Big News

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The Soviet Union took propaganda to a ludicrous extreme in the 1930s with the Maksim Gorki, a multimedia communications empire in the sky. With a wingspan of 206 feet and a takeoff weight of 42 tons, it was the largest land aircraft ever built at the time, requiring eight huge 900-horsepower engines to get aloft.

Aboard were a complete printing plant, capable of printing 10,000 copies per hour of an illustrated 12″ x 16″ newspaper, a photographic darkroom, and a high-speed radio apparatus and telegraph. On the ground, a projection room could cast movies onto a folding screen for up to 10,000 spectators through a window in the fuselage.

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“The aircraft also contained a cafe, its own internal telephone exchange, and sleeping quarters and toilets,” notes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft. “Four auxiliary engines were required to generate the power to run the huge loudspeakers that broadcast the Soviet message down upon the astonished peasants over which the aircraft flew, and at night to power a system of lights along the underside flashing slogans.” Whether anyone wanted to hear all this is another question.

Extremities

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In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.

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Likewise, in Johann Tischbein’s 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.

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And what has happened to Thomas Jefferson’s left foot on the back of the $2 bill? “Unless Jefferson can bend his leg in the wrong direction at the knee, it is hard to see how this foot can be attached to his leg,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “If it’s someone else’s foot, he is standing in a more incredible position yet.”

The $2 bill engraving is based on John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, below. But “The perspective is easier to judge in that painting, and the foot in question (definitely Jefferson’s) does not look so strange as on the bill.”

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Podcast Episode 119: Lost in the Taiga

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In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”

We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

Intro:

The London Review and Literary Journal of August 1796 records a cricket match “by eleven Greenwich Pensioners with one leg against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new Cricket ground, Montpelier Gardens, Walworth.”

The British Veterinary Journal of March 1888 reports that a Manchester horse fitted with eyeglasses “now stands all the morning looking over the half-door of his stable with his spectacles on, gazing around him with an air of sedate enjoyment.”

Sources for our feature on the Lykov family:

Vasily Peskov, Lost in the Taiga, 1994.

Mike Dash, “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II,” Smithsonian, Jan. 28, 2013.

Russia Today, “From Taiga to Kremlin: A Hermit’s Gifts for Medvedev,” Feb. 24, 2010.

Alexis Sostre, “Siberia: Woman Who Lived Her Entire Life in Wilderness Airlifted to Hospital,” Sostre News, Jan. 16, 2016.

Listener mail:

The original article on the 1938 San Cristobál prison break, by Jose Antonio del Barrio, in Esperanto.

An article (in Spanish) about the escape on del Barrio’s blog.

A description (in Spanish) of conditions in San Cristobál, by one of the successful escapees.

A description (in Spanish) of the escape plot, from research carried out by Fermín Ezkieta.

A documentary film (in Spanish) about the escape.

A study (in Esperanto) on the role of Esperanto in the working-class culture in Spain.

Del Barrio’s presentation (in Esperanto) on the use of Esperanto by socialists in the Basque region.

A presentation (in Esperanto) by Ulrich Lins and del Barrio on the use of Esperanto during the Spanish Civil War. Lins is the German author of “La Dangera Lingvo,” on the persecutions suffered by esperantists.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon, who collected these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and 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 on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Four-for-All

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an odd bit of African geography: The finger of land in the upper left is Namibia, the region at the top is Zambia, Zimbabwe is at bottom right, and Botswana is at bottom left. Is the border between Zambia and Botswana long enough to permit a bridge to be built between the two? Or do the two peninsulas intrude far enough to make this impossible?

The answer isn’t clear. In 1970 Namibia had insisted that the four nations meet at a single point, meaning that the Kazungula Ferry linking Botswana and Zambia was illegal, as the border between them had no breadth. After an armed confrontation the ferry was sunk. Thirty-five years later Botswana and Zambia proposed building a bridge where the ferry had run. Is that geometrically permissible? The shaky consensus is that the two nations share a brief boundary of 150 meters between two “tripoints.” But the truth is as murky as the Zambezi itself.

(See Point of Interest. Thanks, Steve.)

The Oddfather

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Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005, feigned mental illness for 30 years in order to throw law enforcement authorities off his trail. Beginning in the 1960s he could regularly be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers, mumbling to himself, and quietly playing pinochle at a local club. His lawyers and relatives insisted he had become mentally disabled, with an IQ of 69 to 72.

But informants told the FBI that during this time he was really leading the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation and a dominant force in the New York mob.

At arraignments he appeared in pajamas, and psychiatrists testified that he had been confined 28 times for hallucinations and “dementia rooted in organic brain damage.” “He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen,” former FBI supervisor John S. Pritchard told the New York Times. Mob rival John Gotti called him “crazy like a fox.”

It wasn’t until April 2003, in exchange for a plea deal, that he acknowledged that the whole thing had been a con to delay his racketeering trial. His lawyer said, “I think you get to a point in life — I think everyone does — where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight.” He died in prison in 2005.

Podcast Episode 118: The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy

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In 1976 a television crew discovered a mummified corpse in a California funhouse. Unbelievably, an investigation revealed that it belonged to an Oklahoma outlaw who had been shot by sheriff’s deputies in 1911 and whose remains had been traveling the country ever since. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, “the bandit who wouldn’t give up.”

We’ll also reflect on a Dutch artist’s disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious hospital deaths.

Intro:

In 1922, mechanical engineer Elis Stenman built a summer home with walls of varnished newspaper.

Winston Churchill’s country home Chartwell must always maintain a marmalade cat named Jock.

