Podcast Episode 7: Louisiana Hippos, Imaginary Epidemics, and Charles Lindbergh

Two weeks before Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, a pair of French aviators attempted a similar feat. Their brave journey might have changed history — but they disappeared en route. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the flight of the “White Bird” — and ponder what became of it.

We’ll also examine a proposal to build hippo ranches in the Louisiana bayou in 1910, investigate historical outbreaks of dancing, laughing, and other strange behavior, and present the next Futility Closet challenge.

Sources on Australian feral camels and the American hippo farming proposal:

australia.gov.au, “Afghan cameleers in Australia.”

Oliver Milman, “Australian feral camel population overestimated, says study,” Guardian, Nov. 18, 2013.

Greg Miller, “The Crazy, Ingenious Plan to Bring Hippopotamus Ranching to America,” Wired, Dec. 20, 2013.

Lauren Davis, “The Remarkable Early 20th Century Plan to Farm Hippopotamuses in the US,” io9, Jan. 2, 2014.


Our post on the White Bird ran on June 25, 2008. The biplane left Paris at 5:17 a.m. on May 8, 1927, in favorable weather, carrying pilot Charles Nungesser and navigator Francois Coli. Nungesser told reporters, “We have every confidence in the outcome and expect to land in New York Harbor between noon and 3 p.m. Monday.” The New York Times added, “One of the most courageous witnesses to the historic event … was Madame Coli, who bravely kissed her husband good-bye and then, with tears in her eyes, watched the airmen take off.”

The last confirmed sighting came from a British destroyer that reported spotting the plane flying northwest at Carrig Island, off the Irish coast, headed into the Atlantic. The flight’s planned route would have reached North America first in Nova Scotia, then proceeded south through Maine to Boston and New York. Ground searches have tended to center on Machias, Maine, where fisherman Anson Berry said he had heard a crash: “Did you see that plane, went down back of Round Lake Hills?”


“Nungesser Off on Paris-New York Hop At 5:17 A.M.; Heads for Newfoundland; Plane Rises Amid Plaudits of Throng,” New York Times, May 8, 1927.

Fitzhugh Green, “Expert Sees Hope For French Fliers,” New York Times May 13, 1927.

“Should Atlantic Fliers Shun Radio To Save Weight?”, New York Times, May 15, 1927.

“Group of Six Men Relate Hearing Plane in Trouble,” The Washington Post, May 16, 1927.

“Follow Atlantic Death Lane,” New York Times, Sept. 7, 1927.

“Ocean Hides Canadians,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 8, 1927.

“Hope For Flyers Wanes,” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1928.

“Unveil Monument To Nungesser, Coli,” New York Times, May 8, 1928.

“Find Part Of A Plane Off Charlottetown,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 1928.

“Plane ‘Clue’ Fails,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 1961.

Vern Hutchinson, “The Mystery of the White Bird,” The Washington Post, Aug. 13, 1972.

Matthew L. Wald, “Lindbergh Rivals’ Wreck Sought in Maine Woods,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 1987.

Our post on the dancing plague of 1518 ran on April 22, 2014. Sources:

John Waller, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, 2008.

Maia Szalavitz, “Mysterious Tics in Teen Girls: What Is Mass Psychogenic Illness?”, Time, Jan. 31, 2012.

Mattelaer, J.J., and Jilek, W., “Koro–the psychological disappearance of the penis,” J Sex Med., 2007 Sep; 4(5):1509-15.

Broderick, J.E., Kaplan-Liss, E., and Bass, E., “Experimental induction of psychogenic illness in the context of a medical event and media exposure,” Am J Disaster Med., 2011 May-Jun; 6(3):163-72.

Bentz, L., Benmansour, E.H., and Pradier, C., “An epidemic of unidentified illness experienced by a hospital’s staff: a qualitative study,” Sante Publique, 2006 Mar; 18(1):55-62.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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.

Next week we plan to follow the exploits of Gail Halvorsen, the “candy bomber,” a U.S. Air Force pilot who dropped candy on parachutes for children during the Berlin airlift. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!



