Troxler’s Fading

Stare at the cross from a short distance away without moving your eyes. After a few seconds, the colors will fade away.

The effect was discovered by Swiss physician Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler in 1804. The reasons for it aren’t clear — possibly neurons in the visual system adapt to unchanging stimuli and they drop out of our awareness.

Crisis Averted

Mistaken reports received by the SPCA on the British island of Guernsey:

  • A call to a sick seal on a beach was in fact a duvet
  • Also a possible dead dog on a beach was another duvet
  • An injured crow was a black bag
  • A stray pug was called in and was in fact a frog
  • A dead gull hanging from a fence was a carrier bag
  • An injured bird was a blonde wig
  • Birds of prey often turn out to be pigeons
  • A hedgehog rescue once turned out to be a pine cone
  • A pregnant cat turned out to be a neutered male
  • A call for a shark in trouble was a fish

In June 2016 a member of the public brought in a “dead cat” that turned out to be a dog puppet (“a very muddy, wet, insect covered, cold, collapsed small dog with an injured nose”).

“Both the finder and I were extremely relieved and where an air of sadness had been at the GSPCA it soon turned to laughter,” said SPCA manager Steve Byrne.

They advertised for the owner on Facebook, but I don’t know that anyone ever responded.

The Better Man

Catcher Harry Chiti pulled a sort of ontological sleight in 1962.

On April 25, while playing for the Cleveland Indians, he was acquired by the expansion New York Mets for a player to be named later.

Seven weeks later, on June 15, he was sent back to the Indians as the “player to be named later” — he’d been traded for himself.

Three other players have since achieved the same feat: Dickie Noles, Brad Gulden, and John McDonald.

(Thanks, Tom.)

Podcast Episode 199: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering

In 1921 a schooner ran aground on the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. When rescuers climbed aboard, they found signs of a strange drama in the ship’s last moments — and no trace of the 11-man crew. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the curious case of the Carroll A. Deering, which has been called “one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history.”

We’ll also experiment with yellow fever and puzzle over a disputed time of death.

See full show notes …

Fair’s Fair

Pavia once had an upside-down tower, the “Torre del Pizzo in giù.” According to legend, Andreotto del Maino, head of the del Maino family in the 15th century, was so fed up with his son Giasone’s unpromising academic career that he vowed to build an inverted tower if only he graduated. Giasone not only took his degree but became one of the most esteemed jurists of his age, so Andreotto fulfilled his promise.

The tower was demolished in the 18th century, “destroyed through stupid timidity,” writes the Irish historian Kenelm Henry Digby, “when it was too late discovered that it had been built with such skill that it might have stood for many ages.”

More images here.

(Thanks, Daniele.)

Podcast Episode 198: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die

In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review what one observer called “the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history.”

We’ll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

See full show notes …

Casa Terracota
Image: Flickr

To show that soil can be transformed into habitable architecture, Colombian artist Octavio Mendoza made a 5,400-square-foot house entirely out of clay. Casa Terracota (known to the neighbors as “Casa de Flintstones”) contains no cement or steel — the whole building is fashioned from clay, including two floors of living space, all the furniture, and all the dishes.

After a career spent designing more conventional buildings, Mendoza spent 14 years realizing the project, to show that functional buildings can be made using the natural resources at hand. He calls it “the biggest piece of pottery in the world.”


Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was alarmingly accident-prone as a child:

Before he was two, he fell headlong down three flights of stairs and cracked his head on a stone floor. When only three he almost expired through drinking a mixture of vitriol and water in mistake for milk, being narrowly saved by the application of liberal doses of olive oil. Three other poisoning mishaps followed involving white lead, copper oxide and arsenic as well as the swallowing of a pin. A gunpowder explosion gave him severe burns and threw him a considerable distance; he was again burned when a frying pan was knocked over. A lifelong scar on his head was caused by a falling roof-stone. Once he went to bed in a room where some newly varnished objects were drying, being found in time to prevent asphyxiation from the fumes. No wonder the people of the locality called him, ‘Young Sax, the Ghost!’

When he was pulled, nearly drowned, from a river, his mother said, “He’s a child condemned to misfortune; he won’t live!” But he survived to 79 and died in 1894.

(From Wally Horwood, Adolphe Sax 1814-1894, 1980.) (Thanks, Jonathan.)

The Cheshire Minstrels

In the 13th century, when the Earl of Chester was imprisoned by the Welsh in Rhuddlan Castle, his constable, Roger de Lacy, rescued him by mustering “a multitude of the shoemakers, fiddlers and loiterers” from the local fair. Pleasingly, in return he was given jurisdiction over all the minstrels and “disorderly characters” in Cheshire. In 1216 de Lacy handed down this privilege to his tenant, Hugh Dutton, and it remained in Dutton’s family, generally recognized as a right to license county musicians, for 500 years. From E.M. Leonard’s Early History of English Poor Relief, 1900:

It was the custom for the lord of Dutton to hold a Court at Chester on Midsummer day and in 1498 he received from the whole body of minstrels four flagons of wine and a lance with fourpence halfpenny from each of them. A Court of this kind was held as late as 1756. In nearly all the statutes concerning vagabonds until that of 1822, the rights of John Dutton’s heirs were preserved, so that in the seventeenth century the minstrels of Cheshire, license by the lord of Dutton, might wander without fear of the penalty inflicted on wanderers elsewhere, — a curious but direct consequence of an incident of border warfare in the early part of the thirteenth century.

“Few facts illustrate better both the continuity of English history and the toleration of anomalies by English law than this perpetuation of the quaint jurisdiction of the house of Dutton for more than six centuries.” (More here.)

(Thanks, Keith.)

Podcast Episode 193: The Collyer Brothers

the collyer brothers' harlem townhouse

In the 1930s, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer withdrew from society and began to fill their Manhattan brownstone with newspapers, furniture, musical instruments, and assorted junk. By 1947, when Homer died, the house was crammed with 140 tons of rubbish, and Langley had gone missing. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the strange, sad story of the Hermits of Harlem.

We’ll also buy a bit of Finland and puzzle over a banker’s misfortune.

See full show notes …