Podcast Episode 309: The ‘Grain of Salt’ Episode

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Sometimes in our research we come across stories that are regarded as true but that we can’t fully verify. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll share two such stories from the 1920s, about a pair of New York fruit dealers and a mythologized bank robber, and discuss the strength of the evidence behind them.

We’ll also salute a retiring cat and puzzle over a heartless spouse.

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The Stairs of Reconciliation

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The Burg, the official headquarters of the regional government in Graz, Austria, contains a double spiral staircase, two flights of stairs spiraling in opposite directions that “reunite” at each floor, a masterpiece of architecture designed in 1499.

Bonus: Interestingly, several facades of the building bear the inscription A.E.I.O.U., a motto coined by Frederick III in 1437, when he was Duke of Styria. It’s not clear what this means, and over the ensuing centuries heraldists have offered more than 300 interpretations:

  • “All the world is subject to Austria” (Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan or Austriae est imperare orbi universo)
  • “I am loved by the elect” (from the Latin amor electis, iniustis ordinor ultor)
  • “Austria is best united by the Empire” (Austria est imperio optime unita)
  • “Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world” (Austria erit in orbe ultima)
  • “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world” (Austriae est imperare orbi universo)

At the time Styria was not yet part of Austria, so here it would refer to the House of Austria, or the Habsburg dynasty — which historically adopted the curious motto itself.

Podcast Episode 308: Nicholas Winton and the Czech Kindertransport

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In 1939, as the shadow of war spread over Europe, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton helped to spirit hundreds of threatened children out of Czechoslovakia. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Winton’s struggle to save the children and the world’s eventual recognition of his achievements.

We’ll also consider some ghostly marriages and puzzle over a ship’s speed.

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Russell’s Decalogue

In a 1951 article in the New York Times Magazine, Bertrand Russell laid out “the Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate”:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

“The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments,” he wrote. “The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.”

All’s Fair

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History’s ancient example of camouflage, the Trojan Horse, has a modern variation of peculiar interest. During the fighting near Craonne on the western front, some time ago, a horse broke his traces and dashed across ‘No Man’s Land’ toward the German defenses. When near the edge of a first-line trench he fell. The French immediately made the best of the opportunity and set camouflage artists at work fashioning a papier-mâché replica of the dead animal. Under cover of darkness the carcass was replaced with the dummy. For three days observers stationed in the latter were able to watch the enemy’s movements at close range and telephone their information to headquarters. Finally, when one observer was relieving another, the Germans discovered they had been tricked, and destroyed the post.

“Observer Hides in Dummy Horse Near Enemy Trench,” Popular Mechanics 29:1 (January 1918), 72.

On another occasion, a standing tree, whose branches had all been shot away, was carefully photographed and an exact copy of it made, but with a space inside in which an observer could be concealed. One night, while the noise of the workmen was drowned by heavy cannonading, this tree was replaced by its facsimile. And there it remained for many a day before the enemy discovered that it was a fake tree-trunk. It provided a tall observation-post from which an observer could direct the fire of his own artillery.

— A. Russell Bond, “Warriors of the Paint-Brush,” St. Nicholas 46:6 (April 1919), 499-505.

Podcast Episode 307: The Cyprus Mutiny

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In 1829 a group of convicts commandeered a brig in Tasmania and set off across the Pacific, hoping to elude their pursuers and win their freedom. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the mutineers of the Cyprus and a striking new perspective on their adventure.

We’ll also consider a Flemish dog and puzzle over a multiplied Oscar.

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Memorial

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The Anthem Veterans Memorial, in Anthem, Arizona, consists of five white pillars representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Each pillar contains a slanted elliptical opening, and the five are arranged so that at 11:11 a.m. on Veterans Day, November 11, the sun’s light passes through all five and illuminates the Great Seal of the United States, which is inlaid among 750 red paving stones engraved with the names of veterans.

Podcast Episode 306: The Inventor Who Disappeared

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In 1890, French inventor Louis Le Prince vanished just as he was preparing to debut his early motion pictures. He was never seen again. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the possible causes of Le Prince’s disappearance and his place in the history of cinema.

We’ll also reflect on a murderous lawyer and puzzle over the vagaries of snake milking.

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Podcast Episode 305: Cast Away in the New World

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Marooned in Florida in 1528, four Spanish colonists made an extraordinary journey across the unexplored continent. Their experiences changed their conception of the New World and its people. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable odyssey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his reformed perspective on the Spanish conquest.

We’ll also copy the Mona Lisa and puzzle over a deficient pinball machine.

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Podcast Episode 304: The Dog Who Joined the Navy

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The only dog ever enlisted in the Royal Navy was a Great Dane who befriended the sailors of Cape Town in the 1930s. Given the rank of able seaman, he boosted the morale of British sailors around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Just Nuisance and his adventures among the sailors who loved him.

We’ll also examine early concentration camps and puzzle over a weighty fashion.

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