A Modest Proposal


Mr. J. Armour-Milne refers to ‘the amount of drivel that is to be found in the Letters to the Editor.’ Whether or not you, in fact, publish drivel is not for me to decide, but a sure method of raising the standard of letters that you receive would be not only to publish your usual selection of letters, but also to print, each day, a complete list of the names of those correspondents whose letters you have rejected. The thought of possibly being included in your Rejects List, and then to have one’s acquaintances saying, ‘I see that you have had yet another letter refused by The Times,’ would be too much of a risk for most people.

— P.H.H. Moore, letter to the London Times, 1970

Some Tidy Anagrams



Darryl Francis finds that LISMORE, MINNESOTA is an anagram of REMAIN MOTIONLESS.

“There is a well-known story in The Spectator, of a lover of Lady Mary Boon, who, after six months’ hard study, contrived to anagrammatize her as Moll Boon; and upon being told by his mistress, indignant at such a metamorphosis, that her name was Mary Bohun, he went mad.” — William Sandys, ed., Specimens of Macaronic Poetry, 1831

In 1971, Word Ways encouraged its readers to find the anagram that this sad man had worked so hard for. What they found was MOLDY BALLOON.

Good Turns


In order to get a license, London taxicab drivers must pass a punishing exam testing their memory of 25,000 streets and every significant business and landmark on them. “The Knowledge” has been called the hardest test of any kind in the world; applicants must put in thousands of hours of study to pass a series of progressively difficult oral exams that take, on average, four years to complete. The guidebook for prospective cabbies says:

To achieve the required standard to be licensed as an ‘All London’ taxi driver you will need a thorough knowledge, primarily, of the area within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.

Interestingly, licensed London cabbies show a significantly larger posterior hippocampus than non-taxi drivers. Psychologist Hugo J. Spiers writes, “Current evidence suggests that it is the acquisition of this spatial knowledge and its use on the job that causes the taxi driver’s posterior hippocampus to grow larger.” Apparently it’s not actually driving the streets, or learning the information alone, that causes the change — London bus drivers don’t show the same effect; nor do doctors, who must also acquire vast knowledge; nor do cabbies who fail the exam. Rather it seems to be the regular use of the knowledge that causes the change: Retired cabbies tend to have a smaller hippocampus than current drivers.

While driving virtual routes in fMRI studies, cabbies showed the most hippocampal activity at the moment a customer requested a destination. One cabbie said, “I’ve got an over-patched picture of Peter Street. It sounds daft, but I don’t view it from ground level, it was slightly up and I could see the whole area as though I was about 50 foot up. And I saw Peter Street, I saw the market and I knew I had to get down to Peter Street.” Non-cabbie volunteers also showed the most activity when they were planning a route. “Thus,” writes Spiers, “the engagement of the hippocampus appears to depend on the extent to which someone thinks about what the possible streets they might want to take during navigation.”

(Hugo J. Spiers, “Will Self and His Inner Seahorse,” in Sebastian Groes, ed., Memory in the Twenty-First Century, 2016.)



This is the so-called Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare, engraved by Martin Droeshout as the frontispiece for the First Folio, published in 1623. In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-Speare, Edwin Durning-Lawrence draws attention to the fit of the coat on the figure’s right arm. “Every tailor will admit that this is not and cannot be the front of the right arm, but is, without possibility of doubt, the back of the left arm.” Compare this with the figure’s left arm, where “you at once perceive that you are no longer looking at the back of the coat but at the front of the coat.”

If that’s not enough, note the line beneath Shakespeare’s jaw, suggesting that he’s wearing a false face. The engraving is in fact “a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture, shewing two left arms and a mask” and proving that Shakespeare is a fraud and not the author of the plays attributed to him.

I’ll admit that I don’t quite see the problem with the coat, but apparently I’m just not discerning enough: In 1911 Durning-Lawrence reported that the trade journal Tailor and Cutter had agreed that Droeshout’s figure “was undoubtedly clothed in an impossible coat composed of the back and front of the same left arm.” Indeed, the Gentleman’s Tailor Magazine printed “the two halves of the coat put tailor fashion, shoulder to shoulder” and observed that “it is passing strange that something like three centuries should have been allowed to elapse before the tailor’s handiwork should have been appealed to in this particular manner.”

