Mozart’s expense book for May 27, 1784, contains a curious entry:

Starling bird. 34 kreutzer.

Das war schön!

He had bought a starling on that date, apparently after asking it to repeat the opening theme of the third movement of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, which he’d completed a few weeks earlier. The bird had held the first G rather long, and then sharped two Gs in the following measure, but Mozart’s exclamation (“That was beautiful!”) shows that he approved.

He kept the bird for three years, until its death on June 4, 1787, when he buried it in his backyard. Then he arranged a funeral for it in which his friends marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to the composer recite a poem. No other written records of the bird appear in his surviving writings, but maybe the two had become collaborators.


Michael Grab balances rocks. He regards it as a combination of art, engineering, and contemplative spiritual practice combining patience, critical thinking, and problem solving. But the only “ingredients” in his sculptures are rocks and gravity — there’s no mortar, cement, or artificial support holding them together; any one of them can be toppled with a finger.

“The most fundamental element of balancing in a physical sense is finding some kind of ‘tripod’ for the rock to stand on. Every rock is covered in a variety of tiny to large indentations that can act as a tripod for the rock to stand upright, or in most orientations you can think of with other rocks. By paying close attention to the feeling of the rocks, you will start to feel even the smallest clicks as the notches of the rocks in contact are moving over one another.”

“There is nothing easy about it. It can frustrate me to my limits, and then I learn. Or it can reveal magic beyond words, and I learn. Sometimes the rock wins, but most of the time I win.”

False Glory

1956 olympic torch hoax

Sydney mayor Pat Hills had a trying day on Nov. 18, 1956. That year’s Olympic torch had been wending its way across Australia and was scheduled to arrive in town that evening, carried by former marathon champion Harry Dillon. Huge crowds lined the streets, perching on fences and climbing poles for a better view.

Presently a runner appeared, holding a torch aloft. He bounded up the steps and handed it to Hills, who started his welcome address and then stopped, realizing that the handle he was holding bore wet paint.

It turned out to be a chair leg surmounted by a plum pudding can. Students at the University of Sydney had organized the hoax to protest thoughtless reverence for the Olympic torch. “It was being treated as a god, whereas in fact it was originally invented by the Nazis for the Berlin Games in 1936,” said veterinary student Barry Larkin, who had melted into the crowd after handing the fake torch to Hills.

“Our friends from the university think things like that are funny,” Hill told the crowd. “I hope you are enjoying the joke.” He was lucky it hadn’t gone off as planned — the torch had originally contained a pair of burning underwear.


Gustave Flaubert posed this teasing problem to his sister Caroline in an 1841 letter:

Since you are now studying geometry and trigonometry, I will give you a problem. A ship sails the ocean. It left Boston with a cargo of wool. It grosses 200 tons. It is bound for Le Havre. The mainmast is broken, the cabin boy is on deck, there are 12 passengers aboard, the wind is blowing East-North-East, the clock points to a quarter past three in the afternoon. It is the month of May. How old is the captain?

He didn’t give an answer. Elsewhere he wrote, “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness — though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”

Leaping Lena,_Cold_War_pigeon.jpg

A stirring story emerged from eastern Europe in 1954, at the height of the Cold War: During a routine flight, a West German racing pigeon got lost in communist Czechoslovakia, and when she returned two days later, her leg bore a message addressed to Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against communism because communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.

We listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.

We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.

The message was signed “Unbowed Pilsen.” (Pilsen is a city in western Bohemia.)

The pigeon was brought to the United States, where she was used in American Cold War morale efforts and became the emblem of the 1955 Crusade for Freedom.

How much of the story is true isn’t clear — the facts vary significantly with each telling, and the Crusade for Freedom was funded principally by the CIA, explicitly as a propaganda effort. Someone deserves credit for imagination, at least.

Podcast Episode 153: A Victorian Stalker

Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and posing a bewildering nuisance to Queen Victoria’s courtiers, who couldn’t seem to keep him out. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the exploits of Edward Jones — and the severe measures that were finally taken to stop them.

We’ll also salute some confusing flags and puzzle over an extraterrestrial musician.


Tourists who remove rocks from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park face a legendary curse.

Periodicals of the 19th century featured at least two cats that got along on two legs.

Sources for our feature on “the boy Jones”:

Jan Bondeson, Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The Strange Case of the Boy Jones, 2011.

Joan Howard, The Boy Jones, 1943.

Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria, 1921.

John Ashton, Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign, 1903.

Thomas Raikes, A Portion of the Journal Kept by Thomas Raikes, Esq., from 1831 to 1847, vol. 4, 136.

Paul Thomas Murphy, “Jones, Edward,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed April 22, 2017).

“The Boy Jones,” Examiner 1750 (Aug. 14, 1841), 524-524.

“The Boy Jones,” Court and Lady’s Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum 21 (September 1841), 223-225.

Punch, July–December 1841.

“Occurrences,” Examiner 1793 (June 11, 1842), 381-381.

“The Boy Jones,” Reynold’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art 17:424 (Aug. 23, 1856), 56.

“The Boy Jones,” All the Year Round 34:814 (July 5, 1884), 234-237.

“The Latest News of the Boy Jones,” Examiner 1902 (July 13, 1844), 434-434.

“Palace Intruder Stayed 3 Days and Sat on Throne,” Globe and Mail, July 21, 1982.

“Strange Tale of the First Royal Stalker,” Express, Nov. 6, 2010, 14.

“Story of Boy Jones Who Stole Queen Victoria’s Underwear,” BBC News, Feb. 2, 2011.

Helen Turner, “Royal Rumpus of First Celebrity Stalker,” South Wales Echo, Feb. 3, 2011, 26.

Jan Bondeson, “The Strange Tale of the First Royal Stalker,” Express, Nov. 1, 2010.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Chad–Romania Relations” (accessed May 12, 2017).

“‘Identical Flag’ Causes Flap in Romania,” BBC News, April 14, 2004.

Wanderlust, “10 of the World’s Most Confusing Flags — and How to Figure Them Out,” Aug. 9, 2016.

Erin Nyren, “‘Whitewashing’ Accusations Fly as Zach McGowan Cast as Hawaiian WWII Hero,” Variety, May 9, 2017.

Kamlesh Damodar Sutar, “Highway Liquor Ban: Bar Owners Say They Will Be Forced to Commit Suicide Like Farmers,” India Today, April 3, 2017.

“Government Officials Rush to Denotify Highways Running Through Cities,” Economic Times, April 4, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Greg Yurkovic, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page 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 Thanks for listening!

In a Word

n. the action or practice of drinking alcohol

n. the clearing up of anything which is obscure or not easily understood; an explanation

n. full persuasion or confidence; perfect conviction or certitude

In a 1952 speech before the Mississippi house of representatives, lawmaker Noah S. Sweat addressed the question whether the state should continue to prohibit alcoholic beverages:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

“This is my stand,” he said. “I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

Paint by Number

When Mariner 4 flew past Mars in summer 1965, NASA scientists were eager to get their first close look at another planet. So rather than wait for their computers to render the probe’s data into a proper photograph, the employees in the agency’s telecommunications group mounted printed strips of data in a display panel and colored them by hand to create a rough visualization.

The hand-colored vista became the first image of Mars based on data collected by an interplanetary probe. They framed the finished image and presented it to agency director William H. Pickering.