Podcast: Episode 18

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In 1942 Navy lieutenant Ernest Cody and ensign Charles Adams piloted a blimp out of San Francisco into the Pacific, looking for Japanese subs. A few hours later the blimp drifted back to land, empty. The parachutes and life raft were in their proper places and the radio was in working order, but there was no trace of Cody or Adams.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the events of that strange day and delve into the inquest that followed. We’ll also sample some unpublished items from Greg’s trove of Futility Closet research and puzzle over a drink of water that kills hundreds of people.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

In a Word

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juvencle
n. a young girl

minauderie
n. a coquettish manner or air

increpation
n. a chiding, reproof, or rebuke

porporate
adj. clad in purple

Oh

During Arthur Conan Doyle’s first tour of the United States, in 1894, he encountered a cabbie in Boston who declined his fare and asked instead for a ticket to that evening’s lecture. Surprised, Doyle asked how he had recognized him. The cabbie replied:

“If you will excuse other personal remarks, your coat lapels are badly twisted downward, where they have been grasped by the pertinacious New York reporters. Your hair has the Quakerish cut of a Philadelphia barber, and your hat, battered at the brim in front, shows where you have tightly grasped it, in the struggle to stand your ground at a Chicago literary luncheon. Your right overshoe has a large block of Buffalo mud just under the instep, the odor of a Utica cigar hangs about your clothing, and the overcoat itself shows the slovenly brushing of the porters of the through sleepers from Albany. The crumbs of doughnut on the top of your bag could only have come there in Springfield … and stenciled upon the very end of your walking stick, in fairly plain lettering, is the name Conan Doyle.”

Behind the Lines

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After a performance of his play The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter received a note from an audience member:

Can you tell me the meaning of your play? There are three points I do not understand.

i. Who are the two men?
ii. Where did Stanley come from?
iii. Were they all supposed to be normal?

You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot understand your play.

He wrote back:

Dear Madam,

I would be obliged if you could explain to me the meaning of your letter. There are three points which I do not understand.

i. Who are you?
ii. Where do you come from?
iii. Are you supposed to be normal?

You will appreciate that without the answers to these questions I cannot fully understand your letter.

Good Humor

J.B.S. Haldane retained his wit even while undergoing cancer treatments — he wrote this poem in a hospital in 1964:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.

I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour.
They pumped in BaS04
Till I could really stand no more,
And, when sufficient had been pressed in,
They photographed my large intestine.
In order to decide the issue
They next scraped out some bits of tissue.
(Before they did so, some good pal
Had knocked me out with pentothal,
Whose action is extremely quick,
And does not leave me feeling sick.)
The microscope returned the answer
That I had certainly got cancer,
So I was wheeled into the theatre
Where holes were made to make me better.
One set is in my perineum
Where I can feel, but can’t yet see ‘em.
Another made me like a kipper
Or female prey of Jack the Ripper,
Through this incision, I don’t doubt,
The neoplasm was taken out,
Along with colon, and lymph nodes
Where cancer cells might find abodes.
A third much smaller hole is meant
To function as a ventral vent:
So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.

*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.

I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy,
And hope, as soon as I am able,
To make it keep a fixed time-table.
So do not wait for aches and pains
To have a surgeon mend your drains;
If he says “cancer” you’re a dunce
Unless you have it out at once,
For if you wait it’s sure to swell,
And may have progeny as well.
My final word, before I’m done,
Is “Cancer can be rather fun.”
Thanks to the nurses and Nye Bevan
The NHS is quite like heaven
Provided one confronts the tumour
With a sufficient sense of humour.
I know that cancer often kills,
But so do cars and sleeping pills;
And it can hurt one till one sweats,
So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.
A spot of laughter, I am sure,
Often accelerates one’s cure;
So let us patients do our bit
To help the surgeons make us fit.

Fuel and Fire

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In 1941, New Jersey pacifist Theodore Kaufman self-published Germany Must Perish!, a 104-page booklet advocating the sterilization of the German people and the distribution of their lands. Kaufman was almost a complete nonentity — few shared his views, and the book received few sales or notices. But it made him a giant in Germany, where it became a mainstay of nationalist propaganda, stoking the very fires that Kaufman had hoped to extinguish.

