• Now I Know: Why an episode of Peppa Pig is banned in Australia

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    Sign up for it here. — Mark]

    If you're a four-year-old in the United Kingdom, you probably know who Peppa Pig, above, is. The anthropomorphic, snorting pig and her family are a mainstay of children's television there — and, increasingly, elsewhere — with unrivaled popularity throughout Great Britain. Each episode features Peppa's family and her friends (and often the friends of her brother, George) exploring the everyday adventures that come with being a preschooler. Take, for example, Wikipedia's description of the first episode of the show's third season, titled "Work and Play:" "When Peppa and Suzy [that's Suzy Sheep, Peppa's best friend] learn that grown-ups must work all day, they decide to play at working in a store. But they quickly get tired of it." It's not very hard-hitting stuff, but little kids tend to like it.

    As of this writing, there are four seasons of the show totaling 208 episodes, each of which is five minutes. (There's also a ten minute Christmas special.) One of them can be seen below…

    … but if you're in Australia, your major broadcaster doesn't want your preschooler to watch it.

    That episode is called "Spider Web." Wikipedia's description is short but to the point: "There's a spider in the house, so Mummy Pig tells Daddy Pig to get rid of it." The Pig family spend much of the five minutes discussing whether the spider should be able to live with them or not — Mummy Pig wants it gone, but Daddy Pig notes that spiders eat flies and are therefore good to have around. In the end, the family concludes that spiders are good to have around (although better outside the house than inside). Daddy Pig even makes a new rule: no one is to break a spider's web, as the spider worked long and hard to build it, and that just wouldn't be nice.

    "Spider Web" originally aired in the UK on December 21, 2011 and soon was available for broadcast in other areas. Australia was one of those secondary regions — but it never made it to TV there. Peppa Pig typically airs on ABC 4 Kids in Australia and the ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Company), which operates that channel, declined to air the episode.

    The problem: spiders in Australia are really dangerous. Really. As Wikipedia notes, "Australia has some highly venomous spiders, including the notorious Sydney funnel-web, its relatives in the Atrax genus, and redback spiders, whose bites can be deadly." Even though the most common spiders in Australia are generally not very toxic, there are some best avoided. Learning to play nice with spiders is a bad idea if you're an Australian four-year-old.

    The ABC's decision probably wouldn't have come to light except for a slight error on their part. In August of 2012, a viewer complained that the Spider Web" episode appeared on an ABC-run website. The ABC apologized for their error, and the episode is no longer available there.

  • The juice bottle that brought down an art thief

    Most famous pieces of stolen art are stolen because they're famous. But the picture above — a 1949 painting by the Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí — is famous because it was stolen. Really, that's how Wikipedia describes it: "It is perhaps best known for its theft and return."

    Titled "Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio," the work is — as you probably already guessed — not one of Dalí's most well known pieces. His own Wikipedia entry lists dozens of "selected" works ranging from the immediately-recognizable "Persistence of Memory" to the similarly recognizable (but for very different reasons) Chupa Chups logo. But "Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio" isn't one of the selected works. It's just one of the other 1,500 or so pieces created by the prolific artist over his decades-long career.

    Nevertheless, "Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio" is a Dali and, regardless of its independent fame, will attract both viewers and potential buyers. In June of 2012, an upstart art gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side had the 11" x 14" drawing on display — until a security guard inexplicably failed to do his job, at least. During regular gallery hours, a visitor walked in with a shopping bag, strolled over to the Dali, took it off the wall, put it in his bag, and left.

    The gallery's owner, Adam Lindemann, was befuddled, for two reasons. First, as he told the New York Times, "there was a security guard standing right there. So how you don't see a young, sweaty guy with a shopping bag I don't understand." But more importantly, Lindemann asked the Times, rhetorically, "What do you do with a stolen drawing by Dalí?" After all, there isn't a very large market for the non-selected works of Salvador Dalí, and those who would be interested in paying a meaningful amount for the artwork (which the gallery valued at $150,000) would also know that it was stolen. What you have on your hands is a very expensive, impossible-to-move item.

    The thief, apparently, agreed, because a week or so later, he mailed it back. The painting was undamaged but the thief either kept the frame or, to save return shipping costs, removed it and threw it out. To hide his identity, the thief used a fake return address, of course. That helped for a bit, but not for very long. Even though his theft turned into a something more akin to an unauthorized loan, it was still certainly illegal — and the case remained open.

