Cultural Outreach

Scotland’s 1904 antarctic expedition made a unique contribution to science:

A number of emperor penguins, which were here very numerous, were captured. … To test the effect of music on them, Piper Kerr played to one on his pipes, — we had no Orpheus to warble sweetly on a lute, — but neither rousing marches, lively reels, nor melancholy laments seemed to have any effect on these lethargic phlegmatic birds; there was no excitement, no sign of appreciation or disapproval, only sleepy indifference.

— Rudmose Brown et al., The Voyage of the “Scotia,” 1906

(This has produced a memorable Wikipedia image caption.)


Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King took peculiar note of the relative position of clock hands. This began as early as 1918, when his diary shows that he began to notice moments when the hands overlapped (as at 12:00) or formed a straight line (as at 6:00). By the 1940s the diary sometimes refers to clock hands several times a day. On Aug. 25, 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt was visiting Ottawa, King wrote a whole “Memo re hands of clock”:

  • “Exactly 10 past 8 when I looked at clock on waking — straight line.”
  • “12 noon when noon day gun fired & I read my welcome to President — together.”
  • “25 to 8 when I was handed in my room a letter from Churchill re supply of whiskey to troops … — both together.”

A year later, Nov. 2, 1944: “As I look at the clock from where I am standing as I dictate this sentence, the hands are both together at 5 to 11.”

Biographer Robert Macgregor Dawson writes, “What significance he attached to the occurrences is difficult to determine; there is no key to his interpretation.” But one clue comes later in 1944, when King records a conversation with Violet Markham: “As I … went to take the watch out of my pocket, to show her how the face had been broken, I looked at it and the two hands were exactly at 10 to 10. I mentioned it to her as an illustration of my belief that some presence was making itself known to me. That I was on the right line, and that the thought was a true one which I was expressing.” But the two had been discussing the death of King’s dog, so the meaning is still very obscure.

(From C.P. Stacey, A Very Double Life, 1976.)


In March 1945 the Japanese painted the giant image of an American B-29 on the Tien Ho airfield in China. They gave it a burning engine and a 300-foot wingspan, so that when viewed from a great altitude it would look like a stricken bomber flying at several thousand feet. Their hope was that this would induce high-flying Allied planes to drop down to investigate, bringing them within range of their anti-aircraft guns. I don’t know whether it worked.

The Atlantic has a collection of similar deceptive exploits from World War II.

Podcast Episode 114: The Desperation of Donald Crowhurst

donald crowhurst

In 1968 British engineer Donald Crowhurst entered a round-the-world yacht race, hoping to use the prize money to save his failing electronics business. Woefully unprepared and falling behind, he resorted to falsifying a journey around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the desperate measures that Crowhurst turned to as events spiraled out of his control.

We’ll also get some updates on Japanese fire balloons and puzzle over a computer that turns on the radio.


The stones at Pennsylvania’s Ringing Rocks Park chime like bells when struck with a hammer.

Sand dunes that “sing” when walked upon are found at 35 sites around the world. In 1884 two scientists notated the sounds on a musical scale.

Sources for our feature on Donald Crowhurst:

Peter Nichols, A Voyage for Madmen, 2001.

Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, 1970.

Associated Press, “Briton Missing in Global Race,” July 10, 1969.

Associated Press, “Mystery Shrouds Lone Sailor’s Fate,” July 12, 1969.

Associated Press, “Search Ends for Voyager,” July 12, 1969.

Associated Press, “Lost Yacht Racer Sent Fake Reports,” July 25, 1969.

Associated Press, “Log Shows Yachtsman Never Left Atlantic in Race Round World,” July 28, 1969.

AAP-Reuters, “Lost Sailor ‘Stayed in Atlantic,'” July 28, 1969.

“Mutiny of the Mind,” Time 94:6 (Aug. 8, 1969), 59.

Ed Caesar, “Drama on the Waves: The Life and Death of Donald Crowhurst,” Independent, Oct. 27, 2006.

Robert McCrum, “Deep Water,” Guardian, April 4, 2009.

Alex Ritman, “First Look: Colin Firth Cast Adrift as Ill-Fated Amateur Sailor Donald Crowhurst in ‘The Mercy’,” Hollywood Reporter, June 17, 2016.

Listener mail:

Bob Greene, “The Japanese Who Bombed Oregon,” Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1988.

Nicholas D. Kristof, “Nobuo Fujita, 85, Is Dead; Only Foe to Bomb America,” New York Times, Oct. 3, 1997.

