Starting Over

On Dec. 24, 2010, Lori Erica Ruff shot herself to death with a shotgun in Longview, Texas. After her death, her ex-husband’s family discovered a lockbox in her home that revealed that in May 1988 she had stolen the identity of Becky Sue Turner, a 2-year-old girl who had died in a fire in 1971. She had then changed her name to Lori Erica Kennedy and received a Social Security account, erasing all trace of her origins.

After this she had qualified for a GED and eventually graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration. At a Bible study class she met Blake Ruff, who describes her as extremely secretive. She told him that she was from Arizona, that her parents were dead, and that she had no siblings. The two married in 2003 and Lori gave birth to a girl, of whom she was “extremely protective.” The marriage broke down, Ruff divorced her, and she committed suicide.

The lockbox contained a note with the phrases “North Hollywood police,” “402 months,” and “Ben Perkins,” but none of these clues has led anywhere. No one knows the woman’s real identity, or her history before 1988. Social Security Administration investigator Joe Velling received the case in 2011. “My immediate reaction was, I’ll crack this pretty quickly,” he told the Seattle Times in 2013. It remains unsolved.

(Thanks, Tuvia.)

09/23/2016 UPDATE: Wow, that was timely — Velling just solved the case. (Thanks, Jay.)

Kindling Trouble

Now, for something a bit more serious: I am starting a new religion. Care to join? As with the Catholic religion, my religion has an index of forbidden books. There is only one book that the index forbids. Can you guess which? You probably have! It is the index itself!

— Raymond Smullyan, “Self-Reference in All Its Glory!”, conference “Self-Reference,” Copenhagen, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2002

Podcast Episode 121: Starving for Science

During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.

We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.


Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, shared her home with a 400-pound lion.

In 2009, a California consumer sued PepsiCo for implying that crunchberries are a fruit.

Sources for our feature on Nikolai Vavilov:

S.M. Alexanyan and V.I. Krivchenko, “Vavilov Institute Scientists Heroically Preserve World Plant Genetic Resources Collections During World War II Siege of Leningrad,” Diversity 7:4 (1991), 10-13.

James F. Crow, “N. I. Vavilov, Martyr to Genetic Truth,” Genetics 134:4 (May 1993).

Olga Elina, Susanne Heim, and Nils Roll-Hansen, “Plant Breeding on the Front: Imperialism, War, and Exploitation,” Osiris 20 (2005), 161-179.

Peter Pringle, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, 2008.

Boyce Rensberger, “Soviet Botanists Starved, Saving Seeds for Future,” Washington Post, May 12, 1992.

Michael Woods, “Soviet Union’s Fall Threatens ‘Gene Bank’ for Food Crops,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 1993.

Joel I. Cohen and Igor G. Loskutov, “Exploring the Nature of Science Through Courage and Purpose,” SpringerPlus 5:1159 (2016).

Listener mail:

Peter Nichols, A Voyage for Madmen, 2001.

Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, 1970.

Ed Caesar, “Drama on the Waves: The Life and Death of Donald Crowhurst,” Independent, Oct. 27, 2006.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who cites this source (warning: this link spoils 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, 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!

“Caput Ei Abscidite!”

Clive Harcourt Carruthers’ 1964 book Alicia in Terra Mirabili begins at once, without a preface:

Aliciam iam incipiebat plurimum taedere iuxta sororem suam in ripa sedere nec quidquam habere quod faceret.

Semel et saepius in librum oculos coniecerat quem soror legebat: sed ei inerant nec tabulae nec sermones. ‘Quid adiuvat liber,’ secum reputabat Alicia, ‘in quo sunt nullae tabulae aut sermones?’

Itaque cogitabat (nempe ut lucidissime poterat, nam tempestate calida torpebat semisomna) num operae pretium esset surgere et flosculos carpere, modo ut sertum nectendo se delectaret, cum subito Cuniculus Albus oculis rubeis prope eam praeteriit.

Only a brief “Glossarium” at the end might give a clue to its origin:

aureorum decoctio malorum: orange marmalade
Baro Cordium: Knave of Hearts
Feles Cestriana: Cheshire Cat
lusio pilae et mallei: croquet
thea: tea

Hoist, Petard

The U.S. Navy submarine USS Tang was sunk by her own torpedo. Patrolling off China in October 1944, she fired at a Japanese transport and the electric torpedo, its rudder jammed, curved to the left in a great circle. The submarine put on emergency power to escape the circle, but it had only seconds to do so. Captain Richard O’Kane later said, “The problem was akin to moving a ship longer than a football field and proceeding at harbor speed clear of a suddenly careening speedboat.”

It struck her abreast the aft torpedo room and she went down in 180 feet of water. Seventy-eight men were lost, and the nine who survived were picked up by a Japanese frigate and taken prisoner. Until the accident the Tang had had the most successful submarine patrol in the war.