    And eventually, a suspect was charged with the crime. Police were able to find his fingerprints on the returned Dalí — perhaps he should have just kept it? — and in February of 2013, found a match. According to the BBC, around the same time he temporarily stole the Dalí, he was caught trying to steal something else — a juice bottle from a supermarket. As a result, his fingerprints, associated with his identity, entered the crime database. Apparently, it's easier to lift expensive art than relatively cheaper groceries.

    Bonus Fact: In 1965, Dali drew a three foot by four foot picture of Jesus on the cross and donated it to Rikers Island, the New York City jail. It hung in a inmate dining room until 1981, but around that time it was moved to the jail's lobby, ostensibly to keep it safe. That plan turned out to be a bad one. In 2003, the BBC reported that the picture, valued at about $175,000, "was stolen from its usual position and replaced with a replica — despite a 24-hour guard in the lobby" (and despite the seemingly more important fact that the lobby was on a jail island). The thieves were, eventually, identified, but the artwork was destroyed in the heist.

    From the Archives: Stolen Smile: The theft of the Mona Lisa.

    Related: If you like Salvador Dalí, you need one of these.


  • How top colleges figured out how to turn away Jews

    First, you take a standardized test — the SAT or the ACT. Then you fill out seemingly endless paperwork, including writing 250 word essays on topics such as how you "celebrate your nerdy side," what you'd discuss with George Washington over dinner, or on "what's so odd about odd numbers." (Those are all real; click the links.) You ask teachers and others for letters of recommendation and make sure that your school sends in your transcript to the college you're interested in. And maybe, if you get far enough in the process, the college will ask you to meet with one of its admissions officers or alumni, for the oft-dreaded admissions interview.

    That, generally speaking, is the modern American college admission process. There are some exceptions, of course, but the general experience is the same — in most cases, before a college invites you to fork over tens of thousands of dollars (and often take on immense student debt), its admissions department wants to get to know you. Perhaps excessively so.

    It wasn't always this way, though. About 100 years ago, the application process was a lot more straight-forward: take an entrance exam. Get a high enough score, and you were in. Not hit that threshold mark? Sorry. It didn't matter if your crowning high school achievement was picking out the font for the school yearbook or if you spent the summer designing irrigation ditches in Appalachia. All that mattered was that one test score.

    So what changed? Blame Yale's anti-Semitism.


  • Why canned soup tastes like goop

    If you Google "vegetable soup recipe," one of the top results will be this one from celebrity chef Alton Brown. Google describes it as an "all-star, easy-to-follow" recipe, and gives it a five-star rating. But it's not all that easy to make.

    Brown labels the recipe as "intermediate," and even if you're up to the task, it takes just under an hour and a half to make. It's probably not all that cheap, either, given the number of ingredients—especially if you're cooking for one person. These are the problems with homemade soup! You have to plan ahead, it takes time, and may or may not be cheaper than store-bought.

    So it should be no surprise that canned soup is a $8 billion industry worldwide, $5 billion in North America (although that number's shrinking). Not everyone is an intermediate-or-better cook with an hour and a half on their hands. Not everyone has a crisper full of different vegetables.

    On the other hand, canned soup can't match the taste of homemade.

    Why? Blame the gargantuan carrots.

    In 2002, Slate writer Tim Carvell decided to put canned soup to the taste test, and concluded that they all were basically inedible (except, perhaps, as pasta sauce). There are reasons why canned soup can't be made to taste like the stuff that comes off your stove top after an investment of serious time and labor. The major reason—and the gargantuan carrots are a result of this—is food safety. In order to greatly reduce the chance that your canned soup is going to get you sick, Carvell noted, the Food and Drug Administration requires that the soup be brought to a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit after it's canned.

    The process, though measurable, is violent. Soup companies want the process to go quickly, and they want the soup to be heated evenly, so the cans of soups are aggressively shaken, mixing up the broth and vegetables and chicken and whatnot. And while you shouldn't try this at home (and if you have a canned soup shaking machine, that's really cool and you should post a video to YouTube), you can imagine what would happen to the perfect carrots you can buy at the grocery store. They would not survive the process in any visibly solid form.

    The solution? Gargantuan carrots.

