The Isdal Woman

In November 1970, a man and his daughters came upon the charred remains of a woman in the foothills near Bergen, Norway. Some personal items were nearby, and two suitcases were later found at the railway station, but all identifying marks had been removed from all of these.

An autopsy showed the woman had been incapacitated by phenobarbital and poisoned by carbon monoxide, and she’d consumed 50 to 70 sleeping pills. A notepad found in one of the suitcases suggested that she’d traveled throughout Europe using at least eight false identities. She’d last been seen alive when she’d checked out of her room at the Hotel Hordaheimen two days earlier; she’d paid in cash and requested a taxi. During her stay she’d appeared guarded and kept to her room.

The woman has never been identified. Her death was attributed to the sleeping pills, and she was interred in a Bergen graveyard. A 2017 analysis of her teeth suggested that she’d been born in Germany around 1930 and had perhaps moved to France as a child. In 2005 a resident of Bergen said he’d seen a woman hiking on a hillside outside town five days before the discovery of the body, dressed lightly and followed by two men. She’d seemed about to speak to him but had not. He’d reported the encounter to the police, but no investigation was made.


But for the next [Maryland] assembly in 1638 the records show that some free men attended in person while others delegated representatives, each of whom was entitled to his own vote and also to all the votes of those who had selected him as their representative. …

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. One one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

— Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, 1988

(Thanks, Keith.)

In a Word

chinneck milan facade

n. a dwelling-place or habitation

n. the state of being curled

adj. ingeniously made or finished

n. light-heartedness

British artist Alex Chinneck designed this unzipped building facade for Milan Design Week in 2019. The theme is continued inside, where giant zippers create openings in walls and the floor. More at Dezeen.

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