“The Connection”

A thought-provoking piece of nonsense by Russian absurdist poet Daniil Kharms:


  1. I am writing to you in answer to your letter which you are about to write to me in answer to my letter which I wrote to you.
  2. A violinist bought a magnet and was carrying it home. Along the way, hoods jumped him and knocked his cap off his head. The wind picked up the cap and carried it down the street.
  3. The violinist put the magnet down and ran after the cap. The cap fell into a puddle of nitric acid and dissolved.
  4. In the meantime, the hoods picked up the magnet and hid.
  5. The violinist returned home without a coat and without a cap, because the cap had dissolved in the nitric acid, and the violinist, upset by losing his cap, had left his coat in the streetcar.
  6. The conductor of the streetcar took the coat to a secondhand shop and exchanged it there for sour cream, groats, and tomatoes.
  7. The conductor’s father-in-law ate too many tomatoes, became sick, and died. The corpse of the conductor’s father-in-law was put in the morgue, but it got mixed up, and in place of the conductor’s father-in-law, they buried some old woman.
  8. On the grave of the old woman, they put a white post with the inscription “Anton Sergeevich Kondratev.”
  9. Eleven years later, the worms had eaten through the post, and it fell down. The cemetery watchman sawed the post into four pieces and burned it in his stove. The wife of the cemetery watchman cooked cauliflower soup over that fire.
  10. But when the soup was ready, a fly fell from the wall, directly into the pot with this soup. They gave the soup to the beggar Timofey.
  11. The beggar Timofey ate the soup and told the beggar Nikolay that the cemetery watchman was a good-natured man.
  12. The next day the beggar Nikolay went to the cemetery watchman and asked for money. But the cemetery watchman gave nothing to the beggar Nikolay and chased him away.
  13. The beggar Nikolay became very angry and set fire to the cemetery watchman’s house.
  14. The fire spread from the house to the church, and the church burned down.
  15. A long investigation was carried on but did not succeed in determining the cause of the fire.
  16. In the place where the church had stood a club was built, and on the day the club opened a concert was organized, at which the violinist who fourteen years earlier had lost his coat performed.
  17. In the audience sat the son of one of those hoods who fourteen years before had knocked the cap off that violinist.
  18. After the concert was over, they rode home in the same streetcar. In the streetcar behind theirs, the driver was the same conductor who once upon a time had sold the violinist’s coat in a secondhand shop.
  19. And so here they are, riding late at night through the city: in front, the violinist and the hood’s son; and in back, the driver, the former conductor.
  20. They ride along and don’t know what connection there is between them, and they won’t know till the day they die.

Living Memory

Image: Flickr

Part of New York is standing still. In 1978, artist Alan Sonfist reclaimed a rubble-strewn lot on the corner of West Houston Street and La Guardia Place in Greenwich Village and re-established the vegetation, soil and rock formations that had existed there before the Western settlers arrived.

“As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs and natural outcroppings need to be remembered,” he wrote in a 1968 manifesto proposing the project. Interestingly, he’d hoped to do even more than this: “On Canal Street I propose to create a marshland and a stream; on Spring Street I propose to restore the natural spring; in front of City Hall I propose to restore the historical lake. There are a series of fifty proposals I have made for the City of New York.”

Only this one, called Time Landscape, has been realized. But it’s still growing after 44 years, a tiny piece of history that Sonfist says helps the city remember its heritage.

Math Notes

honsberger howler

I don’t know whether this is contrived or whether a student offered it on an actual exam — Ed Barbeau presented “this little beauty of a howler” in the January 2002 College Mathematics Journal, citing Ross Honsberger of the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Music of the Spheres

In his Harmonices Mundi of 1619, Johannes Kepler wrote, “The heavenly motions are nothing but a continuous song for several voices, to be perceived by the intellect, not by the ear; a music which, through discordant tensions, through syncopations and cadenzas as it were, progresses toward certain pre-designed six-voiced cadences, and thereby sets landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time.” In 1979 Yale geologist John Rodgers and musician Willie Ruff scaled up the frequencies of the planetary orbits into the range of human hearing so that Kepler’s “harmony of the world” could become audible:

Mercury, as the innermost planet, is the fastest and the highest pitched. It has a very eccentric orbit (as planets go), which it traverses in 88 days; its song is therefore a fast whistle, going from the E above the piano (e′′′′′) down more than an octave to about C# (c#′′′′) and back, in a little over a second. Venus and Earth, in contrast, have nearly circular orbits. Venus’s range is only about a quarter tone, near the E next above the treble staff (e′′′); Earth’s is about a half tone, from G (g′′) to G# at the top of that staff. … Next out from Earth is Mars, again with an eccentric orbit … it ranges from the C above middle C (c′′) down to about F# (f#′) and back, in nearly 10 seconds. The distance from Mars to Jupiter is much greater than that between the inner planets … and Jupiter’s song is much deeper, in the baritone or bass, and much slower. It covers a minor third, from D to B (D to B1) just below the bass staff. Still farther out and still lower is Saturn, only a little more than a deep growl, in which a good ear can sometimes hear the individual vibrations. Its range is a major third, from B to G (B2 to G2), the B at the top being just an octave below the B at the bottom of Jupiter’s range. Thus the two planets together define a major triad, and it may well have been this concord … that made Kepler certain he had cracked the code and discovered the secret of the celestial harmony.

