Dust to Dust

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Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born — a hundred million years — and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.

— Mark Twain, Autobiography

Unquote

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“Patriotism ruins history.” — Goethe

The Air Loom

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In January 1797 London tea broker James Tilly Matthews was committed to the Bethlem psychiatric hospital after increasingly erratic outbursts in which he claimed he was being persecuted by political enemies. In 1809 Matthews’ friends petitioned for his release, arguing that he was no longer insane, and Bethlem apothecary John Haslam published a book-length study showing how bad his case had become.

Matthews believed that a gang of spies were occupying a Roman wall near the asylum and torturing him with a device called an air loom. The loom was operated by “the Middle Man,” while “Sir Archy” and the “Glove Woman” focused its rays on Matthews and “Jack the Schoolmaster” recorded their effects. Similar gangs, Matthews said, were operating looms all over London to influence the thinking of the nation’s leaders. The tortures included “fluid locking,” “cutting soul from sense,” “stone making,” “thigh talking,” and “lobster-cracking,” which Matthews also described as “sudden death-squeezing”:

In short, I do not know any better way for a person to comprehend the general nature of such lobster-cracking operation, than by supposing himself in a sufficiently large pair of nut-crackers or lobster-crackers, with teeth which should pierce as well as press him through every particle within and without; he experiencing the whole stress, torture, driving, oppressing, and crush all together.

Matthews remained an asylum inpatient until his death in 1815. His is now considered to be the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia.

Supply and Demand

The Waterford Chronicle requests that persons supplying the Journal with obituaries will attend to the following scale of prices (the idea is droll); for a simple death two shillings and sixpence. For the death of a person deeply regretted, five shillings. For the death of a person who lived a perfect pattern of all the Christian virtues, and died regretted by the whole country, ten shillings. For the death of a person who possessed extensive literature and profound erudition, superadded to which, his whole life was remarkable for piety, humility, charity, and self-denial, one pound. For the death of a lady, whose husband is inconsolable for her loss, and who was the delight of the circle in which she moved, one pound ten shillings. For the death of a gentleman, who had only been six months married, who was an example of every conjugal and domestic virtue, and whose widow is in a state of anguish bordering on distraction, two pounds. For the death of an aristocrat, who was a pattern of meekness, a model of humility, a patron of distressed genius, a genuine philanthropist, an exemplary Christian, an extensive alms-giver, profoundly learned, unremitting to the duties of his station, kind, hospitable, and affectionate to his tenantry, and whose name will be remembered and his loss deplored to the latest posterity, five pounds. For every additional good quality, whether domestic, moral, or religious, there will be an additional charge.

Birmingham Journal, Aug. 21, 1830

Podcast: Episode 13

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Georgia slaves Ellen and William Craft made a daring bid for freedom in 1848: Ellen dressed as a white man and, attended by William as her servant, undertook a perilous 1,000-mile journey by carriage, train, and steamship to the free state of Pennsylvania in the North. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the couple’s harrowing five-day adventure through the slave-owning South.

We’ll also discover the best place in the United States to commit a crime and sample the aphoristic poetry of Danish mathematician Piet Hein.

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!

Damnatio Memoriae

In October 1780, a month after Benedict Arnold defected to the British, this acrostic appeared in American newspapers:

B orn for a curse to virtue and mankind,
E arth’s broadest realm ne’er knew so black a mind.
N ight’s sable veil your crimes can never hide,
E ach one so great, ‘twould glut historic tide.
D efunct, your cursed memory will live
I n all the glare that infamy can give.
C urses of ages will attend your name,
T raitors alone will glory in your shame.

A lmighty vengeance sternly waits to roll
R ivers of sulphur on your treacherous soul:
N ature looks shuddering back with conscious dread
O n such a tarnished blot as she has made.
L et hell receive you, riveted in chains,
D oomed to the hottest focus of its flames.

Arnold’s perfidy so blackened his name that he’s strangely absent even from his own memorials. A monument (above) at the site of the Battle of Saratoga depicts only a boot, to reflect the leg wound that ended Arnold’s fighting career. His name appears nowhere in the inscription:

In memory of
the “most brilliant soldier” of the
Continental Army
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
American Revolution
and for himself the rank of
Major General.

