To Whom It May Concern

When Westinghouse buried a time capsule at the 1939 World’s Fair, the planners hoped that it wouldn’t be opened until 6939. That created a problem: How could they leave writings for a future civilization when language itself was sure to change immeasurably in the ensuing 5,000 years?

Westinghouse tried to solve the problem by enlisting Smithsonian ethnologist John P. Harrington, who wrote a “mouth map” (“Mauth Maep”) showing the pronunciation of “33 sounds of 1938 English” and a list of “the thousand words most essential to our daily speech and thought.” He also presented Aesop’s fable “The North Wind and the Sun” in “neo-phonetic spelling” and in 1938 English:

Dhj Northwind aend dhj Sjn wjr dispyucting whitsh woz dhj stronggjr, hwen j traevjljr kecm jlong raepd in j worm klock. Dhec jgricd dhaet dhj wjn huc fjrst mecd dhj traevjljr teck of hiz klock shud bic konsidjrd stronggjr dhaen dhj jdhjr. Dhen dhj Northwind bluc widh aol hiz mait, bjt dhj mocr hie bluc, dhj mocr klocsli did dhj traevjljr focld hiz klock jraund him, aend aet laest dhj Northwind gecv jp dhj jtempt. Dhen dhj Sjn shocn aut wormli, aend imicdijtli dhj traevjljr tuk of hiz klock; aend soc dhj Northwind woz jblaidzhd tj konfes dhaet dhj Sjn woz dhj stronggjr jv dhj tuc.

The Northwind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first made the traveler take off his cloak should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North wind blew with all his might, but the more he blew, the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the Northwind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shone out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak; and so the Northwind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.

But even if the book manages to convey 20th-century vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation to future scholars, will the world that these describe be too remote for them to imagine? The Westinghouse authors begged intermediate librarians to retranslate the book continually to keep alive its meaning. Will that be enough? I guess they’ll find out.

The Shoe Corner

shoe corner

This is interesting — one streetcorner in northwest Indiana abounds with discarded shoes. Somehow it’s become a tradition for people to leave unwanted footwear at 109th and Calumet Avenues in Hanover Township; the highway department removes the shoes periodically, but they keep accumulating.

“I have never seen anybody throw a shoe out there,” said St. John town manager Steve Kil, who can see the intersection from his house. “I just know that they’re always there.”

In 2009 the 86-year-old local historian told the Chicago Tribune that people had been dumping shoes at the corner for 50 years. Some mysterious clues: The pile is tallest on Monday mornings, and it grows fastest in the summer and dwindles by late August.

“I have to chuckle because I can remember when I was a child growing up in the 1970s, my mother would drive past this corner all the time,” Kil said. “She would slow down, and we would just examine the pile. And now I drive through here five days a week, and there’s always a new crop of shoes.”

Some locals call it the Corner of Lost Soles.

(Thanks, Andrew.)


In 1922 J.M. Barrie wrote to A.E. Housman:

Dear Professor Houseman,

I am sorry about last night, when I sat next to you and did not say a word. You must have thought I was a very rude man: I am really a very shy man.

Sincerely yours, J.M. Barrie

Housman wrote back:

Dear Sir James Barrie,

I am sorry about last night, when I sat next to you and did not say a word. You must have thought I was a very rude man: I am really a very shy man.

Sincerely yours, A.E. Housman

He added, “P.S. And now you’ve made it worse for you have spelt my name wrong.”

Higher Magic

The digits 1-9 can be arranged into a 3 × 3 magic square in essentially one way (not counting rotations or reflections) — the so-called lo shu square:

4    3    8

9    5    1

2    7    6

As in any magic square, each row, column, and diagonal produces the same total. But surprisingly (to me), the sum of the row products also equals the sum of the column products:

4 × 3 × 8 + 9 × 5 × 1 + 2 × 7 × 6 = 96 + 45 + 84 = 225

4 × 9 × 2 + 3 × 5 × 7 + 8 × 1 × 6 = 72 + 105 + 48 = 225

Even more surprisingly, the same is true of the Fibonacci sequence, if we arrange its first nine terms into a square array in the same pattern:

 3    2   21

34    5    1

 1   13    8

3 × 2 × 21 + 34 × 5 × 1 + 1 × 13 × 8 = 126 + 170 + 104 = 400

3 × 34 × 1 + 2 × 5 × 13 + 21 × 1 × 8 = 102 + 130 + 168 = 400

It turns out that this is true of any second-order linear recursion. (The sums won’t always be squares, though.)

