Half sleepless night again — an entirely disgusting dream, about men using flesh and bones, hands of children especially, for fuel — being out of wood and coals. I took a piece to put on someones fire, and found it the side of an animals face, with the jaw and teeth in it.
— John Ruskin, Brantwood Diary, Oct. 29, 1877
I had a dream last night. An amputated head had been stuck on to a man’s trunk, making him look like a drunken actor. The head began to talk. I was terrified and knocked over my folding screen in trying to push a Russian in front of me against the furious creature’s onslaught.
— August Strindberg, Inferno, 1897
The nightmares returned — one terrible one in February 1896 about a tramp, seen holding over a well ‘washing, but with a kind of amused tenderness, an object that I thought was a rabbit, but I presently saw that it was a small deformed hairy child, with a curious lower jaw, very shallow: over the face it had a kind of horny carapace … made of some material resembling pottery. I was disgusted at this but went on, and it grew dark: I heard behind me an odd sound, and turning round saw this horrible creature only a foot or two high, walking complacently after me, with its limbs involved in ugly and shapeless clothes, made, it seemed to me, of oakum, or some more distressing material. The horror of it exceeded all belief.’
— A.C. Benson, quoted in David Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise, 1980
In 1863 the residents of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, discovered a legless man on the shore of St. Mary’s Bay. He spoke no English and could not tell them who he was or where he had come from. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of “Jerome” and what is known or guessed of his past.
We’ll also learn about explosive rats in World War II and puzzle over a computer that works better when its users sit.
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.
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Sources for our feature on Jerome:
Fraser Mooney Jr., Jerome: Solving the Mystery of Nova Scotia’s Silent Castaway, 2008.
“The Mystery of the Man at Meteghan,” St. John Daily Sun, Sept. 8, 1905.
Harriet Hill, “Mystery Fascinates,” Montreal Gazette, June 14, 1963.
Andrea MacDonald, “Legless-Man Mystery Revealed,” Halifax Daily News, Aug. 30, 2006.
Brian Flemming, “Maritime Mysteries Still Enthrall,” Halifax Daily News, Sept. 5, 2006.
Noah Richler, “The Legless Castaway,” Literary Review of Canada, March 1, 2009.
Ian Cameron, “The Frozen Man of Queens County,” Canadian Family Physician, August 2009.
Wikipedia, “Explosive Rat” (accessed April 9, 2016).
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jed Link, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils the puzzle).
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!
In 1973 and 1974, the U.S. armed forces gave a food preference survey to about 4,000 members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
The examiners included three fake dishes “to provide an estimate of how much someone will respond to a word which sounds like a food name or will answer without reading.”
The three fake dishes were “funistrada,” “buttered ermal,” and “braised trake.” The Washington Post reported, “Out of the 378 foods listed, braised trake came in 362, buttered ermal was 356 and funistrada finished several foods above the bottom 40, coming in between brussels sprouts and fried okra.”
For the record, here are the nine lowest-ranked foods, from the bottom up — all nine are so bad that service members ranked them beneath foods that don’t exist at all:
Buttermilk, skimmed milk, fried parsnips, low-calorie soda, mashed rutabagas, french fried carrots, prune juice, stewed prunes, french fried cauliflower.
(“The Ranking of the Favorites,” Washington Post, July 1, 1987. The Army survey is here: PDF.)
In 1890, inspired by France’s new Eiffel Tower, railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin proposed building an even larger tower at Wembley as the centerpiece of a new amusement park there. He sponsored an architectural design competition that attracted 68 designs inspired by everything from the Tower of Pisa to the Great Pyramid of Giza. The winning design, number 37 (center), was to measure 366 meters tall, 45.8 meters taller than Eiffel’s tower. Foundations were laid in 1892, but funding troubles forced a redesign and in the end only the first stage was finished (below). The site was closed in 1902 and the aborted tower was dynamited five years later, but the surrounding park remained popular — it’s now the site of Wembley Stadium.
About 30 miles south of Washington D.C., on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, lies a curious collection of lozenge-shaped islands, the remains of a mighty fleet of wooden steamships built hurriedly during World War I and made obsolete by the end of the war. The unused ships became the center of a political scandal, “the grandest white elephant” ever built, and for decades the government and various salvage companies dithered over what to do with them. Eventually nature herself decided the question: The sunken hulls had consolidated and enriched the sediment in which they lay, creating a valuable new ecosystem. So the armada remains where it is, the largest collection of wrecked ships in the Western Hemisphere.
