Closing Down Blog

Just a housekeeping note: For simplicity I’m going to shut down the Futility Closet blog and run podcast show notes on the main site instead. So if you’ve been following the blog you can drop it. If you want to receive show notes for the Futility Closet podcast (and nothing else), you can find those here:

http://www.futilitycloset.com/category/podcast/

Thanks for reading!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 29 (October 6, 2014)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kaspar_hauser.jpg

In 1828, a 16-year-old boy appeared in Nuremberg, claiming that he’d spent his whole life alone in a dark cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the short, sad life of Kaspar Hauser and ponder who he might have been.

We’ll also revisit the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, encounter some self-landing planes, and puzzle over why a man would bury 15 luxury cars in the desert.

Sources for our segment on Kaspar Hauser:

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, 1996.

Martin Kitchen, Kaspar Hauser: Europe’s Child, 2001.

Links from listener mail:

Being in the Shadow, Australian psychologist Kate Russo’s site about the psychology of eclipse chasing.

A 1997 NTSB report regarding a Piper PA-24 that “landed itself” after the pilot passed out due to a carbon monoxide leak.

The “cornfield bomber,” a Convair F-106 Delta Dart that landed in a Montana farmer’s field in 1970 after the pilot ejected. When the local sheriff arrived, the jet’s engine was still idling.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Corroborating links are here and here (warning — they spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. We’re off next week — Episode 30 will go up on Oct. 20. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 28 (September 29, 2014)


Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, a physician who trained Arthur Conan Doyle at the University of Edinburgh. During his medical lectures, Joseph Bell regularly astonished his students with insights into his patients’ lives and characters.

“From close observation and deduction, gentlemen,” he said, “it is possible to make a diagnosis that will be correct in any and every case. However, you must not neglect to ratify your deductions.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Joseph Bell and review the stories of his legendary acuity. We’ll also take a tour through Greg’s database of unpublished oddities and puzzle over how having your car damaged might be a good thing.

Our segment on Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, was based on Northeastern Illinois University literature professor Ely Liebow’s 1982 book Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes. Our original post on Joseph Bell ran on April 27, 2014.

Harry How’s 1892 Strand feature “A Day With Dr. Conan Doyle” is reprinted in the Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.

Joseph Bell wrote the introduction to the 1892 edition of A Study in ScarletWikisource has a scan.

Somewhat related: When Arthur Guiterman twitted Doyle for having Holmes denigrate other fictional detectives that had obviously inspired him, Doyle responded in kind.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 27 (September 22, 2014)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Witold_Pilecki_in_color.jpg

In September 1940 Polish army captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. His reports first alerted the Allies to the horrors at the camp and helped to warn the world that a holocaust was taking place.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Pilecki into the camp, hear his reports of the atrocities he witnessed, and learn why his name isn’t better known today. We’ll also meet the elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and puzzle over how hitting a target could save thousands of lives.

Sources for our segment on Polish army captain Witold Pilecki:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. By Witold Pilecki, translated by Jarek Garlinski, 2012.

Timothy Snyder, “Were We All People?”, New York Times, June 22, 2012.

“Meet The Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz,” National Public Radio, Sept. 18, 2010.

Listener mail: The hoax site on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was created by these researchers at the University of Connecticut. (Thanks to listener David Brooks for telling us about this story.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White. Related links (warning: these spoil the puzzle) are here, here, and here.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 26 (September 15, 2014)

berners street hoax

In 1810 someone told hundreds of London merchants that Mrs. Tottenham at 54 Berners Street had requested their services. She hadn’t. For a full day the street was packed with crowds of deliverymen struggling to reach a single door — and the practical joker was never caught.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear descriptions of the chaos in Berners Street and meet Theodore Hook, the man who probably planned the whole thing. We’ll also revisit the mysterious corpse found on an Australian beach in 1948 and puzzle over an octopus stuck in a tree.

