Things to Come

In 1899, preparing for festivities in Lyon marking the new century, French toy manufacturer Armand Gervais commissioned a set of 50 color engravings from freelance artist Jean-Marc Côté depicting the world as it might exist in the year 2000.

The set itself has a precarious history. Gervais died suddenly in 1899, when only a few sets had been run off the press in his basement. “The factory was shuttered, and the contents of that basement remained hidden for the next twenty-five years,” writes James Gleick in Time Travel. “A Parisian antiques dealer stumbled upon the Gervais inventory in the twenties and bought the lot, including a single proof set of Côté’s cards in pristine condition. He had them for fifty years, finally selling them in 1978 to Christopher Hyde, a Canadian writer who came across his shop on rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie.”

Hyde showed them to Isaac Asimov, who published them in 1986 as Futuredays, with a gentle commentary on what Côté had got right (widespread automation) and wrong (clothing styles). But maybe some of these visions are still ahead of us:

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Wikimedia Commons has the full set.

Podcast Episode 156: The Most Dedicated Soldier

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When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974.

We’ll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment.

Intro:

In 1896, Austrian engineers designed a mountain railway pulled by a balloon.

In 1965 Kingsley Amis inventoried Ian Fleming’s unsavory descriptions of M.

Sources for our feature on Hiroo Onoda:

Hiroo Onoda, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, 1974.

Mark Felton, “The Soldiers Who Would Not Surrender,” World War II 18:4 (November 2003), 18.

Robert D. McFadden, “Hiroo Onoda, Soldier Who Hid in Jungle for Decades, Dies at 91,” New York Times, Jan. 17, 2014.

Adam Bernstein, “Hiroo Onoda, Japanese Soldier Who Hid in Philippine Jungle for 29 Years, Dies at 91,” Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2014.

David Powers, “Japan: No Surrender in World War Two,” BBC, Feb. 17, 2011.

“Last Man Fighting: Hiroo Onoda,” Economist 410:8871 (Jan. 25, 2014).

“Hiroo Onoda – Obituary,” Telegraph, Jan. 17, 2014.

Justin McCurry, “Hiroo Onoda: Japanese Soldier Who Took Three Decades to Surrender, Dies,” Guardian, Jan. 17, 2014.

“Japan WW2 Soldier Who Refused to Surrender Hiroo Onoda Dies,” BBC News, Jan. 17, 2014.

Jethro Mullen, Yoko Wakatsuki and Chandrika Narayan, “Hiroo Onoda, Japanese Soldier Who Long Refused to Surrender, Dies at 91,” CNN, Jan. 17, 2014.

Noah Rayman, “Hiroo Onoda, World’s ‘Last Ninja’, Dead at 91,” Time.com, Jan. 21, 2013.

Mike Dash, “Final Straggler: The Japanese Soldier Who Outlasted Hiroo Onoda,” Mike Dash History, Sept. 15, 2015.

Associated Press, “Bulletins,” March 16, 1974.

Listener mail:

Travis M. Andrews, “An Infamous and Sadistic American Serial Killer Was Hanged in 1896. Or Was He?” Washington Post, May 4, 2017.

Kristen De Groot, “Body of 19th Century Serial Killer Exhumed Near Philadelphia,” Associated Press, May 3, 2017.

“New Jersey Couple Says They Found Note in Family Bible Signed by Notorious Serial Killer H.H. Holmes,” NBC Philadelphia, May 22, 2017.

Craig Cook, “Scientist at Centre of DNA Break-Throughs in Cold Case Appeals for Government to Exhume the Body Somerton Man to Finally ‘Give Him Name,'” The Advertiser, Oct. 1, 2016.

Dan Vergano, “DNA Just Tied a Mystery Death in Australia to Thomas Jefferson,” BuzzFeed, Sept. 24, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Noah Kurland.

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!

Podcast Episode 155: The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris

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In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king’s menagerie in Paris.

We’ll also visit Queen Victoria’s coronation and puzzle over a child’s surprising recovery.

Intro:

In 1952 a stray cat made a home in Classroom 8 of a California elementary school.

Abe Lincoln’s ghost seems to spend a lot of time in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Sources for our feature on Zarafa the giraffe:

Michael Allin, Zarafa, 1998.

Erik Ringmar, “Audience for a Giraffe: European Expansionism and the Quest for the Exotic,” Journal of World History 17:4 (December 2006), 375-397.

Heather J. Sharkey, “La Belle Africaine: The Sudanese Giraffe Who Went to France,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 49:1 (2015), 39-65.

