Waste Not, Want Not

An American, named Sanborn, living at Medford, Mass., in his will, dated 1871, bequeathed his body to Harvard University, and ‘especially to the manipulation of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz.’ He requested that his skin be made into two drumheads, to become the property of his life-long friend, Warren Simpson, leader of a drum corps, of Cohasset, on condition that on Bunker Hill at sunrise, June 17th, each year, he should beat on the said drum the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle.’ On one drum-head was to be inscribed Pope’s ‘Universal Prayer,’ and on the other the ‘Declaration of Independence.’

‘The remainder of my body,’ he continues, ‘unless for anatomical purposes, to be composted for a fertilizer to contribute to the growth of an American elm, to be planted in some rural thoroughfare, that the weary wayfarer may rest, and innocent children play beneath its umbrageous branches rendered luxuriant by my remains.’

Current Opinion, 1902

A Little Romance

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Landing_on_Queen_Red_Beach,_Sword_Area.jpg

When the British Army went ashore at Normandy, private Bill Millin was wearing a Cameron tartan kilt and playing “Hielan’ Laddie” on his bagpipes. Unarmed except for a ceremonial dagger, he marched up and down the water’s edge, blasting out tunes, and miraculously was not hit. Millin was personal piper to Lord Lovat, commander of 1st Special Service Brigade. The War Office had banned pipers from leading soldiers into battle after many were lost in World War I. “But that’s the English War Office,” Lovat told him. “You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

“Mad Jack” Churchill enjoyed danger so much that he fought World War II with arrows and a broadsword — that’s him on the far right below, leading a training exercise in Scotland.

“Any officer who goes into action without his sword,” he said, “is improperly dressed.”

Churchill charged through the whole war this way — he’s the only British soldier to fell an enemy with a longbow — and yet he lived to be 90. He died peacefully in Surrey in 1996.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jack_Churchill_leading_training_charge_with_sword.jpg

The Taft Diet

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Whtaft.jpeg

William Howard Taft weighed as much as 340 pounds during his presidency, but after leaving office he lost 70 pounds and kept it off for the remainder of his life. He shared his diet on the front page of the New York Times:

I have dropped potatoes entirely from my bill of fare, and also bread in all forms. Pork is also tabooed, as well as other meats in which there is a large percentage of fat. All vegetables except potatoes are permitted, and of meats, that of all fowls is permitted. In the fish line I abstain from salmon and bluefish, which are the fat members of the fish family. I am also careful not to drink more than two glasses of water at each meal. I abstain from wines and liquors of all kinds, as well as tobacco in every form.

“I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life,” he said. “Too much flesh is bad for any man.”

Podcast Episode 1: Calendar Reform, Doll Mansions, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Today we’re launching a weekly podcast, on which we’ll answer listener questions, discuss recent popular posts on Futility Closet, share readers’ contributions on previous topics, present intriguing leads that we’ve encountered in our research, and offer a challenge in which listeners can match their wits.

Futility Closet podcast logo

Will New Year’s Day fall on a weekend in the year 2063? If calendar reformer Moses Cotsworth had succeeded, anyone in the world could have answered that question instantly — any of us could name the day of the week on which any future date would fall, no matter how distant. In this first episode we examine Cotsworth’s plan and similar efforts to improve our clocks and calendars.

We also look at how an antique dollhouse offers a surprising window into 17th-century Dutch history, explore a curious puzzle in an Alfred Hitchcock film, and invite you to participate in the first Futility Closet Challenge.

In discussing where I find story ideas, I describe the origins of The Skeleton in the Bale, a March 9, 2014, post recounting the gruesome doings at an Alabama plantation during the Civil War.

Our main feature this week relates to Moses Cotsworth’s campaign to reform the calendar — see our February 2014 post for a look at the pleasingly uniform monthly calendar we’d all be using if he’d succeeded.

And here’s the World Calendar Association, which is still championing the reforms proposed by Elisabeth Achelis.

Our March 4 post on Elaine Diehl’s 600-pound dollhouse brought this comment from Daniël Hoek:

During their Golden Age, the Dutch were very fond of this stuff, expending enormous sums of money on elaborate doll houses:

http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/works-of-art/dolls-houses/objects#/BK-NM-1010,0

In the one linked to, every effort was made to make every trinket out of the same materials as its macroscopic equivalent. The plates are real porcelain imported from China, the paintings were commissioned from famous artists, the bookcase (the closed cupboard in the lower right) was filled with miniature books containing miniature stories, etc., etc. The cost of producing the thing vastly outstripped the cost of buying a real mansion in central Amsterdam.

