Last Words

In 1899, six years before her death at age 70, Aboriginal Tasmanian Fanny Cochrane Smith made five wax cylinder recordings of traditional Aboriginal songs and language.

They are the only recorded example of Tasmanian Aboriginal songs and the only recorded example of any Tasmanian Aboriginal language.

Emily Keene, who was present at the recording, said that when the cylinder was played back for her, Smith cried, “My poor race. What have I done.”

“We could not pacify her for a long time,” Keene said. “She thought the voice she had heard was that of her mother.”

In the Dark

In 1963, French geologist Michel Siffre descended into a glaciated cavern under the French-Italian Maritime Alps and spent more than two months without sun to “investigate time, that most inapprehensible and irreversible thing.” He could telephone scientists on the surface, who recorded the time of each call, but they never told him the time or date. From his diary:

Forty-second awakening. … I really seem to have no least idea of the passage of time. This morning, as an example, after telephoning to the surface and talking for a while, I wondered afterward how long the telephone conversation had lasted, and could not even hazard a guess. … Fifty-second awakening. … I am losing all notion of time. … When, for instance, I telephone the surface and indicate what time I think it is, thinking that only an hour has elapsed between my waking up and eating breakfast, it may well be that four or five hours have elapsed. And here is something hard to explain: the main thing, I believe, is the idea of time that I have at the very moment of telephoning. If I called an hour earlier, I would still have stated the same figure. … I am having great difficulty to recall what I have done today. It costs me a real intellectual effort to recall such things.

The outsiders could see that his waking and sleeping remained near a cycle of 24.5 hours, but Siffre’s conscious understanding of time was greatly affected. Misunderstanding the length of his day, he began to husband his rations, thinking he had weeks more to endure. At his 57th awakening, the final day of the experiment, he thought it was August 20; in fact it was September 14. “I underestimated by almost half the length of my working or waking hours; a ‘day’ that I estimated at seven hours actually lasted on the average fourteen hours and forty minutes.” NASA has pursued these inquiries to consider the implications for space travelers.

(From Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.)

“Imitative Chess”

dudeney imitative chess

A puzzle by Henry Dudeney:

A chessboard was on the table with the pieces all set up for a game. So I asked Dr. Bates to play a game with the Major on these conditions: Whatever move Bates made throughout, with the white pieces, the Major must exactly imitate with the black, and Bates must give checkmate on the fourth move. As an experiment, Bates started off with 1. e4, and Rackford replied with 1. e5. Then Bates played 2. Qh5, and the Major had to reply with 2. Qh4. This gave me a good opportunity to explain that White cannot now play 3. QxQ, because it would be impossible for Black then to imitate the move. Neither could he play 3. Qxf7+, because Black cannot do the same thing, as he would have to get out of check. White must always make a move that Black can copy, until the checkmate is actually given on the fourth move.

“This puzzle caused great interest, and it was some time before somebody (I think it was Strangways) hit on a solution.”

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The Hidden Element

The name of one chemical element appears as an unbroken string in the names of four other elements. What is the element, and what are the four?

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Podcast Episode 345: Climbing Mont Blanc,_18_Wellcome_V0025176EL.jpg

In 1838, Frenchwoman Henriette d’Angeville set out to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, against the advice of nearly everyone she knew. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow d’Angeville up the mountain to fulfill what she called “a monomania of the heart.”

We’ll also escape Australia in a box and puzzle over a fixed game.

See full show notes …

Streets and Order

This is interesting: USC urban planning professor Geoff Boeing examined the street networks of 100 world cities as a measure of their spatial logic and order.

The cities with the most ordered streets are Chicago, Miami, and Minneapolis; most disordered are Charlotte, São Paulo, and Rome.

“On average, US/Canadian study sites are far more grid-like than those elsewhere, exhibiting less entropy and circuity.”

(Geoff Boeing, “Urban Spatial Order: Street Network Orientation, Configuration, and Entropy,” Applied Network Science 4:1 [2019], 1-19.) (Via Ethan Mollick.)

Obstacle Course

In Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos, a Christmas party game from 1824, players had to take turns reading tongue-twisting passages as quickly as possible from a prepared list. Each passage represents a letter of the alphabet, and each builds on its forerunners. The worst is this:

TOBY PHILPOT sat tippling with UMPO, VUMPO, and WILLY WIDEMOUTH of Wolverhampton, when X and Y, two officers, brought in the culprit, while Saccharum Sweet Tooth said nothing, while Ramo Samee really swollowed a sword, while Sly Kia cried Quack! quack! quack! And turned into a duck, to escape from Poniatowsky, who said, To jail with the Juggler and Jade, as Mother Bunch on her broomstick cried, here’s a to-do! as Nicholas Hotch-potch said, Never were such times, as Muley Hassan, Mufti of Moldavia, put on his Barnacles, to see little Tweedle gobble them up, when Kia Khan Kreuse transmogrofied them into Pippins, because Snip’s wife cried, Illikipilliky! lass a-day! ’tis too bad to titter at a body, when Hamet el Mammet, the bottlenosed Barber of Balasora, laughed ha! ha! ha! on beholding the elephant spout mud over the ‘Prentice, who pricked his trunk with a needle, as Dicky Snip, the tailor, read the proclamation of Chrononhotonthologos, offering a thousand sequins for taking Bombardinian, Bashaw of three tails, who killed Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.

A player who couldn’t pronounce a passage perfectly had to pay a penalty for each mistake. Here’s the whole list.


A problem from the Leningrad Mathematical Olympiad: You have 32 stones, each of a different weight. How can you find the two heaviest in 35 weighings with an equal-arm balance?

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“Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.” — William Gladstone

“The knowledge of the theory of logic has no tendency whatever to make men good reasoners.” — Thomas Macaulay