While You Wait


Old Faithful is sometimes degraded by being made a laundry. Garments placed in the crater during quiescence are ejected thoroughly washed when the eruption takes place. Gen. Sheridan’s men, in 1882, found that linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds.

— William C. Riley, Official Guide to the Yellowstone National Park, 1889


Each year, thousands of people take up seats along the streets of Flanders. Before each of them is a wooden box, and in each box is a single male finch. At a timekeeper’s signal, the observers begin to count the birds’ calls, making tally marks on long wooden sticks. After one hour, the bird that has sung the most calls is recognized as the winner.

This is vinkensport, a tradition in Flemish culture for more than 400 years. It was started by merchants in 1596, and as of 2007 an estimated 13,000 vinkeniers were still breeding 10,000 birds each year.

The sport’s popularity is growing, but like any sport it’s subject to cheating: When one finch produced 1,278 susk-e-wiets in an hour, its owner was accused of doping it with testosterone. Another competitor attracted suspicion when his box emitted exactly 725 calls in each of two matches; when a judge ordered the box opened, he discovered a mini-CD player inside.

Northwest Passage

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Portland, Oregon, carpeted its airport in 1987, it chose a bold design in blues and greens rather than the unmemorable beige underfoot in most American terminals. Designer John Schleuning composed a pattern that reflected the airport’s intersecting North-South runways as seen from the control tower, and the result became a surprise hit, with its own Twitter account and 20,000 pictures on its Instagram hashtag.

Twenty-six years later, the unthinkable happened: The carpet reached the end of its life, and the airport set about replacing 14 acres of it, fashioning one 11×16-foot section into a memorial collage and giving away much of the rest as keepsakes.

The city went into mourning. “We understand that people have an emotional connection to the carpet,” Port of Portland spokeswoman Annie Linstrom told Portland Monthly, uttering this sentence for the first time in human history. The chief operating officer added, “Normally we do these ribbon cuttings when we’re introducing a new thing, but it’s actually the reverse of that in removing the old carpet. We’re going to miss the carpet and we appreciate the community and the love of this carpet.” The Monthly even published an elegy, “Ode on a Carpet,” by “T.S.A. Eliot.”

You can still keep the old carpet underfoot, though, for a price: Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has added the design to two models of his Adidas D Lillard sneakers, below, and you can buy some socks to go with them.


The Man of the Hole

For at least the last 20 years, a solitary indigenous man has been living entirely by himself in the Amazon rain forest. Known as “The Man of the Hole,” he’s believed to be the last surviving member of an uncontacted tribe.

His existence first came to light in 1996, and the Brazilian authorities launched expeditions to ensure his safety and preserved a 31-square-mile area in order to protect him from the encroachments of ranchers and loggers.

His nickname derives from the mysterious hole he digs in the floor of each of his palm thatch huts — more than 5 feet deep, rectangular, and serving no clear purpose. (A village of such huts had apparently been destroyed by settlers in 1996.) He’s been spotted a few times, a naked man with a bow and arrow who would now be in his 50s.

In 2009, gunmen believed to be ranchers attacked the man, but he’s believed to have escaped. Survival International director Stephen Corry told the Guardian, “His tribe has been massacred and now the ‘man of the hole’ faces the same fate. The ranchers must allow this man to live out his last days in peace on his own land, and the authorities must do all they can to protect it.”

(Thanks, Steve.)

Shot Locks

A bizarre item from Gaillard’s Medical Journal, November 1884: Henry Matthews, a Pennsylvania soldier, was struck down by a bullet to the head at Cold Harbor in 1864. When he survived, his astonished doctors gave him the ball, with some of his brain and scalp still adhering to it. He “suffered no mental inconvenience” and went on to work as a clerk for the Reading Railroad.

When the bullet was presented to him 20 years ago at the hospital door the brain matter and the little patch of scalp had dried up, but a few short hairs could be seen sticking out from the latter. The bullet had been considerably flattened, and somewhat resembled in shape a miniature clam shell. As time elapsed Mr. Matthews, who greatly prized this relic, noticed an astonishing fact. The hairs, which at first were scarcely prominent enough to be noticed, were growing. Other hairs grew out also until a thick black bunch appeared at the back end of the bullet. At first his friends refused to credit the story, although he showed the precious relic in proof. Once or twice he cut off the ends of the growing hair. It continued to grow. About a year ago Mr. Matthews came to Philadelphia and sought out [the original surgeon, W.R.D] Blackwood, to whom he exhibited the bullet with its bunch of apparently healthy hair. The surgeon, in the presence of professional witnesses, cut off an inch of the hair, measured that which remained, boxed and sealed up the bullet, and placed it in trusty hands for safe keeping. Recently the package was opened. A careful measurement showed that the hair had grown over an inch since the ball had been last seen.

“At one time the hair had attained a growth of fully one inch,” reported the Miners’ Journal in the same year. “The relic was exhibited at the Philadelphia and Reading Depot by George Rahn, a clerk in Mr. Smith’s office. Mr. Matthews, who is employed by the Reading Company at Pottsville, was offered $100 for the ball but refused to accept it.”

Podcast Episode 160: The Birmingham Sewer Lion


Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city’s sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll descend into the tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast.

We’ll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language.