He’s right — Jacob Appel painted Petronella Oortman’s elaborate dollhouse in 1710:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dollhouse_of_Petronella_Ortman_by_Jacob_Appel.jpg

And here’s a recent photograph:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/archeon/128526732/

Image: Flickr

A similarly elaborate dollhouse, completed in 1924 for Queen Mary, wife of George V, contains a tiny volume written by Arthur Conan Doyle, with the shortest Sherlock Holmes story ever written.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge invites you to take a well-known phrase and change or remove one letter to make a memorable new phrase. Here are some more entries from the New York magazine competition that inspired it:

  • Love’s Labours Cost
  • Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds — and why?
  • What is so rare as a May in June?
  • Black as the pit from pole to pole / I thank whatever God may be / For my unconquerable soup.

Post your own entry below and we’re read our favorites on next week’s show.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:

http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset

Next week we plan to discuss the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910; explore the fate of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the siege of Paris; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

We plan to release a new episode each Monday. Next week we’ll discuss the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910; investigate the use of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the Siege of Paris; commemorate a misplaced Australian prime minister; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Western Union

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nevada_constitution_%281864%29_signature_page.jpg

In 1864, as Abraham Lincoln fought for re-election during the Civil War, he was eager to admit Nevada to the Union because of its pro-Unionist and largely Republican sympathies. James Nye, governor of the territory, sent certified copies of the Nevada constitution overland to Washington, but on Oct. 24 they still hadn’t arrived. So he sent the entire constitution by telegram.

Telegrapher James H. Guild worked for seven hours to transmit the document in Morse code. Because there was no direct link from Carson City to Washington, he had to send it to Salt Lake City, from which it bounced to Chicago, then Philadelphia, and finally the War Department’s telegraph office at the capital. Above is the final page of the 175-page transcription, showing the word count (16,543) and the cost ($4,303.27, about $60,000 today).

Three days later, just eight days before the election, Nevada was admitted to the Union, and Lincoln was re-elected president.

Unquote

“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” — Seneca

Sound Language

http://openclipart.org/detail/169725/pow-vintage-comic-book-sound-effect-by-studio_hades

Ernst Havlik’s (1981) Lexikon der Onomatopoien is an entire dictionary consisting only of comic strip sound effects. It contains an introductory analysis, 2222 onomatopoeic items, and 111 illustrations. The section on kissing, for instance, contains glork, schmatz, schuic, shluk, smack, smurp and shmersh — quite a poetic collection in itself. More unexpected are woin and töff, both of which are intended to represent the sound of a car horn. A breaking car apparently goes tata in at least one source, and from a ‘scientific laboratory,’ one gets to hear foodle, grink, and sqwunk. Perhaps even more interesting are the sounds floop, flop and flomp, which represent the sound of a bra being taken off. Anyone prejudiced against the genre as such, may see it as a confirmation that the sections on ‘violence’ take up 17 pages, while that devoted to ‘thinking’ consists of a mere five lines.

— Mikael Parkvall, Limits of Language, 2006

Hearing Voices

What is this? For more than 30 years, shortwave radio bands around the world have been haunted by “numbers stations” on which anonymous voices recite strings of numbers and letters. These stations transmit in various languages, following strict schedules, but they never identify themselves or give any hint as to their purpose. It seems likely that they’re run by government agencies, sending messages to spies in the field using a prearranged code. But why does the station known as “The Buzzer” send out buzzing sounds on 4625 kHz continuously, throughout the year? And why on earth does the station recorded above, known as the “Swedish Rhapsody,” transmit the sound of a music box and a little girl’s voice?

Numbers stations are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act because (presumably) secrecy is essential to their missions, and in fact in the United Kingdom it’s illegal even to listen to them. So we’re unlikely to learn the full story anytime soon. But in 1997 the Irdial-Discs record label assembled a 5-CD set of recordings and has made it freely available to those who want to study them.

Tribute

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/698003

A letter from William James to his 8-year-old daughter Peggy, June 19, 1895:

Sweet Peg.

I am very happy here, and fear that you may already have gone up to Chocorua with your Mamma. Yesterday a beautiful humming bird came into the library and spent two hours without resting, trying to find his way out by the skylight in the ceiling. You never saw such untiring strength. Filled with pity for his fatigue, I went into the garden and culled a beautiful rose. The moment I held it up in my hand under the skylight, the angelic bird flew down into it and rested there as in a nest — the beautifullest sight you ever saw.

Your loving

Dad

Fast Food

What do you get when you weld together 848 forks, knives, and spoons? That depends on your point of view:

That’s “Lunch With a Helmet On,” by Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda. As a followup he obtained the rigging plan of the M.S. Shin-Nippon Maru and assembled a shadow sculpture from 2,084 pairs of metal scissors:

shigeo fukuda - one cannot cut the sea

Unbelievably, he completed this in a single week. More from Fukuda.

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