Oddities

Fair Play

An extraordinary scene took place on Saturday last at a small village within three miles of Middleton. A half-witted fellow named James Driscott had cruelly ill-used his donkey. He was told by several of the villagers that he would be brought up before the magistrates and severely punished; but his informants said that if he consented to do penance for his inhuman conduct, no information should be laid against him. Discott gladly agreed to the proposed terms. The donkey was placed in the cart, and its owner, with the collar round his neck, was constrained to drag his four-footed servant through the village. The scene is described by a local reporter as being the most laughter-moving one he had ever witnessed.

Illustrated Police News, Jan. 22, 1876

Night Work

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English essayist A.C. Benson had rich, elaborate dreams, a trait common in his family. “Sometimes they would be processions and high ceremonies, diversified by the intervention of old Eton friends, who would whisper dark words more suo during some strange liturgy,” recalled his friend Geoffrey Madan. “Sometimes the distant past would rush upon him and old ecclesiastics, summoned up from the mists of Addington, became involved with him in situations of infinite absurdity; sometimes it would be oneself with whom the drama was played, till its recital at breakfast made one helpless with laughter.”

From one dream he awoke recalling only a strange epigram, “The riddle of life is solved by gliding, and not sliding.” On another morning he found that he had scribbled down these lines in the middle of the night:

A bold and cheerful company of Ogres, Ghosts, and Ghouls
Attacked and smashed to little bits the City of Tomfools:
The Tomfools sailed to Araby, and raised another state;
I can’t say how refined they were, and how considerate.
And now in High Tomfoolery they’re very fond of telling
What an almighty hash the ghosts made of their former dwelling;
They chaunt their great deliverance: they teach and preach and say
How good it was of God to take their former pride away.

His 1894 poem “The Phoenix” was composed entirely while asleep. “I dreamed the whole poem in a dream, in 1894, I think, and wrote it down in the middle of the night on a scrap of paper by my bedside,” he wrote. “It is a lyric of a style which I have never attempted before or since. … I really can offer no explanation either of the idea of the poem or its interpretation. It came to me so (apparently) without any definite volition of my own that I don’t profess to understand or to be able to interpret the symbolism.”

By feathers green, across Casbeen,
The pilgrims track the Phoenix flown,
By gems he strewed in waste and wood
And jewelled plumes at random thrown.

Till wandering far, by moon and star,
They stand beside the fruitful pyre,
Whence breaking bright with sanguine light,
The impulsive bird forgets his sire.

Those ashes shine like ruby wine,
Like bag of Tyrian murex spilt;
The claw, the jowl of the flying fowl
Are with the glorious anguish gilt.

So rare the light, so rich the sight,
Those pilgrim men, on profit bent,
Drop hands and eyes and merchandise,
And are with gazing most content.

Madan added, “I have preserved in one of his letters the concluding stanza which he wrote in waking hours to round it off, but omitted later on the advice of a friend who felt it to be ‘incongruous’; this pleased him very much indeed.”

(From “A Later Friendship,” by Geoffrey Madan, in Arthur Christopher Benson as Seen by Some Friends, 1925.)

In a Word

cultrivorous
adj. devouring knives

John Cummings was a game drunk. In June 1799, having watched a French mountebank pretend to swallow clasped knives, the 23-year-old American sailor boasted that he could do the same, and “after drinking freely” he proceeded to swallow his own pocketknife and three others offered by his friends.

Thus began a memorable career. According to George Budd in the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, Cummings recounted his exploit in Boston six years later and was immediately challenged to repeat it. He swallowed six more knives, and an additional eight the following morning, “so that he had swallowed a knife for every day that the month was old.”

Why stop there? Nine months later, drunk again, he made the same boast in England and swallowed five knives on Dec. 4 and nine clasp knives on Dec. 5 (plus, he was told, another four that he was too drunk to remember).

Through the next four years, in great pain and continually vomiting, Cummings applied to a number of doctors, at least one of whom dismissed his story as incredible. But when he died finally in March 1809, his stomach was opened and “a great many portions of blades, knife-springs, and handles were found in it, and were carefully collected for the museum at Guy’s Hospital, in which they are now preserved,” Budd notes — Cummings’ contribution to medical science.

Podcast Episode 67: Composing Beyond the Grave

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In 1933, violinist Jelly d’Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he’d written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the discovery of Schumann’s lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers.

We’ll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises.

Sources for our feature on Jelly d’Aranyi and Rosemary Brown:

Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 1969.