War and Peace,_94th_Aero_Squadron,_American_ace,_standing_up_in_his_Spad_plane._Near..._-_NARA_-_530773.tif

On the morning of the World War I armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, American fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker took off against orders and made his way to the front. He arrived at Verdun at 10:45 and flew out over the no-man’s-land between the armies. Less than 500 feet off the ground, “I could see both Germans and Americans crouching in their trenches, peering over with every intention of killing any man who revealed himself on the other side.”

I glanced at my watch. One minute to 11:00, thirty seconds, fifteen. And then it was 11:00 a.m. the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man’s land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer’s seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man’s-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.

Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.

Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.

(From his autobiography.)

Sign Play

Like any language, sign language partakes in jokes, puns, and wordplay. Dorothy Miles’ poem “Unsound Views” observes that hearing people seem to be slaves to their telephones. In English, there’s no obvious pun in the next-to-last line, “They live to serve their telephone God.” But in British Sign Language it runs


“Here, the aerial on the telephone handset is signed with the ‘G’ handshape that refers to long, thin objects,” explains Rachel Sutton-Spence in Analysing Sign Language Poetry. “The BSL sign GOD is also made using a ‘G’ handshape, albeit in a different location, but when the aerial is moved up to the location where GOD is normally articulated, the pun elevates the telephone to the status of a god.”

One more: In Miles’ poem “Exaltation,” a stand of trees seems to part the sky “And let the peace of heaven shine softly through.” In the American Sign Language version, this can be glossed as ALLOW PEACE OF HEAVEN LIGHT-SHINES LIGHT/HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD. The form of the sign LIGHT is made with a fully open ‘5’ handshape, but in this context the handshape can be seen simply as a hand. “If LIGHT-TOUCHES-HEAD is interpreted as HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD, the obvious question is ‘Whose hand?’ and the obvious answer is ‘God’s.’ In many cultures, placing hands gently upon a person’s head is taken as a blessing.”

A Cognitive Illusion
Image: Flickr

Given these premises, what can you infer?

  1. If there is a king in the hand then there is an ace, or if there isn’t a king in the hand then there is an ace, but not both.
  2. There is a king in the hand.

Practically everyone draws the conclusion “There is an ace in the hand.” But this is wrong: We’ve been told that one of the conditional assertions in the first premise is false, so it may be false that “If there is a king in the hand, then there is an ace.”

But almost no one sees this. Princeton psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird writes, “[Fabien] Savary and I, together with various colleagues, have observed it experimentally; we have observed it anecdotally — only one person among the many distinguished cognitive scientists to whom we have given the problem got the right answer; and we have observed it in public lectures — several hundred individuals from Stockholm to Seattle have drawn it, and no one has ever offered any other conclusion.” Johnson-Laird himself thought he’d made a programming error when he first discovered the illusion in 1995.

Why it happens is unclear; in puzzling out problems like this, we seem to focus on what’s true and neglect what might be false. Computers are much better at this than we are, which ironically might lead a competent computer to fail the Turing test. In order to pass as human, writes researcher Selmer Bringsjord, “the machine must be smart enough to appear dull.”

(Philip N. Johnson-Laird, “An End to the Controversy? A Reply to Rips,” Minds and Machines 7 [1997], 425-432.)

10/18/2016 UPDATE: Readers Andrew Patrick Turner and Jacob Bandes-Storch point out that if we take the first premise to mean material implication (and also allow double negation elimination), then not only can we not infer that there must be an ace, but we can in fact infer that there cannot be an ace in the hand — exactly the opposite of the conclusion that most people draw! Jacob offers this explanation (XOR means “or, but not both”, and ¬ means “not”):

I’ll use the shorthand “HasKing” to be a logical variable indicating whether there is a king in the hand.
Similarly, “HasAce” is a variable which indicates whether there is an ace in the hand.

We’re given two statements:

#1: (HasKing → HasAce) XOR ((¬HasKing) → HasAce).

#2: HasKing.

#2 has just told us that our “HasKing” variable has the value “true”.

So, we can fill this in to #1, which becomes “(true → HasAce) XOR (false → HasAce)”.

I’ll call the sub-clauses of #1 “1a” & “1b”, so #1 is “1a XOR 1b”.

1a: “(true → HasAce)” is a logical expression that’s equivalent to just “HasAce”.

1b: “(false → HasAce)” is always true — because the antecedent, “false”, can never be satisfied, the consequent is effectively disregarded.

Recall what statement #1 told us: (1a XOR 1b). We now know 1b is true, so 1a must be false. Thus “HasAce” is false: there is not an ace in the hand.

Jacob also offered this demonstration in Prolog. Many thanks for Andrew and Jacob for the patience in explaining this to me.