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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1973 Anthony Burgess lost a book manuscript to a scippatore, a thief on a Vespa.

He was living in Rome and working on Joysprick, his study of the language in Finnegans Wake. “I carried it in its Gucci case towards a Xeroxshop to be copied, but it was scippato on the way.”

He was remarkably philosophical about the loss. “The typescript was presumably fluttered into the Tiber or Tevere and the case sold for a few thousand lire. I had to write the book again, not with too much resentment: it was probably better the second time.”

“These scippatori were never caught by the police, who probably shared in their proceeds: their little motorcycles were not legally obliged to be fitted with a targa or numberplate. Petty crime is excused, or even exalted, by the greater crimes of the Quirinale.”

(From Burgess’ memoir You’ve Had Your Time, 1990.)

Casa Terracota
Image: Flickr

To show that soil can be transformed into habitable architecture, Colombian artist Octavio Mendoza made a 5,400-square-foot house entirely out of clay. Casa Terracota (known to the neighbors as “Casa de Flintstones”) contains no cement or steel — the whole building is fashioned from clay, including two floors of living space, all the furniture, and all the dishes.

After a career spent designing more conventional buildings, Mendoza spent 14 years realizing the project, to show that functional buildings can be made using the natural resources at hand. He calls it “the biggest piece of pottery in the world.”

Romance at Short Notice

“According to the legend whispered by the retainers and villagers, no sooner did the clock strike twelve than a headless apparition was seen to move slowly across the moonlit hall.”

In 1911 English humorists Edward Verrall Lucas and George Morrow took the illustrations from a department store catalog and arranged them into “a deeply-moving human drama.”

Stewart C. Russell has put the whole thing online (PDF).


fc store

Today and tomorrow (April 17 and 18) you can get 20% off everything in the Futility Closet store — T-shirts, hoodies, tanks, mugs, water bottles, mouse pads, phone cases, aprons, baby bodysuits, even frickin’ pillowcases.

Just enter code 20APRIL18 at checkout. Thanks for your support!


French composer Charles Koechlin rarely watched films until he saw The Blue Angel in 1933 and became captivated by “the formidable realm of the cinema.” He set to work and in a few weeks produced a Seven Stars Symphony, with a movement dedicated to each of seven actors of the day: Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin.

Interestingly, Robert Orledge writes in his biography of the composer, “The fifth, sixth and seventh movements, depicting Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin, are based on a cipher system of Koechlin’s own devising, in which the themes spell out the stars’ names, and in the case of the Emil Jannings movement virtually tell a film story in music.” I’ll try to find out more about that.

Podcast Episode 196: The Long Way Home

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the crew of an American seaplane were caught off guard near New Zealand. Unable to return across the Pacific, they were forced to fly home “the long way” — all the way around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the adventures of the Pacific Clipper on its 30,000-mile journey through a world engulfed in war.

We’ll also delve into the drug industry and puzzle over a curious case of skin lesions.


In the 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi began to turn out etchings of fantastic prisons.

Spanish philologist Valentín García Yebra contends that this six-word Portuguese poem can’t be translated effectively into another language.

Sources for our feature on the Pacific Clipper:

Ed Dover, The Long Way Home, 2010.

Archie Satterfield, The Day the War Began, 1992.

C.V. Glines, “The China Clipper, Pan American Airways and Popular Culture,” Aviation History 18:1 (September 2007), 69-70.

C.V. Glines, “Clippers Circle the Globe,” Aviation History 17:4 (March 2007), 34-43.

John A. Marshall, “The Long Way Home,” Air & Space Smithsonian 10:2 (June/July 1995), 18.

Wolfgang Saxon, “Robert Ford, Clipper Pilot of 40’s Who Circled Globe, Dies at 88,” New York Times, Oct. 19, 1994.

“World Travelers Pearl Harbor Turns a Routine Pan Am Clipper Flight Into a 31,500-Mile Odyssey,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 2000.

Byron Darnton, “Pacific Clipper, Racing War, Circles Globe, Lands Here,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 1942.

“Pacific Clipper at Noumea,” New York Times, Nov. 11, 1941.

“Pan Am’s Pacific Clippers,” Pacific Aviation Museum, Sept. 14, 2011.

Robert van der Linden, “December 7, 1941 and the First Around-the-World Commercial Flight,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Dec. 8, 2011.

