Extremities

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In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.

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Likewise, in Johann Tischbein’s 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.

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And what has happened to Thomas Jefferson’s left foot on the back of the $2 bill? “Unless Jefferson can bend his leg in the wrong direction at the knee, it is hard to see how this foot can be attached to his leg,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “If it’s someone else’s foot, he is standing in a more incredible position yet.”

The $2 bill engraving is based on John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, below. But “The perspective is easier to judge in that painting, and the foot in question (definitely Jefferson’s) does not look so strange as on the bill.”

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Podcast Episode 119: Lost in the Taiga

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In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”

We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

See full show notes …

Four-for-All

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an odd bit of African geography: The finger of land in the upper left is Namibia, the region at the top is Zambia, Zimbabwe is at bottom right, and Botswana is at bottom left. Is the border between Zambia and Botswana long enough to permit a bridge to be built between the two? Or do the two peninsulas intrude far enough to make this impossible?

The answer isn’t clear. In 1970 Namibia had insisted that the four nations meet at a single point, meaning that the Kazungula Ferry linking Botswana and Zambia was illegal, as the border between them had no breadth. After an armed confrontation the ferry was sunk. Thirty-five years later Botswana and Zambia proposed building a bridge where the ferry had run. Is that geometrically permissible? The shaky consensus is that the two nations share a brief boundary of 150 meters between two “tripoints.” But the truth is as murky as the Zambezi itself.

(See Point of Interest. Thanks, Steve.)

The Oddfather

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Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005, feigned mental illness for 30 years in order to throw law enforcement authorities off his trail. Beginning in the 1960s he could regularly be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers, mumbling to himself, and quietly playing pinochle at a local club. His lawyers and relatives insisted he had become mentally disabled, with an IQ of 69 to 72.

But informants told the FBI that during this time he was really leading the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation and a dominant force in the New York mob.

At arraignments he appeared in pajamas, and psychiatrists testified that he had been confined 28 times for hallucinations and “dementia rooted in organic brain damage.” “He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen,” former FBI supervisor John S. Pritchard told the New York Times. Mob rival John Gotti called him “crazy like a fox.”

It wasn’t until April 2003, in exchange for a plea deal, that he acknowledged that the whole thing had been a con to delay his racketeering trial. His lawyer said, “I think you get to a point in life — I think everyone does — where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight.” He died in prison in 2005.

Podcast Episode 118: The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy

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In 1976 a television crew discovered a mummified corpse in a California funhouse. Unbelievably, an investigation revealed that it belonged to an Oklahoma outlaw who had been shot by sheriff’s deputies in 1911 and whose remains had been traveling the country ever since. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, “the bandit who wouldn’t give up.”

We’ll also reflect on a Dutch artist’s disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious hospital deaths.

See full show notes …

The Paulding Light

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, a group of teenagers in the town of Paulding, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reported seeing a ghostly light in a valley nearby. Locals claimed that the light, which appears every night when viewed from a precise location, was the lantern of a ghostly railroad brakeman who had been killed trying to warn an oncoming train of railway cars stopped on the track.

A more prosaic explanation is that the specter is produced by the headlights of cars traveling on US 45, about 5 miles away. In 2010, a group of student engineers from Michigan Tech studied the light with a telescope and distinguished individual vehicles and even an Adopt a Highway sign. They were able to produce the effect themselves by driving a car along the suspected stretch of highway. It’s thought that an inversion layer may create a volume of unusually stable air that accounts for the lights’ visibility at such a distance.

That didn’t end the ghost theory, though. “We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light,” Ph.D. candidate Jeremy Bos told Michigan Tech News in 2010. “I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it.”

“No matter what, some people will believe what they want to believe.”

Going Nowhere

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A thousand miles off the coast of West Africa, where the equator crosses the prime meridian, lies a nonexistent point of land known as Null Island. It was invented by GIS analysts to help trap errors: When software converts misspelled street names, bad building numbers, and other faulty data into coordinates of latitude and longitude, the result is often 0°N 0°E — which led cartographers to joke that there’s a 1-square-meter island in the Gulf of Guinea where all these lost features reside. (In fact what’s there is a weather observation buoy, above, which must wonder what all the fuss is about.)

Related: Conceptual artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin considered a map on which the areas that we normally call Arizona, New Hampshire, Tennessee, etc., are instead labeled “Not Arizona,” “Not New Hampshire,” and “Not Tennessee.” This would have to be regarded as simply false, or at least as inviting new names for these places.

“Yet such a scheme would be correct if, for example, the delineated area normally named Arizona was labelled ‘Not New York’ and so on throughout the whole map synopsis. Only this time the map would be a map to indicate what was not where rather than the conventional what is where. Where there is no road in a certain place we do not conventionally indicate this fact upon the relevant map by labelling it ‘There is no road at this point.'”

(From Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, 1998.)

Recycling

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Raphaelite painters found an unusual source for one of their pigments: They ground up Egyptian mummies. In the words of one enthusiast, “A charming pigment is obtained by this means, uniting a peculiar greyness (due to the corpse and its bandages) with the rich brown of the pitch or bitumen, in a manner which it is very hard indeed to imitate. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness.”

Artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked at learning that this was the source of his umber paint that he staged a poignant little ceremony. “He left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then,” recalled his wife Georgiana. “So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”

The production of “mummy brown” ceased in the 20th century — only because the supply of mummies was exhausted.

Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor

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Image: Flickr

In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.

See full show notes …

Cultural Outreach

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Scotland’s 1904 antarctic expedition made a unique contribution to science:

A number of emperor penguins, which were here very numerous, were captured. … To test the effect of music on them, Piper Kerr played to one on his pipes, — we had no Orpheus to warble sweetly on a lute, — but neither rousing marches, lively reels, nor melancholy laments seemed to have any effect on these lethargic phlegmatic birds; there was no excitement, no sign of appreciation or disapproval, only sleepy indifference.

— Rudmose Brown et al., The Voyage of the “Scotia,” 1906

(This has produced a memorable Wikipedia image caption.)