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

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 20 (July 28, 2014)

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In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information — and his motives for publishing it.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation that ensued, which involved legendary editor John W. Campbell and illuminated the imaginative power of science fiction and the role of censorship in times of war. We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s advice against being too clever and puzzle over the failure of a seemingly perfect art theft.

Sources for our segment on Cleve Cartmill:

Cleve Cartmill and Jean Marie Stine, Deadline & Other Controversial SF Classics, 2011.

Albert I. Berger, “The Astounding Investigation: The Manhattan Project’s Confrontation With Science Fiction,” Analog, September 1984.

Robert Silverberg, “Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair” (in two parts), Asimov’s Science Fiction, September and October–November 2003.

Mark Twain appended the poem “Be Good, Be Good” to a letter to Margaret Blackmer on Nov. 14, 1907:

Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;
For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? alas, alas they

(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)

Listener mail:

The observation that a letter might be addressed to Glenn Seaborg by listing five chemical elements was made by Jeffrey Winters in “The Year in Science: Chemistry 1997,” Discover, January 1998. I don’t know whether any such letter was ever delivered successfully.

Jeff Van Bueren’s article “Postal Experiments” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research, July/August 2000.

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 19 (July 21, 2014)

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In 1898, 19-year-old W. Reginald Bray made a thorough study of British postal regulations, which laid out rules for mailing everything from bees to elephants and promised that “all letters must be delivered as addressed.” He resolved to give the service “a severe test without infringing its regulations.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the antics that followed, in which Bray sent turnips, bicycle pumps, shoes, and even himself through the British post. We’ll also sympathize with Lucius Chittenden, a U.S. Treasury official who had to sign 12,500 bonds in one harried weekend in 1862, and puzzle over the worrying train journey of a Wall Street banker.

Our segment on W.R. Bray, the Edwardian postal experimentalist, is based chiefly on John Tingey’s 2010 book The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects.

Tingey maintains a website with an extensive catalog of the curios that Bray sent through the post.

Also David Leafe, “The Man Who Posted Himself,” Daily Mail, March 19, 2012.

In an article in the Royal Magazine in 1904, Bray noted the usefulness of the Post Office’s offer to conduct a person “to any address on payment of the mileage charge”:

What mothers know that, if they like, they can send their little ones to school as letters? Possibly, as soon as the ‘mother-readers’ see this, the Post Offices will be crowded with toddling infants, both in and out of ‘prams,’ all waiting to be taken to schools, or out for a day in the country. ‘But I should not like my child to be carried with postage stamps, and arrive at the school black with postmarks!’ That is what I expect some mothers will say.

Oh, don’t be alarmed, nothing like this will happen! All that you need to do is to take the child to the Post Office across the road, pay a small fee, and a messenger boy will escort the little one to the very door of the school. However Post Office officials do not appear anxious to gain fame as nurse providers to infants.

Past postal mischief on Futility Closet:

Torturing the Post Office

Post Haste

Riddling Letters

Sources for our segment on L.E. Chittenden, the iron-wristed Register of the Treasury under Lincoln:

Lucius Eugene Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, 1891.

Joseph F. Tuttle, “Abraham Lincoln, ‘The Perfect Ruler of Men,'” Historical Register of the Colorado Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, Nov. 1, 1906.

William Juengst, “In Ruffles and Starch Cuffs: The American Jews’ Part in Our International Relations,” The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, Sept. 30, 1921.

Arthur Laurents wrote a piece for the New York Herald Tribune in 1957 that discusses the development of West Side Story.

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 18 (July 14, 2014)

http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/h53000/h53288c.htm

In 1942 Navy lieutenant Ernest Cody and ensign Charles Adams piloted a blimp out of San Francisco into the Pacific, looking for Japanese subs. A few hours later the blimp drifted back to land, empty. The parachutes and life raft were in their proper places and the radio was in working order, but there was no trace of Cody or Adams.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the events of that strange day and delve into the inquest that followed. We’ll also sample some unpublished items from Greg’s trove of Futility Closet research and puzzle over a drink of water that kills hundreds of people.

Sources for our segment on the L-8 blimp mystery:

Mark J. Price, “60 Years Later, Pilots’ Fate Still a Mystery — 2 Men Aboard Navy Blimp Vanished,” Seattle Times, Aug. 18, 2002.

Darold Fredricks, “Airships and Moffett Field,” San Mateo Daily Journal, July 22, 2013.

United Press International, “Goodyear Blimp Retires,” July 9, 1982.

Some inquest records are available online here.

Links mentioned in listener mail:

Thad Gillespie explains how George Washington came to have two different birth dates in this blog post.

This Gizmodo page, sent by Brian Drake, includes artists’ renditions of Pyke’s envisioned aircraft carrier and the Sagrada Familia made of pykrete; photos of students and professors from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands using pykrete to make the world’s largest ice dome, with a 98-foot span; and a link to a video of the making of the dome.

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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