A second monument at Saratoga includes four niches: Three contain statues of Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, and Daniel Morgan, but the fourth niche is empty.

And West Point displays a commemorative plaque for every general who served in the revolution. One plaque bears a rank and a date (“Major General / Born 1740″), but no name.

GRKTRGDY

Here’s a special kind of genius: In 1997 Daniel Nussbaum rewrote Oedipus Rex using vanity license plates registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles:

ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.

OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.

JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”

SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.

SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.

NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.

UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.

YEGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!

Technical Fowl

The lyrebird of Australia is an astonishingly gifted mimic, and its talents extend beyond the natural world: Above, a lyrebird imitates the human technology it has encountered; below, a captive bird mimics construction at the Adelaide Zoo.

In 1969, park ranger Sydney Curtis heard a lyrebird producing flute sounds in New England National Park on the coast of New South Wales. After some sleuthing, Curtis discovered that a neighboring farmer had played the flute for a pet lyrebird in the 1930s. When ornithologist Norman Robinson studied the call, he discovered that the bird was singing two popular songs of the 1930s — “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”

“It is now seventy years since a lyrebird learned these fragments,” wrote David Rothenberg in 2006, “and today the flute song has been heard a hundred kilometers from the original source. A human tune is spreading through the lyrebird world, as they’ve decided through generations to prefer just two shards of our particular music.”

See A Feathered Maître d’ and The Parrot of Atures.

Output

The programming language Chef, devised by David Morgan-Mar, is designed to make programs look like cooking recipes. Variables are represented by “ingredients,” input comes from the “refrigerator,” output is sent to “baking dishes,” and so on. The language’s design principles state that “program recipes should not only generate valid output, but be easy to prepare and delicious,” but many of them fall short of that goal — one program for soufflé correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, but the recipe requires 32 zucchinis, 101 eggs, and 111 cups of oil to be combined in a bowl and served to a single person. Mike Worth set out to write a working program that could also be read as an actual recipe. Here’s what he came up with:

Hello World Cake with Chocolate sauce.

This prints hello world, while being tastier than Hello World Souffle. The main
chef makes a " world!" cake, which he puts in the baking dish. When he gets the
sous chef to make the "Hello" chocolate sauce, it gets put into the baking dish
and then the whole thing is printed when he refrigerates the sauce. When
actually cooking, I'm interpreting the chocolate sauce baking dish to be
separate from the cake one and Liquify to mean either melt or blend depending on
context.

Ingredients.
33 g chocolate chips
100 g butter
54 ml double cream
2 pinches baking powder
114 g sugar
111 ml beaten eggs
119 g flour
32 g cocoa powder
0 g cake mixture

Cooking time: 25 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Method.
Put chocolate chips into the mixing bowl.
Put butter into the mixing bowl.
Put sugar into the mixing bowl.
Put beaten eggs into the mixing bowl.
Put flour into the mixing bowl.
Put baking powder into the mixing bowl.
Put cocoa  powder into the mixing bowl.
Stir the mixing bowl for 1 minute.
Combine double cream into the mixing bowl.
Stir the mixing bowl for 4 minutes.
Liquify the contents of the mixing bowl.
Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish.
bake the cake mixture.
Wait until baked.
Serve with chocolate sauce.

chocolate sauce.

Ingredients.
111 g sugar
108 ml hot water
108 ml heated double cream
101 g dark chocolate
72 g milk chocolate

Method.
Clean the mixing bowl.
Put sugar into the mixing bowl.
Put hot water into the mixing bowl.
Put heated double cream into the mixing bowl.
dissolve the sugar.
agitate the sugar until dissolved.
Liquify the dark chocolate.
Put dark chocolate into the mixing bowl.
Liquify the milk chocolate.
Put milk chocolate into the mixing bowl.
Liquify contents of the mixing bowl.
Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish.
Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Worth confirmed that this correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, and then he used the same instructions to bake a real cake. “It was surprisingly well received,” he writes. “The cake was slightly dry (although nowhere near as dry as cheap supermarket cakes), but this was complimented well by the sauce. My brother even asked me for the recipe!”

While we’re at it: Fibonacci Numbers With Caramel Sauce.

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.)

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