One of a Kind

An unpaired word has a prefix or suffix that suggests that an antonym exists when in fact it doesn’t: disheveled is a word, but sheveled isn’t. In many cases the seeming antonym is a real word that’s fallen out of popular usage: corrigible, domitable, effable, feckful, gainly, nocuous, scathed, stinting, trepid, and wieldy are words; they’re just not used as often as their opposites.

Somewhat similarly, a plurale tantum is a noun that appears only its plural form: We speak of scissors and trousers, but not normally of “a scissor” or “a trouser.” A singulare tantum is a noun that’s used only in the singular, such as information, dust, or wealth.

(See “A Very Descript Man.”) (Thanks, Matt.)

Podcast Episode 311: A Disputed Russian Princess

In 1920, a young woman was pulled from a canal in Berlin. When her identity couldn’t be established, speculation started that she was a Russian princess who had escaped the execution of the imperial family. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the strange life of Anna Anderson and her disputed identity as Grand Duchess Anastasia.

We’ll also revisit French roosters and puzzle over not using headlights.

See full show notes …

Risk Analysis

The Society of Actuaries holds a regular speculative fiction contest. Here’s an excerpt from “The Temple of Screens,” by Nate Worrell, FSA, MAAA, recognized last year for describing the “most innovative actuarial career of the future”:

‘Ever since humans began to be aware of a future, we’ve wanted to explore it. We’ve cast stones, searched in tea leaves, held the entrails of animals in our hands to try to extract some knowledge of our fate. Some of our stories try to show us that like Oedipus, we can’t change our fate. In other stories, we find an escape, we have the power of choice, at least to some degree. But in either case, knowing our future changes how we act. Now that you’ve seen your possible futures, they are tainted. If you were to go back in, they’d all change, reflecting that you had some knowledge. The algorithm would reallocate a new set of weights to your tendencies, increasing some behaviors and decreasing others.’

A wave of anger flashes through me, and I stand and start pacing. ‘So what’s the use of this?’

‘To help you embrace what’s possible, to come to terms with it. You came here because you were afraid of a certain future, one you hoped to avoid somehow. We can’t fight or flee from the future, whatever one we fall into. But we can find serenity in any of our futures, if we so desire.’

MetaFilter has a guide to past contests.

A Moving Target,_Km_27%2B800.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The angle of Earth’s axis varies between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees over a 41,000-year period. This means that the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are moving slightly: Each is the most extreme circle of latitude in its hemisphere at which the Sun can be directly overhead. At the moment Cancer is drifting southward and Capricorn northward, each at about 15 meters a year.

In Mexico this movement is reflected precisely in a series of annual markers beside Federal Highway 83, from 2005 to 2010.

(Thanks, Salvador.)

The Longest Game

Chess includes a couple of rules intended to keep a game from running on forever. Specifically, a game is a draw (a) if the same position occurs five times or (b) if each player makes a series of 75 moves without a capture or a pawn move. (The more familiar “threefold repetition” and “50-move” rules describe circumstances in which a player can claim a draw but isn’t obliged to.)

At this year’s SIGBOVIK, the tongue-in-cheek scientific conference named after fictional student Harry C. Bovik, Carnegie Mellon’s Tom Murphy VII presented a legal game that carefully skirts these rules to run on as long as possible — 17,697 half-moves, enough to fill 6 pages of the conference proceedings even in small type.

“It can also be downloaded at Many chess programs fail to load the whole game, but this is because they decided not to implement the full glory of chess.”

(Tom Murphy VII, “Is This the Longest Chess Game?”, SIGBOVIK 2020, Carnegie Mellon University, April 1, 2020.) (Thanks, Noëlle.)

09/29/2020 UPDATE: Reader Alexander Bolton has set up a Longest Chess Game Bot on Twitter that’s playing through this game, tweeting out an image of the position after every halfmove. “It tweets every 4 hours so it should be finished in just over 8 years!”

Competing Squares

competing squares

A square has been inscribed in each of two congruent isosceles right triangles. Which square is larger?

Click for Answer

No Waiting
Image: Helmut Zozmann

Designed in 1804, the Grand Shaft, at the Western Heights of Dover, is a triple helix, the only such staircase in Britain. As with Vatican City’s Bramante Staircase, this design accommodates a large number of passengers while minimizing interference among them — using it, a large number of troops might quickly descend the 140 feet from the heights to the town below, while others might even ascend at the same time, using a different spiral.

In 1812 a Mr. Leith of Walmer rode his horse up the stair for a bet, and local legend has it that during Victorian times the separate spirals were assigned to “officers and their ladies,” “sergeants and their wives,” and “soldiers and their women.”

(Thanks, Dave.)

A Banana Split

Biologist Jonathan Eisen, who coined the term phylogenomics, called this “perhaps the best genomics Venn diagram ever.” The six-set diagram, published by Angélique D’Hont and her colleagues in Nature in 2012, presents the number of gene families that the banana shares with five other species.

“What the diagram says is that over time the 7,674 gene clusters shared by the six species did not change much in these lineages, as opposed to the 759 clusters specific to the banana (Musa acuminata), for example,” explains Anne Vézina at ProMusa. “Although the genes in these clusters probably share common ancestors with other species, they have since changed to the point that they haven taken on new functions.”

Here’s a similar (5-set) diagram relating to conifers.

(Angélique D’Hont et al., “The Banana (Musa acuminata) Genome and the Evolution of Monocotyledonous Plants,” Nature 488:7410 [2012], 213-217.) (Thanks, David.)