In his diary on Aug. 3, 1941, Joseph Goebbels wrote, “He really could not have done it better and more advantageously for us if he had written the book to order. I will have this book distributed in millions of copies in Germany, above all on the front, and will write a preface and afterword myself. It will be most instructive for every German man and for every German woman to see what would happen to the German people if, as in November 1918, a sign of weakness were given.”

Hitler approved, and soon the propaganda ministry had produced a brochure presenting and commenting on Kaufman’s book. “Above all,” Goebbels wrote, “this brochure will finally and definitively do away with the last remnants of a still-existing softness. In reading this brochure, even the stupidest idiot can figure out what threatens us if we become weak.”

American journalist Howard K. Smith witnessed these effects firsthand in Germany. “No man has ever done so irresponsible a disservice to the cause his nation is fighting and suffering for than [Theodore] Kaufmann,” he wrote. “His half-baked brochure provided the Nazis with one of the best light artillery pieces they have, for, used as the Nazis used it, it served to bolster up that terror which forces Germans who dislike the Nazis to support, fight and die to keep Nazism alive.”

Kaufman protested, weakly, that German anti-Semitism had existed long before his book appeared. But the boost to propaganda was undeniable. “Few Americans have ever heard of a prominent fellow-citizen named Kaufmann,” wrote The Nation in November 1942. “In Germany every child has known of him for a long time. Germans are so well informed about Mr. Kaufmann that the mere mention of his name recalls what he stands for. In one of his recent articles Dr. Goebbels wrote, ‘Thanks to the Jew Kaufmann, we Germans know only too well what to expect in case of defeat.’”

Joint Resolution

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From a letter from George Patton to his son, written on D-Day:

At 0700 this morning the BBC announced that the German radio had just come out with an announcement of the landing of Allied paratroops and of large numbers of assault craft near shore. So that is it. …

All men are timid on entering any fight whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood. You will never do that because of your blood lines on both sides. I think I have told you the story of Marshal Touraine who fought under Louis XIV. On the morning of one of his last battles — he had been fighting for forty years — he was mounting his horse when a young ADC who had just come from the court and had never missed a meal or heard a hostile shot said: ‘M. de Touraine it amazes me that a man of your supposed courage should permit his knees to tremble as he walks out to mount.’ Touraine replied: ‘My lord duke I admit that my knees do tremble but should they know where I shall this day take them they would shake even more.’ That is it. Your knees may shake but they will always take you toward the enemy.

Testing Tongues

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Applicants for radio announcing jobs in the 1920s had to a pass a diction test — New York Daily News radio critic Ben Gross gives this example in his 1954 book I Looked and I Listened:

“Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.”

In the 1940s Radio Central New York administered a cold reading to prospective radio personalities to assess their speaking ability — announcer Del Moore found it so entertaining that he gave it to his friend Jerry Lewis, who made it a staple of his annual muscular dystrophy telethon:

Appreciation

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“Why I began to write for children,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer:

  1. Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
  2. Children don’t read to find their identity.
  3. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
  4. They have no use for psychology.
  5. They detest sociology.
  6. They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake.
  7. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
  8. They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.
  9. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
  10. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.

(From his 1978 Nobel banquet speech.)

Black Mischief

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Max Beerbohm was regularly flummoxed by the crossword in the London Times. So in 1940, mad for vengeance, he devised a puzzle that was completely impossible and submitted it to the editors. “No doubt you, like most people, have sometimes thought of some utterly awful thing that you could do if you chose to, some disastrous and devastating thing the very thought of which has brought cold sweat to your brow?” he prompted. “And you may have at some time thought: ‘Suppose I released into the columns of The Times, one of these fine days, a Crossword Puzzle with clues signifying nothing — nothing whatsoever,’ and may have hideously pictured to yourself the effect on all the educated parts of Great Britain?”

They published it. A selection of clues:

ACROSS

9. An insect with a girl on each side (8).
12. The cockney’s goddess appears to have been a slimmer (6).
22. A nudist’s aunt? (6).
26. Not what the wicket-keeper tries for in Essex (6).

DOWN

6. Wordsworth’s fan mail? (8).
8. They are up and going, no doubt, in ‘the sweet o’ the year’ (8).
13. Little Tommy thought it meant a red-faced blacksmith (10).
19. Such buns are eaten on a good day (two words) (3, 5).

The newspaper published Beerbohm’s letter along with the puzzle, so solvers were forewarned. But he did have his revenge: He announced that six of the clues were actually solvable — but wouldn’t say which six.

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