In 1984, a diver was working in the beluga whale enclosure at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation when someone shouted “Out, out, out!” On emerging, the diver asked who had told him to exit the tank, and it turned out that the speaker was the whale itself, Noc, who had lived at the facility since his capture in 1977.

Noc’s keepers had previously heard strange sounds coming from the whale and dolphin enclosure that seemed to resemble people talking in the distance, their words just beyond the limit of comprehension. “We were sceptical at first,” neurobiologist Sam Ridgway told New Scientist. “They were definitely unlike usual sounds for a [beluga], and similar to human voices in rhythm and acoustic spectrum.”

The researchers concluded that he was indeed mimicking human speech, though Noc used his nasal tract to produce sounds, rather than a larynx, as humans do. They had only a short window in which to study the behavior: After four years Noc stopped, either because he’d reached maturity or because he’d lost interest.

Just Checking
Image: Flickr

South African statistician J.E. Kerrich’s 1946 textbook An Experimental Introduction to the Theory of Probability has an odd origin: Kerrich happened to be visiting Denmark during the Nazi invasion of 1940, and the Danes agreed to intern him, along with other British citizens, to prevent their being taken to Germany. While in confinement he tossed a coin 10,000 times and recorded the results, and he wrote up his analysis afterward in the book.

For the record, it landed heads 5,067 times.


George Bernard Shaw argued passionately for the reform of English spelling, which he found bewildering and inconsistent. When opponents objected that imposing changes would be too disruptive, he suggested that we might alter or delete just one letter per year, to give the reading public time to adapt. In 1971 writer M.J. Shields sent a letter to the Economist imagining the consequences:

For example, in Year 1, that useless letter ‘c’ would be dropped to be replased by either ‘k’ or ‘s’, and likewise ‘x’ would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which ‘c’ would be retained would be in the ‘ch’ formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might well reform ‘w’ spelling, so that ‘which’ and ‘one’ would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish ‘y’, replasing it with ‘i’, and Iear 4 might fiks the ‘g/j’ anomali wonse and for all.

Jeneralli, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear, with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing the vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai ier 15 or sou, it wud fainali be posible tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez ‘c’, ‘y’ and ‘x’ — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ‘ch’, ‘sh’ and ‘th’ rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers of orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. Haweve, sins xe Wely, xe Airiy, and xe Skots du not spik Ingliy, xei wud hev to hev a speling siutd tu xer oun lengwij. Xei kud, haweve, orlweiz lern Ingliy az a sekond lengwij at skuul!

Iorz feixfuli,

M. J. Yilz

The Blythe Intaglios
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Flying between Las Vegas and Blythe, Calif., in 1932, pilot George Palmer looked down and got a surprise — a group of enormous figures had been carved into the surface of the Colorado Desert. They had lain there for a thousand years, but they’re so large that no one had noticed them before. (The largest human figure is more than 50 meters long.)

No one knows for certain who created them; altogether there are several dozen figures, most probably representing mythic characters from Yuman cosmology. What else have we been overlooking?

The Trust Game

University of Iowa economist Joyce Berg devised this test of social expectation. Two players are each given $10. The two are anonymous to one another and may not communicate. The first player, known as the trustor, is given the option to transfer any part of her $10 to the second player, who is known as the trustee. Whatever she sends will be tripled; if she sends $5 the trustee will receive $15. The trustee then has the option to return any portion of what she’s received. The game is played only once, so the two players have no opportunity to communicate through repeated play.

What should they do? If the two trust one another perfectly, then both stand to double their money — the trustor will give all $10 to the trustee, who now has $40. If she returns half of that, then each player has $20.

The trouble is that rational players, who seek to maximize their personal gains, won’t behave this way. If the trustor gives the trustee $10, she can just keep all of it, walking away with $40 and leaving the trustor with nothing. Realizing this, the trustor should send nothing at all, keeping at least the $10 she was given. This is the rational expectation.

But in actual experiment, Berg found that fully 30 of 32 trustors sent money, and they sent an average of $5.16. This is surprising. “From a rational choice perspective,” she wrote, “subjects who sent money must have believed their expected return would be positive; but given the noncooperative prediction, why would they believe this?”