Erik Palmstierna and Adila Fachiri, Horizons of Immortality, 1938.

Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies, 1971.

Douglas Martin, “Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2001.

Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, 1998.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.

Here’s the Schumann violin concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, and here’s a rather blurry interview with Rosemary Brown, in which she transcribes a composition for Beethoven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

The Hasanlu Lovers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hasanlu_Lovers.jpg

In 1972, archaeologists unearthed a plaster-lined brick bin in the Teppe Hasanlu site in northwestern Iran, an ancient city that had been violently sacked and burned at the end of the ninth century B.C. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert Dyson wrote:

Lying in the bottom of the bin were two human skeletons, a male and a female. The male had one of its arms under the shoulder of the female, while the female was looking into the face of the male and reaching out with one hand to touch his lips. Both were young adults. Neither showed any evidence of injury; there were no obvious cuts or broken bones. There were no objects with the skeletons, but under the female’s head was a stone slab. The other contents of the bin consisted of broken pieces of plaster, charcoal, and small pieces of burned brick but nothing heavy enough to crush the bones.

“Two theories have been suggested to explain this unusual scene,” he wrote. “One, that a pair of lovers had crawled into the bin under some light material of some kind to hide in the hope of escaping the destruction of the citadel, and that this is a very tender moment between them. The other is that they were hiding and one is telling the other not to make any noise. In either case it would appear they died peacefully — probably by asphyxiation.”

Alternative Music

Norwegian musician Terje Isungset plays a trumpet and xylophone made of ice. He calls them “the only instruments you can drink after you’ve finished playing.”

The xylophone’s bars are cut from a Norwegian lake with a chainsaw. Isungset explains to Trevor Cox in The Sound Book, “You can have 100 pieces of ice; they will all sound different. Perhaps three will sound fantastic.”

The First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, below, carves its instruments an hour before each show and makes them into soup afterward. There must be some way to combine these two …

Catalog

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Entomologist Alexandre Girault expressed himself in his work. Of the 500 genera he named, many honored artists, poets, and writers whom he admired: Davincia, Shakespearia, Beethovena, Mozartella, Emersonia, Raphaelana, Ovidia, Goetheana, Thoreauella, Tennysoniana, Bachiana, Keatsia, Plutarchia, Schilleria, Aeschylia, Aligheria, Thalesanna, Rubensteina, Carlyleia, Herodotia, Cowperella, and Froudeana.

To mock his supervisor Johann Illingworth, he invented a parasitic mymarid wasp, Shillingsworthia shillingsworthi, which he described as an ephemeral creature lacking a head, abdomen, or mandibles and found only in “the chasms of Jupiter” — in other words, a nonentity. He called it “an airy species whose flight cannot be followed except by the winged mind.”

He understood even women through entomology — one of his privately printed works describes a new species of human, Homo perniciosus, known only from the female sex:

Abnormal female (loveless, without offspring); heart functionless; mammae aborted; psychology novel (as supposed) but artificial; gay, high-coloured, feral, brass-cheeked, shape lovely like Woman but nature hard (selfless, thoughtless, proud, unsympathetic, irresponsible, aggressive, irritant, insensible, luxurious, pugnacious, over-active, inquisitive, mischievous, voracious and even carnivorous; antagonistic, ungentle, immodest, critical, competitive, poisonous); conduct unstable (even inclined to treachery), the lips compressed, body strong. Everywhere but rare in natural habitat.

He was prickly, but he was dedicated — he published much of his work at his own expense, and many of his type specimens are retained today by the Queensland Museum. “Research is a labour of love,” he wrote. “Strange then to find it all done nowadays as a labour of wages! Must love, too, be a matter of cash?”

Podcast Episode 66: Eighteen Holes in Vietnam

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In 1972, Air Force navigator Gene Hambleton was shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam, and a ferocious offensive beat back every attempt to rescue him. In today’s show we’ll learn how his lifelong passion for golf became the key to his escape.

We’ll also learn about a videogame based on the Dyatlov Pass incident and puzzle over why a military force drops bombs on its friends.

Sources for our feature on Gene Hambleton:

William C. Anderson, BAT-21, 1980.

Darrell D. Whitcomb, The Rescue of BAT 21, 1998.

George Esper, “Commando Team Snatches Downed Airmen From Midst of Enemy’s Invasion Force,” Associated Press, April 25, 1972.

Dennis McLellan, “‘Gene’ Hambleton, 85; His Rescue Depicted in ‘Bat-21’ Books, Film,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 27, 2004.

