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One-Man Band

In the early days of silent movies, large theaters would engage orchestras to play the accompanying music. But starting around 1910, small venues that lacked the money or the space could use a machine instead. In Film Music, music editor Roy M. Pendergast writes, “In addition to music, these machines were capable of providing a battery of sound effects, and they ranged in size from what was essentially a player piano with small percussion setup to elaborate instruments nearly equaling a twenty-piece pit orchestra.” He quotes Samuel A. Peeples in Films in Review:

The crowning achievement of the American Photo Player Company was their Fotoplayer Style 50, only one of which is presently known to survive in operating condition. Among the most splendid automatic musical instruments ever built, it was 21 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 5 feet 2 inches tall. It was capable of recreating the volume of a 20-piece pit orchestra, plus a full-scale theatre pipe-organ, with an incredible range of effects, such as the lowing of cattle, the drumming of hoofs in assorted gaits, several varieties of klaxons, street traffic noises, crackling flames, breaking wood and brush, rifle, pistol and machine gun shots, even the sound of a French 75MM cannon!

Pendergast adds, “One wonders about the quality of genius it must have taken to operate one of these devices.”

Black and White

korolikov chess problem

A curiously ambiguous problem by V.A. Korolikov. Mate in 1. Either side can fulfill this easily — but which has the move?

Click for Answer

The Key to My Future

“Truel,” a mathematical romance by Tom Vaughan.

(This is based on a problem in game theory, but interestingly the hero is named Galois and one of his opponents is d’Herbinville — that’s the name of the man Alexandre Dumas identified as the opponent of Évariste Galois in his fatal duel of 1832.)


Panegyric to a train, from the Hurutshe people of South Africa:

Iron thing coming from Pompi, from the round-house
Where Englishmen smashed their hands on it,
It has no front it has no back.
Rhino Tshukudu going that way.
Rhino Tshukudu no, coming this way.
I’m no greenhorn, I’m a strong, skillful man.
Animal coming from Pompi, from Moretele.
It comes spinning out a spider’s web under a cloud of gnats
Moved by the pulling of a teat, animal coming from Kgobola-diatla
Comes out of the big hole in the mountain, mother of the great woman,
Coming on iron cords.
I met this woman of the tracks curving her way along the river bank and over the river.
I thought I’d snatch her
So I said
“Out of the way, son of Mokwatsi, who stands there at the teat.”
The stream of little red and white birds gathered up all of its track
Clean as a whistle.
Tshutshu over the dry plains
Rhino Tshukudu out of the high country
Animal from the south, steaming along
It comes from Pompi, the round-house, from Kgobola-diatla.

(Jerome Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred, 1968; Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa, 2012.)

Photo Finish

In February 1985, British birder David Hunt led a tour around India. One of the stops was Jim Corbett National Park, in Uttar Pradesh, which has a large tiger population. The park provides an armed guard to each group of visitors, and they’re required to stay on the trails. As his party explored the park, though, Hunt heard an unknown call and walked a short distance off the track. Minutes later there was a scream. When his friends rushed to help, they discovered his mauled body in a clearing nearby. His friend Bill Oddie wrote:

When David’s body was recovered, so was his camera. Later on, the slides were developed … The first one is a nice close-up of a Spotted Owlet sitting on a branch … Then he must have heard a noise behind him, or maybe just sensed that he was not alone. Keeping crouched, he turned and saw a tiger pacing to and fro at the edge of the clearing. The next slide is of the tiger. It is some way away, walking to the right. On the next picture it is walking to the left. In the next one, it is facing the camera. In the next, it has begun to move forward, still looking straight at the lens. The next is closer. Then closer. And closer still. The final picture is of a frame-filling shot of the tiger’s head, eyes blazing and teeth exposed in a snarl.

“If David had kept shooting on his motor-drive, the whole thing must have happened in barely ten seconds,” Oddie added. “Crouched behind a camera, looking through the viewfinder and especially when using a telephoto lens, you don’t realise how close your subject has got. Neither, at the time, do you care. All you are focusing on is the picture. Press cameramen in war situations call it ‘camera blindness.’ It has proved fatal before.”

(From Oddie’s Follow That Bird!, quoted in Stephen Moss’ A Bird in the Bush, 2004.)

