Image: Flickr

A final exam had just one question: ‘Write the best possible final exam question for this course, then answer it.’

One student immediately wrote, ‘The best possible final exam question for this course is “Write the best possible final exam question for this course, then answer it.”‘

— Jan Harold Brunvand, Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends, 2011

(Presumably the answer was “Write the best possible final exam question for this course, then answer it.”)

In a Word

n. the rearing of dogs

adj. in danger of shipwreck

adj. inclined to laughter; happy, lively

v. to mystify

In January 2004 Greg Clark was making a supply run from his home on Kosciusko Island in southeastern Alaska when he radioed that his boat had lost power. With him was his constant companion, Brick, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever. After a three-day search, the Coast Guard found part of the boat’s stern on rocks on the west side of the island, which lies within the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.

More than a month afterward, two local fishermen were motoring past Heceta Island, several miles from the accident, when they saw a black animal on the beach. They recognized Brick, who swam to the boat and was hauled aboard. He was underweight, his leg was injured, and his fur was matted with tree sap, but he was “wiggling with joy,” according to CBS News. How the dog had stayed alive for four weeks in the harsh Alaskan winter is unknown.

A Private Fortune

Simonides, that extraordinary author of lyric poems, found an excellent remedy for his straitened circumstances by travelling around the most famous cities of the Asia, singing the praises of victorious athletes in exchange for a fee. When he had grown wealthy in this venture, he was ready to take a sea voyage and go back to his native land (he was born, so they say, on the island of Ceos). He boarded a ship, but a terrible storm (plus the sheer age of the ship) caused it to sink in the middle of the sea. Some of the passengers grabbed their money belts, while others held onto their valuables and any possible means of subsistence. A passenger who was more curious than the rest asked the poet, ‘Simonides, why aren’t you taking along any of your own stuff?’ He replied, ‘All that is mine is right here with me.’ It turned out that only a few were able to swim ashore, while the majority drowned, weighed down by what they were carrying. Then bandits arrived and took from the survivors whatever they had brought ashore, stripping them naked. As it happened, the ancient city of Clazomenae was not far off, which is where the shipwrecked people then turned. In this city there lived a man inclined to literary pursuits who had often read Simonides’s compositions and who was his great admirer from afar. He recognized Simonides simply from his manner of speaking and eagerly invited him to his house, regaling him with clothes and money and servants. Meanwhile, the rest of the survivors carried around placards, begging for food. When Simonides happened to run into them, he took one look and exclaimed, ‘Just as I said: all that is mine is right here with me, but everything that you took with you has now vanished.’

— Phaedrus (translated by Laura Gibbs)


There was a young fellow of Trinity
Who, although he could trill like a linnet, he
Could never complete
Any poem with feet,
Saying: “Idiots!
Can’t you see
what I’m writing
to be

— Anonymous

Podcast Episode 220: The Old Hero of Gettysburg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1863, on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a 69-year-old shoemaker took down his ancient musket and set out to shoot some rebels. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow John Burns’ adventures in that historic battle, which made him famous across the nation and won the praise of Abraham Lincoln.

We’ll also survey some wallabies and puzzle over some underlined 7s.


Alberta has no rats.

In a 1963 travel book, Ian Fleming gives James Bond’s recipe for scrambled eggs.

Sources for our feature on John Burns:

Timothy H. Smith, John Burns, 2000.

Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The First Day, 2011.

Tom Huntington, “Out to Shoot Some ‘Damned Rebels,'” America’s Civil War 21:3 (July 2008), 46-49.

Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi, “Why JEB Stuart Was Too Late,” Civil War Times 46:1 (February 2007), 30-37.

Robert L. Bloom, “‘We Never Expected a Battle’: The Civilians at Gettysburg, 1863,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 55:4 (October 1988), 161-200.

Robert Fortenbaugh, “Lincoln as Gettysburg Saw Him,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 14:1 (January 1947), 1-12.

George T. Ness Jr., “Wisconsin at West Point: Her Graduates Through the Civil War Period,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 25:2 (December 1941), 210-216.

James W. Wensyel, “Tales of a Gettysburg Guide,” American Heritage 45:2 (April 1994), 104.

“Letters,” Civil War Times 56:4 (August 2017), 6.

Luther William Minnigh, Gettysburg: What They Did There, 1912.

Samuel Penniman Bates, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1875.

“The Field of Gettysburg,” Ocala [Fla.] Evening Star, Dec. 6, 1920.

“The Field of Gettysburg,” Caldwell [Idaho] Tribune, Dec. 26, 1908.

“John Burns of Gettysburg,” [Washington D.C.] National Tribune, Jan. 19, 1899, 10.

“John Burns of Gettysburg,” National Tribune, Nov. 10, 1898, 8.

“Brave John Burns,” Gettysburg Compiler, Sept. 28, 1897.

“John Burns of Gettysburg,” Helena [Mont.] Independent, Oct. 6, 1890, 6.

“John Burns, of Gettysburg,” New York Times, Feb. 11, 1872.

“John Burns of Gettysburg,” New York Times, July 27, 1871.

John T. Trowbridge, “The Field of Gettysburg,” Atlantic Monthly 16:97 (November 1865), 616-624.

A writer to the Civil War Times asks whether the man seated farthest left at this Gettysburg field hospital might be Burns (click to enlarge). “Burns favored that style of top hat, and they have the same jug ears and long noses. They also seem to wear similar scowls, but nowadays so do I, at least when I can’t get enough Advil.” More here.

Listener mail:

Filey Bird Garden & Animal Park, Facebook, Sept. 25, 2018.

“Escaped Filey Animal Park Wallaby Found Dead on Roadside,” BBC News, Sept. 25, 2018.

