Podcast Episode 182: The Compulsive Wanderer

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In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of “mad travelers” in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We’ll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

Intro:

Ontario doctor Samuel Bean designed an enigmatic tombstone for his first two wives.

The Pythagorean theorem can spawn a geometric tree.

Sources for our feature on Albert Dadas:

Ian Hacking, Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, 2002.

Carl Elliott, Better Than Well, 2004.

Peter Toohey, Melancholy, Love, and Time, 2004.

Petteri Pietikäinen, Madness: A History, 2015.

Craig Stephenson, “The Epistemological Significance of Possession Entering the DSM,” History of Psychiatry 26:3 (September 2015), 251-269.

María Laura Martínez, “Ian Hacking’s Proposal for the Distinction Between Natural and Social Sciences,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39:2 (June 2009), 212-234.

Dominic Murphy, “Hacking’s Reconciliation: Putting the Biological and Sociological Together in the Explanation of Mental Illness,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 31:2 (June 2001), 139-162.

Roy Porter, “Fugue-itive Minds and Bodies,” Times Higher Education, October 15, 1999.

Listener mail:

Sarah Laskow, “How Sick Chickens and Rice Led Scientists to Vitamin B1,” Atlantic, Oct. 30, 2014.

“Christiaan Eijkman, Beriberi and Vitamin B1,” nobelprize.org (accessed Dec. 16, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Casimir Funk” (accessed Dec. 16, 2017).

“Gerrit Grijns in Java: Beriberi and the Concept of ‘Partial Starvation,'” World Neurology, March 19, 2013.

The Winnie-the-Pooh monument in White River, Ontario, from listener Dan McIntyre:

white river pooh monument

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, 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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Two Puzzles

http://hydeandrugg.com/pages/codes/penitentia/images

In 2005 Keele University computer scientist Gordon Rugg published two ciphers to the web.

The first is called the Penitentia Manuscript. The image above is only one panel; you can view and download the whole thing here. Rugg’s website provides one clue: “Most modern codes are based on a shared set of underlying assumptions. He wondered what would happen if you deliberately ignored those assumptions. What sorts of code might that produce?” There’s some more info here.

The second cipher, called the Ricardus Manuscript, was inspired by Rugg’s work on another famous puzzle: “When Gordon was working on the Voynich Manuscript, he started wondering what a real code based on the components of the Voynich Manuscript would look like. This code is the result.” Again, the image below is only a sample; you can find the whole thing here. More info here.

Both of these ciphers have been freely available on the web for more than 10 years, and both remain unsolved. Any takers?

http://hydeandrugg.com/pages/codes/ricardus/images

Extraordinary Lengths

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A number of German writers intentionally suppressed the letter ‘r’ (as did also a fair number of Italians), of whom the eighteenth-century German poet Gottlob Burmann (1737-1805) is perhaps the most amusing: he is reported to have hated the letter ‘r’ to such an extent that in 130 poems he never used it and refused to pronounce his own last name.

— Laurence de Looze, The Letter & the Cosmos, 2016

Hill of Crosses

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses has been a site of peaceful protests since 1831, when indigenous peasants began to stage rebellions against their Russian overlords. Even when they lacked bodies to bury they erected crosses on the 33-foot mound as memorials and as symbols of peaceful resistance. The region was freed after World War I but then captured by the Nazis and later incorporated into the U.S.S.R.; again the local population planted crosses of defiance, though they were mown down three times by Soviet bulldozers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the hill has become an important symbol of political and spiritual self-determination. It now bears an estimated 100,000 crosses.

A Discovery

Crossing the woodlands of upstate New York in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to an island at the center of a lake, “one of those delicious solitudes of the New World.” As he explored it, “the deep silence which is common to the wilds of North America was only broken by the hoarse cooing of the wood-pigeon, and the tapping of the woodpecker upon the bark of trees.”

I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to her own caprices; but when I reached the centre of the isle I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this retreat. Yet what changes had taken place in the scene of his labors! The logs which he had hastily hewn to build himself a shed had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure, and his cabin was transformed into a bower. In the midst of these shrubs a few stones were to be seen, blackened with fire and sprinkled with thin ashes; here the hearth had no doubt been, and the chimney in falling had covered it with rubbish.

“I stood for some time in silent admiration of the exuberance of Nature and the littleness of man,” he wrote, “and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with melancholy, ‘Are ruins, then, already here?'”

(From Democracy in America, 1835.)

Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Resolution

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s ARM Architecture designed the 31-story Swanston Square apartment building in Melbourne with custom-shaped white balconies against black windows, so that from a distance the face of Aboriginal leader William Barak emerges.

It’s situated to face the Shrine of Remembrance, which honors Australians who have served in war. “The site has this potential to be a very significant part of the public realm,” ARM founding director Howard Raggatt said. “The realization of the great civic axis of Swanston Street meant that we could acknowledge the Shrine at one end and then the deep history representation at the other.”

Mysterious Ways

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Image: Flickr

Between 1950 and 1964, Meyer Wertlieb rented a garage in Washington D.C. to James Hampton, a janitor who worked at the General Services Administration. When Hampton died, Wertlieb opened the garage and found a throne.

Hampton, the son of a minister, had been born in South Carolina in 1909. In 1928 he moved to Washington to share an apartment with his older brother, and in 1931 God and his angels told him to make a throne for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Working for hours in the middle of each night, he spent 14 years building what he called “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” piecing it together from aluminum foil and cardboard boxes, jelly jars and light bulbs. God visited him regularly to check on his progress.

Eventually it was 7 feet tall and occupied 300 square feet. When Hampton died, his sister rejected it, and it now stands in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am not an art historian. I will make no aesthetic interpretation or judgment beyond a purely personal statement that Hampton’s Throne stunned and delighted me when I happened upon it by accident during a coffee break from a meeting at the Smithsonian, and it has never failed, upon many subsequent and purposeful visits, to elicit the same pleasure and awe.”

(If that’s not interesting enough, Hampton left behind a 70-page notebook that no one has ever deciphered.)

Work for All

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In 1914 Henry Ford adopted a policy that no one applying for work at his auto plant would be refused on account of physical condition. Of the 7,882 jobs at the factory, he’d found that only 4,287 required “ordinary physical development and strength”:

The lightest jobs were again classified to discover how many of them required the use of full faculties, and we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, 2 by armless men, 715 by one-armed men, and 10 by blind men. Therefore out of 7,882 kinds of jobs, 4,034 — although some of them required strength — did not require full physical capacity.

“That is, developed industry can provide wage work for a higher average of standard men than are ordinarily included in any normal community. If the jobs in any one industry or, say, any one factory, were analyzed as ours have been analyzed, the proportion might be very different, yet I am quite sure that if work is sufficiently subdivided — subdivided to the point of highest economy — there will be no dearth of places in which the physically incapacitated can do a man’s job and get a man’s wage.”

(Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922.)