Podcast Episode 60: The Day They Hanged an Elephant


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In 1916 an American circus elephant named Mary was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 onlookers. In this week’s podcast we’ll review the sad series of events that led Mary to a Tennessee railroad crane.

We’ll also get an update on a very inventive bank robbery and puzzle over the escalators in London’s Tube stations.

Our feature on Mary, the circus elephant who was hanged in Tennessee in 1916, was based chiefly on Charles Edwin Price’s 1992 book The Day They Hung the Elephant.

Our first lateral thinking puzzle this week was contributed by listener Paul Sophocleous. The second is from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

Here are two links with more information about the bank robbery described in Episode 58’s puzzle. (Warning — these will spoil the puzzle!)

Enter coupon code CLOSET at Harry’s to get $5 off a special Father’s Day razor set.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

A Disturbing Dinner

When British traveler Richard Gordon Smith reached Japan’s Lake Biwa in 1906, he asked a local cook whether he could prepare the rare dish koi-no-ikizukuri (“a carp cut up alive”), which had been offered at nobles’ feasts in ancient times. The cook, delighted, brought in a red lacquered tray decorated to resemble the sea bottom. On it lay a carp that opened and shut its mouth and gills as if it were swimming in water. “The dish was really pretty in spite of the gasping fish which, however, showed no pain, and there was not a sign of blood or a cut.” But “Now we are ready,” said the cook, and he dribbled some soy sauce into the fish’s eye:

The effect was not instantaneous: it took a full two minutes as the cook sat over him, chopsticks in hand. All of a sudden and to my unutterable astonishment, the fish gave a convulsive gasp, flicked its tail and flung the whole of its skin on one side of its body over, exposing the underneath of the stomach parts, skinned; the back was cut into pieces about an inch square and a quarter of an inch thick, ready for pulling out and eating.

“Never in my life have I seen a more barbarous or cruel thing,” Smith wrote, “not even the scenes at Spanish bull fights. Egawa [his interpreter] is a delicate-stomached person and as he could eat none, neither could I. It would be simply like taking bites out of a large live fish. I took the knife from my belt and immediately separated the fish’s neck vertebrae, much to the cook’s astonishment and perhaps disgust.” He asked them to take it away. “You have certainly operated beautifully,” he said, “but the sooner a law is brought in to prevent such cruelty the better.”

(From Travels in the Land of the Gods: The Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith, 1986.)

Podcast Episode 59: The Wizard of Mauritius

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In 1764 a French engineer on a tiny African island claimed that he could see ships beyond the horizon. In today’s show we’ll review the strange story of Étienne Bottineau and consider the evidence for his claims to have invented a new art.

We’ll also ponder a 400-year-old levitation trick and puzzle over why throwing a beer can at someone might merit a promotion.

Sources for our feature on nauscopie, the purported art of apprehending ships below the horizon:

Rupert T. Gould, Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts, 1928.

Sir David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1832.

J. Gregory Dill, “The Lost Art of Nauscopie,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003 (retrieved May 17, 2015).

Mike Dash, “Naval Gazing: The Enigma of Étienne Bottineau,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 13, 2011 (retrieved May 17, 2015).

Chicago Tribune, “The Science of Nauscopie,” Nov. 7, 1869.

Greg’s post on Samuel Pepy’s “lifting experiment” appeared on Futility Closet on March 22, 2008. Further sources for that segment:

Sir David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1832.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 31, 1665.

Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things Selected from “Notes and Queries,” 1857.

Notes & Queries, July 3, 1852 (the original query).

Notes & Queries, July 24, 1852 (Brewster offers his impressions).

“Non-Wist,” “Phenomenon of Levity in the Human Subject,” The Zoist, January 1852.

