Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses has been a site of peaceful protests since 1831, when indigenous peasants began to stage rebellions against their Russian overlords. Even when they lacked bodies to bury they erected crosses on the 33-foot mound as memorials and as symbols of peaceful resistance. The region was freed after World War I but then captured by the Nazis and later incorporated into the U.S.S.R.; again the local population planted crosses of defiance, though they were mown down three times by Soviet bulldozers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the hill has become an important symbol of political and spiritual self-determination. It now bears an estimated 100,000 crosses.
Crossing the woodlands of upstate New York in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to an island at the center of a lake, “one of those delicious solitudes of the New World.” As he explored it, “the deep silence which is common to the wilds of North America was only broken by the hoarse cooing of the wood-pigeon, and the tapping of the woodpecker upon the bark of trees.”
I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to her own caprices; but when I reached the centre of the isle I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this retreat. Yet what changes had taken place in the scene of his labors! The logs which he had hastily hewn to build himself a shed had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure, and his cabin was transformed into a bower. In the midst of these shrubs a few stones were to be seen, blackened with fire and sprinkled with thin ashes; here the hearth had no doubt been, and the chimney in falling had covered it with rubbish.
“I stood for some time in silent admiration of the exuberance of Nature and the littleness of man,” he wrote, “and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with melancholy, ‘Are ruins, then, already here?'”
(From Democracy in America, 1835.)
Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.
The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”
Australia’s ARM Architecture designed the 31-story Swanston Square apartment building in Melbourne with custom-shaped white balconies against black windows, so that from a distance the face of Aboriginal leader William Barak emerges.
It’s situated to face the Shrine of Remembrance, which honors Australians who have served in war. “The site has this potential to be a very significant part of the public realm,” ARM founding director Howard Raggatt said. “The realization of the great civic axis of Swanston Street meant that we could acknowledge the Shrine at one end and then the deep history representation at the other.”
Between 1950 and 1964, Meyer Wertlieb rented a garage in Washington D.C. to James Hampton, a janitor who worked at the General Services Administration. When Hampton died, Wertlieb opened the garage and found a throne.
Hampton, the son of a minister, had been born in South Carolina in 1909. In 1928 he moved to Washington to share an apartment with his older brother, and in 1931 God and his angels told him to make a throne for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Working for hours in the middle of each night, he spent 14 years building what he called “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” piecing it together from aluminum foil and cardboard boxes, jelly jars and light bulbs. God visited him regularly to check on his progress.
Eventually it was 7 feet tall and occupied 300 square feet. When Hampton died, his sister rejected it, and it now stands in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am not an art historian. I will make no aesthetic interpretation or judgment beyond a purely personal statement that Hampton’s Throne stunned and delighted me when I happened upon it by accident during a coffee break from a meeting at the Smithsonian, and it has never failed, upon many subsequent and purposeful visits, to elicit the same pleasure and awe.”
(If that’s not interesting enough, Hampton left behind a 70-page notebook that no one has ever deciphered.)
In 1914 Henry Ford adopted a policy that no one applying for work at his auto plant would be refused on account of physical condition. Of the 7,882 jobs at the factory, he’d found that only 4,287 required “ordinary physical development and strength”:
The lightest jobs were again classified to discover how many of them required the use of full faculties, and we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, 2 by armless men, 715 by one-armed men, and 10 by blind men. Therefore out of 7,882 kinds of jobs, 4,034 — although some of them required strength — did not require full physical capacity.
“That is, developed industry can provide wage work for a higher average of standard men than are ordinarily included in any normal community. If the jobs in any one industry or, say, any one factory, were analyzed as ours have been analyzed, the proportion might be very different, yet I am quite sure that if work is sufficiently subdivided — subdivided to the point of highest economy — there will be no dearth of places in which the physically incapacitated can do a man’s job and get a man’s wage.”
(Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922.)
The BIG Maze, a temporary installation at the National Building Museum in 2014, inverted the idea of the traditional Renaissance maze: Instead of getting more bewildering as you advanced toward the goal, it got easier.
“From outside, the maze’s cube-like form hides the final reveal behind its 18-foot-tall walls,” explained Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. “On the inside, the walls slowly descend towards the center, which concludes with a grand reveal — a 360-degree understanding of your path in and how to get out.”
Kids who wanted an overview could ride on their parents’ shoulders or go up to the building’s mezzanine in order to memorize the layout.
adj. winding, sinuous, involved
n. the manner, way, or means
v. to entreat earnestly
In a 1993 New York Times article lamenting the obscurity of scholarly writing, University of Colorado history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick cited this passage from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind as an example of indecipherable prose:
If openness means to ‘go with the flow,’ it is necessarily an accommodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it.
She wrote, “Is there a reader so full of blind courage as to claim to know what this sentence means?”
During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll remember Operation Gunnerside, “one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II.”
We’ll also learn what to say when you’re invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.
Taiwan’s Modern Toilet restaurant is so popular that it’s expanding into China and other parts of Asia. Patrons sit on acrylic toilets around glass-topped sinks to eat food from miniature toilet bowls and drink from plastic urinals. The desserts include “diarrhea with dried droppings” (chocolate), “bloody poop” (strawberry), and “green dysentery” (kiwi).
Owner Wang Zi-wei began by selling chocolate ice cream in paper toilets, inspired by a cartoon character. When the idea took off, he opened the full bathroom-themed restaurant in 2004, with shower heads and toilet plungers among the decor.
“It’s a little gross when you see other people eat,” one patron told Time in 2009. But, another added, “They do it tastefully.”