Looking the Part


As he was preparing King Kong for his 1933 screen debut, producer Merian C. Cooper was continually dissatisfied with sculptor Marcel Delgado’s sensitive models of the giant ape. “I want Kong to be the fiercest, most brutal, monstrous damned thing that has ever been seen,” he insisted. Animator Willis O’Brien objected that the audience wouldn’t sympathize with a monster that lacked human qualities, but Cooper was adamant: “I’ll have women crying over him before I’m through, and the more brutal he is the more they’ll cry at the end.”

He called the American Museum of Natural History and asked for the exact dimensions of a large male gorilla. On the afternoon of December 22, 1931, he gave O’Brien a telegram from the curator of zoology:


“Now that’s what I want,” he said. O’Brien quit on the spot and walked out of the studio, but after a few drinks together the two returned to work. Eventually they agreed on a compromise. In The Making of King Kong, Orville Goldner writes, “The scene would be repeated several times during the year to come.”


Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1997 researchers rediscovered a 16th-century variant of Japanese chess called taikyoku shōgi, perhaps the largest and most challenging chesslike game ever devised. Played with 804 pieces of 209 types on a board of 1,296 squares, a single game might require a thousand moves played over several long sessions.

“The first difficulty lies in deciphering the minuscule characters identifying a nearly endless crowd of pieces,” write Jean-Louis Cazaux and Rick Knowlton in A World of Chess. “The players must have long arms, tiny fingers, microscopic vision and a huge memory.”

Only two sets of pieces have been restored, and the known rules sets disagree and have yet to be reconciled, but even Wikipedia’s summary of the rules reflects the jaw-dropping complexity of the game.

Sweet Mystery of Life

Image: Wikimedia Commons

For 20 years, someone stocked a Coke machine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill with obscure, sometimes discontinued drinks such as Grape Fanta, Mountain Dew White Out, Hawaiian Punch, and raspberry Nestea Brisk. The price was 75 cents, and each button read simply “? MYSTERY ?”

The machine stood in front of Broadway Locksmith on John Street, but the locksmith claimed to know nothing about its operator. When the city passed a tax on sugary drinks in January 2018, the machine raised its price to $1.00. Six months later, it disappeared, leaving only a message on its Facebook page: “Going for a walk, need to find myself. Maybe take a shower even.”

It hasn’t been seen since. Do machines take walks?

The “Dicta Boelcke”


Principles of aerial combat devised by World War I German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, the “father of air fighting tactics”:

  1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
  2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
  3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
  4. Always keep your eyes on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
  5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
  6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to avoid his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
  7. When over the enemy’s lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
  8. For the Staffel [fighter squadrons]: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.

“He certainly didn’t love war and he personally disliked killing,” writes Dan Hampton in Lords of the Sky, his history of fighter pilots and air combat. “It was not a sport to him, as it was with others, nor was it a game. It was something he had to do, so he did it well.” When he died in a crash, his British enemies dropped a wreath behind German lines with the message “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous opponent. From the English Royal Flying Corps.” French, Italian, and British pilots sent wreaths and messages from prisoner-of-war camps, and Manfred von Richthofen said of his mentor, “I am only a fighting airman, but Boelcke was a hero.”

Better Days

In 1959 chemist William J. Buehler of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory was trying to devise a missile nose cone that could withstand extraordinary heat and fatigue. He found a promising alloy of nickel and titanium and passed around a sample at a 1961 laboratory management meeting. The sample had been folded like an accordion, but in examining it Buehler’s colleagues flexed and twisted it out of shape. When of them idly held it over his pipe lighter, they got a surprise: The sample sorted itself back into its accordion shape.

Buehler’s alloy is now known as nitinol (for “nickel titanium Naval Ordnance Laboratory”), and this property is known as “shape memory.” In Nature’s Building Blocks, John Emsley notes, “Spectacle frames made from nitinol can be bent and twisted into remarkable shapes and, when released, will jump back to their original shape.”

To the Life


Perhaps inspired by his interest in natural science, American painter Charles Willson Peale set out to make his 1795 Staircase Group as realistic as possible. Not only did he paint his two sons in perfect detail on a full-length canvas, but he installed the finished painting in a door frame in his studio, with a real step at the bottom that seemed to merge into the staircase he’d painted.

Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that George Washington tipped his hat to the young men as he walked by.

