The “Swiss family Robinson” is not named Robinson. The title of Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel shows the enormous influence of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe even a century after its publication; the 18th century was filled with “Robinsonades” in German, Dutch, French, Danish, Swiss, Swedish, and Italian:

Teutsche Robinson, 1722
Americanische Robinson, 1724
Nordische Robinson, 1741
Hollandsche Robinson, 1743
Dänische Robinson, 1750
Walchersche Robinson, 1752
Maldivschen Philosophen Robine, 1753
Oude en Jongen Robinson, 1753
Isländische Robinson, 1755
Hartz-Robinson, 1755
Robinson vom Berge Libonon, 1755
Haagsche Robinson, 1758
Robertson [sic] aux terres australes, 1766
Steyerische Robinson, 1791
Böhmische Robinson, 1796

Wyss’s marooned Swiss family is nameless.

(Gary Dexter, Why Not Catch-21?, 2007.)

Brave New World

A Canadian notice to new telephone users, 1896:

To Listen: Place the telephone fairly against the ear, with an upward motion, so that the lower extremity or lobe of the ear is gathered in, into the cavity of the telephone; in this position it will be found to fit snugly and comfortably — the lobe of the ear acting as a cushion and at the same time closing out all ulterior sounds, thus enabling the voice to be heard with clearness and precision.

One California instruction read, “Speak directly into the mouthpiece keeping mustache out of the opening.”

With no social conventions to follow, users had to be taught propriety. AT&T promoted a “Telephone Pledge” that read, “I believe in the Golden Rule and will try to be Courteous and Considerate over the Telephone as if Face to Face.” The winner of a 1910 Bell essay contest wrote, “Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out ‘Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?’ No, one should open conversations with phrases such as ‘Mr. Wood, of Curtis and Sons, wishes to talk with Mr. White …’ without any unnecessary and undignified ‘Hello’s.'”

In America Calling (1992), Claude S. Fischer notes, “Companies cut off service to abusers and obtained legislation that fined or even jailed profane customers.”

Never Mind

In a 1961 contribution to Analog, Maurice Price explained that, while a new engineer might arrive to a clean desk, a “cycle of confusion” quickly begins as papers pile up so deeply that the engineer can do little more than fish old technical journals from the pile and read them (this is known as “keeping up with the state of the art”). Eventually the engineer resolves to clean the desk, but that only returns the system to the start of the cycle. The key equation is

C = K1 exp (K2t).

“In this equation K1 is the constant of confusion and K2 is the coefficient of chaos. These may vary from desk to desk and from engineer to engineer, but the general form of the curve is not altered. Note that the amount of work to be done does not affect the curve at all. This is because the amount of work expands to overflow the available desk area.”

The only way to break the cycle is to promote the engineer, but that only restarts the cycle at a new desk. And productivity and concentration actually increase with clutter. So the best solution is for the engineer to “bring his desk to the state of stagnation as soon as possible. From then on, the desk should be ignored completely. All work must be carried out by telephone.”

(Maurice Price, “An Introduction to the Calculus of Desk-Clearing,” Analog Science Fact & Fiction, British edition, 1961, 68-72.)

Peak Performance

This is fascinating if it’s true: Ten municipalities meet at the summit of Mount Etna, producing a “decipoint” and one of the most complex arrangements of political boundaries outside Antarctica.

I say “if it’s true” because, for such a striking fact, it’s surprisingly hard to confirm. Many sources point to a blog post at Condé Nast Traveler by Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, but that cites no source.

On the other hand, no one else seems to doubt it, and this map by Patrick McGranaghan won the American Geographical Society’s monthly map contest in November 2017. Maybe I’m too skeptical?

09/21/2023 UPDATE: Wow, it seems to be true. The official website of the Parco dell’Etna includes a map (PDF) showing the distribution of comuni metropolitani around the peak. And the website of the Italian National Institute of Statistics offers data files on statistical districts that can be opened using the desktop version of Google Earth. Many thanks to readers Rob Miller and Ross Ogilvie for looking into this.

For What It’s Worth

A 2009 study in the journal Sex Roles found that James Bond had had “strong” sexual contact with 46 women in the first 20 films in the Eon Productions Bond series (up to Die Another Day).

He had “mild” encounters, such as kissing, with another 52.

For comparison, Bond author Henry Chancellor had counted 58 sexual encounters in the first 20 films (according to Ben MacIntyre in For Your Eyes Only). Interestingly, Chancellor calculated that Bond sleeps with just 14 women in the 12 books that appeared between 1953 and 1964.

Still, that’s a lot of partners. “The likelihood of James Bond having chlamydia is extremely high,” general practitioner Sarah Jarvis told the BBC. “If he came to my clinic I would definitely advise him to have an STI test.”

(Kimberly A. Neuendorf, et al., “Shaken and Stirred: A Content Analysis of Women’s Portrayals in James Bond Films,” Sex Roles 62:11-12 [2010], 747-761.)


On a standard calculator keypad like the one shown here, any four-digit number that is typed in a rectangular shape is evenly divisible by 11. Some examples: 7964, 6523, 1793, 7128. (The numbers must not include 0.)

Parallelograms work too: 1562, 6875, 2783, etc.

Discussion and some proofs here.

09/20/2023 More: Take three digits in order from any row, column, or main diagonal and append the same three digits in reverse order (e.g., 951159). The resulting number will always be evenly divisible by 37 (and, indeed, by 1221). Mathematical Gazette, December 1986 and June 1987. See also A Keypad Oddity.

Four-Mile Fall

In January 1942, Soviet Air Force lieutenant Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov was serving as navigator on an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber when an attack by Messerschmitt fighters forced him to bail out.

He left the plane at 6,700 meters and decided to forgo opening his parachute until he’d dropped below the level of the battle. But due to the thin atmosphere he passed out before he could pull the ripcord.

At an estimated 200 kph he struck the edge of a ravine whose steep sides were covered in deep snow. He tumbled to the bottom, where cavalrymen found him alive and still wearing his unopened parachute. He spent a month in critical condition with a broken pelvis but was flying again three months later.

Play On

Local rules adopted at British golf courses during World War II:

  • “In competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.”
  • “The positions of known delayed-action bombs are marked by red flags placed at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.”
  • “A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.”
  • “A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.”

In Curiosities of Golf (1994), Jonathan Rice writes, “At Folkestone GC, the wartime rules included the rather grudging allowance that ‘a ball may be lifted and dropped if in a bomb hole in the rough, but not if the bomb hole is in or part of a recognized hazard.’ So if you sliced your drive and just caught a bunker by the side of the fairway, which then turned out to be fifty feet deep thanks to an overnight bombing raid, you just had to play out of the hazard, however unrecognizable it might have been compared with the day before. They breed tough golfers in Folkestone.”

In July 1941, some American clubs reportedly adopted similar rules in a show of solidarity.

UPDATE: Here are the rules adopted by Richmond GC, southwest of London. (Thanks, Brieuc.)