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).

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

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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.