

In the Winter 1971 edition of Jabberwocky, the quarterly publication of the Lewis Carroll Society, Taylor wrote, “If you find a watch in the Sahara Desert you don’t think it grew there. In this case we know who put it there, so if he didn’t record it that tells us something about his recording habits. It doesn’t tell us that the mathematical puzzle isn’t a mathematical puzzle.”