Bird Brains

Crows are smart. In 2014, University of Auckland psychologist Sarah Jelbert and her colleagues assessed the causal understanding of water displacement in New Caledonian crows by presenting them with a narrow tube in which a reward floated out of reach. To get the reward, a bird had to drop objects into the tube to raise the water level.

“We found that crows preferentially dropped stones into a water-filled tube instead of a sand-filled tube; they dropped sinking objects rather than floating objects; solid objects rather than hollow objects, and they dropped objects into a tube with a high water level rather than a low one.”

Apparently crows read Aesop. And Aesop was right.

(Sarah A. Jelbert et al., “Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows,” PloS One 9:3 [2014], e92895.)


A “kinde of Divination” “to tell your friend how many pence or single peeces, reckoning them one with another, he hath in his purse, or should thinke in his minde,” from Robert Recorde’s The Ground of Arts, 1618:

[F]irst bid him double the peeces hee hath in his purse, or the number hee thinketh. … Now after hee hath doubled his number, bid him adde thereunto 5 more, which done, bid him multiply that his number by 5 also: which done bid him tell you the just sum of his last multiplication, which sum the giver thinking it nothing availeable, because it is so great above his pretended imagination: yet thereby shall you presently with the helpe of Subtraction tell his proposed number.

Apparently the section on “divers Sportes and Pastimes, done by Number” was contributed by Southwark schoolmaster John Mellis in 1582. “[T]he fact that this chapter on mathematical games was included in every subsequent edition of The Ground of Artes, save one, indicates that the idea of mathematical games found a receptive audience among arithmetic students.”

(Jessica Marie Otis, “‘Sportes and Pastimes, done by Number’: Mathematical Games in Early Modern England,” in Allison Levy, ed., Playthings in Early Modernity: Party Games, Word Games, Mind Games, 2017.)


In November 1995, a three-year-old heifer jumped a 5-foot gate at a slaughterhouse in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, minutes before she would have been killed. Despite record amounts of snow, she stayed alive and evaded capture for 40 days, foraging in backyards and aided by sympathetic townspeople.

When she was final retaken, a local family purchased her from the slaughterhouse and established her in sanctuary at Peace Abbey in Sherborn, where she received regular visitors and became a symbol of animal rights and vegetarianism.

When she died in 2003, she was buried between statues of Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. Her own grave now bears a life-sized statue.

In a Word,_or_fini_flight,_for_Col._Corey_Martin,_the_commander_of_the_376th_Air_Expeditionary_Wing,_at_Transit_Center_130604-F-LK329-001.jpg

v. to signify, indicate, or make known to somebody that something is the case

n. honor, dignity, reverence

adj. distinguished, eminent, excellent

n. a fine rain falling from a cloudless sky

Momentous flights are sometimes marked by a “water salute” in which an aircraft passes under plumes of water sprayed by firefighting vehicles.

Here U.S. Air Force fire trucks salute a KC-135 Stratotanker, marking the final flight of Col. Corey Martin, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, in Kyrgyzstan in 2013.

A New Lease

Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins won worldwide acclaim but had to retire in March 2019 after 24 surgeries could not relieve the pain caused by a degenerative disease and a series of accidents.

But designer Ubiratã Bizarro Costa proposed making some neoprene-covered bionic gloves that lift Martins’ fingers after they depress the keys, and by December they had perfected them.

“I might not recover the speed of the past,” Martins told the Associated Press. “I don’t know what result I will get. I’m starting over as though I were an 8-year-old learning.”

But his goal now is to play an entire Bach concert perfectly. “It could take one, two years. I will keep pushing until that happens. I won’t give up.”

The Body in the Cylinder

In 1943 a bulldozer turned up a 6-foot cylinder while clearing building debris from a blitzed site in Liverpool. It was laid aside by the building contractors and remained unregarded for two years, until in July 1945 three boys discovered a human skeleton inside.

It appeared to be the remains of an adult male who had crawled into the cylinder and was lying there, his head pillowed on a brick wrapped in sacking, when he died, probably around 1885. He was wearing Victorian clothing of good quality, and his pockets contained two diaries, a postcard, a handkerchief, a brooch, a signet ring, and some miscellaneous papers.

The postcard was addressed to T C Williams. In 1885 Liverpool had had a paint and brush manufacturer by that name. He had declared bankruptcy the year before, and the inquest hypothesized that he’d left home and been sleeping in the cylinder, perhaps at his place of business, when it became sealed somehow and he’d asphyxiated. Possibly the authorities at the time assumed he’d absconded to escape his debts. There is no record in England of his burial.

The whole case is fascinating.

The AVE Mizar
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1971, two aeronautical engineering students set out to make an aircraft by mating the wings, engine, and airframe of a Cessna Skymaster to a modified Ford Pinto. In principle you could drive to the airport, attach the wings in two minutes, and get quickly into the air under the combined power of two engines. At your destination you’d land, stop quickly using the car’s four-wheel brakes, detach the wings, and drive off.

By 1973, two prototypes had been built and the FAA was considering certification, but on two testing flights a wing strut detached from the car. One pilot had to land in a bean field, and another died when the wing folded. The project was dropped.

Living Sculpture

Crop artist Stan Herd plants, mows, and plows land to create large-scale images visible from the air.

“All over the world farmers draw with the plough, harrow, and harvesting combine, and paint with the colors of their crops,” he says. He applies the same techniques to create portraits, still lifes, and (somewhat recursively) landscapes.


In 1936 the Princess learnt that their father had become king. Margaret Rose asked her sister, ‘Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?’ ‘Yes, some day’, replied Elizabeth. ‘Poor you!’ came the response.

— Lucinda Hawksley, Elizabeth Revealed: 500 Facts About the Queen and Her World, 2018

Podcast Episode 313: The Santa Claus Association

In 1913, New York publicist John Duval Gluck founded an association to answer Santa’s mail. For 15 years its volunteers fulfilled children’s Christmas wishes, until Gluck’s motivation began to shift. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the rise and fall of “Santa’s Secretary” in New York City.

We’ll also survey some splitting trains and puzzle over a difference between twins.

See full show notes …