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Mark Twain boasted both that “I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house” and that “I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.” The latter may be true — Twain began experimenting with a Remington No. 2 typewriter in 1874. He reckoned that the book must have been Tom Sawyer; in fact it was probably Life on the Mississippi.

Other writers have been slower to adopt new technology. “This is a nervous letter,” wrote Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins in 1959. “I am congratulating you on the electric typewriter. It is very nice but I am not used to it yet. I keep thinking about all the electricity that is being wasted while I think what I am going to say next.”

“By Deputy”

As Shakespeare couldn’t write his plays
(If Mrs. Gallup’s not mistaken),
I think how wise in many ways
He was to have them done by Bacon;
They might have moldered on the shelf,
Mere minor dramas (and he knew it!),
If he had written them himself
Instead of letting Bacon do it.

And if it’s true, as Brown and Smith
In many learned tomes have stated,
That Homer was an idle myth,
He ought to be congratulated,
Since thus, evading birth, he rose
For men to worship at a distance;
He might have penned inferior prose
Had he achieved a real existence.

To him and Shakespeare men agree
In making very nice allusions;
But no one thinks of praising me,
For I compose my own effusions;
As others wrote their works divine
And they immortal thus today are,
Perhaps had someone written mine
I might have been as great as they are.

— Arthur St. John Adcock


Raymond Chandler’s 10 rules for writing a detective novel:

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. … If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

That’s from Chandler’s notebooks. As it happens, Dashiell Hammett, Ronald Knox, and S.S. Van Dine all came up with similar lists. Mystery writers must be very methodical people.


In illustrating his Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling hid messages in the runic characters accompanying some drawings. The tusk above illustrates “How the First Letter Was Written”:

Left side: “This is the stori of Taffimai all ritten out on an old tusk. If u begin at the top left hand corner and go on to the right u can see for urself things as the happened.”

Right side: “The reason that I spell so queerli is becase there are not enough letters in the Runic alphabet for all the ourds that I ouant to use to u o beloved.”

Bottom (barely visible here): “This is the identical tusk on ouich the tale of Taffimai was ritten and etched bi the author.”

The initial “H” at the start of the “Cat That Walked by Himself” hides another message using the same characters: “I, Rudiard Kipling, drew this, but because there was no mutton bone in the house I faked the anatomi from memori.”

“Are these really Runic letters or just an alphabet that Kipling made up for fun?” asked Maj. B.J. Bewley in the Kipling Journal in January 1928. “I think the chief interest lies in the almost boyish pleasure the author plainly took in writing in these strange characters. He must have done it entirely for his own amusement.”

Podcast Episode 58: English as She Is Spoke

In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn’t actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like “The ears are too length” and “He has spit in my coat.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Carolino’s phrasebook, which Mark Twain called “supreme and unapproachable.”

We’ll also hear Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” rendered in jargon and puzzle over why a man places an ad before robbing a bank.

Sources for our feature on Pedro Carolino’s disastrous phrasebook:

English as She is Spoke: Or, A Jest in Sober Earnest, 1883.

(This edition, like many, incorrectly names José da Fonseca as a coauthor. Fonseca was the author of the Portuguese-French phrasebook that Carolino used for the first half of his task. By all accounts that book is perfectly competent, and Fonseca knew nothing of Carolino’s project; Carolino added Fonseca’s name to the byline to lend some credibility to his own book.)

The Writings of Mark Twain, Volume 6.

Carolino’s misadventure inspired some “sequels” by other authors:

English as She Is Wrote (1883)

English as She Is Taught (1887)

As long as we’re at it, here’s Monty Python’s “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch:

Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy rendered in jargon, from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916):

To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 57: Jules Verne’s Lost Novel

Eight decades after Jules Verne’s death, his great-grandson opened a family safe and discovered an unpublished manuscript. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review some of Verne’s remarkable predictions for the 20th century and consider why he never published the novel.

We’ll also discuss listeners’ ideas about the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet ski hikers in 1959 and puzzle over how a man’s breakfast turns deadly.

Sources for our feature on Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century:

Arthur B. Evans, “The ‘New’ Jules Verne,” Science-Fiction Studies, March 1995.

Brian Taves, “Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century,” Science-Fiction Studies, March 1997.

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1863.

