The Swimming Reindeer

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1866 French engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle discovered the sculptures of two swimming reindeer on the banks of the River Aveyron. Each had been carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago. The carvings had historic as well as artistic value: They showed that humans, mammoths, and reindeer had coexisted in France during the ice age, when the climate of France resembled that of modern Siberia.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1904 that anyone thought to try fitting the two pieces together — it was discovered that they were two parts of a single sculpture. Today they form the oldest piece of art in the British Museum.

In the Dark

In The Limits of Language, Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall awards this his recognition for “best apologetic endnote”:

“This paper was undertaken in an attempt to shed light on some very mysterious problems. I fear I have done little more than show which lamps have cords too short to reach the outlets.”

(From Georgia Green, “Some Observations on the Syntax and Semantics of Instrumental Verbs,” Papers from the 8th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society 8 [1972], 83-97.)

A Lost Landmark

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In 1808, as a monument to his victories, Napoleon planned to erect a colossal bronze elephant on the site of the Bastille. Standing 24 meters tall, the creature would be cast from the guns captured at the Battle of Friedland, and a stairway inside one leg would lead visitors up to an observation platform on its back.

The project fell apart after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but they got as far as building a full-sized plaster model of the finished statue, protected by a guard who lived in one of the legs. The plaster elephant stood for some 30 years, overrun with rats and gradually falling into ruin. Finally removed in 1846, it was commemorated by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables: “It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.”

In a Word

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alembicated
adj. over-refined, excessively subtle in thought or expression

brachylogy
n. conciseness of speech; a condensed expression

mycterism
n. a subtle or scornful jibe; a piece of sarcasm or irony; subtle mocking

In 1886 Grover Cleveland suspended certain officials during a recess of the Senate and refused to give his reasons. When the Senate objected, he sent them a letter that contained a fateful phrase: “And so it happens that after an existence of nearly twenty years of an almost innocuous desuetude these laws are brought forth.”

Everyone pounced on it. Tennessee representative William Robert Moore wrote:

The big Free trade disciple
Who lives on Buzzard’s Bay,
Cannot again be President,
The tariff boys all say;
And they mean “biz” you better bet,
They’re in the proper mood
To send him up Salt River
To “innocuous desuetude” —
To innocuous desuetude,
To innocuous desuetude,
To send him up Salt River
To innocuous desuetude.

The phrase was still echoing in 1920, when former Speaker of the House Champ Clark wrote, “His most exquisite phrase and entirely original, so far as I know, was ‘innocuous desuetude,’ still frequently quoted and perhaps to be quoted as long as our vernacular is spoken by the children of men.”

Far From Home

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You’d look forlorn too if you were the first zebra in England. The bewildered creature, known as “Queen Charlotte’s she-ass,” departed the Cape of Good Hope “Noah’s-ark fashion” with another zebra in 1762, but her companion died on the voyage. Installed at Buckingham Palace, she “was pestered with visits, and had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public.” And, inevitably, there were jokes:

A sight such as this surely was never seen:
Who the deuce would not gaze at the A___ of a Q____?
What prospect so charming! — What scene can surpass?
The delicate sight of her M____’s A____?

Though squeamish old Prudes with Invective and Spleen,
May turn up their Noses, and censure the Q____n;
Crying out, “‘Tis a Shame, that her Q____nship, alas
Should take such a Pride — in exposing her A____.”

She was eventually sold to a clockmaker named Pinchbeck, who led her through Yorkshire in a traveling menagerie. She died in April 1773, eleven years after she’d arrived. “Pray do you not think the fate of this animal truly pitiable?” wrote the Rev. William Mason to Horace Walpole. “I should think this anecdote might furnish the author of Heroic Epistles with a series of moral reflections which might end with the following pathetic couplet: ‘Ah beauteous beast! Thy cruel fate evinces / How vain the ass that puts its trust in Princes!'”

(Christopher Plumb, “The Queen’s Ass,” in Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, ed., The Afterlives of Animals, 2011.)

Nature Reading

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Germany, where modern forestry began, a curious new sort of literature arose in the 18th century:

Some enthusiast thought to go one better than the botanical volumes that merely illustrated the taxonomy of trees. Instead the books themselves were to be fabricated from their subject matter, so that the volume on Fagus, for example, the common European beech, would be bound in the bark of that tree. Its interior would contain samples of beech nuts and seeds; and its pages would literally be its leaves, the folios its feuilles.

That’s from Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, 1995. These xylotheques, or wood repositories, grew up throughout the developed world — the largest, now held by the U.S. Forest Service, houses 60,000 samples. “But the wooden books were not pure caprice, a nice pun on the meaning of cultivation,” Schama writes. “By paying homage to the vegetable matter from which it, and all literature, was constituted, the wooden library made a dazzling statement about the necessary union of culture and nature.”

Day by Day

http://www.oscar-diaz.net/work/ink-calendar

Spanish artist Oscar Diaz found a literal way to mark time: He designed a calendar that writes itself. The dates of each month are embossed as a connected series of numbers on a sheet of paper; when the first digit is inserted into a bottle of ink, capillary action draws up the fluid and informs each date in succession over the course of the month.

Diaz writes, “The ink colors are based on a spectrum, which relate to a ‘color temperature scale,’ each month having a color related to our perception of the weather on that month. The colors range from dark blue in December to three shades of green in spring or orange and red in the summer.

More at his website.

Unquote

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“It is a waste of energy to be angry with a man who behaves badly, just as it is to be angry with a car that won’t go. The difference is that you can compel your car to go to a garage, but you cannot compel Hitler to go to a psychiatrist.” — Bertrand Russell

The Right Perspective

French artist François Abélanet creates anamorphic landscape illusions. “With my creations, I transform fiction into reality,” he writes. “Where there’s a garden, a plaza, a courtyard, or a confined space, I see a playing field where everyone is invited to participate, to play with nature. Indeed, I like the idea that nature lives its own life and becomes its own creation.”

More at his website.

Podcast Episode 152: Lateral Thinking Puzzles

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Here are five new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends — play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions.

Here are the sources for this week’s puzzles. In a couple of places we’ve included links to further information — these contain spoilers, so don’t click until you’ve listened to the episode:

Puzzle #1 was contributed by listener Dave Lawrence.

Puzzle #2 is from listener Michael Berman.

Puzzle #3 is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles, 1998.

Puzzle #4 is from listener Paul Sophocleous. Here are two associated links.

Puzzle #5 is from listener Noah Kurland. Here’s an associated link.

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 http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, 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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!