Listener mail:

The full text of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Problem of Thor Bridge” is on Wikisource.

The videogame about the Dyatlov Pass incident is called Kholat. (It’s named after Kholat Syakhyl, the mountain on which the Dyatlov hikers pitched their tent.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Mike Martin. 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 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Tilt

https://www.flickr.com/photos/remedy451/8061973923

Image: Flickr

The wool-trading village of Lavenham, Suffolk, grew so quickly during its medieval heyday that many of its houses were built hastily with green timber, which has warped as it’s dried, pulling the buildings into memorably crooked shapes. It’s thought to be the inspiration for a familiar nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The Crooked House, below, a pub and restaurant in South Staffordshire, owes its shape to mining subsidence in the 19th century — one side of the building is now 4 feet lower than the other, which means that now coins roll up the bar and pints slide across seemingly flat surfaces.

“It can be really disorientating at first,” manager Dan Lewis told the Mirror. “When I first came in I didn’t have a drink because I felt so dizzy.”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/banksfam/8019002182/

Image: Flickr

(Thanks, Stefan.)

Foursquare

http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/post/44756975727/alexander-graham-bell-and-mabel-kissing-within-a

Alexander Graham Bell kisses his daughter Daisy inside a tetrahedral kite, October 1903.

Bang’s theorem holds that the faces of a tetrahedron all have the same perimeter only if they’re congruent triangles. Also, if they all have the same area, then they’re congruent triangles.

Buckminster Fuller proposed establishing a floating tetrahedron in San Francisco Bay called Triton City (below). It would have been assembled from modules, starting with a floating “neighborhood” of 5,000 residents, with an elementary school, a supermarket and a few specialty shops. Three to six neighborhoods would form a town, and three to seven towns would form a city. At each stage the corresponding infrastructure would be added: schools, civic facilities, government offices, and industry. A full-sized city might accommodate 100,000 people in a single building. He envisioned an even larger tetrahedron, with a million citizens, for Tokyo Bay.

The moral of Fuller’s 1975 book Synergetics was “Dare to be naïve.”

Fuller Triton City

Podcast Episode 63: The Rainmaker

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In 1915 San Diego hired “rainmaker” Charles Hatfield to relieve a four-year drought. After he set to work with his 23 secret chemicals, the skies opened and torrential rains caused some of the most extreme flooding in the city’s history. In this week’s podcast we’ll discuss the effects of “Hatfield’s flood” and ponder how to assign the credit or blame.

We’ll also puzzle over why a flagrant housebreaker doesn’t get prosecuted.

Sources for our feature on “moisture accelerator” Charles Hatfield:

Garry Jenkins, The Wizard of Sun City, 2005.

Cynthia Barnett, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, 2015.

“Hatfield Made the Sky Fall (and Fall),” Kingman [Ariz.] Daily Miner, Nov. 14, 1978.

“Hatfield Again Gambling Upon Making of Rain,” Berkeley [Calif.] Daily Gazette, Jan. 29, 1926.

“Rainmaker Wins Bet With Farmers,” Ellensburg [Wash.] Daily Record, July 28, 1921.

“With the Rainmaker,” Dawson [Yukon] Daily News, July 4, 1905.

“Rainstorms at $50 Each,” St. John [New Brunswick] Daily Sun, March 8, 1904.

This week’s first lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Hanno Zulla, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

The second puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Color Scheme

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/434247

Amateur magician Oscar Weigle invented this surprising effect in 1949. Assemble a deck of 20 playing cards, 10 red and 10 black, in strictly alternating colors. Hold this deck under a table. Now turn over the top two cards as one, place them on top, and cut the deck. Repeat this procedure as many times as you like — turn two, cut, turn two, cut. When you’ve finished, the deck will contain an unknown number of reversed cards, distributed randomly.

Now, still holding the deck under the table, shift the top card to the bottom, then turn over the next card and place it on the table. Do this repeatedly — shift a card to the bottom, then reverse the next card and put it on the table — continuing until you’ve put 10 cards on the table. Surprisingly, these cards are sorted by color — the face-up cards are of one color, and the face-down ones are of the other.

You’re still holding 10 cards under the table. Divide these into two stacks and weave them together under the table randomly. Do this as many times as you like — divide the 10 cards into two groups and merge them together however you like, so long as no card is turned upside down. Turn over the packet and shuffle it in the same way a few more times. Give it a final cut if you like.