Ross Coen, Fu-Go, 2014.

James sent these additional links on Nobuo Fujita:

Tatiana Danger, “Visit the Samurai Sword of the WWII Japanese Pilot Who Bombed Oregon,” Roadtrippers, April 25, 2014.

Larry Bingham, “Oregon Coast Trail Dedicated for World War II Bombing,” Oregonian, Oct. 2, 2008.

Finn J.D. John, “The Flying Samurai Who Attacked Oregon,” Offbeat Oregon History, May 12, 2013.

Finn J.D. John, “A Town’s Special Friendship With Its Onetime Would-Be Destroyer,” Offbeat Oregon History, May 18, 2013.

William McCash, Bombs Over Brookings, 2005.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Doug Shaw.

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

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 Thanks for listening!

Comet Vintages

In “The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk,” Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes as being as pleased as “a connoisseur who has just taken his first sip of a comet vintage.”

That’s a reference to a strange tradition in winemaking: Years in which a comet appears prior to the harvest tend to produce successful vintages:

1826 — Biela’s Comet
1832 — Biela’s Comet
1839 — Biela’s Comet
1845 — Great June Comet of 1845
1846 — Biela’s Comet
1852 — Biela’s Comet
1858 — Comet Donati
1861 — Great Comet of 1861
1874 — Comet Coggia
1985 — Halley’s Comet
1989 — Comet Okazaki-Levy-Rudenko

“For some unexplained reason, or by some strange coincidence, comet years are famous among vine-growers,” noted the New York Times in 1872. “The last comet which was fairly visible to human eyes [and that] remained blazing in the horizon for many months, until it faded slowly away, was seen in 1858, a year dear to all lovers of claret; 1846, 1832 and 1811 were all comet years, and all years of excellent wine.”

No one has even proposed a mechanism to explain how this might be, but it’s widely noted in the wine world: Critic Robert Parker awarded a perfect 100-point rating to the 1811 Château d’Yquem, and cognac makers still put stars on their labels to commemorate that exceptional year.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • ZZ Top’s first album is called ZZ Top’s First Album.
  • Supreme Court justice Byron White was the NFL’s top rusher in 1940.
  • LOVE ME TENDER is an anagram of DENVER OMELET.
  • Every palindromic number with an even number of digits is divisible by 11.
  • “In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” — Cassius

From English antiquary John Aubrey’s 1696 Miscellanies: “Anno 1670, not far from Cyrencester, was an Apparition; Being demanded, whether a good Spirit or a bad? Returned no answer, but departed with a curious Perfume and a most melodious Twang.”

Absent Friends
Image: Flickr

When Connecticut widow Helen Dow Peck died in 1955, she left $178,000 to one John Gale Forbes, who she said had contacted her through a Ouija board in 1919.

Peck had spent 34 years hunting for Forbes since he’d “resolved out of space” to her during the Ouija craze around 1920. She believed Forbes was confined in a mental institution and wrote to many around the country as she tried to locate him.

Nine nieces and nephews contested the will. But Peck’s executor, City National Bank of Danbury, held out that Forbes might have been an actual person, though a private investigator couldn’t find him.

What to do? Peck’s family finally won when the state supreme court rejected the will in 1958. That was a double blow for the paranormal: If the will had been found valid and Forbes couldn’t be located, Peck had asked that the money create a fund “to be used for research on the subject of mental telepathy for the understanding and care of insane persons.”

Open Secrets

In the 1850s, lovers often corresponded by printing coded messages in the Times. An example from February 1853:

CENERENTOLA. N bnxm yt ywd nk dtz hfs wjfi ymnx fsi fr rtxy fschtzx yt. Mjfw ymf esi, bmjs dtz wjyzws fei mtb qtsldtz wjrfns, ncjwj. lt bwnyf f kjb qnsjx jfuqnsl uqjfxy. N mfaj xnsbj dtz bjsy fbfd.

(“I wish to try if you can read this and am most anxious to hear that and when you return and how long you remain here. Go write a few lines explaining please. I have since you went away.”)

A second message appeared nine days later using the same cipher:

CENERENTOLA. Zsyng rd n jtwy nx xnhp mfaj n y wnj, yt kwfrj fs jcugfifynts ktw dtz lgzy hfssty. Xnqjshj nx nf jny nk ymf ywzj bfzxy nx sty xzx jhyji; nk ny nx, fgg xytwpjx bngg gj xnkyji yt ymjgtyytr. It dtz wjrjgjw tzw htzxns’x knwxy nwtutxnynts: ymnsp tk ny. N pstb Dtz.

