Good Boy

In 1921, when someone complimented Warren G. Harding on a particularly fine speech, he said, “The best thing I ever wrote was an obituary for my dog. I felt that, and anybody can write when he feels very strongly upon his subject. Some day I’ll find a copy of that tribute to my dog and you’ll agree with me that it was good.”

He had published the piece while editing the Marion, Ohio, Star. Managing editor George Van Fleet retrieved the obituary from the newspaper files and sent a copy to the White House. Here it is:

Edgewood Hub in the register, a mark of his breeding, but to us just Hub, a little Boston terrier, whose sentient eye mirrored the fidelity and devotion of his loyal heart. The veterinary said he was poisoned; perhaps he was — his mute suffering suggested it. One is reluctant to believe that a human being who claims man’s estate could be so hateful a coward as to ruthlessly torture and kill a trusting victim, made defenseless through his confidence in the human master, but there are such. One honest look from Hub’s trusting eyes was worth a hundred lying greetings from such inhuman beings, though they wore the habiliments of men.

Perhaps you wouldn’t devote these lines to a dog. But Hub was a Star office visitor nearly every day of the six years in which he deepened attachment. He was a grateful and devoted dog, with a dozen lovable attributes, and it somehow voices the yearnings of broken companionship to pay his memory deserved tribute.

It isn’t orthodox to ascribe a soul to a dog — if soul means immortality. But Hub was loving and loyal, with the jealousy that tests its quality. He was reverent, patient, faithful; he was sympathetic, more than humanly so, sometimes, for no lure could be devised to call him from the sick bed of mistress or master. He minded his own affairs, especially worthy of human emulation, and he would kill or wound no living thing. He was modest and submissive where these qualities were becoming, yet he assumed a guardianship of the home he sentineled, until entry was properly vouched. He couldn’t speak our language though he somehow understood, but he could be and was eloquent with uttering eye and wagging tail, and the other expressions of knowing dogs. No, perhaps he had no soul, but in these things are the essence of soul and the spirit of lovable life.

Whether the Creator planned it so, or environment and human companionship have made it so, men learn richly through the love and fidelity of a brave and devoted dog. Such loyalty might easily add lustre to a crown of immortality.

Up and Up

The Shepard tone is an auditory illusion: A succession of overlapping scales are played, each ascending, and each scale fades out as its successor fades in an octave lower. The resulting impression is of a climbing pitch that never “arrives” anywhere, a rising note that never gets higher.

Among many other applications, this sound was used for the Batpod in Christopher Nolan’s films The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises — the vehicle seems constantly to accelerate without ever changing gear. “When played on a keyboard,” wrote sound designer Richard King, “it gives the illusion of greater and greater speed; the pod appears unstoppable.”

(Thanks, Nick.)

01/31/2022 UPDATE: Similarly, the Risset Rhythm seems to speed up:

(Thanks, Chris.)

The Conroy Virtus

The space shuttle was originally designed to propel itself, both on returning from a mission and in hopping among various landing sites. When air-breathing engines were judged too heavy and costly, NASA had to find another way to move the shuttle around.

One unlikely candidate was the Virtus, a pair of B-52 fuselages mounted to a giant wing. Proposed by American aviator John M. Conroy, the aircraft would have had a wingspan of 140 meters and a takeoff weight of 850,000 pounds.

Prototypes performed well in the wind tunnel, but the prospect of building, testing, and accommodating a new aircraft, and especially such a large one, finally argued against it, and NASA decided to piggyback the shuttle on a 747.

Case Closed

Who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Here’s a novel way to decide the question: In 1987 Supreme Court justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens presided over a moot-court debate at American University to consider whether the author was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (The session was underwritten by David Lloyd Kreeger, a noted benefactor of theater in Washington, D.C., and an ardent Oxfordian.)

After considering evidence presented by two American University law professors, all three justices chose Shakespeare, though Stevens expressed some uncertainty based on the author’s refined sensibilities.

“Just reading it cold,” he said, “I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman; there are just too many places in which nobility is stressed as a standard. In Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, the standard is which ‘is the nobler in the mind.’ There are all sorts of references to nobility and skills that are familiar to the nobility but unknown to most common people. So, you can’t help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else.”

Blackmun agreed that, of the various alternative claimants, Oxford had come closest to proving his case. “Whether that is enough is something that we’re supposed to say, I suppose; and yet, I am reluctant to say it.” Brennan added, “My conclusion is that Oxford did not prove that he was the author of the plays. And so, I feel that the 200 years that elapsed — I gather at least that long — after Shakespeare’s death before any doubt was cast on whether or not he was the author, leaves the thing about where we started.”

The debate was attended by more than a thousand people and published afterward in the American University Law Review (37:3, 1988).

Similarly, in 1892 the Boston monthly Arena set up a “tribunal of literary criticism” to decide whether Francis Bacon deserved the credit. After more than a year of contributions from various authorities, including the actor Sir Henry Irving, a panel of judges decided overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.