Now deal these cards out as before: Shift the top card to the bottom, reverse the next card and put it on the table. Like the first group, this one will sort itself by color, with one color face up and the other face down.

Creative Housing

In 2003, student Steven Stanzak found that he couldn’t afford to pay for room and board at New York University, so he took up residence in a subbasement of the school’s Bobst Library. He kept his belongings in storage lockers, showered at the gym, and did his homework at a local McDonald’s.

He managed to live this way for eight months. In April 2004, as the NYU student paper was preparing a story on him, the university’s dean asked to see him. Stanzak feared the worst, but the dean told him his initiative was remarkable and gave him a free room in one of the residence halls. “I wasn’t afraid of being thrown out of the library,” Stanzak told the New York Times. “I could have slept in the park. My worst fear was getting kicked out of N.Y.U. I love this school.”

In 2012 entrepreneur Eric Simons lived for two months at AOL headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., sleeping on couches, eating company food, and exercising in the company gym. He’d received a badge in order to participate in an earlier program and found that the badge kept working when the program disbanded.

“There were so many people going in and out each day,” he told CNET. “They’d say, ‘Oh, he just works here, he’s working late every night. Wow, what a hard worker.'”

A security guard finally caught him. He was thrown out, but no charges were filed. AOL vice president David Temkin said, “It was always our intention to facilitate entrepreneurialism in the Palo Alto office — we just didn’t expect it to work so well.”

Podcast Episode 61: The Strange Custom of Garden Hermits

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In 18th-century England, wealthy landowners would sometimes hire people to live as hermits in secluded corners of their estates. In today’s show we’ll explore this odd custom and review the job requirements for life as a poetic recluse.

We’ll also meet a German novelist who popularized an American West he had never seen and puzzle over some very generous bank robbers.

Sources for our feature on ornamental hermits:

Gordon Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden, 2013.

Alice Gregory, “Garden Hermit Needed. Apply Within,” Boston Globe, May 19, 2013.

Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things, 1857.

Edith Sitwell, The English Eccentrics, 1933.

John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1875.

Allison Meier, “Before the Garden Gnome, The Ornamental Hermit: A Real Person Paid to Dress Like a Druid,” Atlas Obscura, March 18, 2014 (accessed June 9, 2015).

Graeme Wood’s article “The Lost Man,” describing the latest efforts to identify the Somerton Man, appeared in the California Sunday Magazine on June 7, 2015. The case concerns an unidentified corpse discovered on a South Australian beach in December 1948; for the full story see our Episode 25.

University of Adelaide physicist Derek Abbott’s Indiegogo campaign to identify the man runs through June 28. There’s also a petition to urge the attorney general of South Australia to exhume the body so that autosomal DNA can be extracted.

Sources for Sharon’s discussion of German author Karl May’s fictional Apache chief Winnetou:

Michael Kimmelman, “Fetishizing Native Americans: In Germany, Wild for Winnetou,” Spiegel Online, Sept. 13, 2007 (accessed June 11, 2015).

Rivka Galchen, “Wild West Germany: Why Do Cowboys and Indians So Captivate the Country?”, New Yorker, April 9, 2012 (accessed June 11, 2015).

winnetou headline

Winnetou is so popular in Germany that the death this month of French actor Pierre Brice, who played him in the movies, was front-page news. (Thanks, Hanno.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Please take a five-minute survey to help us find advertisers to support the show.

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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Overtime

At Labuan, a British possession in North Borneo, there are only two English officials, Governor Leys and Lieut. Hamilton. The latter gentleman combines in himself the offices of colonial secretary, postmaster, treasurer, magistrate, inspector of police, inspector of the prison, chief commissioner of woods, colonial engineer, and master attendant. In these various capacities he corresponds from himself to himself in the most stately official style, and carefully copies and registers his numerous despatches.

Poverty Bay Herald, Feb. 24, 1888

Public Enemy

In his 1880 autobiography, Henry Armitt Brown recalls a strange incident from his student days. While a law student in November 1865, he had gone to bed one midnight and dreamed that he was lying on the cobblestones of a narrow street, held down by a “low-browed, thick-set man” who was bent on killing him. He threw the man off and bit at his throat, but the man smiled and brought out a bright hatchet. Brown’s friends leaped to his aid, but as they did so “I saw the hatchet flash above my head and felt instantly a dull blow on the forehead.” He tasted blood and seemed to hover in the air over his own body, where he could see “the hatchet sticking in the head, and the ghastliness of death gradually spreading over the face.”

