A Modest Proposal

Image: Flickr

While a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1978, Claude Shannon pondered a personal challenge he faced there:

An American driving in England is confronted with a wild and dangerous world. The cars have the driver on the right and he is supposed to drive on the left side of the road. It is as though English driving is a left-handed version of the right-handed American system.

I can personally attest to the seriousness of this problem. Recently my wife and I, together with another couple on an extended visit to England, decided to jointly rent a car. … With our long-ingrained driving habits the world seemed totally mad. Cars, bicycles and pedestrians would dart out from nowhere and we would always be looking in the wrong direction. The car was usually filled with curses from the men and with screams and hysterical laughter from the women as we careened from one narrow escape to another.

His solution was “grandiose and utterly impractical — the idle dream of a mathematician”:

How will we do this? In a word, with mirrors. If you hold your right hand in front of a mirror, the image appears as a left hand. If you view it in a second mirror, after two reflections it appears now as a right hand, and after three reflections again as a left hand, and so on.

Our general plan is to encompass our American driver with mirror systems which reflect his view of England an odd number of times. Thus he sees the world about him not as it is but as it would be after a l80° fourth-dimensional rotation.

A corresponding adjustment to the steering system will turn the car left when the driver steers right, and vice versa. And filling the cabin with a high-density liquid will reverse the feeling of centrifugal force as well. “A snorkel provides for his breathing and altogether, with our various devices, he feels very much as though he were at home in America!”

(Claude E. Shannon, “The Fourth-Dimensional Twist, or a Modest Proposal in Aid of the American Driver in England,” typescript, All Souls College, Oxford, Trinity term, 1978; via Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, 2017.)

Podcast Episode 221: The Mystery Man of Essex County


In 1882, a mysterious man using a false name married and murdered a well-to-do widow in Essex County, New York. While awaiting the gallows he composed poems, an autobiography, and six enigmatic cryptograms that have never been solved. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the strange case of Henry Debosnys, whose true identity remains a mystery.

We’ll also consider children’s food choices and puzzle over a surprising footrace.


In 1972 two Canadian scientists set out to figure the number of monsters in Loch Ness.

Winston Churchill’s country home must always maintain a marmalade cat named Jock.

Sources for our feature on Henry Debosnys:

Cheri L. Farnsworth, Adirondack Enigma, 2010.

Craig P. Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.

George Levi Brown, Pleasant Valley: A History of Elizabethtown, Essex County, New York, 1905.

Caroline Halstead Barton Royce, Bessboro: A History of Westport, Essex Co., N.Y., 1902.

“Debosnys Ciphers,” The Cipher Foundation (accessed Oct. 7, 2018).

Craig P. Bauer, “When Killers Leave Ciphers,” history.com, Nov. 14, 2017.

Nick Pelling, “Henry Debosnys and the Cimbria … ?” Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 16, 2015.

Nick Pelling, “Thoughts on the Debosnys Ciphers …” Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 7, 2015.

Nick Pelling, “The Person Not on the S.S.Cimbria …” Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 17, 2015.

“Guilty of Wife Murder,” [Washington D.C.] National Republican, March 8, 1883.

“Hangman’s Day,” [Wilmington, Del.] Daily Republican, April 28, 1883.

“A Murderer’s Story,” Burlington [Vt.] Weekly Free Press, Nov. 24, 1882.

“A Wife’s Fearful Death,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 1882.

“A Remarkable Man Hanged,” New York Times, April 28, 1883.

The Troy Times of Nov. 23, 1882, had noted, “The prisoner spends his time writing verses, or what he thinks is poetry, and he has over a ream of foolscap paper closely written. Much of this doggerel is written in Latin, French, and an unknown cipher, which Debosnys says is used in Europe quite extensively.” These six cryptograms came to light in 1957 — none has been solved:

Listener mail:

August Skalweit, Die Deutsche Kriegsernährungswirtschaft, 1927.

Emma Beckett, “Food Fraud Affects Many Supermarket Staples, So How Do You Choose the Good Stuff?” ABC, Sept. 3, 2018.

Stephen Strauss, “Clara M. Davis and the Wisdom of Letting Children Choose Their Own Diets,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 175:10 (Nov. 7, 2006), 1199–1201.

Benjamin Scheindlin, “‘Take One More Bite for Me’: Clara Davis and the Feeding of Young Children,” Gastronomica 5:1 (Winter 2005), 65-69.

Clara M. Davis, “Results of the Self-Selection of Diets by Young Children,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 41:3 (September 1939), 257.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, 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!

A Point of Law

In 1864, two Englishmen entered into an agreement: Raffles would procure 125 bales of fine cotton from India and deliver them to Wichelhaus, who would buy them for a fixed price. They agreed that the cotton would arrive aboard the ship Peerless.

By a sublime coincidence, there were two ships named Peerless sailing from Bombay to Liverpool that year. Wichelhaus had in mind the one that set sail in October, where Raffles had intended another one in December. When his cotton arrived two months later than he’d expected, Wichelhaus refused to accept it, and Raffles sued him.

Who’s right? Raffles had delivered the cotton in good faith according to their written agreement, but Wichelhaus argued that he was entitled to his own understanding of an ambiguous term. Raffles hadn’t met that, so Wichelhaus wasn’t obligated to pay him.

In the end Wichelhaus prevailed: The court ruled that because of the overlooked ambiguity the two men had not had the same transaction in mind when they’d made their agreement — so there was no binding contract.