Olivier Lagueux, “Geoffroy’s Giraffe: The Hagiography of a Charismatic Mammal,” Journal of the History of Biology, 36:2 (June 2003), 225–247.

Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96:4 (December 2005), 559-571.

Philip McCouat, “The Art of Giraffe Diplomacy: How an African Giraffe Walked Across France and Became a Pawn in an International Power Struggle,” Journal of Art in Society (accessed May 14, 2017).

Olivier Lagueux, “Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris [review],” Isis 92:1 (March 2001), 186-187.

S. Mary P. Benbow, “Death and Dying at the Zoo,” Journal of Popular Culture 37:3 (2004), 379-398.

Elena Passarello, “Beautiful Animal of the King,” Paris Review, Dec. 20, 2016.

Henry Nicholls, “Meet Zarafa, the Giraffe That Inspired a Crazy Hairdo,” Guardian, Jan. 20, 2014.

Olivier Lebleu, “Long-Necked Diplomacy: The Tale of the Third Giraffe,” Guardian, Jan. 11, 2016.

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Today Zarafa stands on the landing of a stone staircase in the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle.

Listener mail:

Julia Baird, Victoria, 2016.

C. Dack, “The Coronation of Queen Victoria,” Pall Mall Magazine 48:219 (July 1911), 2-5.

Wikipedia, “East Asian Age Reckoning” (accessed May 26, 2017).

Josh Clark, “How Thoroughbred Horses Work,” How Stuff Works, Oct. 4, 2011.

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!

A Late Project

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Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)

But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.

Podcast Episode 154: Spared by a Volcano

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The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”

We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

Intro:

The French newspaper La Bougie du Sapeur is published only on Leap Day.

When a vat burst in 1814, 323,000 imperial gallons of beer flooded a London street.

Sources for our feature on Ludger Sylbaris:

Peter Morgan, Fire Mountain, 2003.

Edmund Otis Hovey, The 1902-1903 Eruptions of Mont Pelé, Martinique and the Soufrière, St. Vincent, 1904.

Ludger Sylbaris, “Buried Alive in St. Pierre,” Wide World Magazine, November 1903.

Matthew St. Ville Hunte, “Inside the Volcano,” Paris Review, Sept. 16, 2016.

“Prison Cell of ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday,'” Slate, July 31, 2013.

Brian Morton, “There’s No Smoke Without Fire,” Financial Times, Feb. 13, 2003.

Tony Jones, “Lone Survivor,” New Scientist 177:2382 (Feb. 15, 2003), 48-49.

“[front page — no title],” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1906.

Listener mail:

Kate Connolly, “He’s Hired: Belgian Lands ‘Dream Job’ as Hermit for Austrian Cliffside Retreat,” Guardian, April 19, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent two sets of corroborating links — these contain explicit photos, and these don’t.

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!

Leaping Lena

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A stirring story emerged from eastern Europe in 1954, at the height of the Cold War: During a routine flight, a West German racing pigeon got lost in communist Czechoslovakia, and when she returned two days later, her leg bore a message addressed to Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against communism because communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.

We listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.

We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.

The message was signed “Unbowed Pilsen.” (Pilsen is a city in western Bohemia.)

The pigeon was brought to the United States, where she was used in American Cold War morale efforts and became the emblem of the 1955 Crusade for Freedom.

How much of the story is true isn’t clear — the facts vary significantly with each telling, and the Crusade for Freedom was funded principally by the CIA, explicitly as a propaganda effort. Someone deserves credit for imagination, at least.

Podcast Episode 153: A Victorian Stalker

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Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and posing a bewildering nuisance to Queen Victoria’s courtiers, who couldn’t seem to keep him out. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the exploits of Edward Jones — and the severe measures that were finally taken to stop them.

We’ll also salute some confusing flags and puzzle over an extraterrestrial musician.

Intro:

Tourists who remove rocks from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park face a legendary curse.

Periodicals of the 19th century featured at least two cats that got along on two legs.

Sources for our feature on “the boy Jones”:

Jan Bondeson, Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The Strange Case of the Boy Jones, 2011.

Joan Howard, The Boy Jones, 1943.

Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria, 1921.

John Ashton, Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign, 1903.

Thomas Raikes, A Portion of the Journal Kept by Thomas Raikes, Esq., from 1831 to 1847, vol. 4, 136.

Paul Thomas Murphy, “Jones, Edward,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed April 22, 2017).

“The Boy Jones,” Examiner 1750 (Aug. 14, 1841), 524-524.

