I am aware of two British intelligence agencies: MI5, the counterintelligence service, and MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), which I understand is England’s answer to the CIA. What I want to know is, whatever happened to MIs 1, 2, 3, and 4? –Len Cleavelin, Saint Louis

Good question, lame answer–but what do you want, entertainment or the truth? At the turn of the century the British War Office had various “military operations” departments, each designated MO-something. MO2g, for example, handled analysis of German intelligence. MO5 was the special-projects section and did things like plan for wartime cable censorship (implemented in 1914 as department MO5d). In 1909, with rumors of war already in the air, MO5 established a Secret Service Bureau, the counterintelligence branch of which came to be designated MO5g. In 1916 the War Office reorganized the spy services into a new military-intelligence directorate, and MO5g, whose staff was now much enlarged, became MI5. MI1 was “special intelligence” and included among its divisions MI1c, foreign espionage. By and by MI1c got too big for its britches and was redesignated MI6, presumably because MIs 2, 3, and 4 were already spoken for (German intelligence analysis, the motor pool, who knows?). MO5d, the cable censorship, became MI8, and MO9, the postal censorship, became MI9. Many other fascinating numbers could also be expounded on, but Cecil knows there is only so much excitement the Teeming Millions can stand.

The British being the British, the UK intelligence services evolved many oddball customs that survived for years. The first head of what became MI6 was Captain Mansfield Cumming of the Royal Navy. Quite the dashing ladies’ man, he took to signing official documents “C” in green ink. Whether C stood for Cumming or chief of the secret service nobody is quite sure, but his successors evidently decided it was the latter and, wishing to be thought dashing themselves, continued with the green Cs. Knowing a cute gimmick when he saw one, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, named his fictional MI6 chief “M,” possibly as a coy homage to the real chief at the time, Stewart Menzies.


I just got back from the auto shop where I bought four new tires for my car. They said to come back every 7,500 miles to have the tires rotated. That seemed strange, since the tires rotate every time I drive the car. What’s the deal? –Will Fitzhugh, via the Internet

I play chess with my brother by mail. We send our moves and a short note to each other on a computer disk that shuttles between southern California and Massachusetts. We’d been using a 29-cent stamp to send the disk for the first six or seven moves. On the eighth move I became uncertain whether 29 cents would be sufficient as the number of moves increased. Is the computer disk growing heavier as more data accumulates on it? My experiment weighing a blank and a full disk failed to detect any difference, but maybe you have a more accurate scale. –Richard Briones-Colman, Irvine, California

My physics teacher in high school explained how motion is relative to a person’s frame of reference. When you look through the window of a train and see another train moving, you can’t be certain whether your train is moving forward and the other train is sitting still or whether your train is sitting still and the other train is moving backward. Recently I’ve been wondering whether the same principle applies to VCRs. When I fast-forward my video player, how can I be certain my life isn’t moving backward very fast? Last night when I rented Apocalypse Now and fast-forwarded through large parts of it, I had the sensation of losing two and a half hours of my life. Is this just my imagination? –Paul Farwell, Boston

Hard to say. Lotta people figured they lost two and a half hours after they got Apocalypse Now and pressed “play.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.