Talking Points

In September 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower found himself campaigning against the eloquent Adlai Stevenson, Time magazine made a list of his incomprehensible utterances:

“In our efforts throughout the world, on outpost positions, I mean positions that are exposed to immediate Communist threat, physical threat, if we will help those people hold out and get ourselves back where we belong as reserves to move in to any threatened danger point if they carry it to that point, carry it to that level, then what we will be doing it will be taking these 22 million South Koreans, pushing programs for getting them ready to hold their own front line.”

“I had some service friends that came to me along about May and some things beat around my head, and asked me, ‘General, why are you so crazy to ever get into this kind of thing?’ I had to find some answer that was quick because I was pretty busy in Europe. I got a picture of my three grandchildren and I put it on my mantel and I said, ‘Look at that.’ I want to talk about the future for a second in their terms. This is my particular philosophy. We have been talking about social gains for all our people in terms of, first, political issues, and secondly as of goals in themselves. Now I reject both doctrines, both ideas.”

“We are not going to let our citizens, through no fault of their own, fall down into disaster they could not have foreseen and due to the exigencies of our particular form of economy, this modern economy where they have no power to keep themselves out of that.”

Arnold Roth observed, “The man who had commanded the greatest army in history seemed to have inadequate command of his own thoughts, or at least the vehicle by which he carted those thoughts into public view.”

See All Clouds, No Thunder.

Podcast Episode 203: Notes and Queries
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore some more curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg’s research, including a misplaced elephant, a momentous biscuit failure, a peripatetic ax murderer, and the importance of the 9 of diamonds.

We’ll also revisit Michael Malloy’s resilience and puzzle over an uncommonly casual prison break.

See full show notes …


“Westminster Quarters,” the clock chime melody associated most closely with Big Ben, consists of four notes played in a characteristic permutation at each quarter of the hour:

In 1933 composer Ernst Toch fled Germany for London, where one foggy night he was crossing Westminster Bridge and heard the familiar chimes strike the full hour. He wrote:

The theme lingered in my mind for a long while and evolved into other forms, always somehow connected with the original one. It led my imagination through the vicissitudes of life, through joy, humour and sorrow, through conviviality and solitude, through the serenity of forest and grove, the din of rustic dance, and the calm of worship at a shrine; through all these images the intricate summons of the quarterly fragments meandered in some way, some disguise, some integration; until after a last radiant rise of the full hour, the dear theme, like the real chimes themselves that accompanied my lonely walk, vanished into the fog from which it had emerged.

On the boat to New York he wrote Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes:

(From Chris McKay, Big Ben, 2010.)

06/04/2018 The chimes also inspired Louis Vierne’s 1927 organ piece Carillon de Westminster. (Thanks, Jon.)

Total Victory

The familiar posture of victory — raising the arms, tilting the head back, and expanding the chest — appears to be hard-wired into the human brain, probably because it was a universal sign of dominance in our ape ancestors.

In 2008, psychologists Jessica Tracy and David Matsumoto compared the expressions and body language of sighted, blind, and congenitally blind judo competitors representing more than 30 countries in the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games. They found that the blind athletes used the same gestures as their sighted peers, even though they’d never seen anyone else use them.

“Since congenitally blind individuals could not have learned pride and shame behaviours from watching others, these displays of victory or defeat are likely to be an innate biological propensity,” Tracy told the Telegraph.

The same victory gesture is seen in children as young as 3. Tracy said she was studying similar behaviors in chimps and that “anecdotal evidence mentioned in the paper suggests that, yes, the human pride and shame displays are very similar to non-human displays of dominance and submission, seen in a wide range of animals.”

(Jessica L. Tracy and David Matsumoto, “The Spontaneous Expression of Pride and Shame: Evidence for Biologically Innate Nonverbal Displays,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105:33 [August 19, 2008], 11655-11660.)


Notes left in manuscripts and colophons by medieval scribes and copyists, from the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly:

New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.

I am very cold.

That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.

Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen.

This page has not been written very slowly.

The parchment is hairy.

The ink is thin.

Thank God, it will soon be dark.

Oh, my hand.

Now I’ve written the whole thing; for Christ’s sake give me a drink.

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.

St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.

While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.

As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more.”

In her History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, Anne Trubek lists another: “Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe.”

Pole Position

A puzzle from James F. Fixx’s More Games for the Superintelligent, 1976:

A rope 150 feet long is strung between the tops of two flagpoles, each 100 feet high. At its lowest point the rope sags to within 25 feet of the ground. How far apart are the flagpoles?

Click for Answer


high noon train approach

To film the dramatic approach of the train in High Noon, director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby put their camera flat on the ground between the rails a few hundred yards ahead of the station. Zinneman wanted the train to appear as a dot that grew larger as it approached.

When the signal was given to start, “It looked beautiful, moving rapidly with white smoke, which looked even better,” Zinneman wrote later. “Then it let out black smoke, which looked even better. What we didn’t know was that this was the signal that the engine’s brakes were failing.”

When Zinnemann and Crosby realized that the train wasn’t going to stop, Crosby grabbed the camera, but one of its tripod hooks caught on a rail and he lost his grip. The camera fell in front of the engine as it roared past the men. It was badly damaged, but the magazine was intact, and the footage of the train’s approach is in the final film.

(From Michael Francis Blake, Code of Honor, 2003.)