    Carvell spoke with a man named David Gombas, then the Vice President of the Center for Development of Research Policy and New Technologies at the National Food Processors Association. Gombas told Carvell that regular, everyday carrots would "disintegrate" in the heating-and-shaking process. So to get around this, "companies grow special carrots for soups. They look like tree limbs. They're like baseball bats. But once they go through the cooking process, they come out looking like the small young ones that you'd put into your soup." And the same is true many of the other vegetables in canned soup. The selectively-bred veggies come out like regular ones, are safe to eat, and taste fine. Just not quite as good as the ones in homemade soup.


  • Budget Cuts aboard Air Force One

    In May of 1993, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton decided he needed a little grooming. While aboard Air Force One and sitting on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport, President Clinton got a haircut. The price was about $200 and required that two of LAX's four runways shut down during the ordeal. According to initial reports, the haircut caused massive delays, but that turned out not to be true. But regardless, President Clinton was widely mocked for his expensive, not-quite-in-flight reverse-visit to the salon.

    He could have saved a lot of trouble by using the Senate's barber instead.

    (Yes, the Senate has its own barber shop.)

    Officially, it's called "Senate Hair Care Services." It's in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, the oldest of the three buildings where members of the Senate and their staff are based. The barber shop opened in 1859 (at a different location) and provided haircuts, shaves, and the like free-of-charge to Senators until 1979, when someone realized how ridiculous that was and decided to charge Senators instead of taxpayers for these services. At around the same time, this odd little department of the Federal government opened its doors to the public — previously, you needed to win a election in order to be worthy of its scissors — and it remains open today. As of 2013, a haircut — no shampoo — cost $20; a perm would run you $75. The barbershop has three reviews on Foursquare, two of which recommend a stylist named Meena. (She doesn't seem to work there any more.)

    That's a reasonable if not high price for such service, which would suggest that Senate Hair Care Services runs free and clear of the public dole. But, not quite. In 2012, the Senate barbershop needed and received a $300,000 "bailout," to quote TIME, due to cost overruns. That may be due to the salaries then-paid to the stylists — at least one made in the realm of $75,000 per year, nearly three times that of others in similar jobs at other, non-government barbershops near the Capitol. (The staff's salaries are public record, if you'd like to check.)

    More recently, the barbershop has been targeted for budget cuts and privatization. In 2013, according to the New York Times, many of the stylists accepted a buyout and were laid off due to sequestration — a series of automatic budget cuts across government agencies — and were instead replaced by private contractors. The Washington Post notes that the Hair Care Services used to offer manicures and shoe shines, but both of those services were swept away in the last two years as the barbershop tried to cut costs (as well as hair).

    It's unclear based on reports if the Hair Care department takes appointments (and my two attempts at calling them failed — one was after hours, and an automated voice invited me to leave a message; another resulted in a busy signal). If you want to give it a try, you can reach them at (202) 224-4560.


  • Stealing Japan's WWII surrender statement

    On July 26, 1945, the United States, China, and Great Britain issued the Potsdam Declaration to Japan, in hopes of putting World War II to an end without further bloodshed. The declaration closed with an ultimatum: "We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction." On September 2nd — after two atomic bombs hit its cities, the Soviet Union invaded its territory, and American B-29s bombed its shores — Japan officially surrendered. The signing ceremony took place on the deck of the USS Missouri and, for the first time in years, the world was at relative peace.


  • Got a 1943 copper penny? Don't spend it.

    Drop a magnet into a pile of U.S. pennies and not a whole lot is going to happen. Pennies are made up of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper, and neither of those two metals are magnetic. You should be able to remove the magnet without any of those pennies sticking to it. But if a cent or two happen to come along for the ride, you may have been the victim of fraud.

    That's the bad news. The good news? You may be a few dozen cents or so richer than you thought you were.

    That's because in World War II, the government needed copper for ammunition and military equipment, and putting copper into pennies seemed like a huge waste. Many alternatives were tested, and, ultimately, the U.S. Mint went with steel. On occasion, you'll find a 1943 penny made up of 99% steel and the rest zinc. It's a relatively rare coin because the Mint destroyed many of them before the decade was out, but there are enough floating around out there that if you really want one, you can typically find them for 50 cents apiece or so online. And as seen on that link, the 1943 steel pennies are a silvery-white color, unlike the color of a typical penny. Steel is magnetic, and therefore, so are 99% steel pennies.

    Your bronze-ish penny sticking to that magnet? If it says 1943 on the front, that's almost certainly what you have.

