Road Work

Fed up with endless traffic detours in 1830, London printer Charles Ingrey published a pointed puzzle, Labyrinthus Londoninensis, or The Equestrian Perplexed.

“The object is to find a way from the Strand [lower left] to St. Paul’s [center], without crossing any of the Bars in the Streets supposed to be under repair.”

Mending our Ways, our ways doth oft-times mar,
So thinks the Traveller by Horse or Car,
But he who scans with calm and patient skill
This ‘Labyrinthine Chart of London’, will
One Track discover, open and unbarred,
That leads at length to famed St. Pauls Church Yard.

The image above is a bit too small to navigate, but the British Library has an interactive zoomable version (requires Flash).

I don’t have the solution, but The Court Journal of Dec. 14, 1833, hints that “the farthest way round is the nearest way home.”


A poser from Penn State mathematician Mark Levi’s Why Cats Land on Their Feet (2012):

Using only a stopwatch and a sneaker, how can you find an approximate value for \sqrt{2}?

Click for Answer

“On the Question of Choice”

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he, “‘Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said, “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.

— Ambrose Bierce

Hat Check

A puzzle from MIT Technology Review, July/August 2008:

Each of three logicians, A, B, and C, wears a hat that displays a positive integer. The number on one of the hats is the sum of the numbers on the other two. They make the following statements:

A: “I don’t know my number.”

B: “My number is 15.”

What numbers appear on hats A and C?

Click for Answer

Class Warfare,_Jan_Havickszoon_-_The_Village_School_-_c._1670.jpg

“There is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school.” — George Bernard Shaw

“I sometimes think it would be better to drown children than to lock them up in present-day schools.” — Marie Curie

“Nearly 12 years of school … form not only the least agreeable, but the only barren and unhappy period of my life. … It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony. … I would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messenger boy, or helped my father to dress the front windows of a grocer’s shop. It would have been real; it would have been natural; it would have taught me more; and I should have done it much better.” — Winston Churchill

“Not one of you sitting round this table could run a fish-and-chip shop.” — Howard Florey, 1945 Nobel laureate in medicine, to the governing body of Queen’s College, Oxford, of which he was provost

Comet Vintages

In “The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk,” Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes as being as pleased as “a connoisseur who has just taken his first sip of a comet vintage.”

That’s a reference to a strange tradition in winemaking: Years in which a comet appears prior to the harvest tend to produce successful vintages:

1826 — Biela’s Comet
1832 — Biela’s Comet
1839 — Biela’s Comet
1845 — Great June Comet of 1845
1846 — Biela’s Comet
1852 — Biela’s Comet
1858 — Comet Donati
1861 — Great Comet of 1861
1874 — Comet Coggia
1985 — Halley’s Comet
1989 — Comet Okazaki-Levy-Rudenko

“For some unexplained reason, or by some strange coincidence, comet years are famous among vine-growers,” noted the New York Times in 1872. “The last comet which was fairly visible to human eyes [and that] remained blazing in the horizon for many months, until it faded slowly away, was seen in 1858, a year dear to all lovers of claret; 1846, 1832 and 1811 were all comet years, and all years of excellent wine.”

No one has even proposed a mechanism to explain how this might be, but it’s widely noted in the wine world: Critic Robert Parker awarded a perfect 100-point rating to the 1811 Château d’Yquem, and cognac makers still put stars on their labels to commemorate that exceptional year.