Podcast Episode 238: The Plight of Mary Ellen Wilson


In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how one girl’s ordeal led to a new era in child welfare.

We’ll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky’s accomplishments.

See full show notes …

The THOG Problem

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I have picked one color (black or white) and one shape (square or circle). A symbol that possesses exactly one of the properties I have picked is called a THOG. The black circle is a THOG. For each of the other symbols, is it (a) definitely a THOG, (b) undecidable, or (c) definitely not a THOG?

Cognitive psychologist Peter Wason invented this puzzle in 1979 to demonstrate some weaknesses in human thinking. In pilot studies, 0 of 10 student barristers were able to solve it correctly, with one arguing for more than an hour against the correctness of Wason’s solution. Seven of 14 medical students solved it, taking an average of 6.3 minutes. (“This is quite an impressive result.”) One young doctor solved it in his head in about a minute and said, “I would not let any doctor near me who couldn’t solve that problem.” What’s the answer?

Click for Answer

The Blur Building

The media pavilion for the 2002 Swiss National Expo was a cloud. Organizers built a curved building fitted with more than 30,000 nozzles that pumped water from Lake Neuchâtel into a fine mist, creating a floating 90-meter fog bank whose contours were controlled by a computerized weather system.

Artist Antony Gormley took this idea a step further in 2007 with Blind Light, a 10-meter-square glass vitrine filled with mist and lit by 7,000 lux of intense fluorescent light that reduced visibility to less than an arm’s length.

“One could, and did, get temporarily lost in its 90 percent humidity,” writes Richard Hamblyn in Clouds: Nature and Culture (2017). “The intended effect of Gormley’s ‘bright, cuboid cloud’ was to overwhelm the senses, as though one had walked into a cloud, literally and figuratively, entering a cold, damp, unsettling world of enveloping isolation.”

Stirred, Not Shaken

The 1967 version of Casino Royale, starring David Niven, set an unlikely milestone: Its soundtrack album became famous among audio purists for the quality of its sound.

“The legend is that the original master tape had ‘mad’ levels on it,” audiophile Harry Pearson told the New York Times in 1991. “Once the meters pass zero, it means that you’re saturating the tape and running the risk of distortion. On ‘Casino,’ they used a supposedly very fancy grade of tape, and the engineers really pushed it, so the meters were typically running deep into the red — plus one, plus two, plus three, plus four.” The result is an extremely wide dynamic range.

A particular high point is Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” (Track 2). Springfield recorded her vocal in a “tiny isolation booth, so on a really good system, you can hear her voice emerging from what sounds like a little hole in space. She’s not part of the general orchestral acoustic, and once your system gets to a certain point, you can hear that.”

Pearson said the soundtrack came to serve as a benchmark at Absolute Sound, the audiophile bible he founded in 1973. “Whenever we get a piece of equipment that we think is setting new records, out comes ‘Casino,'” he said. “The better your system gets, the more you get out of that album.”

(Thanks, Allen.)

A Pretty Puzzle


I don’t know who came up with this; I found it on r/mathpuzzles. What’s the area of the red region?

Click for Answer

An Empty Message

“The hardest of all adventures to speak of is music, because music has no meaning to speak of. If music could be translated into human speech it would no longer need to exist. Like love, music’s a mystery which, when solved, evaporates.” — Ned Rorem, Music From Inside Out, 1967

“Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” — Eduard Hanslick

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” — Victor Hugo

But music moves us, and we know not why;
We feel the tears, but cannot trace their source.
Is it the language of some other state,
Born of its memory? For what can wake
The soul’s strong instinct of another world,
Like music?

— Letitia Elizabeth Landon, The Golden Violet, 1827


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Tehachapi Loop, this is a beautiful solution to a nonverbal problem. When the towpath switches to the other side of a canal, how can you move your horse across the water without having to unhitch it from the boat it’s towing?

The answer is a roving bridge (this one is on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire). With two ramps, one a spiral, the horse passes through 360 degrees in crossing the canal, and the tow line never has to be unfastened.

A Bite

From the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemistry World blog: In 1955, when impish graduate student A.T. Wilson published a paper with his humorless but brilliant supervisor, Melvin Calvin, Wilson made a wager with a department secretary that he could sneak a picture of a man fishing into one of the paper’s diagrams. He won the wager — can you find the fisherman?


Love and Reasons


If I love you because you’re smart, kind, and funny, why don’t I love others who are equally smart, kind, and funny? And why does my love persist if you lose these qualities?

On the other hand, if I don’t love you because of the properties you hold, then why do I love you? I feel anger, grief, and sadness for reasons — do I feel romantic love for no reason?

It is true that I meet attractive people and fail to fall in love with them. So perhaps people don’t fall in love based on reasons. But if they do it for no reason, then it seems I might fall in or out of love with anyone, or everyone, at any time.

It seems reasonable to want to be loved for who I am, for properties I hold. But this doesn’t seem to be how it works: It’s not my properties that compel you to love me and not another. So what is it?

(Raja Halwani, Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An Introduction, 2018.)