As Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 story “The Adventure of the Reigate Squire” begins, Sherlock Holmes is recuperating after the unspecified-but-apparently-quite-taxing case of the “Netherlands-Sumatra company,” which left him lying exhausted in the Hotel Dulong in Lyons. Watson writes:

The triumphant issue of his labours could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name, and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams, I found him prey to the blackest depression.

Leslie S. Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes includes this droll footnote:

Carol P. Woods calculates that to fill the average French hotel room to ‘ankle-deep’ would require 10,741 crumpled telegrams; and she muses that Holmes’s illness was caused not entirely by the exertions put forth in the Netherlands-Sumatra case but also by the telegram-crumpling itself, which would have required slightly over 179 hours of opening, reading, crumpling, and tossing.


Letizia Ramolino was born in 1750. In her 85 years of life she gave birth to Napoleon Bonaparte, saw the French monarchy collapse, witnessed the French Revolution, and saw her son crowned emperor. Then she saw his death, the collapse of his empire, and the restoration of the monarchy.

She died in 1836, 15 years after her most famous son.

Three Predictions

In Season 8, Episode 7 of Penn & Teller’s magic competition show Fool Us, magician Hans Petter Secker appears to predict the outcome of three successive rounds of rock-paper-scissors, though Secker oversees the game remotely from Norway and the players are invited to exchange items before each round. How is this accomplished?

Click for Answer

Pointlessness Exalted
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dodgers outfielder Gary Thomasson was a big disappointment in Japan — in 1980 he was signed to the Yomiuri Giants for a record-breaking sum, then nearly set a record for strikeouts before injuring his knee and retiring.

Artist Akasegawa Genpei took a strange inspiration from this: He defined a “Thomasson” as “an object, part of a building, that was maintained in good condition, but with no purpose, to the point of becoming a work of art.” For example, in Tokyo he’d noticed a well-maintained stairway with a blank wall at its top, and a ticket window that had been boarded up but whose tray had been assiduously permitted still to function.

Akasegawa’s colleague Chikuma Shobo eventually published a whole taxonomy of Thomassons: useless doorways, useless staircases, useless windows, doors to nowhere, senseless signs. Just like art, these items have no purpose in society, but they’re preserved with care, to the point that they seem to be exhibits in themselves. “However, these objects do not appear to have a creator, making them even more art-like than regular art.”

Out, Out!

In 1990, University of Houston English professor Earl Dachslager wrote to the New York Times “to settle once and for all the debate over the first references in print to the game of baseball.” He had found 11 in Shakespeare:

  • “And so I shall catch the fly” (Henry V, Act V, Scene ii).
  • “I’ll catch it ere it come to ground” (Macbeth, III, v).
  • “A hit, a very palpable hit” (Hamlet, V, ii).
  • “You may go walk” (The Taming of the Shrew, II, i).
  • “Strike!” (Richard III, I, iv).
  • “For this relief much thanks” (Hamlet, I, i).
  • “You have scarce time to steal” (Henry VIII, III, ii).
  • “O hateful error” (Julius Caesar, V, i).
  • “Run, run, O run!” (King Lear, V, iii).
  • “My arm is sore” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, v).
  • “I have no joy in this contract” (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii).

“I trust that the question of who first wrote about baseball is now finally settled.”

Small World

Artist François Abelanet created this perspective-based illusion outside the city hall in Paris in 2011. Ninety gardeners worked for five days to prepare an area of 1500 square meters.

Abelanet called it Qui croire? (Who to Believe?).

The Nearby Daughter

Your beloved daughter is spending the summer at a Japanese monastery. On July 28 you receive a letter from an administrator, dated July 19, saying that she needs to have her wisdom teeth removed. The availability of drugs is not certain: She’ll either have a relatively painful extraction on July 27 or an unpleasant but painless one on July 29. Learning of this situation from afar, which drug would you prefer to have been available?