    When the Mint produced the 1943 steel cents, it also made a handful of mistakes. Forty mistakes, give or take. Those mistakes are known as the 1943 copper penny, as pictured. They should have never been made.

    In general, to create coins, the Mint puts round metal slugs called planchets through presses. The presses imprint the design onto the planchets. When the Mint ran off the 1943 line, they did so using steel planchets, as discussed above. But for some reason, all three Mints — Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco — are believed to have made the same tiny mistake at the start of the process. Each of the three neglected to clear the last few remaining copper planchets off the press. So there are a handful of 1943 pennies out there which, like pennies minted in other years, are made of copper. But because of the war, they were supposed to be made of steel.

    The 1943 copper pennies looked like their predecessor coins, and because there were so few of them, the Mint didn't notice the error or, perhaps, didn't think to do anything about the handful of erroneous cents now in the monetary system. The mistake wasn't discovered by collectors until 1947. The U.S. Mint notes that only about 40 of the coins were ever minted and there are only (already?) 12 confirmed to exist and have been located. There are perhaps as many as 200 million normal pennies currently in circulation, so your odds of finding one of the 30 or so potentially floating around out there are one in fifteen million. Due to its rarity, an actual 1943 copper penny is worth tens of thousands of dollars, if not more.

    Which is why fraudsters try to trick the unsuspecting coin collector. There are lots of fake 1943 copper pennies out there. Some fraudsters find 1948 pennies and shave down the 8 to look like a 3, easily fooling amateurs. More common, though, are those who buy 1943 steel cents and plate them with copper, making them look like the super-valuable one. That's easy enough to detect — those, unlike true copper pennies, are magnetic after all. So if your magnet picks up a penny, it may be because someone tried to pass off a phony 1943 copper cent. It's still worth about 25 cents or so, so don't be too upset.


  • The mystery Vegas casino you can only visit once every two years

    Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the United States. It is home to, per About.com, about 200,000 slot machines across about 1,700 licensed gambling locations. Those "licensed gambling locations" aren't necessarily "casinos," though — you can find slot machine at the airport, for example, as well as random other places throughout the area. If you really want to gamble in Vegas, it's pretty easy to find someone who will take your money. It can be a very lucrative business.

    Even when things are going wrong. Take, for example, the Castaways casino, better known by its name from 1954 to 2000, the Showboat. It was purchased in 2004 by a company called Station Casinos, which operates a number of smaller locations in Vegas. Station Casinos paid about $33 million for what at the time was a 19-story, 445 room hotel with an 80,000 square foot gaming area. That seems like a bargain for an established gaming location, but that's not the whole story. The Castaways building was decrepit and likely unusable, and the business was about to go into bankruptcy.

    So what was Station Casinos doing buying a dead company? They were after a loophole.

    If you want to open a casino, you need a lot of money — Station Casinos certainly had that — but that's not enough to get your business up and running. You also need a gaming license. Applying for a license is a long process with no guarantee of success — the Nevada Gaming Commission may end up rejecting your bid or establishing a number of conditions, such as not allowing you to build a hotel to go with the roulette wheels and craps tables. But there's another way. You can simply purchase another casino — one with a license — and operate it. Renovate the grounds, change the name, built a massive tower to the envy of your fellow hoteliers, whatever. As long as your casino stays where the old one was, you're good to go.

    In other words, licenses are transferrable and, therefore, have value. So if you're running a failing casino, you still have an asset worth potentially millions of dollars. The same is true if you have a failed casino, so long as the license hasn't lapsed. The good news is that from the moment you close your doors, you have two years before the license expires. The even better news — and, importantly for Station Casinos — is that there's a way to renew that two year window again and again. Technically, to keep the license from lapsing, you need to have been open to the public for eight hours during the previous two years. That creates our neat little loophole — a temporary casino. Host a small amount of gambling for a few hours every couple of years and you keep your license.

    Station Casinos did just that. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, Station reduced the old Castaways casino to rubble shortly after buying it, turning it into a 26 acre dirt lot. But it was a special dirt lot due to the license. In late 2007, Station asked the Gaming Commission for permission to bring in a trailer — to be in open for one day only — outfitted with 16 slot machines. By operating this mini "casino," the license stayed alive for another two years. This was particularly valuable to Station, as the Castaways, as the defunct hotel was located in Las Vegas Valley, where, as of 1997, the Gaming Commission no longer allowed "new" hotel-casinos to open.

