Podcast Episode 205: The White Mouse

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In 1928 Nancy Wake ran away from her Australian home and into an unlikely destiny: She became a dynamo in the French resistance, helping more than a thousand people to flee the Germans and then organizing partisans to fight them directly. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the White Mouse, one of the bravest heroes of World War II.

We’ll also marvel at mailmen and puzzle over an expensive homework assignment.

See full show notes …

The Double Day

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Lyndon Johnson averaged only 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night and worked most of the rest; his wife once said, “Lyndon acts as if there is never going to be a tomorrow.” He arranged his time in a curious pattern:

Johnson began every day with a bedroom conference at 6:30 a.m., then worked straight through until 2:00 p.m., when he had lunch, relaxed, sometimes with a swim, and took a quick nap. By 4:00 p.m. he was ready to go again. ‘It’s like starting a new day,’ Johnson observed, and he would then proceed to work straight through to one or two in the morning. This Johnsonian ‘double day’ amazed the press and exhausted and frustrated his over-worked aides. His assistant Jack Valenti opined that Johnson had ‘extra glands’ that gave him energy that ordinary men did not possess: ‘He goes to bed late, rises early, and the words I have never heard him say are “I’m tired.”‘

He once called a congressman at 3 a.m. to discuss a piece of pending legislation. When Johnson asked, “Were you asleep?” the congressman thought quickly and said, “No, Mr. President, I was just lying here hoping you’d call.”

(From Larry F. Vrzalik and Michael Minor, From the President’s Pen, 1991.)

Lost Voices

In 2009 three historians engaged forensic lip reader Jessica Rees to analyze silent film shot at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Soldiers of the Essex Regiment washing at a pool shout “Hi Mum!” and “Hello Mum, it’s me.” A soldier with a wounded foot repeats, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” And another soldier tells the crew, “Stop filming, this is awful.”

“What struck me the most was the optimism of the soldiers and their bravery,” Rees said. “They all seemed very positive, full of team spirit and jocular. Yet, as I was stunned to learn, many of them did not even survive the day of filming. I came away feeling a bit humble.”

Podcast Episode 204: Mary Anning’s Fossils

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In 1804, when she was 5 years old, Mary Anning began to dig in the cliffs that flanked her English seaside town. What she found amazed the scientists of her time and challenged the established view of world history. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.”

We’ll also try to identify a Norwegian commando and puzzle over some further string pulling.

See full show notes …

“A Terrific Banquet in an Iguanodon”

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In 1852, British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins engaged to make 33 life-size concrete models of extinct dinosaurs, to be arranged in a park in southern London around the relocated Crystal Palace. Throughout the work he conferred with a team of leading British scientists, and on New Year’s Eve 1853 they celebrated their accomplishment with a dinner party held inside one of the sculptures:

Twenty-one of the guests were accommodated with seats ranged on each side of the table, within the sides of the iguanodon. Professor Owen, one of the most eminent geologists of the day, occupied a seat at the head of the table, and within the skull of the monster. Mr. Francis Fuller, the Managing Director, and Professor Forbes, were seated on commodious benches placed in the rear of the beast. An awning of pink and white drapery was raised above the novel banqueting-hall, and small banners bearing the names of Conybeare, Buckland, Forbes, Owen, Mantell, and other well-known geologists, gave character and interest to the scene. When the more substantial viands were disposed of, Professor Owen proposed that the company should drink in silence ‘The memory of Mantell, the discoverer of the iguanodon,’ the monster in whose bowels they had just dined.

They concluded with a “roaring chorus” in praise of the “antediluvian dragon”:

A thousand ages underground
His skeleton had lain;
But now his body’s big and round,
And he’s himself again!
His bones, like Adam’s, wrapped in clay,
His ribs of iron stout,
Where is the brute alive to-day
That dares with him turn out?
Beneath his hide he’s got inside
The souls of living men,
Who dare our Saurian now deride
With life in him again?

(Chorus) The jolly old beast
Is not deceased,
There’s life in him again. (A roar.)

In fairy land are fountains gay,
With dragons for their guard:
To keep the people from the sight,
The brutes hold watch and ward!
But far more gay our founts shall play,
Our dragons, far more true,
Will bid the nations enter in
And see what skill can do!
For monsters wise our saurians are,
And wisely shall they reign,
To spread sound knowledge near and far
They’ve come to life again!

