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Deep Thoughts

You’ve heard talk of the multiverse, right? The idea is that the astronomically low odds of a universe like ours being compatible with life—something like 1 in 10 to the 229th power—is proof that “our universe is just one of a huge, perhaps infinite, ensemble of worlds.” The physics of such a problem are too mind-bending to even consider. (Well…for me, anyway.) But probability theorists have poked a hole in the argument. And it’s a pretty big hole.

Speaking of science-y things, John Horgan reminds us that “the equations embedded in Newton’s laws of motion, quantum mechanics and general relativity are extraordinarily, even unreasonably effective. Why do they work so well? No one knows….”

So, in other words, we don’t know what we think we know. Or even what we don’t know. Or much of anything, really. And that, my friends, is strangely comforting.


“Today, one of the world’s largest collections of Nazi propaganda sits in a climate-controlled warehouse at Fort Belvoir, in northern Virginia. Much of it is virulent; most of it is never seen by the public.”

Schubert’s syphilitic genius.

“Speakers take a lot for granted,” write David I. Beaver, Bart Geurts, and Kristie Denlinger in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “That is, they presuppose information. As we wrote this, we presupposed that readers would understand English. We also presupposed as we wrote the last sentence…that there was a time when we wrote it, for otherwise the fronted phrase ‘as we wrote this’ would not have identified a time interval. Further, we presupposed that the sentence was jointly authored, for otherwise ‘we’ would not have referred. And we presupposed that readers would be able to identify the reference of ‘this’, i.e., the article itself. And we presupposed that there would be at least two readers, for otherwise the bare plural ‘readers’ would have been inappropriate.” It goes on like that for several thousand words. Philosophers ain’t what they used to be, I reckon.

Bugs Bunny turned 80 last year.

Random fact of the day: There are roughly 169,518,829,100,544,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 169.518 octillion) possible ways to play the first 10 moves in a game of chess. Which explains how I keep finding new ways to lose.


“I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society—both good and bad—is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”

“It’s just a tool, though, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not. No. No, it’s an alien life form.”

The Prophet David Bowie (peace be upon him), who would have turned 74 today, is interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight in 1999:

It’s Not Only Delicious, It’s Risk-Free

Is the McRib—that heavenly handful of sticky, porky goodness—just an arbitrage strategy on the part of McDonald’s? That certainly explains it elusiveness, argues Willy Staley.

“At both ends of the product pipeline,” he writes, “you have a good being traded at such large volume that we might as well forget that one end of the pipeline is hogs and corn and the other end is a sandwich. McDonald’s likely doesn’t think in these terms, and neither should you.”

Something else I hadn’t thought of: When the article was written—10 years ago—the McRib was “the only pork-centric non-breakfast item at maybe any American fast food chain.” In other words, if pork sandwiches were profitable, everyone would be selling ’em. Year-round.

Staley may be on to something.

It’s Not Procrastinating if You’re “Following Your Curiosity”

“One of the paradoxes of research, writes Dr. Thomas Fink, “is that, time and again, the most far-reaching discoveries are made not by focusing on the practical problems of the day but by following your curiosity.” Breakthroughs come, he explains, “when your work, and what you do to avoid it, become the same thing.”

Fink then goes on to illustrate the point with a story from Sir Roger Penrose, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics last year for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity:

‘Someone had invited me to give a talk at London South Bank University and I was really overdue with my reply. Instead of replying, all I could do was stare at the university logo on the letterhead: a pentagon with five pentagons around it.’ What bothered Penrose was that there were gaps between the external pentagons. Unlike hexagons, pentagons don’t fit together seamlessly.

He began wondering what new shapes would be required so he could fill in the gaps, and then extend the pattern without new gaps arising. It seemed it wasn’t possible with just one new shape. After a while, he had worked out a way to solve the puzzle using six new shapes. But Penrose wasn’t satisfied with six.

‘I thought, I wonder if I can do better? So I got it down to four tiles. And I was really proud of that. Then I fiddled around and I got it down to two. But my reaction was disappointment. It was just too damn easy. I felt it couldn’t be new.’