See full show notes …

The Shoe Corner

shoe corner

This is interesting — one streetcorner in northwest Indiana abounds with discarded shoes. Somehow it’s become a tradition for people to leave unwanted footwear at 109th and Calumet Avenues in Hanover Township; the highway department removes the shoes periodically, but they keep accumulating.

“I have never seen anybody throw a shoe out there,” said St. John town manager Steve Kil, who can see the intersection from his house. “I just know that they’re always there.”

In 2009 the 86-year-old local historian told the Chicago Tribune that people had been dumping shoes at the corner for 50 years. Some mysterious clues: The pile is tallest on Monday mornings, and it grows fastest in the summer and dwindles by late August.

“I have to chuckle because I can remember when I was a child growing up in the 1970s, my mother would drive past this corner all the time,” Kil said. “She would slow down, and we would just examine the pile. And now I drive through here five days a week, and there’s always a new crop of shoes.”

Some locals call it the Corner of Lost Soles.

(Thanks, Andrew.)

A Long Sleep


Canadian science writer Grant Allen’s 1889 essay “Seven-Year Sleepers” contains an eye-opening passage:

A certain famous historical desert snail was brought from Egypt to England as a conchological specimen in the year 1846. This particular mollusk (the only one of his race, probably, who ever attained to individual distinction), at the time of his arrival in London, was really alive and vigorous; but as the authorities of the British Museum, to whose tender care he was consigned, were ignorant of this important fact in his economy, he was gummed, mouth downward, on to a piece of cardboard, and duly labelled and dated with scientific accuracy, ‘Helix desertorum, March 25, 1846.’ Being a snail of a retiring and contented disposition, however, accustomed to long droughts and corresponding naps in his native sand-wastes, our mollusk thereupon simply curled himself up into the topmost recesses of his own whorls, and went placidly to sleep in perfect contentment for an unlimited period. Every conchologist takes it for granted, of course, that the shells which he receives from foreign parts have had their inhabitants properly boiled and extracted before being exported; for it is only the mere outer shell or skeleton of the animal that we preserve in our cabinets, leaving the actual flesh and muscles of the creature himself to wither unobserved upon its native shores. At the British Museum the desert snail might have snoozed away his inglorious existence unsuspected, but for a happy accident which attracted public attention to his remarkable case in a most extraordinary manner. On March 7, 1850, nearly four years later, it was casually observed that the card on which he reposed was slightly discoloured; and this discovery led to the suspicion that perhaps a living animal might be temporarily immured within that papery tomb. The Museum authorities accordingly ordered our friend a warm bath (who shall say hereafter that science is unfeeling!), upon which the grateful snail, waking up at the touch of the familiar moisture, put his head cautiously out of his shell, walked up to the top of the basin, and began to take a cursory survey of British institutions with his four eye-bearing tentacles. So strange a recovery from a long torpid condition, only equalled by that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, deserved an exceptional amount of scientific recognition. The desert snail at once awoke and found himself famous. Nay, he actually sat for his portrait to an eminent zoological artist, Mr. [A.N.] Waterhouse; and a woodcut from the sketch thus procured, with a history of his life and adventures, may be found even unto this day in Dr. [S.P.] Woodward’s ‘Manual of the Mollusca,’ to witness if I lie.

This appears to be true: Samuel Peckworth Woodward’s 1851 Manual of the Mollusca contains the portrait above, marked “From a living specimen in the British Museum, March, 1850,” and James Hamilton’s 1854 Excelsior describes the snail’s return to life: “The specimen was immediately detached, and immersed in tepid water. After the lapse of a period not exceeding ten minutes, the animal began to move, put forth its horns, and cautiously emerged from its shell. In a few minutes more it was walking along the surface of the basin in which it was placed. The last time it had exercised its locomotive faculty was in the sandy plains of Egypt, not far from the banks of the Nile.”

Hamilton says it spent the rest of its existence in a glass enclosure, feasting on cabbage and taking an eight-month nap in 1851. It died finally in March 1852. “Such was the end of the Egyptian snail, and it was with some feeling of regret that its death was recorded.”

(Via Metafilter.)

Starting Over


In February 1965, Omaha TV announcer John “Fritz” Johnson was attending an archery tournament in Chicago when a young woman approached him and asked, “Pardon me, but aren’t you my uncle, Larry Bader, who disappeared seven years ago?”

Amazingly, he was. Lawrence Joseph Bader had been a cookware salesman in Akron until March 15, 1957, when he’d gone fishing on Lake Erie and disappeared. Four days later he resurfaced in Omaha as flamboyant bachelor Fritz Johnson, who became a bartender, a radio announcer, and eventually a TV sports director.

Bader had been $20,000 in debt when he disappeared, but Johnson insisted that he had no memory of his former life, and a team of psychiatrists backed him up. “It was like a physical shock,” he said. “Up until that moment, I had no doubt that I was not Larry Bader. But when I heard that, it was like a door had been slammed and somebody had hit me right in the face.”

After his disappearance, Bader had been declared dead, and his wife had collected $39,500 in life insurance. Now she would have to pay that back, and both her new engagement and Johnson’s second marriage would have to be canceled. “I just wish it wasn’t true,” she told Life in March 1965. “We had become adjusted, we had adapted to and accepted his ‘death.’ It was just … well … wrong that this had to happen.”

He died the following year, so it’s still unclear whether his experience was amnesia or a hoax. “I’m very sorry,” he said, “but my doctors have warned me not to try to figure it out by myself. They say it might hurt me.”