The following morning, as they walked to school, a friend of his remarked that he’d had a strange dream that night. “I fell asleep about twelve and immediately dreamed that I was passing through a narrow street, when I heard noises and cries of murder. Hurrying in the direction of the noise, I saw you lying on your back fighting with a rough laboring man, who held you down. I rushed forward, but as I reached you he struck you on the head with a hatchet, and killed you instantly.” At Brown’s inquiry he described the murderer as “a thick-set man, in a flannel shirt and rough trousers: his hair was uncombed, and his beard was grizzly and of a few days’ growth.”

A week later Brown called at a friend’s house in New Jersey:

‘My husband,’ said his wife to me, ‘had such a horrid dream about you the other night. He dreamed that a man killed you in a street fight. He ran to help you, but before he reached the spot your enemy had killed you with a great club.’

‘Oh, no,’ cried the husband across the room; ‘he killed you with a hatchet.’

“I remembered the remark of old Artaphernes,” Brown wrote, “that dreams are often the result of a train of thought started by conversation or reading, or the incidents of the working time, but I could recall nothing, nor could either of my friends cite any circumstance ‘that ever they had read, had ever heard by tale or history,’ in which they could trace the origin of this remarkable dream.”

The Death Mask Stamps

In 1903 Serbian king Alexander I and his queen were murdered in their palace. Alexander’s successor, Peter Karageorgevich, rescinded postage stamps bearing the dead king’s portrait and marked his own coronation with this stamp, depicting twin profiles of himself and his ancestor Black George, a Serbian patriot:

karageorgevich stamp

If he’d hoped this would allay suspicion, he was mistaken. In Through Savage Europe (1907), writer Harry De Windt notes that when the stamp is turned upside down, “the gashed and ghastly features of the murdered King stand out with unmistakable clearness”:

karageorgevich stamp - inverted

That’s a bit overstated. Here’s Alexander’s original stamp and the purported “death mask” — gaze at it blankly and Alexander’s features will emerge from the noses, brows, and chins:

alexander and the "death mask"

“Needless to state, the issue was at once prohibited.”

Podcast Episode 60: The Day They Hanged an Elephant


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In 1916 an American circus elephant named Mary was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 onlookers. In this week’s podcast we’ll review the sad series of events that led Mary to a Tennessee railroad crane.

We’ll also get an update on a very inventive bank robbery and puzzle over the escalators in London’s Tube stations.

Our feature on Mary, the circus elephant who was hanged in Tennessee in 1916, was based chiefly on Charles Edwin Price’s 1992 book The Day They Hung the Elephant.

Our first lateral thinking puzzle this week was contributed by listener Paul Sophocleous. The second is from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

Here are two links with more information about the bank robbery described in Episode 58’s puzzle. (Warning — these will spoil the puzzle!)

Enter coupon code CLOSET at Harry’s to get $5 off a special Father’s Day razor set.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

A Disturbing Dinner

When British traveler Richard Gordon Smith reached Japan’s Lake Biwa in 1906, he asked a local cook whether he could prepare the rare dish koi-no-ikizukuri (“a carp cut up alive”), which had been offered at nobles’ feasts in ancient times. The cook, delighted, brought in a red lacquered tray decorated to resemble the sea bottom. On it lay a carp that opened and shut its mouth and gills as if it were swimming in water. “The dish was really pretty in spite of the gasping fish which, however, showed no pain, and there was not a sign of blood or a cut.” But “Now we are ready,” said the cook, and he dribbled some soy sauce into the fish’s eye:

The effect was not instantaneous: it took a full two minutes as the cook sat over him, chopsticks in hand. All of a sudden and to my unutterable astonishment, the fish gave a convulsive gasp, flicked its tail and flung the whole of its skin on one side of its body over, exposing the underneath of the stomach parts, skinned; the back was cut into pieces about an inch square and a quarter of an inch thick, ready for pulling out and eating.

“Never in my life have I seen a more barbarous or cruel thing,” Smith wrote, “not even the scenes at Spanish bull fights. Egawa [his interpreter] is a delicate-stomached person and as he could eat none, neither could I. It would be simply like taking bites out of a large live fish. I took the knife from my belt and immediately separated the fish’s neck vertebrae, much to the cook’s astonishment and perhaps disgust.” He asked them to take it away. “You have certainly operated beautifully,” he said, “but the sooner a law is brought in to prevent such cruelty the better.”

(From Travels in the Land of the Gods: The Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith, 1986.)