(“Until my heart is sick I have tried to frame an explanation for you but cannot. Silence is safest if the true cause is not suspected; if it is, all stories will be sifted to the bottom. Do remember our cousin’s first proposition. Think of it. I know you.”)

This practice was so well known that cracking the codes became a regular recreation among certain Londoners. Lyon Playfair and Charles Wheatstone uncovered a pending elopement and wrote a remonstrating response to the young woman; she published a new message saying, “Dear Charles, write me no more, our cipher is discovered.”

Most of the messages were simple substitution ciphers, which made them fairly easy to solve, though the lovers seemed to find them challenging — one wrote, “If an honours degree at Oxford cannot read my message, we had better change the cipher. Suggest we revert to numbers. Love, Gwendoline.” But when Playfair and Wheatstone came up with a more secure “symmetrical cipher” and offered it to the Foreign Office, the under-secretary rejected it as “too complicated.”

“We proposed that he should send for four boys from the nearest elementary school,” Playfair wrote, “in order to prove that three of them could be taught to use the cipher in a quarter of an hour. The reply to this proposal by their Under-Secretary was … ‘That is very possible, but you could never teach it to attachés.'”

(From Donald McCormick, Love in Code, 1980. Here’s a whole book of messages, both coded and clear.)

Podcast Episode 112: The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller
Images: Wikimedia Commons

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared after a boating accident off the coast of Dutch New Guinea. Ever since, rumors have circulated that the youngest son of the powerful Rockefeller family had been killed by the headhunting cannibals who lived in the area. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll recount Rockefeller’s story and consider the different fates that might have befallen him.

We’ll also learn more about the ingenuity of early sportscasters and puzzle over a baffled mechanic.

Sources for our feature on Michael Rockefeller:

Carl Hoffman, Savage Harvest, 2014.

Associated Press, “Rockefeller’s Son Killed by Tribes?”, Nov. 19, 1971.

Peter Kihss, “Governor’s Son Is Missing Off Coast of New Guinea,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 1961.

United Press International, “Rockefeller to Join in Search for Missing Son,” Nov. 20, 1961.

United Press International, “Michael Rockefeller Had Been Told to End Quest for Native Trophies,” Nov. 21, 1961.

Associated Press, “Missionaries Join Rockefeller Search,” Nov. 22, 1961.

United Press International, “Searchers for Michael Rockefeller Pessimistic,” Nov. 22, 1961.

“Hope Wanes for Michael Rockefeller,” St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 24, 1961.

Milt Freudenheim, “Michael Rockefeller Unusual Rich Man’s Son,” Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 10, 1961.

Barbara Miller, “Michael Rockfeller’s Legacy,” Toledo Blade, Sept. 2, 1962.

Associated Press, “Young Michael Rockefeller Missing Almost 5 Years,” Oct. 21, 1966.

Mary Rockefeller Morgan, “A Loss Like No Other,” Psychology Today, July/August 2012.

Listener mail:

A “synthetic cricket” game in Sydney in the 1930s, re-creating a game played in England:

Paul D. Staudohar, “Baseball and the Broadcast Media,” in Claude Jeanrenaud, Stefan Késenne, eds., The Economics of Sport and the Media, 2006.

Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life, 1997.

Modesto Radio Museum, “Baseball Games Re-Created in Radio Studios.”

Wikipedia, “Broadcasting of Sports Events” (accessed June 30, 2016).

Media Schools, “History of Sports Broadcasting.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Larry Miller. Here are three 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

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 Thanks for listening!


Temporary rules adopted by London’s Richmond Golf Club during the Battle of Britain:

richmond rules

I had my doubts about this, but the rules are acknowledged by the club itself. While we’re at it: In A Wodehouse Handbook, N.T.P. Murphy notes two unusual tournament rules at the annual Bering Sea Ice Classic in Nome, Alaska:

  • If a player hits a polar bear, he is penalized three strokes.
  • If a player hits a polar bear and retrieves his ball, he is awarded five strokes.

Apparently those are local rules: In Extreme Golf, Duncan Lennard notes that officials of the World Ice Golf Championship actually wrote to the game’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, to ask what to do about polar bears, and received the ruling that “in the event of a polar bear wandering onto the ice golf course, the same safety procedure should be followed as for rattlesnakes and ants elsewhere in the world” — a free drop out of harm’s way.