But it turned out the result of his labours, known as ‘Penrose tiling’, was new. 

And…We’re Back

Happy 2021, y’all!

Things have piled up a bit during our absence, so we’ll just start the new year by pointing you to Tom Whitwell’s 52 Things I Learned in 2020—the latest in a series that dates back to 2014, and that offers up such wonderful nuggets as “China has completed one large dam every day since 1949.” And “Taco Bell spent ten years trying to develop a cheese-stuffed taco shell, helped by a cheese promotion group called Dairy Management Inc, known as ‘the Illuminati of cheese.'” And “British clowns register their unique makeup patterns by having them hand painted onto chicken eggs. The eggs are then stored either at the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston or at Wookey Hole caves in Somerset.”

But if you’re too worried about the state of the world to cultivate any curiosity about it, Uncle Bill has you covered.

Holiday Miscellany

Since we’ll be taking a couple of weeks off from posting, here are some links to keep you occupied:

“[E]very new high-profile heist raises awareness of the fact that rare books are valuable enough to be worth stealing.” (The article gets bonus points for the punny title.)

A history of PEZ candy.

“Puzzle makers saw sales go up by 300 to 400%, and, due to the pandemic-related pause in production, quickly sold out of popular items.…The last time interest in puzzles spiked so quickly? The Great Depression….”

Blob Opera!

And finally—surprise!—it turns out that not everyone is defined by their generation:

See y’all in 2021…

Murdering the Language

There’s an interesting feature on Tom Voigt, founder and publisher of, in the December issue of Portland Monthly. As a kid who grew up in the 1970s just a couple of hours south of where the Zodiac operated—and who remembers when the San Francisco Chronicle published the last confirmed Zodiac letter—I’ve long been fascinated by the still-unsolved murders. But it’s not everyone’s jam. So proceed with caution.


I feel like I need to point out something in the article unrelated to the horrors of true crime: the utter failure of the singular they if your aim is clear communication. Check it out:

Gaikowski was brought to Voigt’s attention by Blaine T. Smith, who has been known professionally and personally as simply “Blaine” or “Blaine Blaine.” Blaine was part of the Good Times newspaper collective alongside Gaikowski. Wildly intelligent and intensely complicated, Blaine appears trim, small, and wigged in photographs and rare film clips. They are still alive, 84 years young, and posting regularly to Facebook from a small town in New Mexico. I contacted Blaine but was unsuccessful in speaking to them as of press time—but not because they’ve gone silent.

I had to read that paragraph three times before I realized the author was deferring to Smith’s preferred pronouns rather than conventional English. Wait a sec, I thought. Both Gaikowski and Smith are 84 years old and alive?? I thought Gaikowski was dead… 

Now, I don’t want to get into an argument around whether we need gender-neutral pronouns or whether it’s insensitive or transphobic or whatever to use he and him for someone who is biologically male but doesn’t identify as such.* That’s not the point. It’s that using a plural pronoun for a singular subject isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. And a better writer (or editor) would have come up with a workaround rather than simply cave to the woke zeitgeist.

*Benjamin Dreyer addresses this issue in a particularly thought-provoking—not to mention helpful—way in Chapter 6 of his masterful Dreyer’s English.

Today in History

From the journal of James Boswell, December 15, 1762:

The enemies of the people of England who would have them considered in the worst light represent them as selfish, beef-eaters, and cruel. In this view I resolved to be a true-born Old Englishman. I went into the City to Dolly’s Steak-house in Paternoster Row and swallowed my dinner by myself to fulfil the charge of selfishness; I had a large fat beefsteak to fulfil the charge of beef-eating; and I went at five o’clock to the Royal Cockpit in St James’s Park and saw cock-fighting for about five hours to fulfil the charge of cruelty….

From The Folio Book of Days (The Folio Society, 2002).

500 Tons of TNT in Glorious 4K

“The faces of observers and SES staff members reflected relief and delight as the fireball and subsequent smoke cloud developed.”

