Buried Soldiers

The United Press syndicate published an eye-opening story in 1951 — a 32-year-old German soldier had emerged, “bearded, blinded and blubbering,” when workers cleared wreckage from the entrance to a Nazi supply depot in Babie Doly, Poland.

The soldier said that he and five companions had been buried alive in the food and supply warehouse when retreating German troops dynamited the entrance in 1945. Four of the six had died, two by suicide, but the man and one companion had survived for six years underground, drinking water that trickled through cracks and living in darkness when their supply of candles ran out in 1949. The second man had “dropped dead of shock on emerging into the daylight.”

Decide for yourself — here’s another UP story, and here’s an account in Time magazine. The story also turns up in the 1958 German film Nasser Asphalt and inspired the 1973 English film The Blockhouse, with Peter Sellers.

Related: During World War II, British naval intelligence conceived “Operation Tracer,” a secret plan to seal a group of soldiers in a bunker at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, so that if Nazis captured the rock the hidden soldiers could observe the movements of enemy vessels and report them to the Admiralty by wireless communication. A chamber, shown here, measuring 14 × 4.8 × 2.4 meters was constructed secretly in 1942, and six men volunteered to be sealed inside for at least a year (they had provisions for up to seven years). But the plan was never put into effect, and the empty chambers were ordered sealed. They came to light only in 1997, when they were discovered by the Gibraltar Caving Group.

(Thanks, James.)

In a Word

rosarian
n. a rose fancier; one interested or engaged in the cultivation of roses

The rose cultivar “Whitfield” is named for English comedy actress June Whitfield.

She said, “There is a rose named after me. The catalogue describes it as ‘superb for bedding, best up against a wall.’”

Sweet Story

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1360809

In 1987, paleontologist Tom Rich was leading a dig at Dinosaur Cove southwest of Melbourne when student Helen Wilson asked him what reward she’d get if she found a dinosaur jaw. He said he’d give her a kilo (2.2 pounds) of chocolate. She did, and he did.

Encouraged, the students asked Rich what they’d get if they found a mammal bone. These are fairly rare among dinosaur fossils in Australia, so Rich rashly promised a cubic meter of chocolate — 35 cubic feet, or about a ton.

The cove was “dug out” by 1994, and paleontologists shut down the dig. Rich sent a curious unclassified bone, perhaps a turtle humerus, to two colleagues, who recognized it as belonging to an early echidna, or spiny anteater — a mammal.

Rich now owed the students $10,000 worth of chocolate. “It turns out that it is technically impossible to make a cubic meter of chocolate, because the center would never solidify,” he told National Geographic in 2005. So he arranged for a local Cadbury factory to make a cubic meter of cocoa butter, and then turned the students loose in a room full of chocolate bars.

“It was a bit like Willy Wonka,” Wilson said. “There were chocolate bars on the counters, the tables. We carried out boxes and boxes of chocolate.”

Fittingly, the new echidna was named Kryoryctes cadburyi.

Getaway

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capital_Beltway_Map_Color.svg

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries the Capitol Beltway across the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., connecting Maryland on the eastern shore with Virginia on the western.

The southern tip of Washington’s jurisdiction just touches the bridge’s westbound lanes — a 90-meter section of that span belongs to the District of Columbia. This makes the Wilson the only bridge in the United States that occupies three jurisdictions.

This sounds like an opportunity for some sort of perfect crime, but I can’t quite work it out.

An Old Story

http://books.google.com/books?id=_g8wAAAAMAAJ

Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.

– James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895

In the 1860s, workers discovered the remains of a cat and a rat behind the organ in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.

There’s no telling how long they’d been there. Their bodies had been desiccated in the dry air of the church.

Self-Determination

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates.jpg

Did Socrates commit suicide? Philosopher R.G. Frey argues that he did. Socrates’ final conversations with Phaedo and his friends show that he intended to drink the hemlock, and he drank it intentionally, knowing its effect and without being forced. It’s true that he had been sentenced to die, but still he chose to accept the cup rather than compel another to take his life.

“The fact that Socrates died a noble and dignified death does not show that he did not commit suicide,” writes Frey, “but rather that suicide need not be ignoble and undignified.”

(R.G. Frey, “Did Socrates Commit Suicide?”, Philosophy 53:203 [January 1978], 106-108.)

Podcast: Episode 12

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The New York Times proposed an outrageous undertaking in 1908: An automobile race westward from New York to Paris, a journey of 22,000 miles across all of North America and Asia in an era when the motorcar was “the most fragile and capricious thing on earth.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the six teams who took up the challenge and attempted “the most perilous trip ever undertaken by man.”

We’ll also see how a tomahawk linked Alec Guinness and Grace Kelly for 25 years and hear poet Louis Phillips lament his wife’s handwriting.

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!

Unquote

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“It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety.” — Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1856

The Telltale Mart

The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”

In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.

If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.

So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.

Wheels of Justice

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In 1962 a Swedish motorist was fined for leaving his car too long in a space with a posted time limit. The motorist objected, saying that he had removed the car in time and then happened to return to the same spot later, resetting the time limit. The policeman defended his charge, saying that he had noted the positions of the valves on two of the tires — the front-wheel valve was in the 1 o’clock position, the rear-wheel valve at 8 o’clock. If the car had been moved, he argued, the valves were unlikely to take the same positions.

The court accepted the motorist’s claim, calculating that the chance that the valves would return to the same positions by chance was 1/12 × 1/12 = 1/144, great enough to establish reasonable doubt. The court added that if all four valves had been found to be in the same position, the lower likelihood (1/12 × 1/12 × 1/12 × 1/12 = 1/20,736, it figured) would have been enough to uphold the fine.

Is this right? In evaluating this reasoning, University of Chicago law professor Hans Zeisel notes that this method is biased in favor of the defendant, since the positions of the valves are not perfectly independent. He later added, “The use of the 1/144 figure for the probability of the constable’s observations on the assumption that the defendant had driven away also can be questioned. Not only may the rotations of the tires on different axles be correlated, but the figure overlooks the observation that the car was in the same parking spot. When a person leaves a parking place, it is far from certain that the spot will be available later and that the person will choose it again. For this reason, it has been said that the probability of a coincidence is even smaller than a probability involving only the valves.”

(Hans Zeisel, “Dr. Spock and the Case of the Vanishing Women Jurors,” University of Chicago Law Review, 37:1 [Autumn 1969], 1-18)

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