Podcast Episode 182: The Compulsive Wanderer

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In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of “mad travelers” in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We’ll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

Intro:

Ontario doctor Samuel Bean designed an enigmatic tombstone for his first two wives.

The Pythagorean theorem can spawn a geometric tree.

Sources for our feature on Albert Dadas:

Ian Hacking, Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, 2002.

Carl Elliott, Better Than Well, 2004.

Peter Toohey, Melancholy, Love, and Time, 2004.

Petteri Pietikäinen, Madness: A History, 2015.

Craig Stephenson, “The Epistemological Significance of Possession Entering the DSM,” History of Psychiatry 26:3 (September 2015), 251-269.

María Laura Martínez, “Ian Hacking’s Proposal for the Distinction Between Natural and Social Sciences,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39:2 (June 2009), 212-234.

Dominic Murphy, “Hacking’s Reconciliation: Putting the Biological and Sociological Together in the Explanation of Mental Illness,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 31:2 (June 2001), 139-162.

Roy Porter, “Fugue-itive Minds and Bodies,” Times Higher Education, October 15, 1999.

Listener mail:

Sarah Laskow, “How Sick Chickens and Rice Led Scientists to Vitamin B1,” Atlantic, Oct. 30, 2014.

“Christiaan Eijkman, Beriberi and Vitamin B1,” nobelprize.org (accessed Dec. 16, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Casimir Funk” (accessed Dec. 16, 2017).

“Gerrit Grijns in Java: Beriberi and the Concept of ‘Partial Starvation,'” World Neurology, March 19, 2013.

The Winnie-the-Pooh monument in White River, Ontario, from listener Dan McIntyre:

white river pooh monument

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!

Extraordinary Lengths

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A number of German writers intentionally suppressed the letter ‘r’ (as did also a fair number of Italians), of whom the eighteenth-century German poet Gottlob Burmann (1737-1805) is perhaps the most amusing: he is reported to have hated the letter ‘r’ to such an extent that in 130 poems he never used it and refused to pronounce his own last name.

— Laurence de Looze, The Letter & the Cosmos, 2016

Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Mysterious Ways

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Image: Flickr

Between 1950 and 1964, Meyer Wertlieb rented a garage in Washington D.C. to James Hampton, a janitor who worked at the General Services Administration. When Hampton died, Wertlieb opened the garage and found a throne.

Hampton, the son of a minister, had been born in South Carolina in 1909. In 1928 he moved to Washington to share an apartment with his older brother, and in 1931 God and his angels told him to make a throne for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Working for hours in the middle of each night, he spent 14 years building what he called “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” piecing it together from aluminum foil and cardboard boxes, jelly jars and light bulbs. God visited him regularly to check on his progress.

Eventually it was 7 feet tall and occupied 300 square feet. When Hampton died, his sister rejected it, and it now stands in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am not an art historian. I will make no aesthetic interpretation or judgment beyond a purely personal statement that Hampton’s Throne stunned and delighted me when I happened upon it by accident during a coffee break from a meeting at the Smithsonian, and it has never failed, upon many subsequent and purposeful visits, to elicit the same pleasure and awe.”

(If that’s not interesting enough, Hampton left behind a 70-page notebook that no one has ever deciphered.)

Illumination

The BIG Maze, a temporary installation at the National Building Museum in 2014, inverted the idea of the traditional Renaissance maze: Instead of getting more bewildering as you advanced toward the goal, it got easier.

“From outside, the maze’s cube-like form hides the final reveal behind its 18-foot-tall walls,” explained Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. “On the inside, the walls slowly descend towards the center, which concludes with a grand reveal — a 360-degree understanding of your path in and how to get out.”

Kids who wanted an overview could ride on their parents’ shoulders or go up to the building’s mezzanine in order to memorize the layout.

To Each His Own

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan’s Modern Toilet restaurant is so popular that it’s expanding into China and other parts of Asia. Patrons sit on acrylic toilets around glass-topped sinks to eat food from miniature toilet bowls and drink from plastic urinals. The desserts include “diarrhea with dried droppings” (chocolate), “bloody poop” (strawberry), and “green dysentery” (kiwi).

Owner Wang Zi-wei began by selling chocolate ice cream in paper toilets, inspired by a cartoon character. When the idea took off, he opened the full bathroom-themed restaurant in 2004, with shower heads and toilet plungers among the decor.

“It’s a little gross when you see other people eat,” one patron told Time in 2009. But, another added, “They do it tastefully.”

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Image: Flickr

Plea

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One sticks a finger into the ground to smell what country one is in. I stick my finger into the world — it has no smell. Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of that word? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager — I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

— Kierkegaard, Repetition, 1843

Bullseye

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Rather than follow daylight saving time, the state of Arizona observes standard time throughout the year.

But the Navajo Nation observes daylight saving time throughout its territory, including the part that lies in Arizona.

And the Hopi Nation, which lies entirely in Arizona, surrounded entirely by the Navajo Nation, doesn’t.

So the Hopi Nation is a region that doesn’t observe daylight saving time inside one that does inside one that doesn’t inside one that does.

Related: Ontario contains an island in a lake on an island in a lake.

Fierljeppen

Since much of the Netherlands is below sea level, Dutch farmers needed a way to leap waterways to reach their various plots of land. Over time this evolved into a competitive sport, known as fierljeppen (“far leaping”) in which each contestant sprints to the water, seizes a 10-meter pole, and climbs it as it lurches forward over the channel. The winner is the one who lands farthest from his starting point in the sand bed on the opposite side.

The current record holder is Jaco de Groot of Utrecht, who leapt, clambered, swayed, and fell 22.21 meters in August.

Good Boy

Elisabeth Mann Borgese taught her dog to type. In her book The Language Barrier she explains that her English setter, Arli, developed a vocabulary of 60 words and 17 letters, though “He isn’t an especially bright dog.” “[Arli] could write under dictation short words, three-letter words, four-letter words, two-letter words: ‘good dog; go; bad.’ And he would type it out. There were more letters but I never got him to use more than 17.”

She began in October 1962 by training all four of her dogs to distinguish 18 designs printed on saucers; Arli showed the most promise, so she focused on him. By January 1963 he could count to 4 and distinguish CAT from DOG. Eventually she gave him a modified typewriter with enlarged keys, which she taught him to nose mechanically by rewarding him with hamburger. “No meaning at all was associated with the words,” she writes, though he did seem to associate meaning with words that excited him. “When asked, ‘Arli, where do you want to go?’ he will unfailingly write CAR, except that his excitement is such that the ‘dance’ around the word becomes a real ‘stammering’ on the typewriter. ACCACCAAARR he will write. GGOGO CAARR.”

(And it’s always tempting to discover meaning where there is none. Once while suffering intestinal problems after a long flight Arli ignored his work when she tried to get him to type GOOD DOG GET BONE, and then he stretched, yawned, and typed A BAD A BAD DOOG. This was probably just a familiar phrase that he’d chosen at random; Borgese estimated its likelihood at 1 in 12.)

Arli did earn at least one human fan — at one point Borgese showed his output to a “well-known critic of modern poetry,” who responded, “I think he has a definite affinity with the ‘concretist’ groups in Brazil, Scotland, and Germany [and an unnamed young American poet] who is also writing poetry of this type at present.”