Podcast Episode 233: Flight to Freedom


In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West.

We’ll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker.


In 1993 Tom Peyer and Hart Seely found that Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto’s utterances can be cast as free verse.

Jane Austen wrote three novels on a tiny table in her family’s sitting room, subject to continual interruption.

Sources for our story on the East German balloon escape:

Jürgen Petschull, With the Wind to the West, 1980.

John Dornberg, “Freedom Balloon,” Popular Mechanics 153:2 (February 1980), 100-103, 150.

Kate Connolly, “Film of Daring Balloon Escape From East Revives German Identity Debate,” Guardian, Oct. 7, 2018.

“Man Who Fled East Germany in a Homemade Balloon and Whose Story Was Made Into a Film Dies,” Sunday Express, March 15, 2017.

“Fleeing Communism in a Hot Air Balloon,” BBC World Service, June 18, 2015.

Donata Von Hardenberg, “Escaping the East by Any Means,” McClatchy-Tribune Business News, Nov. 12, 2009.

“Great Escapes,” National Post, Nov. 7, 2009.

Scott Dick, “Those Who Risked It All on a Flight to Freedom,” Daily Telegraph, April 13, 2004.

Alice Demetrius Stock, “Homemade Craft Made Daring Escape,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 3, 1995.

Paul Martin, “The House at Checkpoint Charlie: A Little West Berlin Museum Celebrates the Ingenuity of Those Who Conquered the Wall,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 7, 1986.

Victoria Pope, “Berlin Wall, 20 Years Later: People Still Try to Flee,” Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 13, 1981.

“East-West: The Great Balloon Escape,” Time, Oct. 1, 1979.

Michael Getler, “Harrowing Flight From East Germany,” Washington Post, Sept. 28, 1979.

“Eight Flee East Germany in Homemade Balloon,” UPI, Sept. 17, 1979.

“Günter Wetzel Und Peter Strelzyk,” Haus de Bayerischen Geschichte Museum (accessed January 6, 2019).

Günter Wetzel’s website.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Road Space Rationing” (accessed Jan. 10, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Vehicle Restriction in São Paulo” (accessed Jan. 10, 2019).

Reddit legaladvice (accessed Jan. 12, 2019).

“I trained an AI to generate /r/legaladvice post titles, and it asks ‘Is it legal for me to get in legal trouble?’,” Reddit legaladviceofftopic (accessed Jan. 11, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Keyforge: Call of the Archons” (accessed Jan. 10, 2019).

“Archon Names,” Fantasy Flight Games, Nov. 9, 2018.

“The Amazing KeyForge Deck Names,” Heavy Punch Games (accessed Jan. 10, 2019).

Dave Lawrence posts lists of neural net outputs on his blog, Aardvark Zythum.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Peter Wilds, who sent this related link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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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!


Image: Wikimedia Commons

I do not like books. I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it. I keep my books at the British Museum and at Mudie’s, and it makes me very angry if any one gives me one for my private library. I once heard two ladies disputing in a railway carriage as to whether one of them had or had not been wasting money. ‘I spent it in books,’ said the accused, ‘and it’s not wasting money to buy books.’ ‘Indeed, my dear, I think it is,’ was the rejoinder, and in practice I agree with it.

— Samuel Butler, Ramblings in Cheapside, 1890

Thinking Big

This is fantastic — in 2017, 56 enthusiasts built an O-gauge model railway 71 miles long, connecting Fort William and the City of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. At a scale of 46:1, that’s half the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Only one journey was made on the completed railway. The locomotive Silver Lady departed Corpach Double Lock on June 23, 2017, and arrived, on time, at Inverness Castle on July 1.

Volunteer team leader Lawrence Robbins told the Daily Record, “Just because it’s bonkers doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.”

Threes and Fours

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A problem from the Tenth International Mathematical Olympiad, 1968:

Prove that in every tetrahedron there is a vertex such that the three edges meeting there have lengths which are the sides of a triangle.

Click for Answer



  • The negative space in the eight of diamonds forms an 8.
  • William Brewster, leader of the Plymouth Colony, named his children Jonathan, Patience, Fear, Love, and Wrestling.
  • Wilfred Owen’s mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day.
  • “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.” — William James

Good Boy


In 1919, engineer James Cowan Smith bequeathed £55,000 to the National Gallery of Scotland.

He set two conditions. One was that the gallery provide for his dog Fury.

The other was that this picture of his previous dog Callum, by painter John Emms, always be hung in the gallery.

Both conditions were fulfilled.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1940 Bertrand Russell was invited to teach logic at the City College of New York.

A Mrs. Kay of Brooklyn opposed the appointment, citing Russell’s agnosticism and his alleged practice of sexual immorality.

In the lawsuit his works were described as “lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrowminded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber.”

“Although he lost the case, the aging Russell was delighted to have been described as ‘aphrodisiac,'” writes Betsy Devine in Absolute Zero Gravity. “‘I cannot think of any predecessors,’ he claimed, ‘except Apuleius and Othello.'”

Dance Lessons

The quicksort computer sorting algorithm demonstrated with Hungarian folk dance, from Romania’s Sapientia University.


The four queens puzzle solved using ballet.

Binary search through flamenco dance.

Merge sort via Transylvanian-Saxon folk dance.

Selection sort using Gypsy folk dance.


(Via MetaFilter.)

01/19/2019 UPDATE: When Gavin Taylor showed these algorithms to his students at the United States Naval Academy, they asked whether they themselves could dance for extra credit. He said yes. So here are the U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen dancing the InsertionSort algorithm:

(Thanks, Gavin.)