(The outer planets, discovered after Kepler’s time, are represented here with rhythmic beats.) “The Earth sings Mi, Fa, Mi,” Kepler wrote. “You may infer even from the syllables that in this our home misery and famine hold sway.”

(John Rodgers and Willie Ruff, “Kepler’s Harmony of the World: A Realization for the Ear,” American Scientist 67:3 [May-June 1979], 286-292.)

Kettle Logic

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud recalls “the defensive argument of a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle to him in a damaged condition”:

In the first place, he said, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second, it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and thirdly, he had never borrowed the kettle from his neighbour at all.

“But so much the better,” Freud notes. “If even one of these three methods of defence is recognised as valid, the man must be acquitted.”

More Dream Poetry


Lewis Carroll and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, became improbable acquaintances in the 1850s, a few years before Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The young author sent a letter to his cousin, May 11, 1859, after one memorable visit to the laureate:

Tennyson told us that often on going to bed after being engaged on composition he had dreamed long passages of poetry (‘You, I suppose,’ turning to me, ‘dream photographs?’) which he liked very much at the time, but forgot entirely when he woke. One was an enormously long one on fairies, where the lines from being very long at first gradually got shorter and shorter, till it ended with fifty or sixty lines of two syllables each! The only bit he ever remembered enough to write down was one he dreamed at ten years old, which you may like to possess as a genuine unpublished fragment of the Laureate, though I think you will agree with me that it gives very little indication of his future poetic powers:—

May a cock-sparrow
Write to a barrow?
I hope you’ll excuse
My infantine muse.

(Lewis Carroll, “A Visit to Tennyson,” Strand, June 1901. See Pillow Verse and Night Work.)

The Schienenzeppelin

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The land speed record for a petrol-powered rail vehicle was set way back in 1931, when aircraft engineer Franz Kruckenberg experimented with a “rail zeppelin” on German railway lines. An aircraft engine drove a rearward-facing propeller to accelerate a lightweight aluminum body to the startling speed of 230.2 km/h (143.0 mph), a railway record that held until 1954.

The vehicle evolved over a few years but was eventually dropped in favor of other high-speed designs.



In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the residents of Meryton consider Mr. Darcy arrogant, proud, and conceited because of his reactions to village people. Of Elizabeth Bennet he says, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Later, when she spurns his proposal, he tells her directly, “Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

The trouble is, he’s right — Darcy is educated, intelligent, wealthy, and handsome. He is superior to the people he’s judging, even according to their own standards. University of Minnesota philosopher Valerie Tiberius asks, what then is arrogance?

“Henry Kissinger, for instance, is by all accounts a highly arrogant person, but his intellectual talents are considerable, and all philosophical accounts of the good life for human beings assign such talents an important role. … So if Darcy and Kissinger believe that they are doing pretty well by the standards of human excellence, it is not obvious that they are wrong, and their arrogance must therefore consist in something other than a false belief.”

(Valerie Tiberius and John D. Walker, “Arrogance,” American Philosophical Quarterly 35:4 [October 1998], 379-390.)

The Little People


In medieval chess, each of the eight pawns was associated with a commoner’s occupation. From king rook pawn to queen rook pawn:

  • Laborer (farmer)
  • Smith
  • Notary
  • Merchant
  • Physician
  • Innkeeper
  • City watchman or guard
  • Ribald or town courier

The merchant stood before the king, the doctor before the queen.

Jacopo de Cessolis used the game as the basis for a series of sermons on morality — he says that a philosopher invented the game to show his cruel king “the maners and conditicions of a kynge of the nobles and of the comun people and of theyr offices and how they shold be touchid and drawen. And how he shold amende hymself & become vertuous.”

(From Christopher Kleinhenz’s Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia, 2004.)

Dues Process

A curious puzzle by Dartmouth mathematician Peter Winkler: You’ve just joined the Coin Flippers of America, and fittingly the amount of your dues will be decided by chance. You’ll name a head-tail sequence of length 5, and then a coin will be flipped until that sequence appears in five consecutive flips. Your dues will be the total number of flips in U.S. dollars; for instance, if you choose HHHHH and it takes 36 flips to produce a run of five heads, then your annual dues will be $36. What sequence should you pick?

At first it seems that it shouldn’t matter — any fixed sequence should have the probability (1/2)5, or 1/32. But “Not so fast,” Winkler writes. “Overlapping causes problems.” It is true that in an infinite sequence of random flips, the average distance between one occurrence and the next of any fixed sequence is 1/32. But if you choose HHHHH (for example), one occurrence of this outcome gives a huge head start to the next — if the next flip is a tail, then you’re starting over cleanly, but if it’s a head then you’ve already produced the next occurrence.

“If X is the average time needed to get HHHHH starting fresh, the average of 1 + X and 1 is 32,” Winkler writes. “Solving for X yields a startlingly high 62 flips.” To get your expected dues down to $32, you need to pick a sequence where this “head start” effect doesn’t obtain. There are 10 such sequences; one is HHHTT.

(Peter Winkler, “Coin Flipping,” Communications of the ACM 56:11 [November 2013], 120.)