Early Delivery


In the 1940s British psychologist Robert H. Thouless set out to test the existence of life after death by publishing an enciphered message and then communicating the key to some living person after his own death. He published the following in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:


He wrote that “it uses one of the well-known methods of encipherment with a key-word which I hope to be able to remember in the after life. I have not communicated and shall not communicate this key-word to any other person while I am still in this world, and I destroyed all papers used in enciphering as soon as I had finished.” He hoped that his message would be unsolvable without supernatural aid because the message was relatively short and the cipher wasn’t simple. To prevent an erroneous decipherment, he revealed that his passage was “an extract from one of Shakespeare’s plays.” And he left the solution in a sealed envelope with the Society for Psychical Research, to be opened if this finally proved necessary.

He needn’t have worried — an unidentified “cipher expert” took up the cipher as a challenge and solved it in two weeks, long before Thouless’ death. It was the last two lines of this quotation from Macbeth:

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

(It’s a Playfair cipher — a full solution is given in Craig Bauer’s excellent Unsolved!, 2017.)

Interestingly, Thouless published two other encrypted ciphers before his death in 1984, and only one has been solved. If you can communicate with the dead perhaps you can still solve it — it’s given on Klaus Schmeh’s blog.

Eight Lives


In September 1914, a crater wall collapsed on the marine volcano Whakaari, east of New Zealand.

The resulting mudflow overwhelmed 10 sulphur miners.

Three weeks later, when a resupply ship landed on the island, it found Peter the Great, a camp cat, hungry but uninjured.

The bodies of the 10 men and the other camp cats were never found.


A tromboon, above, is a trombone played with the reed and bocal of a bassoon.

A saxobone, below, is a trombone played with the mouthpiece of a saxophone.

If you could play a bassoon with a saxophone mouthpiece I suppose it would be called a saxoboon, but I don’t think that’s even technically possible.

A Cloak

In Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco suggests a technique for making one language look like another:

Abu, do another thing now: Belbo orders Abu to change all words, make each ‘a’ become ‘akka’ and each ‘o’ become ‘ulla,’ for a paragraph to look almost Finnish.

Akkabu, dulla akkanullather thing nullaw: Belbulla ullarders Akkabu tulla chakkange akkall wullards, makkake eakkach ‘akka’ becullame ‘akkakkakka’ akkand eakkach ‘ulla’ becullame ‘ullakka,’ fullar akka pakkarakkagrakkaph tulla lullaullak akkalmulast Finnish.

In a 1955 letter to W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien described his discovery of the Finnish language: “It was like discovering a complete wine-filled cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me …”

The Jindo Sea Parting

Every year hundreds of thousands of people gather on Jindo Island at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula to watch the sea part, revealing a 1.8-mile causeway that permits them to walk to the nearby island of Modo, where they dig for clams.

Legend tells that Yongwang, the ocean god, split the sea to permit an old woman to rejoin her family. But National Geographic explains that the truth lies in tidal harmonics.

Men in Aida

In 1983 poet David Melnick reinterpreted the first book of Homer’s Iliad by brutely understanding the spoken Greek as English, producing a bathhouse farce:

Men in Aida, they appeal, eh? A day, O Achilles.
Allow men in, emery Achaians. All gay ethic, eh?
Paul asked if team mousse suck, as Aida, pro, yaps in.
Here on a Tuesday. “Hello,” Rhea to cake Eunice in.
“Hojo” noisy tap as hideous debt to lay at a bully.
Ex you, day. Tap wrote a “D,” a stay. Tenor is Sunday.
Atreides stain axe and Ron and ideas’ll kill you.

In 2015 he published two more books, in each “hearing” Homer’s words as English. He calls it Men in Aïda.

Podcast Episode 188: The Bat Bomb


During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.


Ever since George Washington, American presidents have hated the job.

Harpsichordist Johann Schobert composed a series of “puzzle minuets” that could be read upside down.

Sources for our feature on the bat bomb:

Jack Couffer, Bat Bomb, 1992.

James M. Powles, “Lytle S. Adams Proposed One of America’s Battiest Weapons,” World War II 17:2 (July 2002), 62.

Robert M. Neer, “Bats Out of Hell,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 25:4 (Summer 2013), 22-24.

C.V. Glines, “Bat & Bird Bombers,” Aviation History 15:5 (May 2005), 38-44.

Stephan Wilkinson, “10 of History’s Worst Weapons,” Military History 31:1 (May 2014), 42-45.

“Holy Smokes, Batman!” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 49:2 (March 1993), 5.

Alexis C. Madrigal, “Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II,” Atlantic, April 14, 2011.

Toni Kiser, “Bat Bomb Tests Go Awry,” National WWII Museum, May 15, 2013.

Joanne Grant, “Did They Have Bats in the Belfry? WWII Team Created Novel Bomb to Defeat Japan,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, Oct. 27, 1996, A31.

“Air Force Scrapped Top Secret ‘Bat Bomb’ Project in Carlsbad 70 Years Ago,” Carlsbad [N.M.] Current-Argus, May 26, 2014.

Curt Suplee, “Shot Down Before It Could Fly,” Washington Post, Nov. 16, 1992, D01.

T. Rajagopalan, “Birds and Animals in War and Peace,” Alive 401 (March 2016), 92-93.

Cara Giaimo, “The Almost Perfect World War II Plot To Bomb Japan With Bats,” Atlas Obscura, Aug. 5, 2015.


The total loss due to the Carlsbad fire was $6,838, nearly $100,000 today, and the cause was listed as “explosion of incendiary bomb materials.” Base fire marshal George S. Young wrote to the base commander: “In-as-much as the work being done under Lt. Col. Epler was of a confidential nature, and everyone connected with this base had been denied admission, it is impossible for me to determine the exact cause of the fire, but my deduction is that an explosion of incendiary bomb material caused the fire.”

Listener mail:

Ethan Watters, “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” New York Times Magazine, Jan. 8, 2010.

Neel Burton, “The Culture of Mental Illness,” Psychology Today, June 6, 2012.

J.J. Mattelaer and W. Jilek, “Koro — The Psychological Disappearance of the Penis,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 4:5 (September 2007), 1509-1515.

Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Shaped the Modern World, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alexander Rodgers. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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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!