When I was 10 years old, a time machine appeared in my bedroom and my older self emerged and tried to kill me. He failed, of course, as his own existence must have shown him he would. But ever since I’ve wondered: This means that someday I myself must travel back to that bedroom and try to kill my younger self. And why would I ever do that?
This is not a logical or a metaphysical problem, but a psychological one. I can imagine being someday so depressed or ashamed or angry at myself that I’m motivated to travel back and try to erase my own existence. But I already know that the gun will jam. What earthly reason, then, could I have to go through the motions of a failed assassination? (Certainly we can imagine cases of amnesia, mistaken identity, etc., where such an action would make sense, but we’re interested in the basic straightforward case in which a time traveler interacts with his younger self — which surely would happen if time travel were possible.)
It seems that I must be motivated, somehow, in order for the appointment to take place, and yet the motivation seems to have no source. “In the present case, we have actions coming from nowhere, in the sense that no one decides, in the usual way, to perform them (or decides that they should be performed), and yet they are performed nonetheless,” writes University of Sydney philosopher Nicholas J.J. Smith. “The psychology of self-interaction is essentially different from that of interaction with others — because the former, but not the latter, involves the problem of agents knowing what they will decide to do, before they decide to do it.”
(Nicholas J.J. Smith, “Why Would Time Travelers Try to Kill Their Younger Selves?”, The Monist 88:3 [July 2005], 388-395.)
The Galil machine gun includes a built-in bottle opener in the front handguard. Soldiers commonly damaged the lips of Uzi submachine gun magazines by using them to open bottles, so designer Yisrael Galili built a dedicated opener into his rifle.
In the 1880s the Prussian state railways built a line to carry coal and iron across the High Fens south of Aachen. The line wanders across the modern border between Germany and Belgium, but according to the Treaty of Versailles the trackbed itself is Belgian territory. This has the effect of creating six German exclaves — regions of Germany that are surrounded entirely by Belgium (Belgium proper to the west, and the technically Belgian railway trackbed to the east).
The smallest of these exclaves, a farm known as the Rückschlag, measures only 150 × 100 meters and has an estimated population of four people.
The Vennbahn track was used by tourist services until 2001 but is now disused and has begun to be dismantled. But the trackbed itself still belongs to Belgium, so the six exclaves remain.
Ordered to blockade Martinique in 1803, Commodore Sir Samuel Hood covered an island with guns and declared it a sloop-of-war. Perched 175 meters above the sea, the guns denied all entrance to Fort-de-France, the island’s main port, for 17 months.
The British Royal Navy still regards “HMS Diamond Rock” as being in commission — when passing the island, personnel on Royal Navy ships stand at attention and salute the rock.
Since that time, a naval establishment on land has been referred to as a “stone frigate.”
Can time exist without change? Aristotle thought not, and David Hume claimed that “’tis impossible to conceive … a time when there was no succession or change in any real existence.” But in 1969 Cornell philosopher Sydney Shoemaker offered a thought experiment that purports to show otherwise.
Consider a universe that consists of three regions, A, B, and C. Periodically a region might experience a “local freeze” in which all processes come to a halt. The inhabitants of a frozen region do not observe the passing of time but resume their awareness at the end of the freeze.
With experience, the inhabitants determine that each freeze lasts exactly one year and that the freezes occur at regular intervals: Region A freezes every third year, Region B every fourth year, and Region C every fifth year. This suggests that all three regions freeze every 60th year.
Shoemaker wrote, “If all of this happened, I submit, the inhabitants of this world would have grounds for believing that there are intervals during which no changes occur anywhere.” It’s true that none of the inhabitants would be able to verify this directly, but given the regularity they observe in the local freezes, the reality of the total freeze seems to be the simplest hypothesis.
Whatever we think of this argument, the example does run into one sticking point: It’s hard to see how a total freeze could end. If nothing in the universe is changing, it seems, then there can be no causes.
(Sydney Shoemaker, “Time Without Change,” Journal of Philosophy 66:12 [June 19, 1969], 363-381.)