Though savage war her teeth may gnash,
And human blood may flow,
And foul ambition, fierce and rash,
Would plunge the world in woe,
Each column of this palace fair
That heavenward soars on high,
A flag of hope shall on it bear,
Proclaiming strife must die!
And art and science far shall spread
Around this fair domain,
The People’s Palace rears its head
With life in it again.

(From Routledge’s Guide to the Crystal Palace and Park at Sydenham, 1854.)

Talking Points

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In September 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower found himself campaigning against the eloquent Adlai Stevenson, Time magazine made a list of his incomprehensible utterances:

“In our efforts throughout the world, on outpost positions, I mean positions that are exposed to immediate Communist threat, physical threat, if we will help those people hold out and get ourselves back where we belong as reserves to move in to any threatened danger point if they carry it to that point, carry it to that level, then what we will be doing it will be taking these 22 million South Koreans, pushing programs for getting them ready to hold their own front line.”

“I had some service friends that came to me along about May and some things beat around my head, and asked me, ‘General, why are you so crazy to ever get into this kind of thing?’ I had to find some answer that was quick because I was pretty busy in Europe. I got a picture of my three grandchildren and I put it on my mantel and I said, ‘Look at that.’ I want to talk about the future for a second in their terms. This is my particular philosophy. We have been talking about social gains for all our people in terms of, first, political issues, and secondly as of goals in themselves. Now I reject both doctrines, both ideas.”

“We are not going to let our citizens, through no fault of their own, fall down into disaster they could not have foreseen and due to the exigencies of our particular form of economy, this modern economy where they have no power to keep themselves out of that.”

Arnold Roth observed, “The man who had commanded the greatest army in history seemed to have inadequate command of his own thoughts, or at least the vehicle by which he carted those thoughts into public view.”

See All Clouds, No Thunder.

Podcast Episode 203: Notes and Queries

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore some more curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg’s research, including a misplaced elephant, a momentous biscuit failure, a peripatetic ax murderer, and the importance of the 9 of diamonds.

We’ll also revisit Michael Malloy’s resilience and puzzle over an uncommonly casual prison break.

See full show notes …

Commentary

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Notes left in manuscripts and colophons by medieval scribes and copyists, from the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly:

New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.

I am very cold.

That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.

Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen.

This page has not been written very slowly.

The parchment is hairy.

The ink is thin.

Thank God, it will soon be dark.

Oh, my hand.

Now I’ve written the whole thing; for Christ’s sake give me a drink.

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.

St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.

While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.

As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more.”

In her History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, Anne Trubek lists another: “Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe.”

Podcast Episode 202: The Rosenhan Experiment

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In the 1970s psychologist David Rosenhan sent healthy volunteers to 12 psychiatric hospitals, where they claimed to be hearing voices. Once they were admitted, they behaved normally, but the hospitals diagnosed all of them as seriously mentally ill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Rosenhan experiment, which challenged the validity of psychiatric diagnosis and set off a furor in the field.

We’ll also spot hawks at Wimbledon and puzzle over a finicky payment processor.

See full show notes …

An Early Visit

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Image: Wikimedia Commons
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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1829 a group of convicts seized the English brig Cyprus off Tasmania and sailed her to Canton. When captured, the convicts’ leader, William Swallow, claimed that they had visited Japan along the way. This was widely dismissed, as Japan had a strictly isolationist foreign policy at that time.

But just last year amateur historian Nick Russell discovered Japanese records of a visiting “barbarian” ship in 1830 that flew a British flag. Local samurai had visited the ship and recorded what they saw, including watercolors. The visitors had “long pointed noses” and asked in sign language for water and firewood. The young skipper put tobacco in “a suspicious looking object, sucked and then breathed out smoke.” The men “exchanged words amongst themselves like birds twittering,” and the ship’s dog “did not look like food. It looked like a pet.”

Another samurai listed gifts that the crew offered to the Japanese, including an object that’s now believed to have been a boomerang.

Takashi Tokuno, chief curator at the archive of Tokushima Prefecture, said there is a “high probability” that the barbarian ship is the Cyprus; Warwick Hirst, former curator of manuscripts at the State Library of New South Wales, said, “I have no doubt that the Japanese account describes the visit of the Cyprus.”

The Japanese turned away the mutineers, who eventually scuttled the Cyprus near Canton and worked their way back to England, where they found that word of their deed had preceded them. Swallow died in prison, and the rest became the last men hanged for piracy in Britain.