“It is disconcerting to reflect on the number of students we have flunked in chemistry for not knowing what we later found to be untrue.” — Attributed to Deming by B.R. Bertramson, in Robert L. Weber, Science with a Smile, 1992



Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell, whom Arthur Conan Doyle had served as a clerk in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Bell was famous for making deductions about his patients. He greeted one by saying, “Ah, I perceive that you are a soldier, a noncommissioned officer, and that you have served in Bermuda.”

When the man acknowledged this, Bell addressed his students. “How did I know that, gentlemen? The matter is simplicity itself. He came into the room without taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly’s room. He was a soldier. A slight authoritative air, combined with his age, shows that he was a noncommissioned officer. A slight rash on the forehead tells me that he was in Bermuda, and subject to a certain rash known only there.”

On another occasion Bell challenged his students to identify a bitter drug by taste alone. They watched him dip a finger into the tumbler and taste it, and reluctantly followed suit. “Gentlemen,” he said with a laugh, “I am deeply grieved to find that not one of you has developed this power of perception which I so often speak about; for if you had watched me closely, you would have found that while I placed my forefinger in the medicine, it was the middle finger which found its way into my mouth.”


In 1961, when Groucho Marx turned 71, he received a telegram from Irving Berlin:


The Pun Also Rises

In 1994, computer scientists Graeme Ritchie and Kim Binsted designed a computer program to generate original riddles:

  • What do you call a ferocious nude? A grizzly bare.
  • What do you get when you cross breakfast food with a murderer? A cereal killer.
  • What’s the difference between leaves and a car? One you brush and rake, the other you rush and brake.
  • What’s the difference between a pretty glove and a silent cat? One is a cute mitten and the other is a mute kitten.

They called it JAPE, for Joke Analysis and Production Engine. In 1997 they convened a group of 8- to 11-year-old children to act as judges and presented them with a random selection of JAPE-produced riddles, human-produced riddles, nonsense nonjokes, and sensible nonjokes. Then they asked them to decide whether each text was a joke and, if so, how funny it was and whether they had heard it before.

“The results showed that the JAPE-produced riddles were identified as jokes just as reliably as the human-produced ones, and both were easily distinguished from the non-jokes,” writes Rod Martin in The Psychology of Humor (2007). “Although the JAPE-produced jokes were rated as less funny, on average, than the human-produced jokes, a number of the JAPE riddles were rated as being just as funny as those produced by humans.”

(Binsted, K., Pain, H., & Ritchie, G., “Children’s Evaluation of Computer-Generated Punning Riddles,” Pragmatics and Cognition, 5(2) [1997], 309-358.)

Writing fables is harder.

Black and White

petkovic chess problem

A cylindrical problem by Miodrag Petkovic: Imagine that the board is rolled into a cylinder, with the a-file adjoining the h-file. How can White mate in two moves?

Click for Answer

The Horse’s Mouth

In 1961, Robert Rauschenberg was invited to participate in a Paris show in which artists were to exhibit a portrait of gallery owner Iris Clert. Rauschenberg sent a telegram:


Was he right? Perhaps so: Three years later, Parisian performance artist Ben Vautier sat down in a street in Nice holding a placard in his lap. The placard read:

Regardez moi cela suffit je suis art.

That means, “Look at me. That’s all it takes; I’m art.”

The Parsons Code

In 1975 Denys Parsons devised a surprisingly simple way for nonmusicians to record melodies — write an asterisk for the first note, then hum the tune and decide whether each subsequent note goes up (U), down (D), or repeats (R). The first two phrases of “Happy Birthday,” for instance, look like this:


(“* repeat up down up down down repeat up down up down”)

This is surprisingly effective — Parsons, who spent five years indexing practically every well-known classical theme from the 16th century onward, wrote, “I continue to be astonished that such a simple test, taken to the sixteenth note (or less), should be adequate to distinguish more than 10,000 classical themes.” Can you identify the eight famous classical melodies below?

Click for Answer

In a Word

n. the reverse of goodness; unkindness

n. harm, damage; evil

adj. incapable of repentance

adj. incapable of weeping

Borromean Tribars

borromean tribars

Only the brilliantly inventive Lee Sallows would think of this. The figure above combines Penrose triangles with Borromean rings: Each of the triangles is an impossible object, and they’re united in a perplexing way — although the three are linked together, no two are linked.

(Thanks, Lee.)

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