The Battle of Surfaces

In 2007 Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were ranked 1 and 2 among the world’s men’s singles tennis players. But they excelled on different surfaces: Federer had not lost a match in five years on grass courts, and Nadal had been undefeated on clay for three. And neither player had defeated the other on his favored surface. So they held an exhibition match on a special court that was half grass, half clay.

The court took 19 days and $1.63 million to create. Before the match, Federer said:

We are both looking forward to this absolutely new event. The idea really appeals to me, as we both dominate one of the surfaces. Rafa holds the record of 72 victories in series on clay, and I have not been defeated on grass since 48 matches. It’ll be fun to find out what it’s like to play on a court with mixed surfaces! And it ought to be interesting to see who chooses the better tactic. People have been talking about this event for quite a while. Now it’s coming up pretty soon already, and I like the fact that the stadium — which is very nice, by the way — is located on Majorca, Rafa’s home. He has been to Basel, after all, and now I’ve got the opportunity to play at his place for once.

Nadal won 7–5, 4–6, 7–6(12–10). “It has been a nice experience,” he told the BBC, “although before the match I thought it would be a disaster because I felt it would be very difficult for me to adapt to the court. I have had a good time and that is important.”

Unlimited Shuffleboard

Jules Verne’s 1895 novel Propeller Island imagines an immense ship in the Pacific Ocean that’s inhabited entirely by millionaires. In 1999 an organization calling itself Freedom Ship International proposed the real thing, a ship four times as long as the Queen Mary and 25 stories tall. Altogether the ship would boast 18,000 living units, 3,000 commercial units, 2,400 time-share units and 10,000 hotel units, and like Verne’s ship it would circle the world continuously.

“The proposed vessel’s superstructure, rising twenty-five stories above its broad main deck, would house residential space, a library, schools, and a first-class hospital in addition to retail and wholesale shops, banks, hotels, restaurants, entertainment facilities, casinos, offices, warehouses, and light manufacturing and assembly enterprises.”

Cost estimates started at $6 billion but soon nearly doubled, and construction still hasn’t begun, though the company was actively pursuing its plans as recently as November 2013. While you’re waiting, you can stay on this giant yacht.

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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.)