This 1964 video is 20 minutes of awesome, so I’m just gonna get out of the way and let you watch it:

A Prophet Speaks

Ken Layne is a weird dude. And I say this as a guy who subscribes to Layne’s delightful periodical and listens to his quirky podcast. But the thing is, he’s also largely correct on the things that matter in our particular moment:

I feel like we are post-language now…. Things are more symbolic. The relationship between words and facts and objectivity and their impact seems to have separated to the point where most of the writing that I see, especially on something like Twitter, is by people baffled that people don’t get what they are trying to say. It’s depressing.

He’s also right about the draw of the desert wilderness, something the missus and I have only recently come to terms with:

The Romantics very deliberately mixed the excitement of paganism, taboo, spiritualism, romance—the idea that you go out in the wilds not to quietly and respectfully count wrens but to openly seek communion with the world. The weird parts of the desert I try to push and validate as our equivalence of Moses in the Sinai or Paul on the desert road or the Buddha sitting out under a tree hallucinating demons….

I’ve had a mystical experience in the desert: silence. Not the absence of sound, but the literal presence of silence. And believe me, there’s a huge difference between the two. You feel it; a connection to something bigger than you, whether God or Gaia or whomever. These experiences are real—and “incredibly relevant to today,” says Layne. “The numbing horror of social media and the digital age. To escape it is getting harder and harder.”

But escape it we must if we’re to keep our sanity.

Enough Already!

In “The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure,” Daniel Barbarisi uses the word solve five times. And in four of those five instances, it’s a noun. No, really. See for yourself:

“…claiming that he had stolen the plaintiff’s solve and used it to find the chest.”

“So while he remained guarded about his solve and the location where he discovered the treasure…”

“…had located it by hacking her texts and emails and stealing her solve.”

“For my book, I’ve interviewed him about his solve…”

It’s almost as if Barbarisi isn’t aware that there’s a noun form—solution—of the verb he’s so intent on abusing. But that can’t be it, can it? I mean, he’s a grown man employed by a respected periodical. No, it has to be intentional, which makes it inexcusable.

Repeat after me: Unnecessarily nouning a verb doesn’t make you sound cool or hip or edgy or whatever it is you’re after. It makes you sound like an idiot. (Don’t let that stop you from reading the article, though. It really is quite interesting.)

Mistakes Were Made

“People who have not published books are often appalled at typos,” writes Alan Jacobs, “because they think their presence means that the book has been proofread carelessly or not at all.” Far from it, he explains. Everyone from the author to the proofreader to the copyeditor has a look. Many times. (Here at helveticka, we make anyone even tangentially connected to a project take a gander at least once.)

And yet typos remain. Jacobs illustrates the problem thus:

On the first page of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the gypsy Melquiades comes to Macondo carrying powerful magnets, which pull all sorts of metal things along behind them, and “even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most.” Typos are like that: they appear from where they had been searched for most. At times you’re tempted to attribute them to poltergeists. When you see them you make a note to correct them in future editions (should you be so fortunate as to have a future edition), shrug, and move on with your life.

“Move on with your life.” Yeah, right.

Christmas Came Early This Year

Ever wanted to brush up on your Hittite? Listen to someone recite Beowulf in the original Old English? Get knee-deep in Proto-Indo-European etyma from Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch? Then scrap your weekend plans, buckle up, and head on over to the Linguistics Research Center. I for one plan on starting my Tocharian lessons right away.

And honestly? It wouldn’t hurt to show these folks a little love with a donation.


“Everything they said to each other, how they interacted, was nothing but a dance. It was hilarious to watch two superegos dance around each other. Neither one of them was going to be the first one to give it up.” Over at JazzTimes, A. D. Amorosi reveals what happened when two legends met—and, tantalizingly, what might have been—in the fascinating “The Ballad of Miles Davis and Prince.”

If I were asked to describe Liz Garbus’s 2011 film Bobby Fischer Against the World in one word, I’d have to say, “heartbreaking.” But don’t let that stop you from seeing it if you haven’t already. Watch it for free right here.

Separating art from the artist: “If I had not existed,” William Faulkner told The Paris Review, “someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”

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