January 5, 2021 in 3,063 words

• • • an aural noise • • •

• • • some of the things I read in antisocial isolation • • •

Found: A Nazi ‘Enigma’ Machine at the Bottom of a Bay

The rust-encrusted device was likely abandoned at the end of World War II.

The machine, abandoned and claimed by nature at the bottom of the bay. Embiggenable. Explore at home.

WHEN THE MARINE BIOLOGIST MICHAEL ßwat descended to the seabed of the Bay of Gelting on the western edge of the Baltic Sea, he noticed a contraption tangled up in the fishing line the crew had headed down to collect. The device, which at first seemed like an old typewriter sitting under at least 30 feet of water, was a Nazi Enigma machine, likely one of hundreds abandoned and thrown overboard in the dying days of the German war effort.

The project that found ßwat at the bottom of the bay in November 2020 was a collaboration between the diving company Submaris and the World Wildlife Fund, mainly involving scanning the seabed for thin-filament sea nets. Also known as “ghost nets,” these have troubling short-term effects (ensnaring marine life) and long-term consequences (decomposing into buggersome microplastics, which pollute waterways the whole world ‘round). It was only after securing permissions from German authorities that Florian Huber, the team’s archaeologist, recovered the device.

The Enigma machine was a clever bit of engineering invented at the end of the First World War by Arthur Scherbius, among others, and repurposed by the Nazis for wartime use. When the Nazis needed to send confidential messages, they entered the dispatches into the machine, which substituted every letter using a system of three or four rotors and a reflector, encrypting the message for a recipient Enigma machine to decode. The Enigma vexed Allied forces until Alan Turing’s cryptanalyst team at Bletchley Park developed the Bombe codebreaking machine. Based on the previous work of Polish cryptographers, the Bombe greatly expedited the rate of Enigma decryptions, easing the war effort for the Allies.

A CT image helped the team get a peek inside the machine.

When the Bay of Gelting Enigma machine was brought back above the surface, life had taken up residence on its shell. Mussels had secured positions on the machine’s flanks, and a small fish found refuge under the keyboard. (Huber tossed the fish back in the water.) This retrieved Enigma, which has not been above the ocean surface since it was in daily use, will be refurbished at the archaeological museum in Schleswig. It currently sits in a tank of demineralized water, where it will stay for nearly a year to flush out the salt that has rusted the machine.

RELATED: An Australian Town’s Identity Rests on a Ship That May Not Exist
Did a 16th-century Portuguese vessel run aground here? Doubtful, but why not celebrate it anyhow?

A salvaged anchor frames the Warrnambool lighthouse. Embiggenable. Explore at home

THE AFTERNOON IS OVERCAST, THE ocean churning, between Port Fairy and Warrnambool, on the Shipwreck Coast of Victoria, Australia. A man and woman carry shovels and a metal detector along the beach. I ask if they are looking for Warrnambool’s notorious wreck, the Mahogany Ship. Without hesitation, the man answers: “I’ve been searching for the Mahogany Ship for 15 years.”

The Shipwreck Coast is a dramatic 80-mile stretch of jagged cliffs and deep gorges, limestone formations and towering dunes. It is estimated that nearly 700 ships wrecked along this coastline between the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, a period known as the golden age of sail. Many of the ruined vessels are still visible; skeletal, sun-bleached hulls break through the surf, anchors corrode on the beach. In Warrnambool alone—the coastline’s largest city—29 shipwrecks rest at the bottom of the bay. One of those wrecked vessels is believed to be a 16th-century Portuguese caravel known as the Mahogany Ship. There’s just a small issue: The ship may not be from the 16th century. Or Portuguese. Or real.

Dawn breaks on the Shipwreck Coast.

“In 1836 … two men working at a whaling station at Port Fairy were walking along the sand dunes and saw somewhere in the dunes a very old shipwreck,” says Pat Connelly, founder and chairman of the Mahogany Ship Committee, a loose organization of individuals dedicated to proving the wreck’s existence.

The wreck was spotted several times in the following years; witnesses described it as built from a dark timber hard enough to snap a knife blade, with a hull that was flat-bottomed and wide, unlike the barques and clippers that sailed regularly into Victoria’s booming port towns. Gunditjmara Aboriginal elders claimed that the shipwreck had been there for so long that it was a part of their Dreamtime Trails—ancient tracks connecting water sources, camping spots, and sacred sites. Theories abounded over the ship’s origins; some maintained that it was nothing more than a whaling punt, while others believed it to be an ancient Chinese junk. One enticing possibility held that the wreck had been a crudely built ship piloted by convicts escaping Van Diemens Land (present-day Tasmania). But out of all the theories, it was the most far-fetched and fantastical one that stuck.

The First Female President of the United States of America

The White House secret presidency.

Portrait of Edith Bolling-Wilson.

Throughout the history of the United States of America, the White House was ruled entirely by men. When former Senator Hilary Clinton vied for the 2016 presidential election, the world thought the U.S. might have been ready for a female president. But of course, it did not happen.

