Oddities

Podcast Episode 63: The Rainmaker

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1200003

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

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

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


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

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

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coucher_de_Soleil_(Flic_en_Flac,_Ile_Maurice).jpg

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).

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!

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.)

The Seventh Art Cinema

http://www.kaupokikkas.com/blog/2014/3/7/end-of-the-world-cinema

In the late 1990s, Frenchman Diynn Eadel set out to build an immense open-air movie theater in the desert near Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. He arranged financing in Paris and installed projection equipment, 700 cinema seats, and a generator in the desert.

Unfortunately, the theater was shut down by Egyptian authorities before its planned opening in October 1997. The reasons aren’t clear. It was largely forgotten until Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas rediscovered it in 2014.

“Dynn Eadel with Seventh Art attempts to prove that tourism is not necessarily a destructive element and that The Great Theatre of Nature can reconcile us with the elements,” reads an old flyer for the project. “When will be the first Sinai International Film Festival?”

No Vacancy

A seeming paradox by Mitsunobu Matsuyama. Rotating the colored panels about their centers seems to change the area of the square. How is this possible?

Two in One

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hybrid_image_decomposition.jpg

Look at this image closely and you’ll see the features of Albert Einstein.

But look at it from across a room and you’ll see Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a “hybrid image,” created using a technique developed by Aude Oliva of MIT and Philippe Schyns of the University of Glasgow. The image combines the low spatial frequencies of one picture with the high spatial frequencies of another, so that it’s processed differently at different viewing distances.

See their paper for the details, and this gallery for more examples.

Podcast Episode 55: The Dyatlov Pass Incident

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dyatlov_Pass_incident_02.jpg

On February 1, 1959, something terrifying overtook nine student ski-hikers in the northern Ural Mountains. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount what is known about the incident at Dyatlov Pass and try to make sense of the hikers’ harrowing final night.

We’ll also hear how Dwight Eisenhower might have delivered the Gettysburg Address and puzzle over why signing her name might entitle a woman to a lavish new home.

Sources for our feature on the Dyatlov Pass incident:

Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2013.

“Yuri Yudin,” Daily Telegraph, April 30, 2013, 25.

http://www.ermaktravel.org/Europe/Russia/Cholat-%20Syachil/Kholat%20Syakhl.htm

Here’s the investigators’ description of the hikers’ tent as it was discovered:

“Tent site is located on the Northeastern slope of mountain 1079 (Kholat Syakhl official term) meters at the mouth of river Auspiya. Tent site is located 300 meters from the top of the mountain 1079 with a slope of 30°. Test site consists of a pad, levelled by snow, the bottom of which are contains 8 pairs of skis (for tent support and insulation). Tent is stretched on poles and fixed with ropes. On the bottom of the tent 9 backpacks were discovered with various personal items, jackets, rain coats, 9 pairs of shoes. There were also found men’s pants, and three pairs of boots, warm fur coats, socks, hat, ski caps, utensils, buckets, stove, ax, saw, blankets, food: biscuits in two bags, condensed milk, sugar, concentrates, notebooks, itinerary and many other small items and documents, camera and accessories to a camera. The nature and form of all (…) lesions suggest that they were formed by contact with the canvas inside of the tent with the blade of some weapon (presumably a knife).”

http://www.ermaktravel.org/Europe/Russia/Cholat-%20Syachil/Kholat%20Syakhl.htm

This is the final exposure in hiker Yuri Krivonishchenko’s camera. Possibly the image was exposed on the final night, or possibly weeks afterward, inadvertently, by technicians. Lead investigator Lev Ivanov wrote that the hikers’ cameras gave him “abundant information based on negative density, film speed … and aperture and exposure settings,” but that they did not “answer the main question — what was the reason of escape from the tent.”