The Wobbler

Here’s an odd little animal: Get two rigid disks, cut a notch in each one, fit them together as shown, and try to send them rolling across a table. If the notches are too deep, marrying the discs too closely together, then the object will pretty quickly slow to a stop with each disc standing at a 45° angle to the table. If the notches are too shallow, it will stop with one disc standing up at right angles to the table. But if the notches are about the right length, ideally 29.2893 percent of the radius, then the contraption will roll along quite happily for a surprisingly long distance.

The reason is that in that configuration the object’s center of mass remains level as it rolls along. (It does move from side to side, which is why it’s called the wobbler.)

Apparently this was originally discovered by A.T. Stewart, who dubbed his creation the “two-circle roller” in a 1966 note in the American Journal of Physics. I found it described in Matt Parker’s 2014 book Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, which includes a simple proof of the principle involved. There’s a more rigorous discussion here.

The Moses Illusion


How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark? If you’re like most people, you tend to answer two, even though you know it was Noah, not Moses, who took animals on the ark. People tend to have difficulty noticing when a term in a sentence or question is replaced with a semantically similar but incorrect term.

This isn’t really surprising on its face. What’s surprising is how robust the effect is. About 50 percent of people make the mistake even when asked to read the question aloud before answering it. The effect persists even when people are warned that a distortion might be present, and most people express confidence in their answer even when given unlimited time to think about it. Further examples:

  • What country was Margaret Thatcher president of?
  • What kind of tree did Lincoln chop down?
  • By flying a kite, what did Edison discover?
  • What did Goldilocks eat at the Three Little Pigs’ house?
  • Who found the glass slipper left at the ball by Snow White?
  • What is the name of the Mexican dip made with mashed-up artichokes?
  • In the biblical story, what was Joshua swallowed by?

One possible explanation is “partial matching” — the distorted question so closely resembles one that we recognize that we take the risk of jumping to the answer. “Everyday cognitive processing must be based on simple heuristics such as matching sets of features rather than exact matches, as very few tasks require exact matches,” suggest researchers Heekyeong Park and Lynne M. Reder. “Partial matching is immutable because it is the most efficient way for memory to operate, given the nature of the environment in which we live.”

(Heekyeong Park and Lynne M. Reder, “Moses Illusion,” in Rüdiger F. Pohl, ed., Cognitive Illusions, 2004.)



A team of volunteers have deciphered a message written by Charles Dickens in his own puzzling brand of shorthand, solving a riddle that had persisted for more than 150 years.

Apparently in 1859 the Times had mistakenly rejected an advertisement that Dickens had hoped to run during his delicate transition from the editorship of Household Words to All The Year Round. Dickens had written to the newspaper’s editor, J.T. Delane, asking him to intervene in the matter and had saved a cryptic copy of the message, possibly for legal reasons. With the passage of time the key to the author’s so-called Brachygraphy had been lost.

When scholars recently appealed for help in understanding the message, an international team of amateur solvers pooled their insights to decipher the “Tavistock Letter.” “Having the text of this letter at long last will allow scholars to learn more about Dickens’s shorthand method while gaining further insight into his life and work,” wrote Philip Palmer, curator and head of literary and historical manuscripts at Morgan Library & Museum. “We are thrilled that colleagues at the Dickens Code project have helped make this letter accessible in new ways to researchers.”

That’s not the end of it — a further puzzling page, this one from the notebooks of Dickens’ shorthand pupil Arthur Stone, still awaits solution.

(Thanks, Bill.)

Fair Enough

Engaged to give a talk at a university, logician Raymond Smullyan arrived half an hour early and wrote the following sentence on the blackboard, “to give the audience something to mull over”:

You have no reason to believe this sentence.

This, he reasoned, was a paradox. If you have no reason to believe the sentence, then what it states is really the case, which is certainly a good reason to believe it. But if you have a good reason to believe it, then it must be true … which means that you have no reason to believe it.

Half an hour later he came down the stairs to a packed audience. Spotting a bright-looking boy in the front row, he pointed to the sentence and asked him, “Do you believe that sentence?”

“Yes,” said the boy.

“What is your reason?”

“I don’t have any.”

Smullyan asked, “Then why do you believe it?”

The boy said, “Intuition.”

(Raymond Smullyan, “Self-Reference in All Its Glory!” conference “Self-Reference,” Copenhagen, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2002.)