However, according to William Hazelgrove, a historian and the author of the book, Madam President: The Secret Presidency, the United States already had a female president in the early twentieth century. She was Edith Wilson, and she led the White House and the country in secret for over a year, which made her the sole female “unelected” president of the United States of America.

From Virginia to Washington

Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville, Virginia, on October 15, 1872. Her family’s line descended from English colonial aristocracy settlers in Virginia. She was the seventh of the eleven children by William Bolling, a lawyer and judge, and Sallie White Bolling. Through her father, she was also a direct descendant of the American Native icon, Pocahontas.

Portrait of young Edith Bolling.

Edith did not grow up in luxury; her paternal grandfather had lost his plantation after the Civil War, and her entire family lived in cramped quarters above a storefront in Wytheville.

Edith was educated primarily at home and spent two years at a preparatory school in Virginia. She briefly attended Martha Washington College but received little formal education.

Need to Vent About 2020? Tell the Smithsonian Your Stories

The National Museum of American History is seeking first-person accounts for Stories of 2020, a time capsule about the whirlwind year.

A sidewalk memorial in Brooklyn, New York, honoring victims of police killings. Taken in June of 2020 during the height of police brutality protests across the US. Embiggenable.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History wants to hear how you coped with 2020, a year we all wish we could forget.

The Washington, DC museum is seeking first-person accounts of last year for Stories of 2020, a time capsule for posterity. Anyone aged 18 or older is encouraged to share memories and personal stories from 2020 to be preserved in the museum’s digital archives, no matter how “big or small” they may seem, says the museum.

The Smithsonian created an online submission form with some guiding questions for entries. The questions touch on last year’s major events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, life in quarantine, and the historic protests against racism and police brutality. Some of the examples are:

  • How did you experience protests in your town?
  • How was your daily life changed by the pandemic?
  • What does the “new normal” at work look like?
  • What memory of quarantining with your family will most stay with you?

How A Dead Hobo Helped The Allies Win WWII

The only positive thing about being homeless in London during World War II? At least the Germans couldn’t bomb your house. But between air raids and rationing, London’s least fortunate were under constant threat of starvation, with not nearly enough pies on windowsills left for an enterprising ’40s hobo to swipe.

Or windowsills, for that matter.

This was the story of Glyndwr Michael. Born in the small coal-mining town of Aberbargoed, Wales, Michael had lost his mentally-ill father to suicide at the age of 15. After the death of his mother in 1940, he wandered off to seek his fortune elsewhere. But in 1943, after years of hardship in wartime London, the tragic alcoholic vagrant was given the opportunity of a lifetime when the British government selected him to become a secret agent and help win the war. It’s just a shame that he wasn’t alive to see it.

He was like a realistic James Bond, a drunk w™ho’s already dead within the first five minutes of the mission.

By the end of 1942, the tide of World War II was finally turning in favor of the Allies. Churchill wished to use that tide to paddle North African troops across the Mediterranean and invade the South of Europe. It was agreed that the island of Sicily was the perfect first foothold. A bit too perfect. The Nazis would see the move coming from a nautical mile away, giving them time to deploy their considerable navy and reinforce the island with the waves of Panzer dorks parked in the south of France. But what Churchill needed wasn’t a new plan of attack. He needed the Nazis to have a new plan of defense.

For the invasion to work, the Allies needed to find a way to avert the ever-twitching eye of Hitler away from Sicily. The best way to do so was to make him believe that they were going to attack another Mediterranean locale. This would force the Nazis to divert troops and leave the Italian island vulnerable. For such a ruse, Churchill turned to MI5’s counterintelligence division, the Twenty Committee or XX Committee (as in “double-cross,” because all British spies are a bunch of Latin-speaking private school nerds). From the Committee, Prime Minister selected two of his favorite “corkscrew thinkers,” Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu. They were tasked with devising a way to fool Hitler into thinking an attack on Greece was imminent. And the duo knew exactly how to do it: by using the oldest trick in the book. Specifically, the book on trout fishing.

RELATED: Medieval Coats Of Arms Were Way Sillier Than You’d Think

Is there anything nobler than a coat of arms? Imbued with ancient privileges, traditions, and language (What’s a saltire? Nobody knows), heraldry establishes that you come from a long line of exceptional people — or people exceptionally good at burning and pillaging, at least. As a literal status symbol, coats of arms are also pieces of pageantry, replete with strong imagery symbolizing a house’s power, like a proud lion, or a majestic eagle, or a all hang on.

Is that a cheetah wearing a blindfold?

It seems that the immortal symbols of nobility don’t all hold up to the same aesthetic scrutiny. The above heraldry is taken from the pages of Konrad Grunenberg’s Wappenbuch (Book of Arms), a comprehensive collection of coats of arms commissioned as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, in 1480. The book is a real Who’s Who of the HRE, listing the arms of its nobles, important burghers but also foreign kings. It’s also a collection of who could think up the goofiest symbols, like a fish with a trumpet for a nose …

Motto: “Sound The Bubbles Of War.”

Or just the laziest. Like the Count of Hoya, a proud Saxon house that just slapped some bear limbs on a blank shield and called it a day.

