Balancing Act
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Devil’s Table is a startling rock formation 14 meters high in Germany’s Palatine Forest. A layer of hard siliceous sandstone was deposited atop a softer sediment that then weathered away, leaving a “tabletop” that protects its pillar from further erosion. It was classified as a National Geotope in 2006.


Hinchliffe’s rule, named after physicist Ian Hinchliffe, states that if the title of a scholarly article takes the form of a yes-no question, the answer to that question will be no.

In 1988 Boris Peon tested this proposition by writing a paper titled “Is Hinchliffe’s Rule True?”:

Hinchliffe has asserted that whenever the title of a paper is a question with a yes/no answer, the answer is always no. This paper demonstrates that Hinchliffe’s assertion is false, but only if it is true.

This seems to threaten the integrity of the universe. Happily, Harvard computer scientist Stuart Shieber pointed out that Hinchliffe’s rule might simply be false, in which case Peon’s title presents no problem.

Unfortunately Shieber also managed to resurrect the paradox by titling his article “Is This Article Consistent With Hinchliffe’s Rule?”

We await developments.

Still Life

Another striking example of trompe-l’oeil, this one painted by Rex Whistler at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, England: The niche, the brazier, and all the objects are painted in place on a wall in the drawing room. Click to enlarge.

(Thanks, Declan.)

Wiio’s Laws

Finnish economist and parliamentarian Osmo Antero Wiio framed these rueful principles of human communication in 1978:

  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
    1. If communication can fail, it will.
    2. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
    3. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
    4. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.
  3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.
  4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.
    1. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.
  5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.
  6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
  7. The more important the situation is, the more probable you had forgotten an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

Writer Jukka Korpela offered two corrolaries: “If nobody barks at you, your message did not get through” and “Search for information fails, except by accident.”

In a Word

n. a lighthouse

n. the act of biting

n. salutation on meeting

adj. stately-sounding

In 1900, a collie on Wood Island in Saco Bay, Maine, gained international fame for ringing the lighthouse’s fog bell to greet passing ships. “When ‘Sailor,’ for that is what he is called, sees a vessel passing the lighthouse he runs to the bell, and with a quick, sharp bark seizes the short rope between his teeth and rings several times,” wrote a correspondent to the Strand.

“As the years have passed ‘Sailor’ has kept on ringing salutes to passing vessels and steamers,” observed the Boston Herald. “Indeed, he feels hurt if not permitted to give the customary salute to passing craft, while skippers whose course takes them often past Wood Island are accustomed to see ‘Sailor’ tugging viciously at the bell rope. They reply with a will on their ship’s bell or horn, and in case of steamers a hearty triple blast is sent back to the watcher of Wood Island, who gives a new meaning to the good old sea term of ‘dog watch.'”

(Thanks, Frank.)

No Time Like the Present

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis points out a phenomenon he calls “chronological snobbery,” “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

“History does not always repeat itself,” wrote John W. Campbell. “Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.”

“The House-Dog’s Grave”

I’ve changed my ways a little: I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream: and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed: no, all the nights through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read — and I fear often grieving for me —
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired living so long.
I hope that when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dears, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been,

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. …
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

— Robinson Jeffers

Signifying Nothing

When King Pyrrhus was undertaking his expedition into Italy, Cyneas, his wise counselor, wanting to make him feel the vanity of his ambition, asked him: ‘Well, Sire, to what purpose are you setting up this great enterprise?’ ‘To make myself master of Italy,’ he immediately replied. ‘And then,’ continued Cyneas, ‘when that is done?’ ‘I shall pass over into Gaul and Spain,’ said the other. ‘And after that?’ ‘I shall go and subdue Africa; and finally, when I have brought the world under my subjection, I shall rest and live content and at my ease.’

‘In God’s name, Sire,’ Cyneas then retorted, ‘tell me what keeps you from being in that condition right now, if that is what you want. Why don’t you settle down at this very moment in the state you say you aspire to, and spare yourself all the intervening toil and risks?’

— Montaigne, “Of the Inequality Amongst Us,” 1580

Trompe L’oeil
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The grand gallery on the first floor of the Château de Tanlay, in Burgundy, appears to bear a vast program of sculptural decorations, but it’s all an illusion — the images were painted onto the walls and vaulted ceiling by Italian artists using the monochromatic technique known as grisaille.

The room, 26 meters long, was originally longer still, having been damaged in a fire in 1761.

More photos are here.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Unexpected Gift

In one variation of a popular paradox, a friend tells you that she’ll give you a present sometime next week, but that you won’t be able to predict the day on which you’ll receive it.

This is puzzling. If she waits until Saturday, the end of the week, it will be obvious that you must receive the gift on that day, as no other day remains possible. But if we exclude Saturday then the same argument could be used to exclude Friday, and so on back to Sunday. It seems that the friend’s declaration can’t be true — her gift can’t be unexpected.

David Morice offers one possibility that he called “Zeno’s solution”: Your friend, wearing a precision wristwatch, presents the gift in the moment precisely between Friday and Saturday. No reasoning has led you to expect this, so you’re surprised.

(David Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 27:2 [May 1994], 106-116.) (See the link — Morice offers three other solutions as well, “but I expect that each is logically flawed.”)