Podcast Episode 124: D.B. Cooper


In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today’s show we’ll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.

We’ll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist’s narrow escape.


In 1973, Swedish mathematician Per Enflo won a goose for solving a problem posed 37 years earlier.

Established in 1945 by a sympathetic actor, the Conrad Cantzen Shoe Fund will reimburse working artists $40 toward a pair of shoes.

Sources for our feature on D.B. Cooper:

Ralph P. Himmelsbach and Thomas K. Worcester, Norjak: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper, 1986.

Kay Melchisedech Olson, The D.B. Cooper Hijacking, 2011.

Associated Press, “First D.B. Cooper Clue Discovered,” Jan. 18, 1979.

Associated Press, “Clue to D.B. Cooper’s Fate Found by a Washington Family on Picnic,” Feb. 13, 1980.

Farida Fawzy, “D.B. Cooper: FBI Closes the Books 45 Years After Skyjacking Mystery,” CNN, July 14, 2016.

Christine Hauser, “Where Is D.B. Cooper? F.B.I. Ends 45-Year Hunt,” New York Times, July 13, 2016.

FBI, “D.B. Cooper Hijacking” (retrieved Sept. 18, 2016).

FBI, “Update on Investigation of 1971 Hijacking by D.B. Cooper” (retrieved Sept. 18, 2016).

David A. Graham and Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “D.B. Cooper’s Final Escape,” Atlantic, July 12, 2016.

Peter Holley, “The D.B. Cooper Case Has Baffled the FBI for 45 Years. Now It May Never Be Solved,” Washington Post, July 12, 2016.

Listener mail:

Listener Mike Burns sent these photos from the Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass.: a coal torpedo with instructions, playing cards concealing maps, and a baby carriage rigged by the French Resistance to conceal sabotage equipment and a radio (click to enlarge).




Brian Dewan’s song “The Cowboy Outlaw,” about Elmer McCurdy.

MrSolidSnake745’s Musical Floppy Drives on Facebook.

Star Wars‘ “Imperial March” on eight floppy drives:

“In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, by Sammy1Am:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Philip Ogren.

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!

Rotary Jails


Architect William H. Brown had a curious brainstorm in 1881 — a jail in which moving cells shared a single door:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard. … [It] consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners.

The cell block, supported by ball bearings, could be turned by a single man with a hand crank. While it had a certain efficient appeal, in practice the jail proved dangerous, crushing prisoners’ limbs and raising concerns about safety during a fire. The last rotary jail was condemned in 1939; the only surviving example is in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

(Strangely related: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Thanks, Jon.)

Size Matters


In June 1917, the California Olive Association adopted the following rather terrifying size designations:

Olives counting 120-135 olives per pound: Standard
Olives counting 105-120 olives per pound: Medium
Olives counting 90-105 olives per pound: Large
Olives counting 75-90 olives per pound: Extra Large
Olives counting 65-75 olives per pound: Mammoth
Olives counting 55-65 olives per pound: Colossal
Olives counting 45-55 olives per pound: Giant

Over the years they added Jumbo, Supercolossal, and Special Supercolossal. It wasn’t until the the 1970s that the government stepped in to limit further growth: “The Department of Agriculture feels that most people would not be able to figure out which are the larger olives, except at the range of smaller sizes, whose names are the more straightforward.”

While we’re at it — champagne bottles have some impressive names of their own:

0.1875 liters: Piccolo
0.2 liters: Quarter
0.375 liters: Demi
0.75 liters: Standard
1.5 liters: Magnum
3 liters: Jéroboam
4.5 liters: Réhoboam
6 liters: Methusaleh
9 liters: Salmanazar
12 liters: Balthazar
15 liters: Nebuchadnezzar
18 liters: Solomon
26.25 liters: Sovereign
27 liters: Primat
30 liters: Melchizedek

(Thanks, Drew.)