    The Commission accepted Station's proposal. In January of 2008, about two years after the implosion of Castaways (but before that all-important two-year anniversary of its last bet placed), the 400 square foot trailer rolled into the dirt lot and opened for business, according to the New York Times. The casino's eight-hour existence was sparsely attended and the biggest jackpot won was $2.50 — not that Station Casinos cared either way. They won either way.

    They did not, however, end up building a new casino within the two year window ending early 2010 or, for that matter, by the the time of this writing. Instead, the trailers kept coming back, most recently in late 2013. Maybe one day, the casino on the site will be large and permanent, but for now, your best bet is to go elsewhere.


  • Feeling the buzz: where do phantom phone vibrations come from?

    You're sitting at your desk, standing in the kitchen, watching TV, etc. All of a sudden, your cell phone vibrates, informing you that you have a new text message, phone call, or email. You reach into your pocket and check, only to find no such message — and, perhaps, that your phone is not even in your pocket in the first place. The vibration felt real, but maybe it wasn't. Regardless, it was not caused by your cell phone.

    If this has happened to you, rest assured you are not alone.

    In 2010, a team of researchers from Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts asked 232 of their colleagues to answer a questionnaire about phantom vibrations from their cell phone (or, more correctly, from the area where their cell phones usually are). Of the 176 who responded, 115 — 69% — stated that yes, they experienced the disconcerting fake alerts like the type described above. The researcher's plain-as-day conclusion: "Phantom vibration syndrome is common among those who use electronic devices."

    What causes it? There are a lot of theories. Discovery News suggested that "[i]t could be because cell phones produce electrical signals that transmit the feeling of vibration directly to a person's nerves or simply because of the mental anticipation of alerts." Mental Floss explains how the first of the two theories would work, likening it to "a physical stimulation similar to what happens when your phone is near a speaker and you hear that weird buzzing sound as it does a 'hand shake' with a cell tower and gives off some electromagnetic interference." And the anticipation aspect is not dissimilar from any other sort of psychological conditioning — we are so used to our phones vibrating that our brains make it feel like it is happening when we "want," not when it actually does.

    There's some newer evidence suggesting that it's all in our heads. In July of 2012, researchers published a study on the phantom vibration phenomenon after speaking with undergraduate students about the fake shakes. The vast majority experienced the vibrations, but, as Slate explains, the study found that extroverts and neurotics had it happen more often than the others:

    Extroverts, the theory goes, check their phones a lot because keeping in touch with friends is a big part of their lives. Neurotics, meanwhile, worry a lot about the status of their relationships—so while they may not get as many text messages, they care a lot about what they say.
    In any event, most researchers think that the fake vibrations are harmless (albeit annoying) — although there has been very little research into that, too.

    Bonus fact: The 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing is a favorite of conspiracy theorists who assert that the landing was faked, and rather filmed on a sound stage. In September 2002, one such conspiracy theorist physically accosted the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin (whose mother's maiden name was Moon!), demanding he swear upon a Bible (that the conspiracy theorist brought with him) that the landing was faked. Instead, Aldrin punched the guy. Authorities declined to press charges against Aldrin. (Here's a video of the punch.)

    From the Archives: Teen Away: A high-pitched noise that most teenagers can hear, but most older people can't. (And how teens are using that sound to hide their text messaging habits.)

    Related: Did your cell phone's vibrating motor peter out? You can buy just that piece.

    Photo: Man Repeller

  • Where do bags go after the TSA takes them?

    Air travel comes with a risk that, although mathematically rare, seems all too common: lost luggage. According to Conde Nast Traveler, U.S. carriers handle 400 million checked bags a year, and as many as 2 million bags are lost each year from domestic U.S. flights alone. That's a small percentage—about half a percent—and most misplaced bags are reunited with their owners within forty-eight hours. Within five days, 95 percent of those 2 million bags will find themselves back home.

    But a small percentage—and we're talking 50,000 to 100,000—sit idly, never to find their way back home. What happens to these bags? They go to Alabama. Scottsboro, Alabama, is a small city of just under 15,000 people, tucked away in the northeast corner of the state, thirty miles or so from the Georgia and Tennessee borders. Every year, about a million visitors come to this tiny city, the vast majority of whom come to visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center. This 50,000-square- foot store sells the things that flyers lost and were unable to recover.