Now imagine that you receive the letter on July 26 and jet to her bedside. You arrive on July 28 to find her asleep. She seems a little restless, but you don’t know whether that’s because she had a painful extraction yesterday or because she’s anxious about having an unpleasant one tomorrow. Now which do you prefer?

“I find that the large majority of people to whom I present these cases say that they would prefer, in the first case, for their daughter to have the merely unpleasant operation on the 29th, and, in the second case, for their daughter to have had the painful operation on the 27th,” writes MIT philosopher Caspar Hare. “Furthermore, in each case they feel that it makes sense to have the preference, given the way in which it is appropriate to care about a daughter. While they would be loath to condemn a parent with different preferences, they feel that such a parent would be making a kind of mistake.” Why should this be?

(Caspar Hare, “A Puzzle About Other-Directed Time Bias,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86:2 [June 2008], 269-277.)

A Perfect Alphabet

Thomas More’s Utopia gives us not only a description of that imaginary land but the actual alphabet used there: More’s friend Peter Giles wrote an addendum to the book that presents the letters and gives an example of the Utopian writing system:

Vtopos ha Boccas peu la chama polta chamaan.
Bargol he maglomi Baccan foma gymno sophaon.
Agrama gymnosophon labarembacha bodamilomin.
Voluala barchin heman la lauoluola dramme pagloni.

This is translated into Latin as

Utopus me dux ex non insula fecit insulam.
Una ego terrarum omnium absque philosophia
Civitatem philosophicam expressi mortalibus
Libenter impartio mea, non gravatim accipio meliora.

And in English this becomes

The commander Utopus made me into an island out of a non-island.
I alone of all nations, without philosophy,
Have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city.
Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.

Working backward, this makes it possible to divine the meaning of a few Utopian words: boccas is commander, chama is island, voluala is willingly, and gymnosophaon is philosophy. You couldn’t really talk about much beyond perfect societies, but maybe that’s the point.

With All Speed

The earliest photograph of a human figure on paper is “The Footman” by William Henry Fox Talbot, from 1840. Footmen came in several varieties; an early breed that quickly went extinct was the running footman, who would advance as a herald before his master’s carriage and also deliver urgent dispatches. In What the Butler Saw, E.S. Turner gives some amazing examples:

  • As the table was being laid for dinner in his castle at Thirlstane, the Duke of Lauderdale was informed that there was a shortage of plate, so he sent a running footman over the Lammermuir Hills to his other castle at Lethington, near Haddington, 15 miles away. The man returned with the additional plate in time for dinner.
  • In his Recollections of 1826, the writer John O’Keeffe remembers a running footman he saw in his youth in Ireland: “He looked so agile, and seemed all air like a Mercury; he never minded roads but took the short cut and, by the help of his pole, absolutely seemed to fly over hedge, ditch and small river. His use was to carry a message, letter or dispatch; or on a journey to run before and prepare the inn, or baiting-place, for his family or master who came the regular road in coach-and-two, or coach-and-four or coach-and-six; his qualifications were fidelity, strength and agility.”
  • One evening the Earl of Home sent a running footman from his Berwickshire castle to Edinburgh on important business. On going downstairs the following morning he found the man asleep in the hall. He was about to chastise him when the man told him he’d already been there and back, a distance of 35 miles each way. (If we allow 12 hours for this that’s 6 mph, allowing for a few breaks to eat and rest. That seems accurate — Turner says that a footman running before his master’s coach “was prepared to cover sixty miles and more in a day, at an average of six to seven miles an hour.”)

“In London the fourth Duke of Queensberry (‘Old Q’) continued to employ running footmen until his death in 1810. He would try out applicants in Piccadilly, lending them his livery for the occasion, and then stand watch in hand on his balcony to time their performance. There is a story that he said to one candidate: ‘You will do very well for me.’ The reply was, ‘And your livery will do very well for me,’ with which the runner bolted.”