Local Rules

A footnote from T.W. Körner’s The Pleasures of Counting:

It may help to recall the bon mot I heard from a Russian physicist: ‘Proofs in physics follow the standards of British justice and hold the accused innocent until proved guilty. Proofs in mathematics follow the standards of Stalinist justice and hold the accused guilty until proved innocent.’

Figure and Ground

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A recipe for “toast sandwiches,” from Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery, 1865:

Ingredients. — Thin cold toast, thin slices of bread-and-butter, pepper and salt to taste. Mode. — Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt. This sandwich may be varied by adding a little pulled meat, or very fine slices of cold meat, to the toast, and in any of these forms will be found very tempting to the appetite of an invalid.

In 2011 the Royal Society of Chemistry worked out the nutritional content:

3 slices of white bread = 240 Calories. Butter = 10 g = 90 Calories
Total = 330 Calories
Toast sandwich nutrients
Protein = 9.5 g
Fat = 12 g
Carbohydrate = 55 g
Fibre = 4.5 grams
Calcium = 120 mg
Iron = 2 mg
Vitamin A = 90 mcg
Vitamin B1 = 0.25 mg
Vitamin B2 = 80 mcg
Vitamin B3 = 4 mg
Vitamin D = 0.08 mcg

“I’ve tried it and it’s surprisingly nice to eat and quite filling,” said he RSC’s John Emsley. “I would emphasise that toast sandwiches are also good at saving you calories as well as money, provided you only have one toast sandwich for lunch and nothing else.”



From Enrico Fermi’s eyewitness report on the first detonation of a nuclear device, July 16, 1945:

About 40 seconds after the explosion, the air blast reached me. I tried to estimate its strength by dropping from about six feet small pieces of paper before, during, and after the passage of the blast wave. Since, at the time, there was no wind I could observe very distinctly and actually measure the displacement of the pieces of paper that were in the process of falling while the blast was passing. The shift was about 2½ meters, which, at the time, I estimated to correspond to the blast that would be produced by ten thousand tons of T.N.T.

Radiochemical analysis of soil samples later indicated that the total yield had been around 18.6 kilotons of TNT.

10/09/2020 UPDATE: Here’s Fermi’s report. (Thanks, Sivaraam.)

The Burned House Phenomenon

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Neolithic Europe left behind a curious puzzle for archaeologists: It appears that, for more than a thousand years, the houses in every settlement were burned. It’s not clear why. Possibly the fires arose accidentally or through warfare, or possibly they were set deliberately. The extent of each fire must have been considerable, because the raw clay in the walls has been vitrified by intense heat, an effect that has not appeared in modern experiments with individual houses. But the reason for the phenomenon, and for its longevity, remains unknown.



“If I were going to construct a God I would furnish Him with some ways and qualities and characteristics which the Present (Bible) One lacks. … He would spend some of His eternities in trying to forgive Himself for making man unhappy when He could have made him happy with the same effort and He would spend the rest of them in studying astronomy.” — Mark Twain


An Irishman called in great haste upon Dr. Abernethy, stating that, ‘Be jabers, my boy Tim has swallowed a mouse.’ ‘Then, be jabers,’ said Abernethy, ‘tell your boy Tim to swallow a cat.’

The Book of Humour, Wit, & Wisdom, 1867

Podcast Episode 314: The Taliesin Murders


By 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright had become one of America’s most influential architects. But that August a violent tragedy unfolded at his Midwestern residence and studio. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the shocking attack of Julian Carlton, which has been called “the most horrific single act of mass murder in Wisconsin history.”

We’ll also admire some helpful dogs and puzzle over some freezing heat.

See full show notes …



In the early 20th century, medical students often posed for photographs with the cadavers they were learning to dissect — in some cases even trading places with them for a tableau called “The Student’s Dream.”

John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson have published a book of these photos, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930. “What we know with certainty about any particular photograph often is frustratingly meager,” they write. “A dissection room photograph discovered tucked between the pages of an old anatomy textbook or up for auction on eBay is likely to have no indication of where or when it was taken, who took it, or who is in it. The photographs suggest stories that cannot easily be recovered.”

But they say that the images generally were intended not to be entertaining or flippant, but to mark a professional rite of passage for the students. “Privileged access to the body marked a social, moral, and emotional boundary crossing. ‘Know thy Self’ inscribed on the dissecting table, the Delphic injunction nosce te ipsum, could refer to the shared corporeality of dissector and dissected. But it most certainly referred to knowing the new sense of self acquired through these rites. As visual memoirs of a transformative experience, the photographs are autobiographical narrative devices by which the students placed themselves into a larger, shared story of becoming a doctor.”


The Swampman


Suppose lightning strikes a dead tree in a swamp; I am standing nearby. My body is reduced to its elements, while entirely by coincidence (and out of different molecules) the tree is turned into my physical replica. My replica, The Swampman, moves exactly as I did; according to its nature it departs the swamp, encounters and seems to recognize my friends, and appears to return their greetings in English. It moves into my house and seems to write articles on radical interpretation. No one can tell the difference.

But there is a difference. My replica can’t recognize my friends; it can’t recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place. It can’t know my friends’ names (though of course it seems to), it can’t remember my house. It can’t mean what I do by the word ‘house’, for example, since the sound ‘house’ it makes was not learned in a context that would give it the right meaning — or any meaning at all. Indeed, I don’t see how my replica can be said to mean anything by the sounds it makes, nor to have any thoughts.

(“I should emphasize that I am not suggesting that an object accidentally or artificially created could not think; The Swampman simply needs time in which to acquire a causal history that would make sense of the claim that he is speaking of, remembering, identifying, or thinking of items in the world.”)

(Donald Davidson, “Knowing One’s Own Mind,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 60:3 [January 1987], 441-458.)