    When an airline loses your bags, federal law requires them to try to find them for you. Typically, the airlines are successful at doing so. But not always. After the lost bag has sat for ninety days unclaimed (or its owner has not been located), federal law imposes a different obligation on the airlines: They have to pay the flyer a settlement amount. In doing so, the airline effectively purchases the luggage, becoming the legal owner of everything inside the bags.

    But airlines aren't in the business of selling random items like half-used bottles of sunscreen, underwear of every size, evening gowns, jewelry, and a cornucopia of other goods. Besides, it would be bad for business if the airlines—after scanning baggage and at times, manually inspecting the contents—started putting the high-priced items you formerly owned on some e- commerce site. (Imagine the conspiracy theories!) This leaves the airlines with a problem: Tens of thousands of bags become theirs each year, and they can't sell the stuff inside.

    The Unclaimed Baggage Center is the largest and most well known of a handful of intermediaries that help solve this problem. The UBC, as Scottsboro locals call it, buys unclaimed baggage by the pound, sight unseen, from the airlines. (This works well for the airlines because they're better off having no knowledge of the contents of the unclaimed bags.) The UBC trucks the items from various airlines' unclaimed baggage depots across the country to the Scottsboro HQ. Workers sort through the contents, and about a third of the items make it onto the shelves in the colossal store.

    Another third are donated to charity, and the final third is deemed unfit for sale. (The criteria for being unfit for sale is unknown, but shoppers have noted that partially consumed bottles of lotion are often on the store shelves whereas sex toys rarely, if ever, are.) Most items are for sale at a sizeable discount, and on occasion, a shopper may find a diamond in the rough—literally. The UBC has sold a handful of lost diamond jewelry in its forty-plus-year history.

    Bonus Fact: Sometimes, albeit rarely, airlines are better off losing luggage. This was certainly the case regarding a regional flight servicing areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo on August 25, 2010. That day, the contents of one passenger's carry-on bag resulted in tragedy. According to NBC News, a passenger had snuck a crocodile into a large duffle bag, hoping to sell it at his intended destination. The crocodile got loose, scared the you-know-what out of the flight crew and passengers, and caused the pilot to lose control of the plane. The plane crashed into a house (the residents were thankfully not at home), killing all but one of the twenty-one people onboard. The crocodile survived but was killed by a machete-wielding Congolese shortly thereafter.

    From the Archives: Can't Hardly Wait: A story about baggage claims.

    Related: My book, where this article originally ran.

    Originally published May 2, 2014


  • Inside job: the story of Witold Pileki, leader of the Secret Polish Army

    With their homeland occupied, the underground band of freedom fighters had few options left. The ragtag band of the resistance — this group, at least — numbered only 8,000 (with arms for only half of them), a paltry sum compared to the heavily armed platoons patrolling their streets. With few options remaining, one of them came up with an idea: get arrested. If he did, he'd almost certainly be sent to the large prison in the area. The enemy had been transporting prisoners there by the trainload for months now. From the inside, he surmised, he could begin a prison uprising, overthrow the guards, and add the manpower of tens of thousands more to the resistance's total.

    The man's name was Witold Pilecki. He was a leader in the Tajna Armia Polska ("TAP") — the Secret Polish Army — in 1940. The prison he successfully entered was Auschwitz.

    In mid-1940, Pilecki proffered his plan to TAP, and the organization approved. They pieced together a set of forged documents under the name Tomasz Serafinksi. On September 19, 1940, the plan went into action. That day, the Gestapo arrested 2,000 Poles in a lapanka — a roundup of innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pilecki made sure he was one of those 2,000, and, after two days of interrogation-by-torture, was sent to Auschwitz. His mug shot from there is above.

    At the time, no one knew (or believed) that the Nazis were systematically murdering Jews and others in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Pilecki and TAP were no exception. But Pilecki's ability to infiltrate the camp began to change that. He managed to organize a small resistance group within the death camp, focusing mostly on increasing morale — any attempts to forcibly resist the Nazis would have certainly failed. Similarly, his ability to communicate with those outside of Auschwitz's walls was limited, to say the least. So Pilecki did what few others were able to do: he broke out.

    On the night of April 26, 1943, he and two others were assigned to work at a bakery located outside of the main fence. The three men overpowered the guards, cut the phone line, and Pilecki made his way to Warsaw — a trip which took four months. With him, Pilecki carried a trove of official documents he stole from the Germans; these documents and the experience of those he met in Auschwitz became a 100-page report detailing the horrors of the Nazi death camp.