Sources for our feature on Elmer McCurdy:

Mark Svenvold, Elmer McCurdy, 2002.

Robert Barr Smith, “After Elmer McCurdy’s Days as a Badman, He — or at Least His Corpse — Had a Fine Second Career,” Wild West 12:1 (June 1999), 24-26.

United Press International, “Amusement Park Mummy Was Elmer McCurdy, a Wild West Desperado,” Dec. 10, 1976.

Associated Press, “Died With His Boots On,” Dec. 11, 1976.

Associated Press, “Wax Figure Maybe No Dummy, May Be Old Outlaw’s Mummy,” Dec. 12, 1976.

Associated Press, “Elmer McCurdy Goes Home to Boot Hill,” April 23, 1977.

Listener mail:

Alexander Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere, 2013.

Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous, 2006.

Brad Spence, “The Case of Bas Jan Ader,” www.basjanader.com (accessed 08/18/2016) (PDF).

Rachel Kent, “Pun to Paradox: Bas Jan Ader Revisited,” Parkett 75 (2005), 177-181.

Wikipedia, “Bas Jan Ader” (accessed 08/18/2016).

Richard Dorment, “The Artist Who Sailed to Oblivion,” Telegraph, May 9, 2006.

(We had referred to a collection of Ader’s silent films on YouTube. Unfortunately, this has been pulled by Ader’s estate.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and 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 on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

The Paulding Light

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, a group of teenagers in the town of Paulding, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reported seeing a ghostly light in a valley nearby. Locals claimed that the light, which appears every night when viewed from a precise location, was the lantern of a ghostly railroad brakeman who had been killed trying to warn an oncoming train of railway cars stopped on the track.

A more prosaic explanation is that the specter is produced by the headlights of cars traveling on US 45, about 5 miles away. In 2010, a group of student engineers from Michigan Tech studied the light with a telescope and distinguished individual vehicles and even an Adopt a Highway sign. They were able to produce the effect themselves by driving a car along the suspected stretch of highway. It’s thought that an inversion layer may create a volume of unusually stable air that accounts for the lights’ visibility at such a distance.

That didn’t end the ghost theory, though. “We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light,” Ph.D. candidate Jeremy Bos told Michigan Tech News in 2010. “I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it.”

“No matter what, some people will believe what they want to believe.”

Going Nowhere

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A thousand miles off the coast of West Africa, where the equator crosses the prime meridian, lies a nonexistent point of land known as Null Island. It was invented by GIS analysts to help trap errors: When software converts misspelled street names, bad building numbers, and other faulty data into coordinates of latitude and longitude, the result is often 0°N 0°E — which led cartographers to joke that there’s a 1-square-meter island in the Gulf of Guinea where all these lost features reside. (In fact what’s there is a weather observation buoy, above, which must wonder what all the fuss is about.)

Related: Conceptual artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin considered a map on which the areas that we normally call Arizona, New Hampshire, Tennessee, etc., are instead labeled “Not Arizona,” “Not New Hampshire,” and “Not Tennessee.” This would have to be regarded as simply false, or at least as inviting new names for these places.

“Yet such a scheme would be correct if, for example, the delineated area normally named Arizona was labelled ‘Not New York’ and so on throughout the whole map synopsis. Only this time the map would be a map to indicate what was not where rather than the conventional what is where. Where there is no road in a certain place we do not conventionally indicate this fact upon the relevant map by labelling it ‘There is no road at this point.'”

(From Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, 1998.)

Recycling

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Raphaelite painters found an unusual source for one of their pigments: They ground up Egyptian mummies. In the words of one enthusiast, “A charming pigment is obtained by this means, uniting a peculiar greyness (due to the corpse and its bandages) with the rich brown of the pitch or bitumen, in a manner which it is very hard indeed to imitate. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness.”

Artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked at learning that this was the source of his umber paint that he staged a poignant little ceremony. “He left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then,” recalled his wife Georgiana. “So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”

The production of “mummy brown” ceased in the 20th century — only because the supply of mummies was exhausted.

Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor

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Image: Flickr

In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.

Intro:

A 1962 writer to the London Times contends that all thrushes “sooner or later sing the tune of the first subject of Mozart’s G minor Symphony.”

The U.S. Senate maintains a tradition of hiding candy in a desk on the chamber floor.

Sources for our feature on the Yozgad escape:

E.H. Jones, The Road to En-dor, 1919.

Tony Craven Walker’s En-dor Unveiled (2014) (PDF) is a valuable source of background information, with descriptions of Harry Jones’ early life; the siege of Kut-el-Amara, where he was captured; his punishing trek across Syria; the prison camp; and his life after the war. It includes many letters and postcards, including some hinting at his efforts toward an escape.

S.P. MacKenzie, “The Ethics of Escape: British Officer POWs in the First World War,” War in History 15:1 (January 2008), 1-16.

“A Note for Spiritualists,” The Field, March 27, 1920, 457.

“Jones, Elias Henry,” Dictionary of Welsh Biography (accessed 07/30/2016).

“En-dor,” in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, 1919.

Listener mail:

Associated Press, “Japanese Submarine Attack in California Unnerved U.S.,” Feb. 23, 1992.

William Scheck, “Japanese Submarine Commander Kozo Nishino Gained Personal Satisfaction From Shelling the California Coast,” World War II 13:2 (July 1998), 16.

Wikipedia, “Bombardment of Ellwood” (accessed Aug. 12, 2016).

California Military Museum, “The Shelling of Ellwood” (accessed Aug. 12, 2016).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was adapted from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and 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 on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!