Podcast Episode 155: The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giraffe_Crossing_(1827)_by_Jacques_Raymond_Brascassat.jpg

In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king’s menagerie in Paris.

We’ll also visit Queen Victoria’s coronation and puzzle over a child’s surprising recovery.

Intro:

In 1952 a stray cat made a home in Classroom 8 of a California elementary school.

Abe Lincoln’s ghost seems to spend a lot of time in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Sources for our feature on Zarafa the giraffe:

Michael Allin, Zarafa, 1998.

Erik Ringmar, “Audience for a Giraffe: European Expansionism and the Quest for the Exotic,” Journal of World History 17:4 (December 2006), 375-397.

Heather J. Sharkey, “La Belle Africaine: The Sudanese Giraffe Who Went to France,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 49:1 (2015), 39-65.

Olivier Lagueux, “Geoffroy’s Giraffe: The Hagiography of a Charismatic Mammal,” Journal of the History of Biology, 36:2 (June 2003), 225–247.

Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96:4 (December 2005), 559-571.

Philip McCouat, “The Art of Giraffe Diplomacy: How an African Giraffe Walked Across France and Became a Pawn in an International Power Struggle,” Journal of Art in Society (accessed May 14, 2017).

Olivier Lagueux, “Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris [review],” Isis 92:1 (March 2001), 186-187.

S. Mary P. Benbow, “Death and Dying at the Zoo,” Journal of Popular Culture 37:3 (2004), 379-398.

Elena Passarello, “Beautiful Animal of the King,” Paris Review, Dec. 20, 2016.

Henry Nicholls, “Meet Zarafa, the Giraffe That Inspired a Crazy Hairdo,” Guardian, Jan. 20, 2014.

Olivier Lebleu, “Long-Necked Diplomacy: The Tale of the Third Giraffe,” Guardian, Jan. 11, 2016.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zarafa_2010.jpg

Today Zarafa stands on the landing of a stone staircase in the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle.

Listener mail:

Julia Baird, Victoria, 2016.

C. Dack, “The Coronation of Queen Victoria,” Pall Mall Magazine 48:219 (July 1911), 2-5.

Wikipedia, “East Asian Age Reckoning” (accessed May 26, 2017).

Josh Clark, “How Thoroughbred Horses Work,” How Stuff Works, Oct. 4, 2011.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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!

Pictures of Motion

joinville soldier walking

In 1883, in his studies of the human gait, French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey asked a soldier to walk past a camera with an open shutter. Before the lens Marey had placed a rotating disk in which he’d cut slots at regular intervals. As the soldier walked, the slots permitted successive images to register on the same photographic plate, producing a “chronophotograph” — a portrait of human movement in time and space.

This opened a new window into the representation of motion — among other things, it helped to inspire Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.jpg

Duchamp said, “The idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me. … My aim was a static representation of movement, a static composition of indications of various positions taken by a form in movement.”

hovey chronophotograph

Engineer Frank Gilbreth, who made a science of optimizing human movement, at one point used a similar technique to study the swing of Connecticut golf champion Roger Hovey. He was surprised to find that the path of Hovey’s upswing varied from that of the downswing by more than 12 inches, and his head moved more than a foot. Intrigued, he studied Gilbert Nicholls, and later Francis Ouimet and Jim Barnes. All varied their swings, and all moved their heads.

When Gilbreth showed these results to a friend in London, “his only comment was to the effect that he had previously suspected that we didn’t know much about golf in America. Which only goes to show.”

Alternate Route

In 1989, a real estate developer applied to build 300 homes in Bolton, England, over the objections of the residents. The application was rejected twice, but then a government minister overturned the decision and told the firm to go ahead.

The borough council’s deputy leader, Guy Harkin, told the Bolton News, “We were scratching around to prevent a big national company dumping an estate on Bolton which the people didn’t want. After the government minister gave it the go-ahead, the only thing we had control over were the names of the streets.”

So they named them Hitler Avenue, Belsen Crescent, and Goering Drive.

“I thought if we could come up with the most nauseous names, it might prevent Barratts from building the estate,” Harkin said. “We wanted to do anything to prevent it being built, rather than force people to live on streets with horrible names.”

“Unfortunately the lawyers said although we were legally able to do it, we would have lost it on appeal. So it was never put forward as policy. The estate was built with normal street names.”

(Thanks, Raphy.)

A Late Project

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Paine_rev1.jpg

Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)

But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.

Fire and Fog

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wili/2628869994/
Image: Flickr

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his first story, at age 7, “my mother … pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.” It turns out that there’s an unwritten rule in English that governs the order in which we string our adjectives together:

opinion
size
age
shape
color
origin
material
type
purpose

In The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth writes, “So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Another unwritten rule concerns ablaut reduplication: In terms such as chit-chat or dilly-dally, in which a word is repeated with an altered vowel, the vowels will follow the pattern I-A-O if there are three words and I-A or I-O if there are two. So:

tip-top
clip-clop
King Kong
flip-flop
sing-song
shilly-shally

And so on. Interestingly, these rules about precedence seem to follow a precedence rule of their own: The “royal order of adjectives” would require Red Riding Hood to meet the “Bad Big Wolf” (opinion before size). But the rule of ablaut reduplication apparently trumps this, making him the Big Bad Wolf.

“Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists,” Forsyth writes. “It might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.”

I don’t know how this applies to dragons.

(Thanks, Nick and Armin.)

Room 101

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/nov/13/art2

In 1941, the BBC established an Eastern Services Committee to discuss programming in India. The meetings were held in Room 101 at 55 Portland Place in London. George Orwell attended at least 12 meetings there and was asked to convene a subcommittee to consider organizing drama and poetry competitions.

Orwell scholar Peter Davison writes, “In Nineteen Eighty-Four O’Brien tells Orwell that the thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. The understandable impression is that this is something like drowning, death by fire, or impalement, but Orwell is more subtle: for many, and for him, the worst thing in the world is that which is the bureaucrat’s life-blood: attendance at meetings.”

In 2003, when the original building was scheduled to be demolished, artist Rachel Whiteread made a plaster cast of the room’s interior (above). It was displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum later that year.

(From George Orwell: A Life in Letters, 2013.)

Crescent Lake

https://emorfes.com/2017/05/22/crescent-lake-an-oasis-in-the-gobi-desert/

Six kilometers south of Dunhuang in western China lies Crescent Lake, an oasis that once served as a waypoint to the West along the Silk Road. British missionaries Mildred Cable and Francesca French recorded their first sight of it during their travels through the Gobi Desert in the 1920s:

All around us we saw tier on tier of lofty sand-hills, giving the lie to our quest, yet when, with a final desperate effort, we hoisted ourselves over the last ridge and looked down on what lay beyond, we saw the lake below, and its beauty was entrancing.

The lake survived for 2,000 years thanks to its low altitude and sheltered position, but it began to shrink in the 20th century due to population pressures — its depth dropped from 7.5 to 0.9 meters between 1960 and the early 1990s. In 2006 the government stepped in to reverse the decline, and now it’s growing again.

(Via eMORFES.)

Peace and Quiet

https://www.google.com/patents/US208672

Ohio inventor Philip Clover came up with a dramatic way to discourage body snatchers in 1878: a “coffin torpedo.” Basically a live cartridge is attached to the body by hidden wires so that “any attempt to remove the body after burial will cause the … injury or death of the desecrator of the grave”:

The trigger-wires are secured to the arms, legs, or other portion of the body of the corpse in such manner as to induce to the tripping of the trigger should any attempt be made to withdraw the body from the casket. The torpedo is loaded … just prior to the final closing of the casket.

“The torpedo may be placed in variable positions within the casket, and properly concealed by the trimmings of the casket or the apparel of the corpse.” Clover points out that there’s no need to protect the weapon from the elements — by the time it ceases to work, “the body would be of no use to robbers.”

Podcast Episode 154: Spared by a Volcano

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyparis.jpg

The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”

We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

Intro:

The French newspaper La Bougie du Sapeur is published only on Leap Day.

When a vat burst in 1814, 323,000 imperial gallons of beer flooded a London street.

Sources for our feature on Ludger Sylbaris:

Peter Morgan, Fire Mountain, 2003.

Edmund Otis Hovey, The 1902-1903 Eruptions of Mont Pelé, Martinique and the Soufrière, St. Vincent, 1904.

Ludger Sylbaris, “Buried Alive in St. Pierre,” Wide World Magazine, November 1903.

Matthew St. Ville Hunte, “Inside the Volcano,” Paris Review, Sept. 16, 2016.

“Prison Cell of ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday,'” Slate, July 31, 2013.

Brian Morton, “There’s No Smoke Without Fire,” Financial Times, Feb. 13, 2003.

Tony Jones, “Lone Survivor,” New Scientist 177:2382 (Feb. 15, 2003), 48-49.

“[front page — no title],” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1906.

Listener mail:

Kate Connolly, “He’s Hired: Belgian Lands ‘Dream Job’ as Hermit for Austrian Cliffside Retreat,” Guardian, April 19, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent two sets of corroborating links — these contain explicit photos, and these don’t.

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!

An End in Sight

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Euwe_1935.jpg

Write down a 0:

0

Now mentally “flip” this string in binary, exchanging 0s and 1s, and append this new string to the existing one:

0 1

Keep this up and you’ll get a growing string of 0s and 1s:

0 1 1 0
0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1
0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0

This is the Thue–Morse sequence, named after two of its discoverers, Axel Thue and Marston Morse. One interesting property of the sequence is that, no matter how far it’s extended, it contains no “cubes,” no instances in which some nonempty string occurs three times in a row. For example, the last line above contains both 11 and 00 but no instance of 111 or 000. (It also contains 1001 twice in a row, but not three times.)

Max Euwe, the Dutch mathematician who was world chess champion from 1935 to 1937, used this principle to show that chess was not a finite game. Under the rules at the time, a chess game would end in a draw if a sequence of moves (with all pieces in the same positions) were played three times in a row. Euwe used the Thue-Morse sequence to show that this need never happen: If 0 represents one set of moves, and 1 represents another, and each set leaves the board position unchanged, then the Thue-Morse sequence shows that two players might step through these routines forever without ever playing one three times in a row.

Modern chess rules have dropped the threefold sequence provision. Instead a draw results when the same board position occurs three times, or when 50 successive moves occur without a capture or a pawn move. Both of these rules limit a game to a finite length (although one player must actually claim the draw).

(Thanks, Pål.)