(Joyce Berg, John Dickhaut, and Kevin McCabe, “Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History,” Games and Economic Behavior 10 [1995], 122-142.)


Semiotician Charles K. Bliss was born in Czernowitz, in Austria-Hungary, a city with a confluence of nationalities that “hated each other, mainly because they spoke and thought in different languages.” So Bliss invented a new language to encourage communication between speakers of different languages — “Blissymbols” were ideographic, meaning they conveyed ideas or concepts, and so were not beholden to any spoken language.

For example, the sentence above reads “I want to go to the cinema”:

  • The symbol for “person” is attended by the number 1, indicating the first person.
  • The heart indicates a feeling, modified by a serpentine line indicating “fire,” topped a caret, indicating that it’s a verb in this sentence.
  • The symbol for “leg” also gets a caret, as it’s to be interpreted as a verb here.
  • The symbol for “house” is modified by the symbol for “film,” and the arrow indicates movement.

The language never fulfilled its potential as a bridge among cultures, but it became popular in the 1970s in teaching disabled people to communicate, and an organization known as Blissymbolics Communication International oversees its applications around the world.

(Thanks, Zach.)

First Class

The Scientific American Supplement of June 25, 1881, presents this illustration of a diversion that the family of Louis XIV purportedly used at the chateau of Marly-le-Roi. Called the Jeu de la Roulette, it’s essentially a miniature railway in which the train is pushed along by servants:

According to Alex. Guillaumot the apparatus consisted of a sort of railway on which the car was moved by manual labor. In the car, which was decorated with the royal colors, are seen seated the ladies and children of the king’s household, while the king himself stands in the rear and seems to be directing operations. The remarkable peculiarity to which we would direct the attention of the reader is that this document shows that the car ran on rails very nearly like those used on the railways of the present time, and that a turn-table served for changing the direction to a right angle in order to place the car under the shelter of a small building.

Scientific American says that the engraving’s authenticity is certain — La Nature took it from the archives at Paris among documents dated 1714. In Unusual Railways (1958), John Robert Day and Brian Geoffrey Wilson are rather more reserved, noting that all the evidence for the railway lies in this single print. “There is no evidence that the date or the print are authentic, but we like to think that they are.”

If it did exist, they write, “This almost certainly was the first pleasure railway ever built.”

In a Word

n. official or professional jargon which confuses more than it clarifies; gobbledegook

This is such a useful word that its coiner actually received an award. Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the American Chamber of Commerce, invented it to describe one of the incomprehensible price orders published by the Chamber’s Office of Price Stabilization. His comment, published in the Chamber’s weekly publication Washington Report in January 1952, was lauded in an editorial in the Bellingham [Wash.] Herald, which sponsored a plaque.

Smith said he’d considered several words to describe the OPS order’s combination of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity, and complexity.” He’d rejected legalfusion, legalprate, gabalia, and burobabble.

At the award presentation, he was asked to define his word briefly. He answered, “Multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

Extra Credit

The boys in Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky’s 1895 painting Mental Arithmetic are having a difficult time solving the problem on the board:

\displaystyle  \frac{10^{2} + 11^{2} + 12^{2} + 13^{2} + 14^{2}}{365}

As it happens, there’s a simple solution: Both (102 + 112 + 122) and (132 + 142) are equal to 365, so the answer is simply (365 + 365) / 365, or 2. They’ll figure it out.

A Box Code

In Robert Chambers’ 1906 novel The Tracer of Lost Persons, Mr. Keen copies the figure above from a mysterious photograph. He is trying to help Captain Harren find a young woman with whom he has become obsessed.

“It’s the strangest cipher I ever encountered,” he says at length. “The strangest I ever heard of. I have seen hundreds of ciphers — hundreds — secret codes of the State Department, secret military codes, elaborate Oriental ciphers, symbols used in commercial transactions, symbols used by criminals and every species of malefactor. And every one of them can be solved with time and patience and a little knowledge of the subject. But this … this is too simple.”

The message reveals the name of the young woman whom Captain Harren has been seeking. What is it?

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