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The Straight Dope



I have a problem that has aggravated me TO THE MAX! A guy gave it to me to solve because it's (erroneously) speculated in my neighborhood that I'm a genius. So far I'm getting nowhere. Here's the problem:



Figure that the numbers are three houses, and the letters are three utilities--gas, electric, and water. The problem is to draw lines connecting each house to each utility (i.e., three lines per house) without any line crossing another, going under a house, leaping into space, etc. I think this may be solvable, but there's a little part of me saying, "You're the victim of a hoax, schmuck." Cecil, please answer this and save me from myself. --Norman Ellis, Baltimore

Fear not, Norm. To solve this one we must throw off the shackles of bourgeois reality. In other words, we cheat. First we avail ourselves of a Mobius strip, the tricky loop of paper with a half twist in it so beloved of math teachers. Then we get a felt-tip marker that will soak all the way through said strip. Finally, we draw the following diagram on the strip:


Lines A, B, C, and D are carried all the way around the Mobius strip. Because of the strip's half twist, and because the lines soak all the way through the paper, the ends on the left readily link up with the ends on the right. That's all there is to it. Not a solution that'll be much use to the power company, but you can't expect me to solve all the world's problems. For more on this and other adventures in that strange branch of math known as topology, see Stretching a Point by Mitch Struble (1971).

What's the meaning of the number of feet the horse has off the ground in statues of war heroes? I recall hearing one foot off meant the person was injured and recovered while two feet meant he was fatally wounded. --Laury Hutt, Baltimore

I heard this one as a child myself, Laury, but I outgrew it. As far as I can tell, the supposed code for horse statues is an urban legend perpetuated mainly by city guidebooks and the like. Here's a typical version from Hands On Chicago about statues in the City That Works: "At Sheridan Road and Belmont Avenue, the statue of [General Philip H.] Sheridan beckons troops to battle. The horse General Sheridan rides is named Winchester.... Winchester's raised leg symbolizes his rider was wounded in battle (the legs of [General Ulysses S.] Grant's horse [as seen in another Chicago statue] are on the ground, meaning he was not wounded)." The book makes no mention of what two legs in the air means, but many people seem to think it indicates the rider died in battle.

I have scoured texts on sculpture in vain for any indication that sculptors actually used such a code. A historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History also dismisses it as a myth. Just to make sure, I got photos of 18 equestrian statues featuring historical figures (Napoleon, George Washington, etc) in cities ranging from Chicago to Leningrad. I then checked to see whether the individuals depicted had been wounded or whatever. There is necessarily a certain amount of guesswork involved in this--I mean, does getting grazed by a bullet count as a wound? If the guy was assassinated, does that mean he was killed in action? Does it count the same if the horse has both front feet off the ground versus having one front foot and one back foot? Nonetheless, giving the code the benefit of the doubt, I determined as follows:

Code corresponds with subject's fate: 8

Doesn't correspond: 8

Not enough information to tell: 2

Significantly, in the two equestrian statues I turned up by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the most famous sculptors of his day and someone who surely would have respected a code had there been one, I found that one piece did correspond with the code and one didn't. Ergo, the code is BS. Roger, wilco, over and out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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