Thomas Manch and Matt Stewart, “Mystery of Wellington’s Dead Wallaby Remains, Despite Thermal Imaging Tech,” Stuff, May 22, 2018.

Thomas Mead, “Hunters Take Out Pests in Annual South Canterbury Wallaby Hunt,” NewsHub, March 17, 2018.

A. David M. Latham, M. Cecilia Latham, and Bruce Warburton, “What Is Happening With Wallabies in Mainland New Zealand?” Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (accessed Oct. 3, 2018).

“Waimate’s Wallabies,” (accessed Oct. 3, 2018).

John Wilson, “South Canterbury Places – Waimate,” Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (accessed Oct. 3, 2018).

Ryan Dunlop, “Cost of Wallabies in South Island Could Reach $67m a Year by 2027,” Stuff, Dec. 22, 2017.

Rachel E. Gross, “New Zealand’s War on 30 Million Possums,” Atlantic, March 1, 2013.

Mark Edwards, “Isle of Man Wallaby-Related Police Call-Outs Revealed,” BBC News, Sept. 7, 2018.

Francesca Marshall, “Calls for Wallaby Warning Signs to be Implemented on the Isle of Man to Tackle Growing Numbers,” Telegraph, Sept. 7, 2018.

“Orphaned Isle of Man Wallaby ‘Getting Stronger,'” BBC News, May 8, 2018.

“Wild Wallabies Running Amok on Isle of Man,” Times, Sept. 8, 2018.

Camila Domonoske, “Mystery Kangaroo Is at Large in Austria, Confusing Everybody,” National Public Radio, Sept. 4, 2018.

“No Kangaroos in Austria? At Least One Is Lost in the Snow,” Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 29, 2015.

“Runaway Kangaroo Seen in Upper Austria,” The Local, Aug. 10, 2015.

“Escaped Kangaroo on the Run in Austria,” The Local, July 7, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener John Spray, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, 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!

Common Sense

A quickie from Raymond Smullyan: On the Island of Knights and Knaves, knights always tell the truth and knaves always lie. Every inhabitant is either a knight or a knave. One day a visiting anthropologist comes across a native and recalls that his name is either Paul or Saul, but he can’t remember which. He asks him his name, and the native replies “Saul.”

From this we can’t know whether the native is a knight or a knave, but we can tell with high probability. How?

Click for Answer

The Red Ball

An urn contains k black balls and one red ball. Peter and Paula are going to take turns drawing balls from the urn (without replacement), and whoever draws the red ball wins. Peter offers Paula the option to draw first. Should she take it? There seem to be arguments either way. If she draws first she might get the red ball straightaway, and it seems a shame to give up that opportunity. On the other hand, if she doesn’t succeed immediately then she’s only increased Peter’s chances of drawing the red ball himself. What should she do?

Click for Answer

The Kolakoski Sequence

Write down the digit 1:


This can be seen as describing itself: It might denote the length of the string of identical digits at this point in the sequence. Well, in that case, if the length of this run is only one digit, then the next digit in the sequence can’t be another 1. So write 2:

1 2

Seen in the same light, the 2 would indicate that this second run of digits has length 2. So add a second 2 to the list to fulfill that description:

1 2 2

We can continue in this way, adding 1s and 2s so that the sequence becomes a recipe for writing itself:
Animation: Wikimedia Commons

This is a fractal, a mathematical object that encodes its own representation. It was described by William Kolakoski in 1965, and before him by Rufus Oldenburger in 1939. University of Evansville mathematician Clark Kimberling is offering a reward of $200 for the solution to five problems associated with the sequence:

  1. Is there a formula for the nth term?
  2. If a string occurs in the sequence, must it occur again?
  3. If a string occurs, must its reversal also occur?
  4. If a string occurs, and all its 1s and 2s are swapped, must the new string occur?
  5. Does the limiting frequency of 1s exist, and is it 1/2?

So far, no one has found the answers.

Being There

Three meters wide, Frederic Edwin Church’s 1859 painting The Heart of the Andes was the IMAX feature of its day: On its debut in New York, 12,000 people waited in line for hours to pay 25 cents for a look at the canvas, which was displayed between theatrical curtains. One witness wrote, “Women felt faint. Both men and women succumb[ed] to the dizzying combination of terror and vertigo that they recognize[d] as the sublime. Many of them will later describe a sensation of becoming immersed in, or absorbed by, this painting, whose dimensions, presentation, and subject matter speak of the divine power of nature.” Mark Twain raved to his brother:

I have just returned from a visit to the most wonderfully beautiful painting which this city has ever seen — Church’s ‘Heart of the Andes’ … I have seen it several times, but it is always a new picture — totally new — you seem to see nothing the second time which you saw the first. We took the opera glass, and examined its beauties minutely, for the naked eye cannot discern the little wayside flowers, and soft shadows and patches of sunshine, and half-hidden bunches of grass and jets of water which form some of its most enchanting features. There is no slurring of perspective effect about it — the most distant — the minutest object in it has a marked and distinct personality — so that you may count the very leaves on the trees. When you first see the tame, ordinary-looking picture, your first impulse is to turn your back upon it, and say ‘Humbug’ — but your third visit will find your brain gasping and straining with futile efforts to take all the wonder in — and appreciate it in its fulness and understand how such a miracle could have been conceived and executed by human brain and human hands. You will never get tired of looking at the picture, but your reflections — your efforts to grasp an intelligible Something — you hardly know what — will grow so painful that you will have to go away from the thing, in order to obtain relief. You may find relief, but you cannot banish the picture — it remains with you still. It is in my mind now — and the smallest feature could not be removed without my detecting it.

Church had spent two years in South America retracing the steps of Alexander von Humboldt to create a composite of the continent’s topography. He hoped to share it with the explorer himself, but Humboldt died before the painting could reach Europe.