(Raffles v. Wichelhaus, 2 Hurl. & C. 906 [1864].)

The IKEA Effect

Image: Flickr

In 2011, Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, Daniel Mochon of Yale, and Dan Ariely of Duke found that test subjects were willing to pay 63% more for IKEA furniture that they had assembled than for identical units that came preassembled. In a separate study, they found that subjects who had finished building items were willing to pay more for their creations than subjects who had only partially completed assembly. The lesson seems to be that consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they’ve had a hand in creating.

The principle had been understood, though not named, as early as the 1950s, when homemakers initially disdained instant cake mixes, which they felt made cooking too easy and inspired no investment in the outcome. When the recipe was adjusted to require the cook to crack an egg, sales went up.



When the realist painter Fairfield Porter was 11 years old, he invented a fictional country on Mars, collaborating with his brother Edward and two neighbor girls. They devised an acronym for it based on their own four names: EDward, FAirfield, LOuise, BArbara.

Fairfield drew the map above, showing its topography and train lines. Much later one of his own sons recognized it as a “reduplication” of Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, where the Porter family spent their summers. He divided it into four pieces, keeping for himself the area corresponding to the house and cove where the children swam and sailed.

He wrote to his aunts in December 1918, “Edward John and I have just been playing with the Pulman train that we made out of the blocks. Louise and Barbara play with us most of the time. … We pretend that the train goes around Edfaloba. … We pretend everything in Edfaloba runs by sunlight and people store it to make a light in night time.”

When he grew up and established himself as an artist, he developed a reputation as an eccentric for looking beyond the precedents of 20th-century art. Wrote one critic, “It was as if he lived in an alternate world with an alternate history, which, defiantly, he really did.”

(From Michele Root-Bernstein, Inventing Imaginary Worlds, 2014.)

A Traveling Companion


In 1916 Manhattan chauffeur George Boyden patented a new way to navigate: Install a phonograph in your car to play audio recordings through a megaphone in front of the steering column. “The talking machine at the proper times will announce the directions whereby the driver will be enabled to follow a predetermined route.”

How does it know where you are? The phonograph is connected to the car’s wheels and will engage only when you’ve traveled certain predetermined distances. “For example, if it is desired to make a record to guide the driver from Chevy Chase to the Treasury Department, the record among other things would contain the directions ‘U street turn to the left,’ and knowing the distance between Chevy Chase and the corner of 18th and U, for example, [a record of this distance would be registered with the mechanism] and the desired direction spoken into the machine. From a cylinder prepared in this manner a matrix would be made for the production of permanent records.”

10/19/2018 UPDATE: A strikingly similar idea from 1971 (thanks, Alec):

Form and Function

The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

— Morris Bishop

It needn’t have ribaldry’s taint
Or strive to make everyone faint.
There’s a type that’s demure
And perfectly pure,
Though it helps quite a lot if it ain’t.

— Don Marquis

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

— Anon.

A bather whose clothing was strewed
By winds which left her quite nude,
Saw a man come along,
And, unless I am wrong,
You expected this line to be rude.

— Anon.

There was a young lady … tut, tut!
So you think that you’re in for some smut?
Some five-line crescendo
Of lewd innuendo?
Well, you’re wrong. This is anything but.

— Stanley J. Sharpless

“A Shipboard Romance”


Submitted by Lewis Allen for Life magazine’s 1915 short story contest:

‘Isn’t that young Griggs and Miss Deering?’ asked the captain, peering down from the bridge at a dark spot silhouetted against the moonlit sea.

‘Yes, sir,’ replied the second officer.

‘It’s the speediest shipboard romance I’ve ever seen in all my thirty years aboard a liner,’ remarked the captain, smiling.

‘I understand they never saw or heard of each other until they met at dinner, Tuesday. Have you talked much with them, sir? I see they sit next you at table.’

‘Oh, yes, that’s true. Why, on the second dinner out he complained because there was no jewellery shop aboard. She looked as happy as a kid with a lollypop, and blushed.’

‘Whew! Engaged within forty-eight hours! Going some! I suppose they’ll be married by the American consul before they’ve been ashore an hour.’

‘Not a bit of doubt of it,’ grinned the captain. ‘True love at sight in this case, all right. Well, they have my blessings. I fell in love with my Missus the same way, but we waited three months. I’ll go below. What’s she making?’

‘Nineteen, sir. Good-night.’

* * *

Two hours later there came a terrific explosion away down in the hold amongst the cargo. The ship trembled and listed.

‘Women and children first! No danger! Time enough for all!’ shouted the officers, as the frantic passengers surged about the life-boats.

She was going down rapidly by her stern. There came another explosion, this from the boilers.

‘All women and children off?’ bellowed the captain.

‘Aye, aye, sir,’ answered the second officer.

‘Married men next!’ shouted the captain as the men began scrambling into the boats. A score of men paused, bowed, and stepped back. Young Griggs tore his way through and started to clamber into the boat.

‘Damn you, for a coward!’ cursed the second officer, dragging him back.

Young Griggs yanked away and again clutched at the boat. This time the second officer struck him square in the face and he went down.

The boatload of married men was merely cut away, so low was the ship in the water. Then came a lurch, and the waves closed over the great ship.

* * *

The next evening the Associated Press sent out, from its St. Louis office, this paragraph:

‘Among those lost was H.G. Griggs, junior partner of the Wells & Griggs Steel Co. He leaves a wife and infant son in this city. It is feared Mrs. Griggs will not recover from the shock.’