Sources for our segment on the Berners Street hoax:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, 2012.

Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1832.

Richard Harris Dalton Barham, The Life and Remains of Theodore Edward Hook, 1849.

John Gibson Lockhart, Theodore Hook, A Sketch, 1852.

John Timbs, Lives of Wits and Humourists, 1862.

Satirist, or, Monthly Meteor, “The Hoax: An Epistle From Solomon Sappy, Esquire, in London, to his brother Simon at Liverpool,” Jan. 1, 1811, pp. 59-61.

Listener mail:

The new developments in the mystery of the Somerton man are detailed in this article in The Advertiser.

Here’s “No E,” four minutes of E-less hip-hop by Zach Sherwin and George Watsky (thanks, Jocelyn):

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nick Madrid.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 25 (September 8, 2014)

On Dec. 1, 1948, a well-dressed corpse appeared on a beach in South Australia. Despite 66 years of investigation, no one has ever been able to establish who the man was, how he came to be there, or even how he died.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll delve into the mystery of the Somerton man, a fascinating tale that involves secret codes, a love triangle, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We’ll also hear Franklin Adams praise the thesaurus and puzzle over some surprising consequences of firing a gun.

Sources for our segment on the Somerton man:

Mike Dash, “The Body on Somerton Beach,” Smithsonianmag.com, Aug. 12, 2011 (retrieved Aug. 31, 2014).

Lorena Allam, “The Somerton Man: A Mystery in Four Acts,” Radio Australia, Feb. 23, 2014.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonMan2.jpg

The corpse of a well-dressed, clean-shaven man, 5’11”, age 40-45 and in peak physical condition, was discovered on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, South Australia, early on the morning of Dec. 1, 1948.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Actual-tamam-shud.jpg

In a fob pocket of the man’s trousers the pathologist at the city morgue found a tiny slip of rolled-up paper bearing the words “Tamam Shud,” the final words of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonManCode.jpg

This led investigators to a copy of the book, which had been thrown into a car parked near the beach. In the back of the book were these penciled lines, which have never been deciphered.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonManStone.jpg

More than 60 years of inquiries around the world have brought us no closer to establishing the dead man’s identity. His tombstone gives only the bare facts of his discovery.

Franklin Pierce Adams’ poem “To a Thesaurus” appears in The Book of Humorous Verse, by Carolyn Wells, 1920.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 24 (September 1, 2014)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_McGonagall.jpg

William McGonagall has been called “the only truly memorable bad poet in our language,” responsible for tin-eared verse that could “give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading”:

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample McGonagall’s writings, follow the poor poet’s sadly heroic wanderings, and wonder whether he may have been in on the joke after all. We’ll also consider a South Carolina seventh grader’s plea to Ronald Reagan and puzzle over a man’s outrageous public behavior.

Our segment on William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, is drawn from Norman Watson’s beautifully researched 2010 book Poet McGonagall: A Biography. The best online source on McGonagall is Chris Hunt’s site McGonagall Online, which contains extensive biographical materials, a map of the poet’s travels, and a complete collection of his poems.

South Carolina seventh grader Andy Irmo’s 1984 letter to Ronald Reagan asking that his room be declared a disaster area appears in Dwight Young’s 2007 book Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office from the Files of the National Archives. Our post about it ran on Aug. 14, 2006.

Thanks to listener Nick Madrid for this week’s lateral thinking puzzle.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 23 (August 25, 2014)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:On_the_rooftops_of_London.jpg

On New Year’s Day 1886, London grocer Edwin Bartlett was discovered dead in his bed with a lethal quantity of liquid chloroform in his stomach. Strangely, his throat showed none of the burns that chloroform should have caused. His wife, who admitted to having the poison, was tried for murder, but the jury acquitted her because “we do not think there is sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about Edwin and Adelaide Bartlett’s strange marriage and consider the various theories that have been advanced to explain Edwin’s death. We’ll also sample a 50,000-word novel written without the letter E and puzzle over a sure-footed American’s visit to a Japanese office building.

