The Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale created this innovative diagram to track the causes of mortality in the Crimean War. Her description:

The Areas of the blue, red, & black wedges are each measured from the centre as the common vertex.

The blue wedges measured from the centre of the circle represent area for area the deaths from Preventable or Mitigable Zymotic diseases, the red wedges measured from the centre the deaths from wounds, & the black wedges measured from the centre the deaths from all other causes.

The black line across the red triangle in Nov. 1854 marks the boundary of the deaths from all other causes during the month.

In October 1854, & April 1855, the black area coincides with the red, in January & February 1856, the blue coincides with the black.

The entire areas may be compared by following the blue, the red, & the black lines enclosing them.

The diagram on the right corresponds to the first 12 months of the war; the one on the left shows the second 12 months. The difference reflects the dramatic effectiveness of a sanitary commission in reducing disease.

Nightingale found that presenting information graphically made it more accessible to Members of Parliament and civil servants, who might not otherwise read statistical reports. In 1859 she was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

“A Very Descript Man”

I am such a dolent man,
I eptly work each day;
My acts are all becilic,
I’ve just ane things to say.

My nerves are strung, my hair is kempt,
I’m gusting and I’m span:
I look with dain on everyone
And am a pudent man.

I travel cognito and make
A delible impression:
I overcome a slight chalance,
With gruntled self-possession.

My dignation would be great
If I should digent be:
I trust my vagance will bring
An astrous life for me.

— J.H. Parker

From Schott’s Vocab. (Thanks, Jacob.)

Podcast Episode 143: The Conscience Fund
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a “conscience fund” that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the history of the fund and some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it’s received over the years.

We’ll also ponder Audrey Hepburn’s role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles.


Wisconsin banker John Krubsack grafted 32 box elders into a living chair.

According to his colleagues, Wolfgang Pauli’s mere presence would cause accidents.

Sources for our feature on the conscience fund:

Warren Weaver Jr., “‘Conscience Fund’ at New High,” New York Times, March 18, 1987.

“$10,000 to Conscience Fund,” New York Times, July 21, 1915.

“$6,100 to Conscience Fund,” New York Times, Feb. 4, 1925.

“Swell Conscience Fund; Two Remittances, Small and Large, Bring In $4,876.70,” New York Times, Feb. 6, 1916.

“Sends $50 to War Department for Equipment Stolen in 1918,” New York Times, March 2, 1930.

“Depression Swells Total of Federal Conscience Fund,” New York Times, April 21, 1932.

“Federal Treasury Gets $300 to Add to Conscience Fund,” New York Times, March 25, 1932.

“9,896 Two-Cent Stamps Sent to City’s Conscience Fund,” New York Times, May 15, 1930.

“$30,000 to Conscience Fund; Contributor Says He Has Sent Four Times Amount He Stole,” New York Times, March 10, 1916.

“Guilt: Settling With Uncle Sam,” Time, March 30, 1987.

“The Conscience Fund: Many Thousands Contributed — Some Peculiar Cases,” New York Times, Aug. 5, 1884.

“Pays Government Fourfold; Conscience Bothered Man Who Took $8,000 from Treasury,” New York Times, June 13, 1908.

Rick Van Sant, “Guilt-Stricken Pay Up to IRS ‘Conscience Fund’ Gets Cash, Quilts,” Cincinnati Post, Jan. 26, 1996.

John Fairhall, “The Checks Just Keep Coming to the ‘Conscience Fund,'” Baltimore Sun, Dec. 10, 1991.

Donna Fox, “People Who Rip Off Uncle Sam Pay the ‘Conscience Fund,'” Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 24, 1987.

Associated Press, “Ten Thousand Dollars in Currency Is Sent to U.S. ‘Conscience Fund,'” Harrisburg [Pa.] Telegraph, July 20, 1915.

“Washington Letter,” Quebec Daily Telegraph, July 3, 1889.

“Figures of the Passing Show,” Evening Independent, Sept. 16, 1909.

James F. Clarity and Warren Weaver Jr., “Briefing: The Conscience Fund,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1985.

Warren Weaver Jr., “‘Conscience Fund’ at New High,” New York Times, March 18, 1987.

“Conscience Fund Too Small,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16, 1925.

“Laborer Swells Conscience Fund,” New York Times, June 28, 1912.

“A Conscience Fund Contribution,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 1895.