A Modest Proposal


Mr. J. Armour-Milne refers to ‘the amount of drivel that is to be found in the Letters to the Editor.’ Whether or not you, in fact, publish drivel is not for me to decide, but a sure method of raising the standard of letters that you receive would be not only to publish your usual selection of letters, but also to print, each day, a complete list of the names of those correspondents whose letters you have rejected. The thought of possibly being included in your Rejects List, and then to have one’s acquaintances saying, ‘I see that you have had yet another letter refused by The Times,’ would be too much of a risk for most people.

— P.H.H. Moore, letter to the London Times, 1970

Some Tidy Anagrams



Darryl Francis finds that LISMORE, MINNESOTA is an anagram of REMAIN MOTIONLESS.

“There is a well-known story in The Spectator, of a lover of Lady Mary Boon, who, after six months’ hard study, contrived to anagrammatize her as Moll Boon; and upon being told by his mistress, indignant at such a metamorphosis, that her name was Mary Bohun, he went mad.” — William Sandys, ed., Specimens of Macaronic Poetry, 1831

In 1971, Word Ways encouraged its readers to find the anagram that this sad man had worked so hard for. What they found was MOLDY BALLOON.

Good Turns


In order to get a license, London taxicab drivers must pass a punishing exam testing their memory of 25,000 streets and every significant business and landmark on them. “The Knowledge” has been called the hardest test of any kind in the world; applicants must put in thousands of hours of study to pass a series of progressively difficult oral exams that take, on average, four years to complete. The guidebook for prospective cabbies says:

To achieve the required standard to be licensed as an ‘All London’ taxi driver you will need a thorough knowledge, primarily, of the area within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.

Interestingly, licensed London cabbies show a significantly larger posterior hippocampus than non-taxi drivers. Psychologist Hugo J. Spiers writes, “Current evidence suggests that it is the acquisition of this spatial knowledge and its use on the job that causes the taxi driver’s posterior hippocampus to grow larger.” Apparently it’s not actually driving the streets, or learning the information alone, that causes the change — London bus drivers don’t show the same effect; nor do doctors, who must also acquire vast knowledge; nor do cabbies who fail the exam. Rather it seems to be the regular use of the knowledge that causes the change: Retired cabbies tend to have a smaller hippocampus than current drivers.

While driving virtual routes in fMRI studies, cabbies showed the most hippocampal activity at the moment a customer requested a destination. One cabbie said, “I’ve got an over-patched picture of Peter Street. It sounds daft, but I don’t view it from ground level, it was slightly up and I could see the whole area as though I was about 50 foot up. And I saw Peter Street, I saw the market and I knew I had to get down to Peter Street.” Non-cabbie volunteers also showed the most activity when they were planning a route. “Thus,” writes Spiers, “the engagement of the hippocampus appears to depend on the extent to which someone thinks about what the possible streets they might want to take during navigation.”

(Hugo J. Spiers, “Will Self and His Inner Seahorse,” in Sebastian Groes, ed., Memory in the Twenty-First Century, 2016.)



This is the so-called Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare, engraved by Martin Droeshout as the frontispiece for the First Folio, published in 1623. In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-Speare, Edwin Durning-Lawrence draws attention to the fit of the coat on the figure’s right arm. “Every tailor will admit that this is not and cannot be the front of the right arm, but is, without possibility of doubt, the back of the left arm.” Compare this with the figure’s left arm, where “you at once perceive that you are no longer looking at the back of the coat but at the front of the coat.”

If that’s not enough, note the line beneath Shakespeare’s jaw, suggesting that he’s wearing a false face. The engraving is in fact “a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture, shewing two left arms and a mask” and proving that Shakespeare is a fraud and not the author of the plays attributed to him.

I’ll admit that I don’t quite see the problem with the coat, but apparently I’m just not discerning enough: In 1911 Durning-Lawrence reported that the trade journal Tailor and Cutter had agreed that Droeshout’s figure “was undoubtedly clothed in an impossible coat composed of the back and front of the same left arm.” Indeed, the Gentleman’s Tailor Magazine printed “the two halves of the coat put tailor fashion, shoulder to shoulder” and observed that “it is passing strange that something like three centuries should have been allowed to elapse before the tailor’s handiwork should have been appealed to in this particular manner.”