“The Boy Jones,” Court and Lady’s Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum 21 (September 1841), 223-225.

Punch, July–December 1841.

“Occurrences,” Examiner 1793 (June 11, 1842), 381-381.

“The Boy Jones,” Reynold’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art 17:424 (Aug. 23, 1856), 56.

“The Boy Jones,” All the Year Round 34:814 (July 5, 1884), 234-237.

“The Latest News of the Boy Jones,” Examiner 1902 (July 13, 1844), 434-434.

“Palace Intruder Stayed 3 Days and Sat on Throne,” Globe and Mail, July 21, 1982.

“Strange Tale of the First Royal Stalker,” Express, Nov. 6, 2010, 14.

“Story of Boy Jones Who Stole Queen Victoria’s Underwear,” BBC News, Feb. 2, 2011.

Helen Turner, “Royal Rumpus of First Celebrity Stalker,” South Wales Echo, Feb. 3, 2011, 26.

Jan Bondeson, “The Strange Tale of the First Royal Stalker,” Express, Nov. 1, 2010.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Chad–Romania Relations” (accessed May 12, 2017).

“‘Identical Flag’ Causes Flap in Romania,” BBC News, April 14, 2004.

Wanderlust, “10 of the World’s Most Confusing Flags — and How to Figure Them Out,” Aug. 9, 2016.

Erin Nyren, “‘Whitewashing’ Accusations Fly as Zach McGowan Cast as Hawaiian WWII Hero,” Variety, May 9, 2017.

Kamlesh Damodar Sutar, “Highway Liquor Ban: Bar Owners Say They Will Be Forced to Commit Suicide Like Farmers,” India Today, April 3, 2017.

“Government Officials Rush to Denotify Highways Running Through Cities,” Economic Times, April 4, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Greg Yurkovic, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils 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!

Grant and the Mule

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From Judge Jacob W. Wilkin’s “Personal Reminiscences of General U.S. Grant,” 1907:

One day while riding on the lines, he saw a teamster beating a mule, and riding up to him, ordered him to stop. Wearing an army blouse without shoulder straps, the man did not recognize him and not very politely told him to mind his own business, using profane language, whereupon Grant told his orderly to arrest him and bring him to headquarters. He was turned over to me with orders to tie him up by the thumbs. When the fellow realized that he had used insulting language to General Grant he was the most humiliated man imaginable and protested he did not know it was General Grant. His punishment lasted but a little while and because of my sympathy, was not the most severe of the kind, when I was directed to bring him up to the headquarters tent and there he renewed his protestation that he did not know it was the general he was talking to and that he would not under any circumstances have insulted him. But the general said, ‘You don’t understand, it was not I that was hurt, it was the mule. I could defend myself but the poor dumb animal could say or do nothing for its own protection.’

“He dismissed the culprit with the admonition that he would be closely watched and if again found abusing his team, he would be summarily dealt with.”

The Swimming Reindeer

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1866 French engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle discovered the sculptures of two swimming reindeer on the banks of the River Aveyron. Each had been carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago. The carvings had historic as well as artistic value: They showed that humans, mammoths, and reindeer had coexisted in France during the ice age, when the climate of France resembled that of modern Siberia.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1904 that anyone thought to try fitting the two pieces together — it was discovered that they were two parts of a single sculpture. Today they form the oldest piece of art in the British Museum.

In a Word

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alembicated
adj. over-refined, excessively subtle in thought or expression

brachylogy
n. conciseness of speech; a condensed expression

mycterism
n. a subtle or scornful jibe; a piece of sarcasm or irony; subtle mocking

In 1886 Grover Cleveland suspended certain officials during a recess of the Senate and refused to give his reasons. When the Senate objected, he sent them a letter that contained a fateful phrase: “And so it happens that after an existence of nearly twenty years of an almost innocuous desuetude these laws are brought forth.”

Everyone pounced on it. Tennessee representative William Robert Moore wrote:

The big Free trade disciple
Who lives on Buzzard’s Bay,
Cannot again be President,
The tariff boys all say;
And they mean “biz” you better bet,
They’re in the proper mood
To send him up Salt River
To “innocuous desuetude” —
To innocuous desuetude,
To innocuous desuetude,
To send him up Salt River
To innocuous desuetude.

The phrase was still echoing in 1920, when former Speaker of the House Champ Clark wrote, “His most exquisite phrase and entirely original, so far as I know, was ‘innocuous desuetude,’ still frequently quoted and perhaps to be quoted as long as our vernacular is spoken by the children of men.”