“The Conscience Fund,” New York Times, March 27, 1932.

“Swells Conscience Fund: Californian, Formerly in the Navy, Gets Religion and Pays for Stationery on His Ship,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1915.

“2 Cents, Conscience Fund: Sent to Pay for Twice-Used Stamp — Costs Post Office a Dollar,” New York Times, June 2, 1910.

“$30,000 to Conscience Fund: Contributor Says He Has Sent Four Times Amount He Stole,” New York Times, March 10, 1916.

“‘Conscience Fund’ Rises: New Yorker’s $8 Is Item in $896.49 Sent Treasury,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 1937.

“The Conscience Fund: Many Thousands Contributed — Some Peculiar Cases,” New York Times, Aug. 5 1884.

“The Conscience Fund: Young Woman Seeks a Loan From It From a Belief It Was Created for Benefit of Honest People,” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1914.

“Gives to Conscience Fund: Contributor of $36 ‘Forgot Tax Item’ — Another Sends $32,” New York Times, April 3, 1936.

“Conscience-Fund Flurries: Due to Religious Revivals,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 1903.

“$100 for Conscience Fund: Customs Officials Think Same Person Sent $10c a Few Days Ago,” New York Times, March 10, 1928.

“Swell Conscience Fund: Two Remittances, Small and Large, Bring In $4,876.70,” New York Times, Feb. 6, 1916.

“Conscience Fund for President: Pasadena Writer Sends Dollar to Harding to Make Good for 20-Year-Old Theft,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1921.

“$33 for Conscience Fund: Smuggler Sent Taft the Money After Selling His Goods,” New York Times, May 21, 1911.

“$1 to Conscience Fund: Remorseful Laborer Pays Off Debt to Government by Installments,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 1912.

“The Nation’s Conscience Fund,” Scrap Book, May 1906.

“Uncle Sam’s Conscience Fund,” Book of the Royal Blue, November 1904.

“The Conscience Fund,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, July 1894.

“Gives $18,669 to Conscience Fund,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 26, 1901.

“Large and Small Sums Swell Conscience Fund,” Virginia Chronicle, March 6, 1925.

“Miscellaneous Revenue Collections, or Conscience Fund,” Internal Revenue Manual (01-01-2011), U.S. Internal Revenue Service (accessed Feb. 12, 2017).

Listener mail:

“Myth Debunked: Audrey Hepburn Did Not Work for the Resistance” [in Dutch], Dutch Broadcast Foundation, Nov. 17, 2016.

The official Audrey Hepburn site.

To see the mentioned image of Hepburn and her mother in a musical benefit concert in 1940, Samantha gives these steps:

  1. From the homepage, go to the “life & career” section.
  2. On the left side of the page, choose “1929-1940,” then “Audrey’s childhood.”
  3. Click the down arrow below the image 15 times.

A screen test of Hepburn in 1953, in which she says she gave secret ballet performances to raise money for “the underground”:

Airborne Museum’s exhibition on Audrey Hepburn and her mother, Ella van Heemstra.

Two obituaries of Michael Burn:

William Grimessept, “Michael Burn, Writer and Adventurer, Dies at 97,” New York Times, Sept. 14, 2010.

“Michael Burn,” Telegraph, Sept. 6, 2010.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alexander Loew. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

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 Thanks for listening!

Crab Computing
Image: Flickr

In 1982, computer scientists Edward Fredkin and Tommaso Toffoli suggested that it might be possible to construct a computer out of bouncing billiard balls rather than electronic signals. Spherical balls bouncing frictionlessly between buffers and other balls could create circuits that execute logic, at least in principle.

In 2011, Yukio-Pegio Gunji and his colleagues at Kobe University extended this idea in an unexpected direction: They found that “swarms of soldier crabs can implement logical gates when placed in a geometrically constrained environment.” These crabs normally live in lagoons, but at low tide they emerge in swarms that behave in predictable ways. When placed in a corridor and menaced with a shadow representing a crab-eating bird, a swarm will travel forward, and if it encounters another swarm the two will merge and continue in a direction that’s the sum of their respective velocities.

Gunji et al. created a set of corridors that would act as logic gates, first in a simulation and then with groups of 40 real crabs. The OR gate, where two groups of crabs merge, worked well, but the AND gate, which requires the merged swarm to choose one of three paths, was less reliable. Still, the researchers think they can improve this result by making the environment more crab-friendly — which means that someday a working crab-powered computer may be possible.