Sources for our segment on Adelaide Bartlett and the Pimlico poison mystery:

“The Pimlico Poisoning Case,” The Times, Feb. 16, 1886, 10.

“The Pimlico Poisoning Case,” The Times, March 8, 1886, 12.

“The Pimlico Mystery,” The Observer, March 21, 1886, 3.

“Central Criminal Court, April 13,” The Times, April 14, 1886, 6.

“Central Criminal Court, April 16,” The Times, April 17, 1886, 6.

“The Pimlico Mystery,” Manchester Guardian, April 19, 1886, 5.

Michael Farrell, “Adelaide Bartlett and the Pimlico Mystery,” British Medical Journal, December 1994, 1720-1723.

Stephanie J. Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World, 2009.

A full record of the trial was published in 1886, with a preface by Edward Clarke, Adelaide’s barrister.

The full text of Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E”, is available at Wikisource.

Here’s an excerpt from A Void, the English translation of George Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition, also written without the letter E.

Two notable Futility Closet posts regarding lipograms:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Mental Fitness Puzzles, by Kyle Hendrickson, Julie Hendrickson, Matt Kenneke, and Danny Hendrickson, 1998.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 22 (August 18, 2014)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Devonshire_Devil_Prints_1855.jpg

On Feb. 9, 1855, the residents of Devon in southern England awoke to find a bewildering set of footprints in the newfallen snow. “These are to be found in fields, gardens, roads, house-tops, & other likely and unlikely places, deeply embedded in snow,” ran one contemporary account. “The shape was a hoof.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the surviving descriptions of the odd marks and consider the various explanations that have been offered. We’ll also revisit the compassionate Nazi fighter pilot Franz Stigler and puzzle over how to sneak into Switzerland across a guarded footbridge.

Our segment on the “devil’s hoofmarks” is drawn from Mike Dash’s excellent article “The Devil’s Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855,” which appeared in Fortean Studies 1:1 in 1994. The full text (2MB PDF) is here.

The Restricted Data Blog’s post on John W. Campbell and his 1941 article “Is Death Dust America’s Secret Weapon?” appeared on March 7, 2014. The comments include an extensive discussion about Campbell’s exchanges with Robert A. Heinlein.

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 21 (August 4, 2014)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boeing_B-17F_42-29513_in_flight,_1943.jpg

In December 1943, American bomber pilot Charlie Brown was flying a severely damaged B-17 out of Germany when he looked out the cockpit window and saw “the world’s worst nightmare” off his right wing — a fully armed German fighter whose pilot was staring back at him.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange drama that ensued, in which German fighter ace Franz Stigler weighed the human impulse to spare the wounded bomber against his patriotic duty to shoot him down. We’ll also consider whether animals follow the 10 commandments and wonder why a man might tell his nephew that his dog will be shot.

Our segment on Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler is drawn largely from Adam Makos’ 2012 book A Higher Call: The Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II. The book trailer contains brief interviews with both men:

Sources for our segment on Ernest Thompson Seton and the 10 commandments:

Ernest Thompson Seton, “The Natural History of the Ten Commandments,” The Century, November 1907.

Theodore Roosevelt, “Nature Fakers,” Everybody’s Magazine, September 1907.

Ralph H. Lutts, The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science & Sentiment, 2001.

Paul Dickson, Words From the White House, 2013.

Our post about Seton’s belief that the commandments are “fundamental laws of all creation” and thus might be discovered in the animal world originally appeared on April 21, 2010.

The episode in which Seton’s father presented him with a bill for his rearing appears in his wife’s 1967 collection of his writings, By a Thousand Fires. Our post recounting it ran on July 8, 2014.

Here’s Jackie Cooper crying in Skippy (1931), just after hearing that his dog has been shot:

You can listen using the player above, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

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