John A. Marshall, “Celebrating the 75th Anniversary: The ‘Round The World Saga of the ‘Pacific Clipper,'” Pan Am Historical Foundation (accessed April 1, 2018).

Listener mail:

Nicola Nosengo, “Can You Teach Old Drugs New Tricks?”, Nature, June 14, 2016.

James Rudd, “From Viagra to Valium, the Drugs That Were Discovered by Accident,” Guardian, July 10, 2017.

Thomas A. Ban, “The Role of Serendipity in Drug Discovery,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 8:3 (September 2006), 335–344.

David W. Thomas et al., “Clinical Development Success Rates 2006-2015,” BIO/Biomedtracker/Amplion, 2016.

Charlie Sorrel, “The Bicycle Is Still a Scientific Mystery: Here’s Why,” Fast Company, Aug. 1, 2016.

Michael Brooks, “We Still Don’t Really Know How Bicycles Work,” New Statesman, Aug. 6, 2013.

Michael Brooks, “How Does a Bicycle Stay Upright?”, New Scientist, Sept. 2, 2015.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Arabo Avanes. 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

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 Thanks for listening!

Cold Facts,_manufacturers_of_and_dealers_in_supplies_for_plumbers,_steam_and_gas_fitters,_water_and_gas_works,_railroads_and_contractors_(1894)_(14573227010).jpg

Victorian and Edwardian boys could send confidential questions to the Boy’s Own Paper and look for responses in the “Answers to Correspondents” column:

  • “We are not sure of the colour of the South-Eastern Railway Carriages. The paint is rarely visible owing to the thick covering of dirt by which it is concealed.” (July 28, 1888)
  • “Your insect was smashed in the post, but we have identified the fragments as those of Cetonia aurata, the common rose-beetle. Next time you send us a specimen, put it in a box.”
  • “You cannot safely treat rupture yourself.” (July 1888)
  • “It is extremely unlikely that Victor Hugo would ever answer any of your letters, even if we forwarded them. He has been dead quite some years.”

One of the editors, Scottish physician Gordon Stables, seemed to have a particular favorite remedy for health questions:

  • “Rise not later than 7 and cold tub immediately. In very cold weather massage yourself all over before turning out, and then with the rough towel after the cold tub. Breakfast at 8, but only after ten minutes in the open air.”
  • “Swimming in winter (Mac.). — Few can stand it, but judge for yourself if you can get a good reaction. Dr. Gordon Stables tells us that he joined his swimming club in December when a student. Keeps it up all the year round. Has swum for his life with his heavy clothes on in the Arctic regions. Took no hurt. Others might.” (January 1905)
  • (To a girl who “wanted to get strong like the boys”:) “You have tried the really cold tub and the B.O.P. dumb-bell exercises every morning before breakfast, my dear?”

When one boy said he longed for a fine pair of whiskers, he was told that “a really cold tub” was his only hope. A New Zealand reader who asked for something to help his nerves was advised to “take plenty of exercise in the open air and a cold tub every morning before breakfast.”

What if there was no tub in the house? “Douche yourself regularly 365 days a year in the mornings on rising, and 366 in any Leap Year, with 30 sponge loads of the coldest water obtainable. We presume there is somewhere around where you can do this with discretion.” (Footnote: “The water must be really cold.”)

To a boy in Northern Ontario: “On no account should you ever cut a circular hole in the winter ice to get a cold tub. You would certainly freeze to death very quickly but it is also probable you might well provide a tasty meal for some hungry seal lurking below. In your case, wait for the spring thaws.”

Stables didn’t mince words. In 1905 he wrote, “The children of the wealthy and well-to-do in cities are apt to be spoiled by pampering and coddling and over-feeding. Cargoes of such little fat boys would sell well in some parts of new Guinea, but in this country they do not assist in the very least to keep the crown on the King’s head.” To a boy inquiring about “bad habits” in 1902, he wrote, “Coffins are cheap and boys like you are not of much use in the world. We do not answer by post.” Admonished for this, he published a modified reply in the Boy’s Own Annual for that year: “If you go on as you are, there is nothing before you but an early and dishonoured grave. Pray God to forgive and help you to resist temptation.”

(Jack Cox, Take a Cold Tub, Sir!, 1982.)

Something Different

Between 1769 and 1771, Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger wrote at least seven concerti for Jew’s harp and strings.

He went on to teach Beethoven.