(Yukio-Pegio Gunji, Yuta Nishiyama, and Andrew Adamatzky, “Robust Soldier Crab Ball Gate,” Complex Systems 20:2 [2011], 93–104.)

The Candy Thief

A problem by Wayne M. Delia and Bernadette D. Barnes:

Five children — Ivan, Sylvia, Ernie, Dennis, and Linda — entered a candy store, and one of them stole a box of candy from the shelf. Afterward each child made three statements:


1. I didn’t take the box of candy.
2. I have never stolen anything.
3. Dennis did it.


4. I didn’t take the box of candy.
5. I’m rich and I can buy my own candy.
6. Linda knows who the crook is.


7. I didn’t take the box of candy.
8. I didn’t know Linda until this year.
9. Dennis did it.


10. I didn’t take the box of candy.
11. Linda did it.
12. Ivan is lying when he says I stole the candy.


13. I didn’t take the box of candy.
14. Sylvia is guilty.
15. Ernie can vouch for me, because he has known me since I was a baby eight years ago.

If each child made two true and one false statement, who stole the candy?

Click for Answer

Image: Wikimedia Commons

G.K. Chesterton admired the furrows in a plowed field, made by patient men who “had no notion of giving great sweeps and swirls to the eye”:

Those cataracts of cloven earth; they were done by the grace of God. I had always rejoiced in them; but I had never found any reason for my joy. There are some very clever people who cannot enjoy the joy unless they understand it. There are other and even cleverer people who say that they lose the joy the moment they do understand it.

(From Alarms and Discursions, 1911.)

Quick Thinking

The historian Socrates tells us that the Emperor Tiberius, who was much given to astrology, used to put the masters of that art, whom he thought of consulting, to a severe test. He took them to the top of his house, and if he saw any reason to suspect their skill, threw them down the steep. Thither he took Thrasyllus, and after a long consultation with him, the emperor suddenly asked whether the astrologer had examined his own fate, and what was portended for him in the immediate future. Now the difficulty is this: If Thrasyllus says that nothing important is about to befall him, he will prove his lack of skill and lose his life besides. If, on the other hand, he says that he is soon to die, either the emperor will set him free, in which case the prophecy was false and he ought to have destroyed him; or Tiberius will destroy him, while he ought to have spared him as a true revealer of the future. Of course the solution is easy. Thrasyllus, after some observations and calculations, began to quake and tremble greatly, and said some great calamity seemed to be impending over him, whereupon the emperor embraced him and made him his chief astrologer.

The Ladies’ Repository, July 1873


TV columnist Rick Polito wrote this movie synopsis for the Marin Independent Journal in 1998:

polito synopsis

His description of The Untouchables: “A federal agent in Chicago hampers the work of an enterprising American job creator.”

Back Channels

In 1863 Union soldiers seized a bag of rebel correspondence as it was about to cross Lake Pontchartrain. In one of the letters, a woman named Anna boasted of a trick she’d played on a Boston newspaper — she’d sent them a poem titled “The Gypsy’s Wassail,” which she assured them was written in Sanskrit:

Drol setaredefnoc evarb ruo sselb dog
Drageruaeb dna htims nosnhoj eel
Eoj nosnhoj dna htims noskcaj pleh
Ho eixid ni stif meht evig ot

The paper published this “beautiful and patriotic poem, by our talented contributor.” A few days later a reader discovered the trick — it was simply English written in reverse:

God bless our brave Confederates, Lord!
Lee, Johnson, Smith, and Beauregard!
Help Jackson, Smith, and Johnson Joe,
To give them fits in Dixie, oh!

She had signed her name only “Anna,” but in the same bag they found a letter from her sister to her husband, saying “Anna writes you one of her amusing letters,” and this contained her signature and address. Union general Wickham Hoffman wrote to her: “I told her that her letter had fallen into the hands of one of those ‘Yankee’ officers whom she saw fit to abuse, and who was so pleased with its wit that he should take great pleasure in forwarding it to its destination; that in return he had only to ask that when the author of ‘The Gypsy’s Wassail’ favored the expectant world with another poem, he might be honored with an early copy. Anna must have been rather surprised.”

(From Hoffman’s 1877 memoir Camp, Court and Siege.)