Sources for listener mail:

“‘Partially Digested’ Human Head, Leg Found Inside Shark Caught by Filipino Fishermen,” Fox News Latino, Nov. 12, 2014 (accessed May 8, 2015).

Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2013.

Jason Zasky, “Return to Dead Mountain,” Failure Magazine, Feb. 1, 2014.

Greg’s article on animal infrasound appeared in the January-February 2004 issue of American Scientist.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles, suggested to us by listener David Morgan.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Tell Me, O Muse

Samuel Butler believed Homer was “a very young woman” living in Sicily. In his 1897 book The Authoress of the Odyssey he argues that the events in the poem fit neatly onto the province of Trapani and its islands. And a careful reading of the action, he says, reveals “jealousy for the honour and dignity of woman, severity against those who have disgraced their sex, love of small religious observances, of preaching, of white lies and small play-acting, of having things both ways, and of money.”

I have touched briefly on all the more prominent female characters of the ‘Odyssey.’ The moral in every case seems to be that man knows very little, and cannot be trusted not to make a fool of himself even about the little that he does know, unless he has a woman at hand to tell him what he ought to do. There is not a single case in which a man comes to the rescue of female beauty in distress; it is invariably the other way about.

“Moreover there are many mistakes in the ‘Odyssey’ which a young woman might easily make, but which a man could hardly fall into — for example, making the wind whistle over the waves at the end of Book ii., thinking that a lamb could live on two pulls a day at a ewe that was already milked (ix. 244, 245, and 308, 309), believing a ship to have a rudder at both ends (ix. 483, 540), thinking that dry and well-seasoned timber can be cut from a growing tree (v. 240), [and] making a hawk while still on the wing tear its prey — a thing that no hawk can do (xv. 527).” He didn’t find many supporters, but Robert Graves took up the idea in his 1955 novel Homer’s Daughter.


Maxims of François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680):

  • “An extraordinary Haste to discharge an Obligation is a Sort of Ingratitude.”
  • “Did we not flatter ourselves, the Flattery of others could never hurt us.”
  • “Before we passionately desire a Thing, we should examine into the Happiness of its Possessor.”
  • “Few Men are able to know all the Ill they do.”
  • “Fortune never seems so blind to any as to those on whom she bestows no Favours.”
  • “Happiness is in the Taste, not in the Thing; and we are made happy by possessing what we love, not what others think lovely.”
  • “Men may boast of their great Actions; but they are oftner the Effects of Chance, than of Design.”
  • “The Glory of great Men ought always to be rated according to the Means used to acquire it.”
  • “We should manage our Fortune as our Constitution; enjoy it when good, have Patience when ’tis bad, and never apply violent Remedies but in Cases of Necessity.”
  • “We bear, all of us, the Misfortunes of other People with heroic Constancy.”
  • “Whatever great Advantages Nature can give, she can’t without Fortune’s Concurrence make Heroes.”

And “Hope, deceitful as it is, carries us thro’ Life agreeably enough.”


  • The clock face on the Marienkirche in Bergen auf Rügen, Germany, has 61 minutes. Does this mean time moves more slowly there — or more quickly?
  • To ensure quiet, poet Amy Lowell hired five rooms at every hotel — her own and those on either side, above, and below.
  • A perplexing sentence from a letter by Dorothy Osborne, describing shepherdesses in Bedfordshire, May 1653: “They want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world but the knowledge that they are so.”
  • OVEREFFUSIVE is a palindrome in Scrabble — its letter values are 141114411141. (Discovered by Susan Thorpe.)
  • The sum of the digits of every multiple of 2739726 up to the 72nd is 36. (E.M. Langley, Mathematical Gazette, 1896)
  • I’ll bet I have more money in my pocket than you do. (Of course I do — you have no money in my pocket!)
  • In 1996 a model airplane enthusiast was operating a remote-controlled plane in Phoenix Park in Dublin when the receiver died and the plane flew off on its own. It flew five miles to the northeast, ran out of fuel, and glided to a landing … on the taxi-way to Runway 28 at Dublin Airport.

(Thanks, Brian and Breffni.)

A New Line

In 1948, as T.S. Eliot was departing for Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize, a reporter asked which of his books had occasioned the honor.

Eliot said, “I believe it’s given for the entire corpus.”

The reporter said, “And when did you publish that?”

Eliot later said, “It really might make a good title for a mystery — The Entire Corpus.”