Demonstration

Royal Air Force pilot Alan Pollock was disappointed that no aerial displays had been planned to mark the RAF’s semicentennial in April 1968. So he performed one himself: He took off in an unauthorized Hawker Hunter from RAF Tangmere in Sussex and flew to London, where he circled the Houses of Parliament three times, dipped his wings over the RAF Memorial, and then found himself facing an unexpected landmark:

Until this very instant I’d had absolutely no idea that, of course, Tower Bridge would be there. It was easy enough to fly over it, but the idea of flying through the spans suddenly struck me. I had just ten seconds to grapple with the seductive proposition which few ground attack pilots of any nationality could have resisted. My brain started racing to reach a decision. Years of fast low-level strike flying made the decision simple.

He flew between the spans, becoming the first pilot to do so in a jet aircraft. He buzzed three more airfields before returning to his base, where he was promptly arrested. But rather than face a court-martial he was quietly invalided out of the RAF on medical grounds — the government didn’t want to bring any more attention to the stunt.

(Thanks, Scott.)

Yar!

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According to legend, when the pirate Olivier Levasseur was hanged in 1730, he flung a necklace into the crowd, crying, “Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!” The necklace (supposedly) contained this cryptogram, which people have been trying to decipher ever since. The will of fellow pirate Bernardin Nageon de L’Estang (allegedly) refers to “considerable treasure … buried on my dear île de France” (now Mauritius), and the puzzle may or may not be related to carvings found in the rocks at Bel Ombre beach in the Seychelles by L’Estang’s descendant Rose Savy in 1923.

Does any of this add up to anything? Who knows? Nick Pelling has a good skeptical discussion here, including an interpretation of the cryptogram as a pigpen cipher.

A Visitation

A striking scene from the coast of Massachusetts, summer 1894:

I was brought, from my sitting posture, down on the flat of my back. The force produced a motor disturbance of my head and jaws. My mouth made automatic movements; till, in a few seconds, I was distinctly conscious of another’s voice — unearthly, awful, loud, and weird — bursting through the woodland from my own lips, with the despairing words: ‘Oh! My People!’

The victim, Albert Le Baron, had for some time found himself talking involuntarily in a language he didn’t understand, a language he believed had some ancient or remote origin. He became convinced that he was conveying the words of dead speakers. That September, back in New York City, he received a similar communication from the “psycho-automatism,” with a translation:

I have seen all thy ways, O son of the Nile! I have heard all thy songs, O son of the Nile! I have listened to all thy woes, O son of the Nile! I have been with thee, O son of the Nile! I have been near thee when thy days were full of glory. I have been near thee when thy days were covered in sadness. I have heard thy voice, O son of Egypt! I have counted thy tears, O son of Egypt! I have heard thy voice of wailing, O son of Egypt! I have watched thee when thy men of might have flown; I have watched thee when thy glory has faded; I have watched thee when thy sun has set; I have watched thee, O son of the Nile! Thy tears have been my tears; thy joys have been my joys; thy woes have been my woes. O son of the Nile, I love thee! O son of the Nile, I love thee!

William James, who communicated all this to the Society for Psychical Research, wasn’t impressed. “I know no stronger example of the subjective sense of genius, or rather of positive inspiration, accompanying a subliminal uprush of absolutely meaningless matter,” he wrote. The whole article is here.

(Albert LeBaron, “A Case of Psychic Automatism, Including ‘Speaking With Tongues,'” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 12 [1896-1897], 277-297.)

The Unreality of Time

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Take any event — the death of Queen Anne, for example — and consider what changes can take place in its characteristics. That it is a death, that it is the death of Anne Stuart, that it has such causes, that it has such effects — every characteristic of this sort never changes. ‘Before the stars saw one another plain’, the event in question was the death of a queen. At the last moment of time — if time has a last moment — it will still be the death of a queen. And in every respect but one, it is equally devoid of change. But in one respect it does change. It was once an event in the far future. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was present. Then it became past, and will always remain past, though every moment it becomes further and further past.

— J.M.E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, 1927

(McTaggart argued that these varying properties of Anne’s death constitute a paradox. “Past, present, and future are incompatible determinations,” he wrote. “Every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one. … But every event has them all.” Hence time is unreal.)

Diversification

Volkswagen’s best-selling product isn’t a car — it’s sausages. Item number 199 398 500 A in the Volkswagen parts catalog is currywurst sausage. In the 1940s and 1950s the company owned a pig farm to help feed factory employees, and today a team of butchers in VW’s Wolfsburg factory still makes 6.5 million 10-inch sausages every year using a secret recipe.

VW sells them in 11 countries, but the U.S. is not one of them, due to regulations regarding the import of processed pork products. There is hope, though: VW has said it may begin producing the sausages in the United States.

“We have been successful in offering Americans our German-engineered vehicles,” the company’s Clint Waddell told the Wall Street Journal. “We hope Americans may also enjoy a German-engineered currywurst.”

(Thanks, Curtis.)

“Bike Keeps Family in Stitches”

Carrying four persons and a sewing machine, the world’s weirdest bicycle recently had a tryout in Chicago, Ill. The two-story vehicle, known as the ‘Goofybike,’ is the creation of Charles Steinlauf. It carries the whole Steinlauf family. The inventor rides at the top and guides the contraption by means of a huge automobile steering wheel. Mrs. Steinlauf sits below, operating a sewing machine, while her son pedals behind and her daughter rides on the handlebars in front. When the odd vehicle is at rest, the projecting legs of the sewing machine prevent the lofty cycle from tipping over.

Popular Science, October 1939

Form Before Function

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In 1784 French architect Laurent Vaudoyer introduced a design for a spherical house. The living space is at the “equator,” with a vestibule, dining room, salon, bedrooms, and closets. A pantry, toilets, and dressing rooms are squeezed in rather less conveniently, above and below.

The spherical shape was the point, write Ulrich Conrads and Hans Sperlich in The Architecture of Fantasy. “[O]nly afterwards was an attempt made to arrange the interior of the globe for use.”

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Podcast Episode 256: Lasseter’s Reef

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In 1930 Harold Lasseter claimed he’d discovered an enormous deposit of gold in the remote interior of Australia, and a small group of men set off into the punishing desert in search of a fortune estimated at 66 million pounds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Lasseter’s reef, one of the most enduring legends of the Australian outback.

We’ll also reconsider the mortality rates of presidents and puzzle over an unlocked door.

See full show notes …

Boom!

The town of Glacier View, Alaska, doesn’t get dark enough for fireworks on the Fourth of July. So they drive cars off a cliff.