The Billups Neon Crossing Signal

After numerous accidents where the Illinois Central Railroad crossed Highway 7 near Grenada, Mississippi, in the 1930s, inventor Alonzo Billups came up with a one-of-a-kind solution. When a train approached the crossing, motorists were confronted with a lighted skull and crossbones, the glowing words “Stop-DEATH-Stop,” flashing neon arrows indicating the train’s direction, and an air raid siren.

The video here is a simulation; the actual gantry was removed due to a scarcity of neon in the war years. But two photographs survive.

Podcast Episode 356: A Strawberry’s Journey

The modern strawberry has a surprisingly dramatic story, involving a French spy in Chile, a perilous ocean voyage, and the unlikely meeting of two botanical expatriates. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the improbable origin of one of the world’s most popular fruits.

We’ll also discuss the answers to some of our queries and puzzle over a radioactive engineer.

See full show notes …

The Fortsas Hoax

In 1840, librarians and booksellers throughout Europe received a catalog describing a unique collection of books to be auctioned: Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, had collected 52 unique books, books of which only a single copy was known to exist. The count had died the preceding September, the message said, and as his heirs had no interest in books, the collection would be auctioned off.

Bibliophiles converged on Binche, Belgium, that August for the event, only to discover that the appointed address did not exist. Notices declared that the town’s library had acquired the books — but Binche had no library. In time it became clear that the Comte de Fortsas himself had never existed.

The whole thing had been an elaborate hoax put on by an antiquarian and retired military officer named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon. Ironically, the catalog of nonexistent books itself in time became a collectors’ item.

What will happen if someone now writes those books?

$50 for All

A puzzle by Ben H., a systems engineer at the National Security Agency, from the agency’s August 2016 Puzzle Periodical:

At a work picnic, Todd announces a challenge to his coworkers. Bruce and Ava are selected to play first. Todd places $100 on a table and explains the game. Bruce and Ava will each draw a random card from a standard 52-card deck. Each will hold that card to his/her forehead for the other person to see, but neither can see his/her own card. The players may not communicate in any way. Bruce and Ava will each write down a guess for the color of his/her own card, i.e. red or black. If either one of them guesses correctly, they both win $50. If they are both incorrect, they lose. He gives Bruce and Ava five minutes to devise a strategy beforehand by which they can guarantee that they each walk away with the $50.

Bruce and Ava complete their game and Todd announces the second level of the game. He places $200 on the table. He tells four of his coworkers — Emily, Charles, Doug and Fran — that they will play the same game, except this time guessing the suit of their own card, i.e. clubs, hearts, diamonds or spades. Again, Todd has the four players draw cards and place them on their foreheads so that each player can see the other three players’ cards, but not his/her own. Each player writes down a guess for the suit of his/her own card. If at least one of them guesses correctly, they each win $50. There is no communication while the game is in progress, but they have five minutes to devise a strategy beforehand by which they can be guaranteed to walk away with $50 each.

For each level of play — 2 players or 4 players — how can the players ensure that someone in the group always guesses correctly?

Click for Answer

Dark Days

During a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in 2016, University of Michigan music theory professor Patricia Hall discovered handwritten manuscripts of popular songs of the day. This one, “The Most Beautiful Time of Life,” is a light foxtrot based on a song by Franz Grothe, a popular German film composer. The prisoners had arranged it for the available instruments and musicians and probably performed it before the commandant’s villa in Sunday concerts for the Auschwitz garrison in 1942 or 1943.

“This was for the SS personnel,” she explained. “It was about a three-hour concert that was broken up into stages, and at one point, they had a dance band so that soldiers could dance. Given the instrumentation of this foxtrot, I think that’s probably what it was used for.”

Two of the arrangers had signed their prison numbers to the manuscript, so Hall was able to identify them: Antoni Gargul, a Polish soldier and a violinist, and Maksymilian Piłat, a professional bassoonist. Both of them survived the war, and Hall believes the unidentified third author may have as well.

Paint Job


Given a standard chessboard, you can choose any rank or file and repaint each of its squares to the opposite color (white squares turn black, and black squares turn white). By doing this repeatedly, is it possible to produce a board with 63 white squares and one black square?

Click for Answer