The Way of Things

“Pyramid of Capitalist System,” from a 1911 edition of Industrial Worker, a newspaper of the international labor union Industrial Workers of the World.

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings,” said Churchill. “The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

Close Quarters

Paulo Guarini di Forli offered this puzzle in 1512. On this tiny 3 × 3 board, which is the smallest number of moves in which the white knights can exchange places with the black ones?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 205: The White Mouse

In 1928 Nancy Wake ran away from her Australian home and into an unlikely destiny: She became a dynamo in the French resistance, helping more than a thousand people to flee the Germans and then organizing partisans to fight them directly. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the White Mouse, one of the bravest heroes of World War II.

We’ll also marvel at mailmen and puzzle over an expensive homework assignment.


The town of Agloe, New York, was invented by a pair of mapmakers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise contains two hidden poems.

Sources for our feature on Nancy Wake:

Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake, 2001.

Nancy Wake, The White Mouse, 1985.

Russell Braddon, The White Mouse, 1956.

“Dispatches,” World War II 26:4 (November/December 2011), 16.

“History in the Media,” History Today 55:4 (April 2005), 9.

“Sound Off,” Leatherneck 85:6 (June 2002), 2.

Adam Bernstein, “Nancy Wake, ‘White Mouse’ of World War II, Dies at 98,” Washington Post, Aug. 9, 2011.

Paul Vitello, “Nancy Wake, Proud Spy and Nazi Foe, Dies at 98,” New York Times, Aug. 13, 2011.

“Obituary: Nancy Wake,” Economist 400:8746 (Aug. 13, 2011), 82.

Chris Brice, “The Mouse That Roared,” [Adelaide] Advertiser, June 2, 2001.

Bruce Wilson, “Forever in Her Debt,” [Brisbane] Courier-Mail, Feb. 15, 2003, 34.

“War Heroine Nancy Wake Dies,” ABC Premium News, Aug. 8, 2011.

“Prince Helps Pauper Heroine,” [Adelaide] Advertiser, Feb. 11, 2003, 22.

“Australian ‘White Mouse’ Was a Guerrilla to Nazis Selling Her War Medals Did Not Endear Her to Countrymen, Though,” Christian Science Monitor, June 8, 1994.

Sandra Laville, “Penniless Resistance Hero Stays On … and On … at Hotel,” Vancouver Sun, Feb. 11, 2003, A16.

Red Harrison, “All Guts and Garters,” Weekend Australian, June 9, 2001.

Lydia Clifford, “Secrets and White Lies,” Daily Telegraph, June 1, 2001, 117.

Bruce Wilson, “Penniless Wake Is Also Priceless,” Daily Telegraph, Feb. 14, 2003, 23.

Nate Rawlings, “Nancy Wake,” Time 178:8 (Aug. 29, 2011), 20.

Roderick Bailey, “Wake, Nancy Grace Augusta,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Jan. 8, 2015.

Listener mail:

A 1797 George III Cartwheel penny, a handgun, and a selection of pottery and pipes found on the Thames foreshore.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s “Police Reports.”

The neural net that Dave Lawrence fed them through.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Simone Hilliard, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

For What It’s Worth

In an effort to attract female worshippers and tourists, Taiwan’s Southwest Coast National Scenic Area erected the “High-Heel Wedding Church” in 2016 in Budai Township, Chiayi County. It’s 17 meters tall and contains about 320 pieces of blue-tinted glass; Guinness has certified it as the “world’s largest high-heel shoe-shaped structure.” The BBC reports:

The shoe was inspired by a local story. According to officials in the 1960s, a 24-year-old girl surnamed Wang from the impoverished region suffered from Blackfoot disease. Both of her legs had to be amputated, leading to the cancellation of her wedding. She remained unmarried and spent the rest of her life at a church. The high heel is intended to honour her memory.

The church will be used for weddings and pre-wedding photo shoots, not regular services. Pan Tsuei-ping, the administration’s recreation section manager, said, “In our planning, we want to make it a blissful, romantic avenue. … Every girl imagines how they will look like when they become the bride.” The building will contain “100 female-oriented features,” including “chairs for lovers, maple leaves, biscuits, and cakes,” all suited for romantic photographs.

But the project has also been criticized as sexist and patronizing. On the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, Jessie Chou wrote, “I wear flip flops anyway.”