Podcast Episode 59: The Wizard of Mauritius

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In 1764 a French engineer on a tiny African island claimed that he could see ships beyond the horizon. In today’s show we’ll review the strange story of Étienne Bottineau and consider the evidence for his claims to have invented a new art.

We’ll also ponder a 400-year-old levitation trick and puzzle over why throwing a beer can at someone might merit a promotion.

Sources for our feature on nauscopie, the purported art of apprehending ships below the horizon:

Rupert T. Gould, Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts, 1928.

Sir David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1832.

J. Gregory Dill, “The Lost Art of Nauscopie,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003 (retrieved May 17, 2015).

Mike Dash, “Naval Gazing: The Enigma of Étienne Bottineau,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 13, 2011 (retrieved May 17, 2015).

Chicago Tribune, “The Science of Nauscopie,” Nov. 7, 1869.

Greg’s post on Samuel Pepy’s “lifting experiment” appeared on Futility Closet on March 22, 2008. Further sources for that segment:

Sir David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1832.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 31, 1665.

Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things Selected from “Notes and Queries,” 1857.

Notes & Queries, July 3, 1852 (the original query).

Notes & Queries, July 24, 1852 (Brewster offers his impressions).

“Non-Wist,” “Phenomenon of Levity in the Human Subject,” The Zoist, January 1852.

Two YouTube videos illustrate the modern technique: one, two

The YouTube discussion mentioned in this week’s lateral thinking puzzle is here (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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Asleep Awake

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D_Hervey_de_Saint_Denys.jpg

At age 13 Marie-Jean-Léon Lecoq, Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, discovered a rare talent: He could recognize a dream state while he was experiencing it, and could move and act lucidly within the dream. Eventually he filled 25 notebooks with descriptions and illustrations of his adventures in the dream world. These are now lost, but his 1867 book Les Rêves et les Moyens de Les Diriger describes some of his feats:

I change a porcelain vase into a rock-crystal fountain, from which I desire a cooling drink — and this immediately flows out through a golden tap. Some years ago I lost a particular ring whose loss I felt deeply. The memory of it comes to mind, and I should like to find it. I utter this wish, fixing my attention on a piece of coal that I pick up from the fireplace — and immediately the ring is on my finger. The dream continues in the same way until one of the apparitions I have called up charms and captivates me so much that I forget my magician’s role and plunge into a new, more realistic series of illusions.

Saint-Denys believed that almost anyone could learn to do this. One of his suggestions was to keep a dream diary and to make a daily habit of completing it. Like the rest of the student’s life, this habit would then itself become the raw material for his dreams — eventually he would dream of recording a dream. And if he noted the details of a dream he was recording, he would virtually be dreaming lucidly, having smuggled himself into his own slumbers.

True Colors

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Denmark.svg

In the early 1900s, Prussian authorities forbade Danes living in North Frisia from raising the Danish flag, above.

So they bred flag-colored pigs, below. The “Danish protest pig” was probably developed by crossbreeding Jutlandian and Holsteinian marsh pigs, red individuals from the Angeln Saddleback breed, and Tamworth pigs from England. Only around 140 individuals exist worldwide, but Schleswig-Holstein is trying to preserve the breed for its cultural value.

A 17th-Century Hiccup Cure

In his 1607 Rich Storehouse, or Treasurie for the Diseased, Matthew Blower offers “a present medicine for the hickop”:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine ears very hard, and the hickop will surcease immediately.

I found this in Julian Walker’s How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies (2013), a collection of historical cures for various maladies. He says, “I tried it, and it worked.”

Second Thoughts

We’re told that we can’t change the past, but what about the case of retroactive pronouncements? On July 23, 2000, Lance Armstrong was declared the winner of the Tour de France — he completed the race with the lowest overall time, and his win was certified by the Union du Cyclisme Internationale. If on Christmas Day 2002 a friend of ours said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we would feel that this statement was true.

On Oct. 22, 2012, after determining that Armstrong had used banned substances, the UCI withdrew all of his wins at the Tour de France. If on Christmas Day 2012 our friend said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we’d feel that this statement was false.

“This means that, in moving from Context A to Context B, the past (of the actual world) has changed,” write Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete in the January issue of Analysis. “The year 2000 had a certain property on Christmas 2002, but did not have that property on Christmas 2012 any longer.”

“One should then stop asking whether the past can change and start to inquire on how to make sense of this. We leave this task to a future paper — unless the future changes.”

(Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete, “The Puzzle of the Changing Past,” Analysis, January 2015.)