Two YouTube videos illustrate the modern technique: one, two

The YouTube discussion mentioned in this week’s lateral thinking puzzle is here (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Asleep Awake

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At age 13 Marie-Jean-Léon Lecoq, Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, discovered a rare talent: He could recognize a dream state while he was experiencing it, and could move and act lucidly within the dream. Eventually he filled 25 notebooks with descriptions and illustrations of his adventures in the dream world. These are now lost, but his 1867 book Les Rêves et les Moyens de Les Diriger describes some of his feats:

I change a porcelain vase into a rock-crystal fountain, from which I desire a cooling drink — and this immediately flows out through a golden tap. Some years ago I lost a particular ring whose loss I felt deeply. The memory of it comes to mind, and I should like to find it. I utter this wish, fixing my attention on a piece of coal that I pick up from the fireplace — and immediately the ring is on my finger. The dream continues in the same way until one of the apparitions I have called up charms and captivates me so much that I forget my magician’s role and plunge into a new, more realistic series of illusions.

Saint-Denys believed that almost anyone could learn to do this. One of his suggestions was to keep a dream diary and to make a daily habit of completing it. Like the rest of the student’s life, this habit would then itself become the raw material for his dreams — eventually he would dream of recording a dream. And if he noted the details of a dream he was recording, he would virtually be dreaming lucidly, having smuggled himself into his own slumbers.

True Colors

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In the early 1900s, Prussian authorities forbade Danes living in North Frisia from raising the Danish flag, above.

So they bred flag-colored pigs, below. The “Danish protest pig” was probably developed by crossbreeding Jutlandian and Holsteinian marsh pigs, red individuals from the Angeln Saddleback breed, and Tamworth pigs from England. Only around 140 individuals exist worldwide, but Schleswig-Holstein is trying to preserve the breed for its cultural value.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A 17th-Century Hiccup Cure

In his 1607 Rich Storehouse, or Treasurie for the Diseased, Matthew Blower offers “a present medicine for the hickop”:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine ears very hard, and the hickop will surcease immediately.

I found this in Julian Walker’s How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies (2013), a collection of historical cures for various maladies. He says, “I tried it, and it worked.”

Second Thoughts

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

We’re told that we can’t change the past, but what about the case of retroactive pronouncements? On July 23, 2000, Lance Armstrong was declared the winner of the Tour de France — he completed the race with the lowest overall time, and his win was certified by the Union du Cyclisme Internationale. If on Christmas Day 2002 a friend of ours said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we would feel that this statement was true.

On Oct. 22, 2012, after determining that Armstrong had used banned substances, the UCI withdrew all of his wins at the Tour de France. If on Christmas Day 2012 our friend said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we’d feel that this statement was false.

“This means that, in moving from Context A to Context B, the past (of the actual world) has changed,” write Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete in the January issue of Analysis. “The year 2000 had a certain property on Christmas 2002, but did not have that property on Christmas 2012 any longer.”

“One should then stop asking whether the past can change and start to inquire on how to make sense of this. We leave this task to a future paper — unless the future changes.”

(Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete, “The Puzzle of the Changing Past,” Analysis, January 2015.)

The Seventh Art Cinema

http://www.kaupokikkas.com/blog/2014/3/7/end-of-the-world-cinema

In the late 1990s, Frenchman Diynn Eadel set out to build an immense open-air movie theater in the desert near Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. He arranged financing in Paris and installed projection equipment, 700 cinema seats, and a generator in the desert.

Unfortunately, the theater was shut down by Egyptian authorities before its planned opening in October 1997. The reasons aren’t clear. It was largely forgotten until Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas rediscovered it in 2014.

“Dynn Eadel with Seventh Art attempts to prove that tourism is not necessarily a destructive element and that The Great Theatre of Nature can reconcile us with the elements,” reads an old flyer for the project. “When will be the first Sinai International Film Festival?”

Two in One

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Look at this image closely and you’ll see the features of Albert Einstein.

But look at it from across a room and you’ll see Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a “hybrid image,” created using a technique developed by Aude Oliva of MIT and Philippe Schyns of the University of Glasgow. The image combines the low spatial frequencies of one picture with the high spatial frequencies of another, so that it’s processed differently at different viewing distances.

See their paper for the details, and this gallery for more examples.