A problem from the Stanford University Competitive Examination in Mathematics:

How old is the captain, how many children has he, and how long is his boat? Given the product 32118 of the three desired numbers (integers). The length of the boat is given in feet (is several feet), the captain has both sons and daughters, he has more years than children, but he is not yet one hundred years old.

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A Last Performance

Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, read a poem at the gallows:

I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad. I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad. I am going to the Lordy, Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!

I love the Lordy with all my soul, Glory hallelujah! And that is the reason I am going to the Lord. Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lord.

I saved my party and my land, Glory hallelujah! But they have murdered me for it, and that is the reason I am going to the Lordy. Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!

I wonder what I will do when I get to the Lordy, I guess that I will weep no more when I get to the Lordy! Glory hallelujah!

I wonder what I will see when I get to the Lordy, I expect to see most splendid things, beyond all earthly conception, when I am with the Lordy! Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am with the Lord.

He asked for an orchestral accompaniment, but it was denied.

11/18/2023 UPDATE: Improbably, Guiteau eventually got his accompaniment — in Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins, his character sings part of the poem while cakewalking up and down the scaffold:

(Thanks, Molly.)

Stone Free

Francesco Queirolo’s 1754 sculpture Release From Deception depicts an angel releasing a fisherman from a net.

Unbelievably, the entire piece was carved from a single block of marble.

Historian Giangiuseppe Origlia called it “the last and most trying test to which sculpture in marble can aspire.”

See The Veiled Virgin and Folds of Stone.

Worldly Wisdom

Proverbs from around the world:

  • Gray hair is a sign of age, not wisdom. (Greek)
  • A smiling face is half the meal. (Latvia)
  • Fear has big eyes. (Russia)
  • Adversity makes a man wise, not rich. (Romania)
  • The child tells what is in the house. (Albania)
  • Love makes time pass; time makes love pass. (France)
  • The seeds of the day are best planted in the first hour. (Dutch)
  • It is easier to criticize art than to create it. (Spain)
  • A house does not rest upon the ground, but upon a woman. (Mexico)
  • All fear is bondage. (England)
  • Nature is better than a middling doctor. (China)
  • The miles are longer at night. (German)
  • Respect is given to wealth, not to men. (Lebanon)
  • If everyone swept in front of his house, the whole town would be clean. (Poland)
  • Even the handsome are divorced. (Egypt)

“With art and knavery we live through half the year,” the Italians say. “With knavery and art we live through the other.”


Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

(From his introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box. Thanks, Sharon.)

Not Available

Since ethicists are trained to reason explicitly about morality, we might expect them to behave particularly well. For example, we might hope they’d return library books on time. In 2009, University of California philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel examined the philosophy collections at 32 academic libraries. He found that contemporary ethics books were 25 percent more likely to be missing than non-ethics books in philosophy. Relatively obscure ethics books, which presumably are more likely to be borrowed by specialists, were almost 50 percent more likely to be missing.

“If these data are representative,” he concluded, “a philosophy book not on the shelf is anywhere from 25% to 150% more likely to be missing if it is an ethics book than if it is not.”

(Eric Schwitzgebel, “Do Ethicists Steal More Books?”, Philosophical Psychology 22:6 [December 2009], 711-725.)


An odd little detail: In Debt, anthropologist David Graeber mentions that Auguste Comte founded a Religion of Humanity “replete with vestments where all the buttons were on the back (so they couldn’t be put on without the help of others).”

I find this mentioned also by philosopher John Gray, but I haven’t been able to confirm it.

11/16/2023 UPDATE: Reader Fabienne Gallaire very helpfully found some more details. Comte was a disciple of the political theorist Henri de Saint-Simon, who had envisioned a religion of reason in which scientists formed the clergy. This article mentions “le fameux costume tricolore, incluant le gilet boutonné dans le dos”; here’s the costume (worn by Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin, who helped to propound “Saint-Simonianism” after Saint-Simon’s death in 1825), and here’s the robe in particular. I find a bit more in Christine Gruwez’s 2011 book Walking With Your Time:

In his last work, published in 1825 — Nouveau Christianisme — Saint Simon describes, right up to the smallest detail, the practices of this new religion, dress code included. … John Gray mentions here the bizarre detail of a specific moment when the ‘priest robe’ that went with this new religion was designed in such a way that all the buttons were at the back of the robe, thus making it impossible to dress and undress by oneself. The purpose was that one had to do nothing but appeal to the help of his fellow man, whereby solidarity was the message. It was not unusual for this display of solidarity to take place on the public road, which led to all sorts of amusing scenes. The garment was prohibited in the end by police decree.

(Thanks, Fabienne.)

Google Dearth,_Landsat_7_ETM%2B.png

This is a photograph of an absence. In 1876 the whaling ship Velocity reported spotting some “Sandy Islets” in New Caledonia, and “Sandy Island” was carried into later charts as a potential navigational hazard. But doubts began to arise in the 20th century, and in 2012 an Australian research vessel visited the area and “undiscovered” the island. With its absence officially confirmed, it’s been removed from modern maps and databases.


Letter to the Times, June 26, 2000:

Sir, Travelling near Washington DC about 24 years ago, I saw a large billboard by the roadside. Beautifully painted in letters a foot high, was the legend: ‘DISREGARD THIS SIGN’.

Really and truly,

Ernest Spacey
Bradford, West Yorkshire

A Cool Journey

Reddit user Climatologist49 offered this map in 2015: By starting in Brownsville, Texas, on New Year’s Day and arriving at each waypoint on the day indicated, a heat-sensitive tourist could travel 9,125 miles (14,685 km) through the contiguous United States while experiencing a constant normal daytime high temperature of 70°F (21°C). They’d arrive in San Diego on New Year’s Eve. I wonder how much these temperatures have changed in eight years.