A Wand’ring Minstrel

Gilbert and Sullivan gained fame around the world for their operettas. But where W.S. Gilbert could be impatient and irascible, Arthur Sullivan was full of lively good humor. Vernon Blackburn remembered a curious incident from his travels:

It so happened that I journeyed to Rome almost immediately after my hearing for the first time The Yeomen of the Guard. I was full of its melodies, full of its charm; and one night walking through the Piazza di Spagna, I was whistling the beautiful concerted piece, ‘Strange Adventure,’ whistling it with absolutely no concern and just for the love of the music. A window was suddenly opened and a little face looked out in the moonlight, while a thin voice exclaimed in apparent seriousness: ‘Who’s that whistling my music?’ I looked up with astonishment and with some awe, and told the gentleman that if he were Sir Arthur Sullivan it was his music that I was whistling; and, said I, I thought that the copyright did not extend to Italy. I remember how he convulsed with laughter somewhat to my discomfiture, and closed the window to shut out the chill of the night. I never dared at that period of life to make any call upon one whom I considered to be so far above the possibilities of intercourse.

In his 1908 memoir, baritone Rutland Barrington remembered: “There was invariably enormous competition for seats at the Savoy premieres, and it was difficult to find room for all friends. On one occasion a great personal friend of Sullivan’s, Mr Reuben Sassoon, had applied too late, and backed his application with a piteous appeal to Sullivan for help. He at once said to Carte, ‘If he’ll change the first letter of his name, I’ll give him a seat in the orchestra.'”

A Miserable Vacation

twine puzzle

Your eccentric uncle has dropped you into the middle of Twine Island, which is festooned with one continuous loop of twine. The twine never crosses itself, but it snakes everywhere, and the island is too hilly for you to see the whole layout at once. As a character-building exercise, your uncle offers you a million dollars if you can determine whether you’re inside the loop or outside. How can you do this?

Click for Answer

Pieces of Pi

bailey-borwein-plouffe formula

Here’s something remarkable: This formula, discovered in 1995 by David Bailey, Peter Borwein, and Simon Plouffe of the University of Quebec at Montreal, permits the calculation of isolated digits of π — it’s possible to calculate, say, the trillionth digit of π without working out all the preceding digits.

The catch is that it works only in base 2 (binary) and base 16 (hexadecimal), but not in base 10. So it’s possible to know, say, that the five trillionth binary digit of π is 0, but there’s no way to convert the result into its decimal equivalent without working out all the intervening binary digits.

“The new formula allows the calculation of the nth base 2 or base 16 digit of π in a time that is essentially linear in n, with memory requirements that grow logarithmically (very slowly) in n,” writes David Darling in The Universal Book of Mathematics. “One possible use of the Bailey-Borwein-Plouffe formula is to help shed light on whether the distribution of π’s digits are truly random, as most mathematicians suppose.”

08/14/2022 UPDATE: A new formula permits the extraction of decimal digits. (Thanks, Edward.)

Everything Must Go

When the Drury Lane theater was closed in 1709, Joseph Addison published a fanciful list of the properties for sale:

  • Spirits of right Nantz brandy, for lambent flames and apparitions.
  • Three bottles and a half of lightning.
  • One shower of snow in the whitest French paper.
  • Two showers of a browner sort.
  • A sea, consisting of a dozen large waves; the tenth bigger than ordinary, and a little damaged.
  • A dozen and a half of clouds, trimmed with black, and well-conditioned.
  • A rainbow, a little faded.
  • A set of clouds after the French mode, streaked with lightning, and furbelowed.
  • A new moon, something decayed.
  • A pint of the finest Spanish wash, being all that is left out of two hogsheads sent over last winter.
  • A coach very finely gilt, and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap.
  • A setting-sun, a pennyworth.
  • An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Caesar, Bajazet, King Harry the Eighth, and Signor Valentini.
  • A basket-hilted sword, very convenient to carry milk in.
  • Roxana’s night-gown.
  • Othello’s handkerchief.
  • The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once.
  • A wild boar, killed by Mrs. Tofts and Dioclesian.
  • A serpent to sting Cleopatra.
  • A mustard-bowl to make thunder with.
  • Another of a bigger sort, by Mr. D—-s’s directions, little used.
  • Six elbow-chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flower-pots for their partners.
  • The whiskers of a Turkish Bassa.
  • The complexion of a murderer in a band-box; consisting of a large piece of burnt cork, and a coal-black peruke.
  • A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz. a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet-holes upon the breast.
  • A bale of red Spanish wool.
  • Modern plots, commonly known by the name of trapdoors, ladders of ropes, vizard-masks, and tables with broad carpets over them.
  • Three oak-cudgels, with one of crab-tree; all bought for the use of Mr. Penkethman.
  • Materials for dancing; as masks, castanets, and a ladder of ten rounds.
  • Aurengezebe’s scymitar, made by Will. Brown in Piccadilly.
  • A plume of feathers, never used but by Œdipus and the Earl of Essex.

“Mr. D—-” is John Dennis, a critic. Elsewhere Addison wrote, “If we may believe our logicians, man is distinguished from all other creatures by the faculty of laughter.”


A puzzle from reader Steven Moore:

moore alphametic 1

Find A, B, and C as distinct integers. There is only one solution.

Click for Answer