Here’s journalist Oliver Jensen’s rendering of the Gettysburg Address in “Eisenhowese.” Jensen provided his original to Dwight Macdonald for his 1961 collection Parodies: An Anthology. “The version below is the original as given me by Jensen, with two or three variations in which The New Republic‘s version [of June 17, 1957] seemed to me to have added a turn of the screw”:

I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual. Well, now, of course, we are dealing with this big difference of opinion, civil disturbance you might say, although I don’t like to appear to take sides or name any individuals, and the point is naturally to check up, by actual experience in the field, to see whether any governmental set-up with a basis like the one I was mentioning has any validity and find out whether that dedication by those early individuals will pay off in lasting values and things of that kind.

Well, here we are, at the scene where one of these disturbances between different sides got going. We want to pay our tribute to those loved ones, those departed individuals who made the supreme sacrifice here on the basis of their opinions about how this thing ought to be handled. And I would say this. It is absolutely in order to do this.

But if you look at the over-all picture of this, we can’t pay any tribute — we can’t sanctify this area, you might say — we can’t hallow according to whatever individual creeds or faiths or sort of religious outlooks are involved like I said about this particular area. It was those individuals themselves, including the enlisted men, very brave individuals, who have given this religious character to the area. The way I see it, the rest of the world will not remember any statements issued here but it will never forget how these men put their shoulders to the wheel and carried this idea down the fairway.

Now frankly, our job, the living individuals’ job here, is to pick up the burden and sink the putt they made these big efforts here for. It is our job to get on with the assignment — and from these deceased fine individuals to take extra inspiration, you could call it, for the same theories about the set-up for which they made such a big contribution. We have to make up our minds right here and now, as I see it, that they didn’t put out all that blood, perspiration and — well — that they didn’t just make a dry run here, and that all of us here, under God, that is, the God of our choice, shall beef up this idea about freedom and liberty and those kind of arrangements, and that government of all individuals, by all individuals and for the individuals, shall not pass out of the world-picture.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Tyler St. Clare (conceived by his friend Matt Moore).

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 53: The Lost Colony

https://books.google.com/books?id=eu1neCSs4RsC&pg=PA254

It’s been called America’s oldest mystery: A group of 100 English colonists vanished from North Carolina’s Roanoke Island shortly after settling there in 1587. But was their disappearance really so mysterious? In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the history of the “lost colony” and consider what might have happened to the settlers.

We’ll also visit an early steam locomotive in 1830 and puzzle over why writing a letter might prove to be fatal.

Sources for our feature on the lost colony at Roanoke:

James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2011.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 2007.

Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America, 2011.

Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, 2013.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_passenger_railway_1830.jpg

Fanny Kemble wrote of her encounter with an early locomotive in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1830 (“A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies”). It appears in her 1878 memoir Records of a Girlhood.

She sat alongside engineer George Stephenson, who explained his great project and with whom she fell “horribly in love.” At one point on their 15-mile journey they passed through a rocky defile:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw.

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

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 52: Moving Day in New York

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goethe_1791.jpg

For centuries, May 1 brought chaos to New York, as most tenants had to move on the same day, clogging the streets with harried people and all their belongings. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the colorful history of “Moving Day” and wonder how it lasted through two centuries.

We’ll also recount some surprising escapes from sinking ships and puzzle over a burglar’s ingenuity.

Sources for our feature on Moving Day, New York City’s historic custom of changing residence on May 1:

Kenneth A. Scherzer, The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1875, 1992.

Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850, 1991.

William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs … Illustrated, 1897.

“Expressmen and Cartmen’s Charges — The Laws Relative Thereto,” New York Times, April 14, 1870.

“Rich Are Homeless This Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 1, 1919.

“Rain Adds to Gloom of City Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1919.

“May 1 Moving Rush a Thing of the Past,” New York Times, May 2, 1922.

In 1890 the New York Times published a list of the maximum prices that city ordinances permitted cartmen to charge:

http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/library/alumni/online_exhibits/digital/2007/moving_day/images/015_lg.gif

Sources for our feature on oddities in maritime disasters:

“Andrea Doria Tragedy Recalled by the Survivors,” Associated Press, July 24, 1981.

“A Remarkable Maritime Disaster,” Scientific American, Nov. 24, 1888.

“A Remarkable Collision,” New Zealand Herald, July 26, 1884.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ken Murphy.

