Fed up with overzealous censors during World War I, an anonymous soldier devised this preformatted “love letter” for use by British troops:

In the Field.

/ / 1917.

My (dear / dearest / darling),

I can’t write much to-day as I am very (overworked / busy / tired / lazy) and the (CORPS / G.O.C. / G.S.O.I. / A.A. & Q.M.G. / HUN) is exhibiting intense activity.

Things our way are going (quite well / much as usual / pas mal).

(We / The HUNS) put up a bit of a show (last night / yesterday) with (complete / tolerable / -out any) success.

(Our / The Russian / The Italian / The Montenegrin / The Monagasque / The United States / The Brazilian / The Panama / The Bolivian / The French / The Belgian / The Serbian / The Roumanian / The Portuguese / The Japanese / The Cuban / The Chinese) offensive appears to be doing well.

The German offensive is (obviously / apparently / we will hope) a complete failure.

I really begin to think the war will end (this year / next year / some time / never).

The (flies / rations / weather) (is / are) (vile / execrable / much the same).

The _______ is (cheery / weary / languid / sore distrest / at rest).

We are now living in a (chateau / ruined farm / hovel / dugout).

I am (hoping soon to come on / about due for / overdue for / not yet in the running for) leave, which is now (on / off).

I am suffering from a (slight / severe) (______ wound / fright / shell shock). ["Or state disease. If the whole of this sentence is struck out, the writer may be presumed to be well or deceased."]

(_______ / ______’s wife) has just (sent him / presented him with) _________.

What I should really like is ______________.

Many thanks for your (letter / parcel / good intentions).

How are the (poultry (including cows) / potatoes / children) getting on?

I hope you are (well / better / bearing up / not spending too much money / getting on better with mother).

[Insert here protestations of affection -- NOT TO EXCEED TEN WORDS:] __________

Ever [state what ever] ______________


In a Word

v. to make naked

Fire Insurance

Samuel Dinsmoor planned ahead. By the time the Kansas schoolteacher died in 1932, he had poured 22 years and 2,273 bags of cement into fashioning a concrete Garden of Eden, including a two-story concrete house, a concrete tree of life, a concrete angel and a concrete devil, concrete images of Adam and Eve, and a concrete serpent. Dinsmoor himself lies in the mausoleum in a concrete coffin with a plate-glass window.

Why? “It seems to me that people buried in iron and wooden boxes will be frying and burning up in the resurrection morn. How will they get out when this world is on fire? Cement will not stand fire, the glass will break. This cement lid will fly open and I will sail out like a locust.”

Ever resourceful, at the foot of his coffin he placed a 2-gallon concrete jug. “In the resurrection morn, if I have to go below, I’ll grab my jug and fill it with water on the road down. They say they need water down below.”

“An End-Game Curio”

The American Chess Bulletin of October 1917 contains a puzzle story about a boastful player who entered a local club claiming to have beaten one of the best players in the county.

Our first question was: ‘What odds did he give you?’

‘Why, none, of course,’ was the reply. ‘Topnotch was White, and he set up a fierce King’s side attack on my castled K. I had almost given up all hope when I saw that if I could only get my Kt to QR5, and he went on with his attack, I had a mate. So on my 15th move I played Kt-QR5. As I hoped, he overlooked the mate which he could have stopped with a move, and played 16 Kt-KR5, and then, of course, I mated. That is the position.’

And he set it up with the air of a conqueror.

We looked at it, saw the mate (a very commonplace one, by the way), and were turning away, when the Problemist, who was the most ‘fed up’ of us all, said in his quietest voice:

‘S—, you are a beautiful–Ananias.’

We started in surprise; it was so unlike him.

S—, with a red face and heated manner, said: ‘What do you mean? I give you my word of honor that was the position after White’s 16th move.’

‘I don’t dispute it; but still you are not telling the truth.’ And he proceeded to demonstrate to our satisfaction he was right.

During this period S— disappeared and I think it unlikely that we shall receive another visit from him.

Now, what did the Problemist demonstrate?

“Can our solvers unravel this mystery?” wrote the editors. “It is plain that the Problemist synthetically deduced that by no possibility could S— have met this precise position in the course of orthodox chess play.”

Alas, I don’t have the solution! If S— is telling the truth, then in the diagram above the black knight must have moved from b6 and the white knight from f4. Black’s mate would have been something like 16. … Nc3+ 17. bxc3 Qb6+ 18. cxb6 Rxb6+ 19. Ka1 Bxc3#. But none of these observations seems to lead anywhere. Any ideas?

UPDATE: A number of readers have analyzed this, and the strong consensus is that the position above cannot have been reached in 16 moves, as S— says it did. I had dismissed this possibility when the Problemist said “I don’t dispute it,” thinking this meant he accepted S—’s contended move totals, but now I think that remark meant merely that the Problemist thinks S— generally dishonest. Thanks to everyone who saw more deeply than I did.

SECOND UPDATE: Wait. Another reader points out that perhaps the idea is that White’s position can be reached in 16 moves — if he gave knight odds. This is much more satisfying — the Problemist isn’t disputing the number of moves; he’s pointing out that Topnotch had offered to play with a significant handicap. This would embarrass the boastful S—, giving the whole story a satisfying punchline. It also explains why S— is asked explicitly about odds at the start, and it illuminates the rather canny phrasing about “orthodox” chess play. I’ll bet this is it.