Something Borrowed


Just a fragment: During Japan’s U Go offensive into India in 1944, British officer Tony “Raj” Fowler would reportedly inspire his Indian troops by reciting passages from Shakespeare in Urdu before leading them in charges against the Japanese trenches. From Arthur Swinson’s Kohima, 2015:

Here they waited, with the Punjabis,who were to attack the D.I.S., on their left. The latter were in great heart, recorded Major Arthur Marment, and ‘anxious to avenge the death of the large number of the Queens lost a few days previously’. Their adjutant, Major R.A.J. Fowler, had translated a short passage from Shakespeare’s King John into Urdu — ‘Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue’ — which became: ‘Dunia ka char kunion se larne dena, aur ham log unke kafi mardenge. Kuch bhi nahin hamko assosi denge.’

“This, says Marment, ‘had a most tremendous effect on the troops’.”

In a Word


n. a field of bloodshed

n. the action of snatching something away

n. a means of defence; a safeguard

Strange freaks these round shot play! We saw a man coming up from the rear with his full knapsack on, and some canteens of water held by the straps in his hands. He was walking slowly, and with apparent unconcern, though the iron hailed around him. A shot struck the knapsack, and it and its contents flew thirty yards in every direction; the knapsack disappeared like an egg thrown spitefully against the rock. The soldier stopped, and turned about in puzzled surprise, put up one hand to his back to assure himself that the knapsack was not there, and then walked slowly on again unharmed, with not even his coat torn.

— Franklin Aretas Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1908

Podcast Episode 123: Washington D.C.’s Hidden Tunnels

dyar's 21st street tunnel

In 1924 a curious network of catacombs was discovered in Washington D.C. They were traced to Harrison Dyar, a Smithsonian entomologist who had been industriously digging tunnels in the city for almost two decades. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Dyar’s strange hobby — and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life.

We’ll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief’s change of heart.


The melody of Peter Cornelius’ 1854 composition “Ein Ton” is a single repeated note.

Japanese puzzle maven Nob Yoshigahara devised this optical illusion.

Sources for our feature on Harrison Dyar:

Marc E. Epstein, Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes, 2016.

Marc E. Epstein and Pamela M. Henson, “Digging for Dyar: The Man Behind the Myth,” American Entomologist 38:3 (July 1, 1992), 148-169.

Ryan P. Smith, “The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist,” Smithsonian, May 13, 2016.

John Kelly, “Who Was Harrison G. Dyar?”, Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2012.

John Kelly, “Inside the Tunnels of Washington’s Mole Man, Harrison G. Dyar,” Washington Post, Nov. 3, 2012.

John Kelly, “A Final Look at D.C.’s Tunnel-Digging Bug Man,” Washington Post, Nov. 7, 2012.

Associated Press, “Secret Tunnels Shrouded in Mystery,” Oct. 21, 1992.

United Press, “Scientist Admits He Dug Tunnels That Caused Furore,” Sept. 28, 1924.


Modern Mechanics published this diagram of Dyar’s B Street catacomb in its August 1932 issue. The inset photo at top left corresponds to the 32-foot shaft at right, which was lined in concrete and fitted with iron pipes to serve as ladder rungs. Two more shafts (partially obscured) can be seen to the left. The inset photo at bottom shows the inscription H.G. DYAR FEB 14 1923 on an archway near the cellar entrance. That date was Dyar’s 57th birthday.

Listener mail:

David Hambling, “How 100,000 Weather Balloons Became Britain’s Secret Weapon,” Guardian, Sept. 15, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Operation Outward” (accessed Sept. 24, 2016).

Wanderlust has a short video about the operation:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon, who offers these 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.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page 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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Coming and Going


In Through the Looking-Glass, John Tenniel’s two illustrations above are designed to fall on opposite sides of a single page. In this way the page itself becomes the looking-glass — Alice enters one side and emerges from the other, where all the details are reversed, including Tenniel’s signature and initials.

“Tenniel this time clearly draws the borderline between the world of dreams and reality,” writes Isabelle Nières. The dream occupies the center of the physical book. “Yet not all perceived that Alice’s return was not a symmetrical one, i.e. back through the mirror, but is symbolized by an almost perfect superimposition of the Red Queen on the kitten.”


(Isabelle Nières, “Tenniel: The Logic Behind His Interpretation of the Alice Books,” in Rachel Fordyce and Carla Marello, eds., Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice’s Worlds, 1994.)