A Little Latin

mcbryde whistle illustration

In M.R. James’s superbly creepy 1904 short story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” a Cambridge professor investigating a Templar ruin finds a whistle bearing the inscription “Quis est iste, qui venit?”

“I suppose I am a little rusty in my Latin,” he thinks. “It ought to mean, ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him.” And he does, and everything follows from there.

“It’s a rare use by M.R. James of Latin as a pivotal plot point, and a wonderful pedagogic caution to study hard in your lessons or else be grabbed by a ghoul,” writes Roger Clarke in A Natural History of Ghosts.

James says no more about it, but “a Latin scholar would know that iste was a pejorative term, that whoever was coming is unpleasant or, indeed, not exactly human. It should be translated as ‘What is this revolting thing coming towards me?'”

Black and White

mackenzie chess puzzle

An “eccentricity” by Arthur Ford Mackenzie. White to mate in half a move.

Click for Answer

The Chrysler Norseman


For Chrysler’s 1957 auto show, designer Virgil Exner prepared a one-of-a-kind prototype: the Norseman, a sleek four-seat fastback coupe with a sloping hood, cantilevered roof, and aerodynamic underbody.

After 15 months’ work, the fully drivable $150,000 concept car missed its shipment date and was put aboard the next available transport.

That was the SS Andrea Doria. The unique prototype was lost in the sinking, and the car was never produced.

Grammatical Illusions

More people have been to Russia than I have.

Most listeners find this sentence acceptable when they first hear it, but it’s meaningless: The phrase “more people” seems to set up a comparison between two sets of individuals, but there’s no second set.

“In light of the fact that the sentence lacks this basic property, it is remarkable that speakers so commonly fail to notice the error,” write linguists Colin Phillips, Matthew W. Wagers, and Ellen F. Lau.

No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

At first this seems to mean “No head injury should be ignored — even if it’s trivial,” but reflection shows that it really means “All head injuries should be ignored — even trivial ones.”

“This difficulty has certain interesting properties,” write psychologists Peter Wason and Shuli Reich. “When the correct interpretation was explained it was often adamantly rejected in our informal studies, as if the informants literally could not see an alternative view.”

(Colin Phillips, M. Wagers, and E. Lau, “Grammatical Illusions and Selective Fallibility in Real-Time Language Comprehension,” in Jeffrey T. Runner, ed., Syntax and Semantics 37: Experiments at the Interfaces, 2011; Peter C. Wason and Shuli S. Reich, “A Verbal Illusion,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31:4 [1979], 591-597.)

The Value of Disagreement

In 1907, Francis Galton famously found that when a crowd were asked to guess the weight of an ox, the average value of their responses was surprisingly accurate — in Galton’s experiment, it fell within 1 percent of the ox’s true weight. This is “the wisdom of crowds”: By canceling errors across individuals, the mean response often proves more accurate than individual estimates.

Interestingly, the same phenomenon can arise when we aggregate multiple estimates made by a single person (the “wisdom of the inner crowd”). And organizational behavior researchers Philippe van de Calseyde and Emir Efendić now find that the accuracy can be refined still further when people are asked to consider a question from the perspective of someone they often disagree with.

“In explaining its accuracy, we find that taking a disagreeing perspective prompts people to consider and adopt second estimates they normally would not consider as viable option, resulting in first and second estimates that are highly diverse (and by extension more accurate when aggregated),” the researchers write. “Our results suggest that disagreement, often highlighted for its negative impact, can be a powerful tool in producing accurate judgments.”

(Philippe van de Calseyde and Emir Efendić, “Taking a Disagreeing Perspective Improves the Accuracy of People’s Quantitative Estimates,” PsyArXiv, Nov. 15, 2019.)



“It tires me to talk to rich men. You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing; but as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own businesses.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Podcast Episode 322: Joseph Medicine Crow


Joseph Medicine Crow was raised on a Montana reservation in the warrior tradition of his Crow forefathers. But during World War II he found himself applying those lessons in very different circumstances. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe Joseph’s exploits in the war and how they helped to shape his future.

We’ll also consider how to distinguish identical twins and puzzle over a physicist’s beer.

See full show notes …

The Substitute

Between July 2015 and October 2018, the National Security Agency offered a monthly puzzle written by a staff member. Here’s the puzzle for October 2015, created by applied research mathematician Ben E.:

Kurt, a math professor, has to leave for a conference. At the airport, he realizes he forgot to find a substitute for the class he was teaching today! Before shutting his computer off for the flight, he sends an email: “Can one of you cover my class today? I’ll bake a pie for whomever can do it.” He sends the email to Julia, Michael, and Mary Ellen, his three closest friends in the math department, and boards the plane.

As Kurt is well-known for his delicious pies, Julia, Michael, and Mary Ellen are each eager to substitute for him. Julia, as department chair, knows which class Kurt had to teach, but she doesn’t know the time or building. Michael plays racquetball with Kurt so he knows what time Kurt teaches, but not the class or building. Mary Ellen helped Kurt secure a special projector for his class, so she knows what building Kurt’s class is in, but not the actual class or the time.

Julia, Michael, and Mary Ellen get together to figure out which class it is, and they all agree that the first person to figure out which class it is gets to teach it (and get Kurt’s pie). Unfortunately the college’s servers are down, so Julia brings a master list of all math classes taught that day. After crossing off each of their own classes, they are left with the following possibilities:

  • Calc 1 at 9 in North Hall
  • Calc 2 at noon in West Hall
  • Calc 1 at 3 in West Hall
  • Calc 1 at 10 in East Hall
  • Calc 2 at 10 in North Hall
  • Calc 1 at 10 in South Hall
  • Calc 1 at 10 in North Hall
  • Calc 2 at 11 in East Hall
  • Calc 3 at noon in West Hall
  • Calc 2 at noon in South Hall

After looking the list over, Julia says, “Does anyone know which class it is?” Michael and Mary Ellen immediately respond, “Well, you don’t.” Julia asks, “Do you?” Michael and Mary Ellen both shake their heads. Julia then smiles and says, “I do now. I hope he bakes me a chocolate peanut butter pie.”

Which class does Kurt need a substitute for?

Click for Answer



USC mathematician Solomon Golomb offered this puzzle in his column, “Golomb’s Gambits,” in Johns Hopkins Magazine. How can you dissect this figure into four congruent pieces?

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