PEPPERROOT, PEPPERWORT, PERPETUITY, PROPRIETOR, REPERTOIRE, and, pleasingly, TYPEWRITER are all typed on the top row of a standard keyboard.

ALFALFAS and FLAGFALLS are typed on the middle row.


A table of signs used during hours of silence by the sisters in the Syon Monastery in Isleworth, Middlesex, in the 15th century:

Ale — Make the sign of drink and draw thy hand displayed before thine ear downward.
Bed — Make the sign of a house and put thy right hand under thy cheek, and close thine eyes.
Book — Wag and move thy right hand in manner as thou shouldest turn the leaves of a book.
Cheese — Hold thy right hand flatways in the palm of thy left.
Cold — Make the sign of water trembling with thy hand or blow on thy forefinger.
Drink — Bow thy right forefinger and put it on thy nether lip.
Eating — Put thy right thumb with two forefingers joined to thy mouth.
Girdle — Draw the forefingers of either hand round about thy middle.
Glass — Make the sign of a cup with the sign of red wine.
Incense — Put thy two fingers into thy two nostrils.
Mustard — Hold thy nose in the upper part of thy right fist and rub it.
Salt — Fillip with the right thumb and forefinger over the left thumb.
Sleeping — Put thy right hand under thy cheek and forthwith close thine eyes.
Water — Join the fingers of thy right hand and move them downward droppingly.

Giraldus Cambrensis, describing the monks of Canterbury in 1180, wrote that they were “so profuse in their gesticulations of fingers and hands and arms, and in the whisperings whereby they avoided open speech, wherein all showed a most unedifying levity and license,” that he felt as if he were sitting “at a stage play or among a company of actors or buffoons: for it would be more appropriate to their Order and to their honourable estate to speak modestly in plain human speech than to use such a dumb garrulity of frivolous signs and hissings.”


How do you make a collar for a creature that’s all neck?

Standard animal collars such as designed for dogs and cats as well as other legged animals are not designed for the body style of a snake because the snake has no external appendages. … The concertina motion of a snake coupled with an ability to alter the shape of its circumference enables it to move through and escape any known annular restraint such as a neck-style collar.

Donald Boys’ snake collar, patented in 2002, includes a “concertina movement neutralization device” that prevents these escapes so you can take your snake outdoors. “A reptile getting more sunlight will have a better skin condition than one kept in the dark.”

Ill Fame

A lady who was flattered to have a rose named after her changed her mind when she saw the description of the rose in a gardener’s catalogue. Against her name it said: ‘shy in a bed but very vigorous against a wall.’

– Leslie Dunkling, The Guinness Book of Names, 1993

Palette Trouble

In 1858, William Ewart Gladstone noticed something peculiar in Homer: Both oxen and the sea are compared to the color of wine, sheep are “violet,” honey is “green,” and, while the sky is described as starry, broad, great, iron, and copper, it’s never “blue.” He advanced the idea that “the organ of colour and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age.”

Building on this idea 20 years later in Nature, William Pole suggested that Homer might even have been color-blind. “It would be a most interesting fact in physiology and optics,” he wrote, “if we could show, in this way, that dichromatism was an early stage of human vision out of which the present more comprehensive and perfect faculty has been gradually developed in the course of some thousands of years.”

The truth awaited a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay of culture and language, one that’s still evolving. In a way that’s a shame — as Pole points out, if this oddity had been the unique mark of a particular writer, then we’d have “the strongest possible proof, by internal evidence, of the existence of a single author, to whom the whole of the poems are due.”


Henry is driving in the countryside with his son. For the boy’s edification, Henry identifies various objects on the landscape as they come into view. ‘That’s a cow,’ says Henry. ‘That’s a tractor,’ ‘That’s a silo,’ ‘That’s a barn,’ etc. Henry has no doubt about the identity of these objects; in particular, he has no doubt that the last-mentioned object is a barn, which indeed it is. Each of the identified objects has features characteristic of its type. Moreover, each object is fully in view, Henry has excellent eyesight, and he has enough time to look at them reasonably carefully, since there is little traffic to distract him.

Given this information, would we say that Henry knows that the object is a barn? Most of us would have little hesitation in saying this, so long as we were not in a certain philosophical frame of mind. Contrast our inclination here with the inclination we would have if we were given some additional information. Suppose we are told that, unknown to Henry, the district he has just entered is full of papier-mâché facsimiles of barns. These facsimiles look from the road exactly like barns, but are really just façades, without back walls or interiors, quite incapable of being used as barns. They are so cleverly constructed that travelers invariably mistake them for barns. Having just entered the district, Henry has not encountered any facsimiles; the object he sees is a genuine barn. But if the object on that site were a facsimile, Henry would mistake it for a barn. Given this new information, we would be strongly inclined to withdraw the claim that Henry knows the object is a barn. How is this change in our assessment to be explained?

– Alvin I. Goldman, “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” Journal of Philosophy, November 1976