Podcast Episode 323: The Blind Traveler


When a mysterious illness blinded him at age 25, British naval officer James Holman took up a new pursuit: travel. For the next 40 years he roamed the world alone, describing his adventures in a series of popular books. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe Holman’s remarkable career and his unique perspective on his experiences.

We’ll also remember some separating trains and puzzle over an oddly drawn battle plan.

See full show notes …

A Last Goodbye

friedmans' 1918 class photo

William Friedman, the father of modern American cryptology, was fond of a cipher devised by Francis Bacon — a scheme so flexible that it could hide a message in a drawing, a piece of sheet music, almost any imaginable setting (“anything can be made to signify anything”).

In 1918 he used it to hide a message in the graduation photograph of the codebreakers’ class that he’d taught with his wife Elizebeth (click to enlarge). Some students are looking at the camera, others to the side — they’re encoding the message KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, a quotation of Bacon’s that was a favorite of Friedman’s.

Friedman kept the photo on his desk for the rest of his career, and when he died in 1969 Elizabeth had the phrase engraved on his tombstone, in a design of her own devising:

friedman inscription

In 2017, cryptographer Elonka Dunin noticed that the inscription is composed of both serif and sans-serif letters. It turns out that even this is a cipher — Elizabeth had used it to conceal the letters WFF, William’s initials. Dunin calls it “a fitting tribute, in the life of a couple who had been so dedicated to the field of codes and ciphers.”

There’s more on the Friedmans’ legacy in this NSA publication.

First Things First

One may wonder at the oddity of an argument from orderliness. The theist innocently demands a cause for orderliness, forgetting, of course, that ’cause’ presupposes ‘orderliness.’ Without the laws of causality, no causes would be operative. The laws of causality must therefore exist before any cause can operate. Therefore the laws of causality cannot be the result of any cause. These are laws which cannot be caused even by God.

— B.C. Johnson, The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, 1983

Moving Parts

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., contains an “exploded” 1924 Model T touring car, its parts arrayed in the order of their assembly, echoing the component diagrams in the vehicle’s manuals.

Ford’s assembly line was inspired by the “disassembly line” that engineer William Klann observed in a Chicago slaughterhouse, in which one worker at a conveyor belt performed the same task repeatedly without himself moving. Ford’s line divided his car’s assembly into 45 steps, producing each unit in 93 minutes.

A Little Latin

mcbryde whistle illustration

In M.R. James’s superbly creepy 1904 short story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” a Cambridge professor investigating a Templar ruin finds a whistle bearing the inscription “Quis est iste, qui venit?”

“I suppose I am a little rusty in my Latin,” he thinks. “It ought to mean, ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him.” And he does, and everything follows from there.

“It’s a rare use by M.R. James of Latin as a pivotal plot point, and a wonderful pedagogic caution to study hard in your lessons or else be grabbed by a ghoul,” writes Roger Clarke in A Natural History of Ghosts.

James says no more about it, but “a Latin scholar would know that iste was a pejorative term, that whoever was coming is unpleasant or, indeed, not exactly human. It should be translated as ‘What is this revolting thing coming towards me?'”

Black and White

mackenzie chess puzzle

An “eccentricity” by Arthur Ford Mackenzie. White to mate in half a move.

Click for Answer

The Chrysler Norseman


For Chrysler’s 1957 auto show, designer Virgil Exner prepared a one-of-a-kind prototype: the Norseman, a sleek four-seat fastback coupe with a sloping hood, cantilevered roof, and aerodynamic underbody.

After 15 months’ work, the fully drivable $150,000 concept car missed its shipment date and was put aboard the next available transport.

That was the SS Andrea Doria. The unique prototype was lost in the sinking, and the car was never produced.

Grammatical Illusions

More people have been to Russia than I have.

Most listeners find this sentence acceptable when they first hear it, but it’s meaningless: The phrase “more people” seems to set up a comparison between two sets of individuals, but there’s no second set.

“In light of the fact that the sentence lacks this basic property, it is remarkable that speakers so commonly fail to notice the error,” write linguists Colin Phillips, Matthew W. Wagers, and Ellen F. Lau.

No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

At first this seems to mean “No head injury should be ignored — even if it’s trivial,” but reflection shows that it really means “All head injuries should be ignored — even trivial ones.”

“This difficulty has certain interesting properties,” write psychologists Peter Wason and Shuli Reich. “When the correct interpretation was explained it was often adamantly rejected in our informal studies, as if the informants literally could not see an alternative view.”

(Colin Phillips, M. Wagers, and E. Lau, “Grammatical Illusions and Selective Fallibility in Real-Time Language Comprehension,” in Jeffrey T. Runner, ed., Syntax and Semantics 37: Experiments at the Interfaces, 2011; Peter C. Wason and Shuli S. Reich, “A Verbal Illusion,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31:4 [1979], 591-597.)