Moving Up
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2006, Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald traded this red paper clip for a fish-shaped pen. Then, in successive transactions, he bartered his way up to a hand-sculpted doorknob; a Coleman camp stove; a Honda generator; an empty keg with an IOU for beer; a snowmobile; a two-person trip to Yahk, British Columbia; a box truck; a recording contract; a year’s rent in Phoenix, Arizona; an afternoon with Alice Cooper; a motorized KISS snow globe; a role in the film Donna on Demand; and a two-story farmhouse in Kipling, Saskatchewan.

“A lot of people have been asking how I’ve stirred up so much publicity around the project,” he told the BBC, “and my simple answer is: ‘I have no idea.'”


drabing mosaic

Reader Shane Drabing sent this rendering of Von Glitschka’s immortal penguin logo assembled from 2,000 images that have appeared on this site, a sort of composite summary of Futility Closet.

The full image is here (24 MB), and a GitHub repository for Shane’s program is here. (Thanks, Shane.)

The Paradox of the Question

An angel appears to a conference of philosophers and offers to provide the truthful answer to a single question. Cannily they ask:

“What is the ordered pair whose first member is the question that would be the best one for us to ask you, and whose second member is the answer to that question?”

Truthfully the angel answers:

“It is the ordered pair whose first member is the question you just asked me, and whose second member is this answer I am giving you.”

Philosopher Ned Markosian writes, “At the time the philosophers asked [the question above], it seemed like that question was the ideal one for their peculiar situation. But as it turned out, [that question] was obviously not at all the right thing to ask. … The puzzle, then, is this: What went wrong?”

(Ned Markosian, “The Paradox of the Question,” Analysis 57:2 [1997], 95-97.)

Small Talk

“A Brief and Somewhat Ungracious Exchange Between the British Ambassador’s Wife, Who Speaks No Spanish, and the Spanish Ambassador’s Wife, Who Speaks No English, During a Courtesy Call by the Latter Upon the Former: Written on the Assumption That My Readers Know the Sound of the Spanish Word for ‘Yes'”



— Willard R. Espy

Podcast Episode 344: Martin Couney’s Incubator Babies,_A-Y-P,_1909.jpg

For more than 40 years in the early 20th century, Martin Couney ran a sideshow in which premature babies were displayed in incubators. With this odd practice he offered a valuable service in an era when many hospitals couldn’t. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Couney’s unusual enterprise, which earned both criticism and praise.

We’ll also marvel over an Amazonian survival and puzzle over a pleasing refusal.

See full show notes …


Express 1,000,000 as the product of two numbers, neither of which contains any zeroes.

Click for Answer