From Edward J. Barbeau’s Power Play, 1997.


There is one very valid test by which we may separate genuine, if perverse and unbalanced, originality and revolt from mere impudent innovation and bluff. The man who really thinks he has an idea will always try to explain that idea. The charlatan who has no idea will always confine himself to explaining that it is much too subtle to be explained.

— G.K. Chesterton, Daily News, December 9, 1911

Point of View

Felice Varini’s anamorphic paintings seem senseless until they’re viewed from the right perspective — the key is to find the correct viewpoint. (One clue is that it’s always 1.62 meters from the ground, the artist’s own eye level.)

“Varini catches our eye by introducing an anomalous element into our field of vision,” writes Céline Delavaux in The Museum of Illusions. “His paintings are like frameless pictures that give the illusion of a single plane in three-dimensional space. In his hands, painting works like photography: it flattens a space while revealing it.”

In a Word

n. strife, conflict, contention

adj. noisy

v. to make proud, arrogant, or haughty

n. a stamping of the feet

New Zealand’s national rugby union team, the All Blacks, performs a haka, a traditional ancestral Māori war cry, before each international match:

Leader: Ears open! Get ready! Line up! Stand fast!
Team: Yeah!
Leader: Slap the hands against the thighs! Stomp the feet as hard as you can!
Team: As hard as we can!
Leader: You die! You die!
Team: We live! We live!
Leader: You die! You die!
Team: We live! We live!
All: Here stands the Hairy Man who can bring back the Sun so it will shine on us again! Rise now! Rise now! Take the first step! Let the sunshine in! Rise!

At the 2003 World Cup in Australia, Tonga met the haka with their own sipi tau, a traditional challenge dance:

It didn’t help, though — the All Blacks went on to win the game 91-7.

Spirits of the Departed

A wine merchant has three sons. When he dies, he leaves them seven barrels that are full of wine, seven that are half-full, and seven that are empty. His will requires that each son receive the same number of full, half-full, and empty barrels. Can this be done?

Click for Answer

A Twist in History,_Eindeloze_kronkel,_1953-1956.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Swiss artist Max Bill conceived the Möbius strip independently of August Möbius, who discovered it in 1858. Bill called his figure Eindeloze Kronkel (“Endless Ribbon”), after the symbol of infinity, ∞, and began to exhibit it in various sculptures in the 1930s. He recalled in a 1972 interview:

I was fascinated by a new discovery of mine, a loop with only one edge and one surface. I soon had a chance to make use of it myself. In the winter of 1935-36, I was assembling the Swiss contribution to the Milan Triennale, and there was able to set up three sculptures to characterize and accentuate the individuality of the three sections of the exhibit. One of these was the Endless Ribbon, which I thought I had invented myself. It was not long before someone congratulated me on my fresh and original reinterpretation of the Egyptian symbol of infinity and of the Möbius ribbon.

He pursued mathematical inspirations actively in his later work. He wrote, “The mystery enveloping all mathematical problems … [including] space that can stagger us by beginning on one side and ending in a completely changed aspect on the other, which somehow manages to remain that selfsame side … can yet be fraught with the greatest moment.”

Table Talk
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When chemists at the University of California at Berkeley discovered elements 97 and 98, they named them berkelium and californium. The New Yorker suggested that the school showed “a surprising lack of public-relations foresight”: “Now it has lost forever the chance of immortalizing itself in the atomic tables with some such sequence as universitium (97), ofium (98), californium (99), berkelium (100).”

The discoverers sent back a reply: “By using these names first, we have forestalled the appalling possibility that after naming 97 and 98 ‘universitium’ and ‘ofium’, some New Yorker might follow with the discovery of 99 and 100 and apply the names ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium’.”

The magazine answered, “We are already at work in our office laboratories on ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium’. So far we just have the names.”