From the New Ulm [Minn.] Weekly Review, 1886, on a recent surge in U.S. suicides:

The reasons assigned for some of the suicides are silly in the extreme, and some of the methods employed uniquely horrible. One woman killed herself because her mother did, and another because she had a pimple on her nose. … One young woman killed herself because her parents would not allow her to become a Mormon, and a New Yorker shot himself because he hadn’t a nickel to put in the collection box at church. … Several persons died in incalculable agony by jumping into fiery furnaces, and others saturated their clothing with kerosene oil and set it on fire. Still others clumsily sought death by crawling back and forth through barbed-wire fences, entailing great suffering, until they died from exhaustion, and others drove spikes through their brains. Shooting was the most popular method employed, with poison a good second. The most unique example was that of a man who impaled himself on his wooden leg.

A Cold Case

At 6 p.m. on Sept. 20, 1930, a 12-year-old Ramsgate girl was sent across the street to buy a blancmange powder from the neighborhood sweetshop. When the owner, 82-year-old Margery Wren, came to the door, the girl was shocked to see blood streaming down her face.

Wren was taken to the hospital, where she survived for five days. Her face bore eight wounds and bruises, the top of her head seven more. She said successively that she had fallen over the fire tongs, that a man had attacked her with the tongs, that he had a white bag, that it was another man with a red face, that it had been two men, and that it had been an accident. At one point she said she knew her attacker but that “I don’t wish him to suffer. He must bear his sins.” Just before she died she said, “He tried to borrow 10 pounds.”

Wren had been seen alive and well at 5:30. It seems likely that her attacker had locked the front door and escaped through the back. The case was never solved.

Sanity Check

From Raymond Smullyan: Every inhabitant of this island either a knight or a knave. Knights always tell the truth, and knaves always lie. Further, every inhabitant is either mad or sane. Sane inhabitants always answer questions correctly, and mad ones always answer incorrectly. You meet an inhabitant of the island and want to know whether he’s sane or mad. How can you determine this with a single yes-or-no question?

Click for Answer

Seems Right


(Dave Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 33:2 [May 2000], 133-145.)

03/06/2019 UPDATE: Reader Jean-Claude Georges finds that this works in French too if you label the categories (year, seasons, months, days, numbers):

seems right update

“And as in Dave Morice’s text, just add a ‘B’ (for bissextile = leap) after ‘AN’ to get 366 for leap years.” (Thanks, Jean-Claude.)

In a Word

n. a person who investigates

adj. cunning or crafty

n. a drinking companion

adj. guilty

In “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” a bottle of wine is two-thirds full and then half empty, without explanation.

In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Leslie S. Klinger writes, “Perhaps Holmes poured some wine off to conduct an actual experiment, instead of simply imagining the result.” Or perhaps Holmes and Watson drank it themselves.

Podcast Episode 239: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll track the “man-eaters of Tsavo” and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations.

We’ll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins.

See full show notes …

The Paradox of Forgiveness

I cannot forgive you unless you’re culpable — if you’re not culpable then there’s nothing to forgive.

But if you’re culpable, then what is the point of forgiving you? Either way, my forgiveness seems senseless.

Theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “Forgiveness … at its heart is both saying that justice has been violated and not letting that violation count against the offender.” And Jacques Derrida writes, “Forgiveness is thus mad. It must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible.”

For Pi Day

From the prolifically interesting Catriona Shearer: The red line is perpendicular to the bases of the three semicircles. What’s the total area shaded in yellow?

Click for Answer

A Thorough Anagram

This is incredible. In 2005, mathematician Mike Keith took a 717-word section from the essay on Mount Fuji in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1898 Exotics and Retrospective and anagrammed it into nine 81-word poems, each inspired by an image from Hokusai’s famous series of landscape woodcuts, the Views of Mount Fuji.

That’s not the most impressive part. Each anagrammed poem can be arranged into a 9 × 9 square, with one word in each cell. Stacking the nine grids produces a 9 × 9 × 9 cube. Make two of these cubes, and then:

  • In Cube “D” (for Divisibility), assign each cell the number “1” if the sum of the letter values in the corresponding word (using A=1, B=2, C=3 etc.) is exactly divisible by 9, or “0” if it is not.
  • In Cube “L” (for Length), assign each cell the number “1” if its word has exactly nine letters, or “0” if it does not.

Replace each “1” cell with solid wood and each “0” cell with transparent glass. Now suspend the two cubes in a room and shine beams of light from the top and right onto Cube D and from the front and right onto Cube L:

mike keith anagram cubes

The shadows they cast form reasonable renderings of four Japanese kanji characters relevant to the anagram:

The red shadow is the symbol for fire.
The green shadow is the symbol for mountain.
Put together, these make the compound Kanji symbol (“fire-mountain”) for volcano.

The white shadow is the symbol for wealth, pronounced FU
The blue shadow is the symbol for samurai, pronounced JI
Put together, these make the compound word Fuji, the name of the mountain.

See Keith’s other anagrams, including a 211,000-word recasting of Moby-Dick.

Second Thoughts

There was once a very successful architect who made a great name for himself. At length he built a magnificent temple, to which he devoted more time and thought than to any of the other buildings he had erected; and the world pronounced it his masterpiece. Shortly afterward he died, and when he came before the judgment angel he was not asked how many sins he had committed, but how many houses he had built.

He hung his head and said, more than he could count.

The judgment angel asked what they were like, and the architect said that he was afraid they were pretty bad.

‘And are you sorry?’ asked the angel.

‘Very sorry,’ said the architect, with honest contrition.

‘And how about that famous temple that you built just before you died?’ the angel continued. ‘Are you satisfied with that?’

‘Oh, no,’ the architect exclaimed. ‘I really think it has some good points about it, — I did try my best, you know, — but there’s one dreadful mistake that I’d give my soul to go back and rectify.’

‘Well,’ said the angel, ‘you can’t go back and rectify it, but you can take your choice of the following alternatives: either we can let the world go on thinking your temple a masterpiece and you the greatest architect that ever lived, or we can send to earth a young fellow we’ve got here who will discover your mistake at a glance, and point it out so clearly to posterity that you’ll be the laughing-stock of all succeeding generations of architects. Which do you choose?’

‘Oh, well,’ said the architect, ‘if it comes to that, you know — as long as it suits my clients as it is, I really don’t see the use of making such a fuss.’

— Edith Wharton, The Valley of Childish Things, and Other Emblems, 1896