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.
Tony Craven Walker’s En-dor Unveiled (2014) (PDF) is a valuable source of background information, with descriptions of Harry Jones’ early life; the siege of Kut-el-Amara, where he was captured; his punishing trek across Syria; the prison camp; and his life after the war. It includes many letters and postcards, including some hinting at his efforts toward an escape.
S.P. MacKenzie, “The Ethics of Escape: British Officer POWs in the First World War,” War in History 15:1 (January 2008), 1-16.
“A Note for Spiritualists,” The Field, March 27, 1920, 457.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
In the 1970s, Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla circulated an essay among his friends titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” He listed five fundamental laws:
Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
The diagram above elaborates the third law. Intelligent people contribute to society and themselves benefit by this. Helpless people make contributions but are victimized in return. Bandits seek to help themselves, even if this means harming those around them. And stupid people harm both themselves and others. This makes stupid people even more pernicious than bandits: While a bandit’s behavior is at least comprehensible, “you have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy.”
The full essay is here. “Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm,” Cipolla writes. “Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation — or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”
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
Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King took peculiar note of the relative position of clock hands. This began as early as 1918, when his diary shows that he began to notice moments when the hands overlapped (as at 12:00) or formed a straight line (as at 6:00). By the 1940s the diary sometimes refers to clock hands several times a day. On Aug. 25, 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt was visiting Ottawa, King wrote a whole “Memo re hands of clock”:
“Exactly 10 past 8 when I looked at clock on waking — straight line.”
“12 noon when noon day gun fired & I read my welcome to President — together.”
“25 to 8 when I was handed in my room a letter from Churchill re supply of whiskey to troops … — both together.”
A year later, Nov. 2, 1944: “As I look at the clock from where I am standing as I dictate this sentence, the hands are both together at 5 to 11.”
Biographer Robert Macgregor Dawson writes, “What significance he attached to the occurrences is difficult to determine; there is no key to his interpretation.” But one clue comes later in 1944, when King records a conversation with Violet Markham: “As I … went to take the watch out of my pocket, to show her how the face had been broken, I looked at it and the two hands were exactly at 10 to 10. I mentioned it to her as an illustration of my belief that some presence was making itself known to me. That I was on the right line, and that the thought was a true one which I was expressing.” But the two had been discussing the death of King’s dog, so the meaning is still very obscure.
In a joke issue of the Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft in 1886, F.W. Findig offered an article on the constitution of benzene in which he finds that “zoology is capable of rendering the greatest service in clearing up the behavior of the carbon atom”:
Just as the carbon atom has 4 affinities, so the members of the family of four-handed animals possess four hands, with which they seize other objects and cling to them. If we now think of a group of six members of this family, e.g. Macacus cynocephalus, forming a ring by offering each other alternately one and two hands, we reach a complete analogy with Kekulé’s benzene-hexagon (Fig. 1).
Now, however, the aforesaid Macacus cynocephalus, besides its own four hands, possesses also a fifth gripping organ in the shape of a caudal appendix. By taking this into account, it becomes possible to link the 6 individuals of the ring together in another manner. In this way, one arrives at the following representation: (Fig. 2).
“It appears to me highly probable that a complete analogy exists between Macacus cynocephalus and the carbon atom,” Findig wrote. “In this case, each C-atom also possesses a caudal appendix, which, however, cannot be included among the normal affinities, although it takes part in the linking. Immediately this appendix, which I call the ‘caudal residual affinity’, comes into play, a second form of Kekulé’s hexagon is produced; this, being obviously different from the first, must behave differently.”
(From John Read, Humour and Humanism in Chemistry, 1947.)
A puzzle from Colin White’s Projectile Dynamics in Sport (2010): Suppose a billiard table has a length twice its width and that a rolling ball loses no energy to bounces or friction but simply caroms around the table forever. Call the angle between the launch direction and the long side of the table α. At what angle(s) should the ball be hit so that it will arrive back at the same point on the table and traveling in the same direction, so that its motion is cyclic, following the same path repeatedly?
When the ball hits a cushion, it bounces back, with the angle of incidence equal to the angle of reflection. White writes, “Why not reflect the table instead?” Conceive that the ball travels in a straight line, and that each time it reaches a cushion it travels across a boundary and onto a new table.
“So, we are now in a position to severely limit the allowable values of the angle, α, even if we cannot completely define those angles. The condition for cyclic motion is that the ball travels a certain number of tables up (not including the table the ball starts on), say, p tables, and so many tables to the right, say q tables. Two degenerate cases would be α = 0, in which case p = 0, and α = π/2 when q = 0. For the cases in between, 0 < α < π/2 and p > 0 and q > 0 but they must both be whole integers. In summary, we can now state that the ball will cycle on the billiard table if, and only if:
i. α = 0°
ii. α = π/2 = 90°
iii. tan α = p/q (i.e. is a rational number)
“As I stated, this is not a complete solution, but an interesting insight into a heuristic method. In justification, even if the perfect solution could be provided, it would be of no practical use to players of the game!”
In the U.S. presidential election of 1884, Republican James G. Blaine was accused of having sold his influence in Congress and of manipulating stocks. Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock and had paid a substitute $150 to take his place in the Civil War. One journalist wrote:
Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is so admirably fitted to adorn.
The people agreed, narrowly electing Cleveland and breaking a six-election losing streak for the Democrats.