Burning the furniture: my life as a consumer

Some thoughts on buying a house, white privilege and homewares for the apocalypse.

Suburban housing in Chicago.

What does it say about capitalism, John asks, that we have money and want to spend it but we can’t find anything worth buying? We’re on our way home from a furniture store, again. We almost bought something called a credenza, but then John opened the drawers and discovered that it wasn’t made to last.

I think there are limits, I say, to what mass production can produce.

We just bought a house but we don’t have furniture yet. We’ve been eating on our back stoop for three months. Last week a Mexican woman with four children rang our doorbell and asked if our front room was for rent. I’m sorry, I said awkwardly, we live here. She was confused. But, she said, it’s empty.

It is empty. I hang curtains to hide the emptiness, but it remains empty. There wasn’t any furniture in the house where I grew up until a German cabinetmaker moved in with us. He arrived in a truck so heavy that it made a dent in the driveway. He filled our dining room with his furniture, and then he made tiny replicas of that furniture with the machines he brought in the truck. I still have the tiny corner cabinet with lattice doors, the tiny hutch with brass knobs and the tiny dining room table with expertly turned legs. They’re in the basement, wrapped in newspaper. The tiny dresser sits atop my dresser, which is from Ikea.

The apartment we just left was furnished with shelves that John made out of cheap pine. They’re in the basement now, reduced to lumber. The ammunition box that I found on the kerb and made into a coffee table is in the back yard, planted full of marigolds. I hate furniture, my father once murmured. He had just visited a warehouse full of furniture made of unfinished pine. This was after the cabinetmaker went to a nursing home and his furniture went away, too. As a child, I burned a hole in the dining room table. The cabinetmaker, who smoked a pipe, supplied me with matches. I loved to burn things, but I felt remorse over the table, which I also loved.


The Unsettling Story of a Creative Commons Photo Scam

Photographer Kyle Cassidy released one of his images into the public domain. Years later, someone else took credit for it.

Kyle Cassidy’s photo of Peter Sagal in Chicago. Embiggenable. Explore at home.

In 2013, photographer Kyle Cassidy uploaded one of his images to Wikimedia Commons. Anyone can use it free of charge, even modify it, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License — so long as they credit him properly. Nearly seven years later, the photo was at the center of a bizarre scam involving affiliate links, a fake copyright enforcement company, and a Wikipedia user improbably named “Aldwin Sturdivant.”

Cassidy had initially taken the photo, a dynamic shot of journalist Peter Sagal going for a run along Lake Michigan in Chicago, for the back cover of Sagal’s book. When he noticed that the image illustrating the Wikipedia entry for “running” left a lot to be desired, however, Cassidy asked Sagal if he could update it with the picture they had taken; Sagal agreed.

“It was really fun seeing it show up all over the place,” Cassidy told Hyperallergic. “I’d get Google alerts and it would be on the website of some hospital talking about how to lower your blood pressure, or a fitness pamphlet. There was a hospital in the Middle East that made up a whole fictional bio for the photo.”

Among those who reused the image was Eric San Juan, a New Jersey-based writer, who featured “Running Man” in a 2018 article about exercise on his blog. At the time, he properly attributed the image to Cassidy, listed as its author on Wikipedia.

In November of this year, San Juan received an unexpected email from one Aldwin Sturdivant, who claimed to be the photographer and asked if San Juan could link the image back to their website.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Seth takes a closer look at President Trump trying his hardest to get impeached again and prosecuted after he pressured the Georgia secretary of state to overturn election results.

THANKS to NBC and Late Night with Seth Meyers for making this program available on YouTube.

CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Here’s me commentary on some dodgy driving.

寝るねこたち。Maru&Hana&Miri sleep.


The vagina dialogues: 33-metre artwork draws far right’s ire in Brazil

Juliana Notari’s hillside sculpture sparks clash between Bolsonaro-supporting right and leftwing cultural community.

Artist Juliana Notari installed the artwork, entitled Diva, in rural art park in Pernambuco, Brazil. Embiggenable. Explore at home.

A 33-metre reinforced concrete vagina has sparked a Bolsonarian backlash in Brazil, with supporters of the country’s far-right president clashing with leftwing art admirers over the installation.

The handmade sculpture, entitled Diva, was unveiled by visual artist Juliana Notari on Saturday at a rural art park on the grounds of a former sugar mill in Pernambuco, one of Brazil’s most culturally vibrant states.

In a Facebook post, Notari said the scarlet hillside vulva was intended to “question the relationship between nature and culture in our phallocentric and anthropocentric western society” and provoke debate over the “problematisation of gender”.

“Nowadays these issues have become increasingly urgent,” the artist added in what appeared partly to be a reference to the increasingly intolerant climate in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

That comment was immediately borne out by the angry and often obscene reactions to Notari’s art, as thousands of critics – many seemingly Bolsonaro supporters – flooded the artist’s Facebook page with their ire. “Who do you lefties think you’re fooling? Apart from useful idiots on the left, of course,” one of the more restrained detractors wrote.

Ed. More tomorrow? Possibly. Probably. Maybe. Likely, if I find nothing more barely uninteresting at all to do.


Good times!