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Boom Town

https://books.google.com/books?id=A7pZAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA3

In the summer of 1903, the United States Cartridge Company of Tewksbury, Mass., noticed a stain on the floor of its gunpowder magazine. Apparently the dynamite magazine next door had been leaking nitroglycerine. The company asked the dynamite’s owner, American Powder Mills, to attend to the matter, and on July 29 Cartridge’s powder was loaded onto three wagons and moved a few hundred feet away, and an unlucky foreman named Goodwin entered the building, poured a solution on the stain, and began to sweep it with a broom. The spot began to smoke.

The ensuing blast killed 20 people and flattened a score of houses. “Buildings were shaken and windows broken in hundreds of places within a radius of fifteen miles,” reported New England Magazine. “People as far away as Dedham on the south and the mid-New Hampshire towns on the north, felt the shock and guessed at reckless blasts or earthquakes.”

It appears that the fire had caused the dynamite magazine to explode, which set off the three wagons of gunpowder, which set off a third magazine, leased by the Dupont Powder Company. “The ruin caused by the accident was appalling in its perfection,” notes the report. “Three acres of ground were entirely laid waste, the trees and bushes in a considerable radius being torn and blasted as by a breath from a huge furnace.”

The magazines had been built 30 years earlier, when the area had been remote, and the town had grown up around them. “The only safe assumption is that sooner or later every magazine is bound to explode, and must therefore be kept a safe distance from dwelling houses and other buildings.”

(Thanks, Meredith.)

Podcast Episode 51: Poet Doppelgängers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goethe_1791.jpg

In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers — at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere. We’ll also share our readers’ research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport.

Sources for our feature on poet doppelgängers:

John Oxenford, trans., The Autobiography of Wolfgang von Goethe, 1969.

G. Wilson Knight, Byron and Shakespeare, 2002.

Julian Marshall, The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1889.

Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen, 2013.

W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947.

The stories are recounted in the corresponding posts on Futility Closet: Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Owen, Powys.

Listener mail:

Little House of Cats has a photo of Cervino, the (purported) Matterhorn-scaling kitty cat of 1950.

The Daily Mail has photos of Millie, Utah mountaineer Craig Armstrong’s rock-climbing cat. More at Back Country.

Further data on cat rambles:

BBC News, “Secret Life of the Cat: What Do Our Feline Companions Get Up To?”, June 12, 2013 (accessed March 26, 2015).

National Geographic, “Watch: How Far Do Your Cats Roam?”, Aug. 8, 2014 (accessed March 26, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles are from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness 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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Duty Calls

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

In May 1905 British MP Sir Gilbert Parker insisted that he had seen the astral body of Sir Crane Rasch in the House of Commons while Rasch was ill at home.

Sir Arthur Hayter supported him: “I beg to say that I not only saw Sir Carne Rasch myself sitting below the gangway but I called him to the attention of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, with whom I was talking on the front opposition bench, saying I wondered why all the papers had inserted notices of Sir Carne’s illness while he was sitting opposite, apparently quite well. Sir Henry replied that he hoped his illness was not catching.”

Rasch declared later that he had never left his room.

“It seems that this is not the first instance of the sort that has occurred in the House,” noted the New York Sun. “In 1897 Mr. O’Connor, an Irish member, went to Ireland to be present at the deathbed of one of his parents. Swift McNeill saw his wraith in his usual seat on the third opposition bench. It was also seen from the press gallery.”

Animal Spirits

Football fans found an unlikely oracle during the 2008 European championship: an octopus named Paul. Before each match his keepers at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, would lower two boxes of food into his tank, each bearing the flag of an upcoming competitor. Surprisingly, Paul correctly chose the winner in four of Germany’s six games.

When some observers expressed skepticism, Paul went on to pick the winners of all seven of Germany’s World Cup games in 2010, as well as the final between Spain and the Netherlands, giving him an overall success rate of 85 percent.

Competitors sprang up around the world, including a Singaporean parakeet, a German parrot, and a saltwater crocodile named Dirty Harry, who predicted the result of Australia’s general election by snatching a chicken carcass dangling beneath a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.

(Thanks, Lauren.)