    After the war, Pilecki turned his attention to communism; he was a Pole-in-exile hoping to remove Poland from communist rule. He returned to Poland in late 1945, aiming to set up an anti-communist intelligence network, but his fake identity was compromised the next July. Rather than flee, Pilecki remained in Poland collecting information demonstrating the Soviets' inhumane practices. This dedication to the cause would prove fatal. In May of 1947, he was arrested and, after a sham trial, was convicted of forgery, espionage, and a laundry list of other crimes against the Polish state. He was executed on May 25, 1948.

    Pilecki's heroism was mostly unknown until 1989. The communist Polish government kept his life and history under wraps; only when the Iron Curtain began to dissolve were Pilecki's life acknowledged and his feats revealed.

    Bonus fact: During the Holocaust, only about 800 people tried to escape from Auschwitz, even though an estimated 1.1 million prisoners were murdered there. Escaping from the concentration camp was not a simple task — only about 140 would-be escapees were successful — but that was not why the number of attempts is so low. According to British historian Laurence Rees, if a person escaped from Auschwitz, the Nazis would exact retribution on the escapee's prison block mates, picking ten at random and starving them to death.

    From the Archives: The Two Soviets Who Saved the World: Two more unsung heroes of the 20th century.

    Related: "Auschwitz: A New History" by Laurence Rees. 39 reviews, 4.5 stars. Available on Kindle.

    This article was first posted at nowiknow.com.


  • The time Disney duped Robin Williams

    In 1992, Disney released Aladdin, an animated adaptation (to use the term "adaptation" very loosely) of the Arabian Nights folk tale of the same name. The movie was a huge success, garnering two Academy Awards among dozens of honors and accolades – and making bucket loads of money. The film earned more than $500 million at the box office on a $26 million budget, and a lot of the success had to do with the genius of the voice of the genie, Robin Williams. William's performance thrilled audiences and critics alike. Two decades later, after Williams' untimely death, the Los Angeles Times recounted the impact Williams had on the film:

    Reviewing the film in 1992, [Los Angeles] Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote of Williams' Genie that, "animation has never had a human partner who so pushed it to its comic limits," while the New York Times' Janet Maslin called him a "dizzying, elastic miracle."

    And to Disney's credit, they wanted Williams from day one — and made an extraordinary effort to recruit him into the role. Per that same Times article, the studio instructed animator Eric Goldberg to watch Williams' standup routines and animate the genie character performing them. Goldberg delivered, the studio showed it to Williams, and the comic signed on to play the role. And he did it at a discount, too — he received only $75,000 for the role.


  • Now I Know: Eye Macs

    Technology has become an increasing part of our lives, and its rule in our education system is no different. So in 2009, when a Philadelphia-area school district issued MacBooks — laptops — to each of the students, it looked like the school system was embracing the role of technology in teaching and learning. But a six-figure payout, a court case, and a ton of bad publicity later, the school was the one learning the lesson — about the value of privacy.

    Things came to light in November of that year. A 15-year-old sophomore named Blake Robbins was in his room — at home — using his school-issued MacBook, which was perfectly okay under the rules mandated by the school. (That is, the school system expected that students would use the machines at home as well as at school, and this was fine.) He wasn't just surfing the Web, though. A day or two later, officials would assert that Robbins was taking illegal drugs while using the school-provided machine. The school, it turned out, was able to see all the photos taken with the MacBook's camera. And one of those pictures showed Robbins sitting at his desk, popping pills.

    There were a couple problems with the school's evidence, though. First, Robbins' was innocent. He wasn't taking drugs. He was eating Mike and Ike candies. You know,these. (They look pill-like, sure, but they'd make for a really odd-looking illicit drug.) Second, and more importantly, Robbins didn't take the picture of himself eating the candy. Yes, his computer's webcam did, but that's because the school system turned it on remotely.

    The school system had installed software which allowed it to access the webcam, ostensibly to locate lost or stolen laptops (which it claimed to have done 42 times that school year). But it was also used for other reasons — surreptitious ones. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer report, over the course of two years, the school system took over 50,000 photos without the knowledge of those to whom the computers were assigned. Robbins and another student, Jalil Hasan (who was the subject over 1,000 of the pictures), each sued the school district, and the former led a class of plaintiffs against the district.

    The district settled for $610,000 and ended the spying program (or did it?)