On Dec. 24, 2010, Lori Erica Ruff shot herself to death with a shotgun in Longview, Texas. After her death, her ex-husband’s family discovered a lockbox in her home that revealed that in May 1988 she had stolen the identity of Becky Sue Turner, a 2-year-old girl who had died in a fire in 1971. She had then changed her name to Lori Erica Kennedy and received a Social Security account, erasing all trace of her origins.
After this she had qualified for a GED and eventually graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration. At a Bible study class she met Blake Ruff, who describes her as extremely secretive. She told him that she was from Arizona, that her parents were dead, and that she had no siblings. The two married in 2003 and Lori gave birth to a girl, of whom she was “extremely protective.” The marriage broke down, Ruff divorced her, and she committed suicide.
The lockbox contained a note with the phrases “North Hollywood police,” “402 months,” and “Ben Perkins,” but none of these clues has led anywhere. No one knows the woman’s real identity, or her history before 1988. Social Security Administration investigator Joe Velling received the case in 2011. “My immediate reaction was, I’ll crack this pretty quickly,” he told the Seattle Times in 2013. It remains unsolved.
09/23/2016 UPDATE: Wow, that was timely — Velling just solved the case. (Thanks, Jay.)
Now, for something a bit more serious: I am starting a new religion. Care to join? As with the Catholic religion, my religion has an index of forbidden books. There is only one book that the index forbids. Can you guess which? You probably have! It is the index itself!
— Raymond Smullyan, “Self-Reference in All Its Glory!”, conference “Self-Reference,” Copenhagen, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2002
During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.
We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.
Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, shared her home with a 400-pound lion.
Sources for our feature on Nikolai Vavilov:
S.M. Alexanyan and V.I. Krivchenko, “Vavilov Institute Scientists Heroically Preserve World Plant Genetic Resources Collections During World War II Siege of Leningrad,” Diversity 7:4 (1991), 10-13.
James F. Crow, “N. I. Vavilov, Martyr to Genetic Truth,” Genetics 134:4 (May 1993).
Olga Elina, Susanne Heim, and Nils Roll-Hansen, “Plant Breeding on the Front: Imperialism, War, and Exploitation,” Osiris 20 (2005), 161-179.
Peter Pringle, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, 2008.
Boyce Rensberger, “Soviet Botanists Starved, Saving Seeds for Future,” Washington Post, May 12, 1992.
Michael Woods, “Soviet Union’s Fall Threatens ‘Gene Bank’ for Food Crops,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 1993.
Joel I. Cohen and Igor G. Loskutov, “Exploring the Nature of Science Through Courage and Purpose,” SpringerPlus 5:1159 (2016).
Peter Nichols, A Voyage for Madmen, 2001.
Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, 1970.
Ed Caesar, “Drama on the Waves: The Life and Death of Donald Crowhurst,” Independent, Oct. 27, 2006.
This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who cites this source (warning: this link spoils the puzzle).
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!
Clive Harcourt Carruthers’ 1964 book Alicia in Terra Mirabili begins at once, without a preface:
Aliciam iam incipiebat plurimum taedere iuxta sororem suam in ripa sedere nec quidquam habere quod faceret.
Semel et saepius in librum oculos coniecerat quem soror legebat: sed ei inerant nec tabulae nec sermones. ‘Quid adiuvat liber,’ secum reputabat Alicia, ‘in quo sunt nullae tabulae aut sermones?’
Itaque cogitabat (nempe ut lucidissime poterat, nam tempestate calida torpebat semisomna) num operae pretium esset surgere et flosculos carpere, modo ut sertum nectendo se delectaret, cum subito Cuniculus Albus oculis rubeis prope eam praeteriit.
Only a brief “Glossarium” at the end might give a clue to its origin:
aureorum decoctio malorum: orange marmalade
Baro Cordium: Knave of Hearts
Feles Cestriana: Cheshire Cat
lusio pilae et mallei: croquet
The U.S. Navy submarine USS Tang was sunk by her own torpedo. Patrolling off China in October 1944, she fired at a Japanese transport and the electric torpedo, its rudder jammed, curved to the left in a great circle. The submarine put on emergency power to escape the circle, but it had only seconds to do so. Captain Richard O’Kane later said, “The problem was akin to moving a ship longer than a football field and proceeding at harbor speed clear of a suddenly careening speedboat.”
It struck her abreast the aft torpedo room and she went down in 180 feet of water. Seventy-eight men were lost, and the nine who survived were picked up by a Japanese frigate and taken prisoner. Until the accident the Tang had had the most successful submarine patrol in the war.
adj. severely scolded
On the morning of the World War I armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, American fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker took off against orders and made his way to the front. He arrived at Verdun at 10:45 and flew out over the no-man’s-land between the armies. Less than 500 feet off the ground, “I could see both Germans and Americans crouching in their trenches, peering over with every intention of killing any man who revealed himself on the other side.”
I glanced at my watch. One minute to 11:00, thirty seconds, fifteen. And then it was 11:00 a.m. the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man’s land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer’s seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man’s-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.
Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.
Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.
(From his autobiography.)
Like any language, sign language partakes in jokes, puns, and wordplay. Dorothy Miles’ poem “Unsound Views” observes that hearing people seem to be slaves to their telephones. In English, there’s no obvious pun in the next-to-last line, “They live to serve their telephone God.” But in British Sign Language it runs
THEY LIVE RESPECT THAT TELEPHONE
THIN-AERIAL-ON-HANDSET AERIAL-MOVES-UP GOD
“Here, the aerial on the telephone handset is signed with the ‘G’ handshape that refers to long, thin objects,” explains Rachel Sutton-Spence in Analysing Sign Language Poetry. “The BSL sign GOD is also made using a ‘G’ handshape, albeit in a different location, but when the aerial is moved up to the location where GOD is normally articulated, the pun elevates the telephone to the status of a god.”
One more: In Miles’ poem “Exaltation,” a stand of trees seems to part the sky “And let the peace of heaven shine softly through.” In the American Sign Language version, this can be glossed as ALLOW PEACE OF HEAVEN LIGHT-SHINES LIGHT/HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD. The form of the sign LIGHT is made with a fully open ‘5’ handshape, but in this context the handshape can be seen simply as a hand. “If LIGHT-TOUCHES-HEAD is interpreted as HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD, the obvious question is ‘Whose hand?’ and the obvious answer is ‘God’s.’ In many cultures, placing hands gently upon a person’s head is taken as a blessing.”
“As centuries pass by, the mass of works grows endlessly, and one can foresee a time when it will be almost as difficult to educate oneself in a library, as in the universe, and almost as fast to seek a truth subsisting in nature, as lost among an immense number of books.” — Diderot