By Adolf Kraemer. White to mate in two moves.
By Adolf Kraemer. White to mate in two moves.
I just stumbled across this — in May 1938 Weird Tales published an “acrostic sonnet” by H.P. Lovecraft:
Eternal brood the shadows on this ground,
Dreaming of centuries that have gone before;
Great elms rise solemnly by slab and mound,
Arch’d high above a hidden world of yore.
Round all the scene a light of memory plays,
And dead leaves whisper of departed days,
Longing for sights and sounds that are no more.
Lonely and sad, a spectre glides along
Aisles where of old his living footsteps fell;
No common glance discerns him, tho’ his song
Peals down thro’ time with a mysterious spell:
Only the few who sorcery’s secret know
Espy amidst these tombs the shade of Poe.
The lines’ initial letters spell out EDGAR ALLAN POE.
Reviewing Heathcote Statham’s book Form and Design in Music in 1893, George Bernard Shaw decried the “insufferable affectation” of music criticism. He quoted Statham’s analysis of a Mozart symphony:
The principal subject, hitherto only heard in the treble, is transferred to the bass (Ex. 28), the violins playing a new counterpoint to it instead of the original mere accompaniment figure of the first part. Then the parts are reversed, the violins taking the subject and the basses the counterpoint figure, and so on till we come to a close on the dominant of D minor, a nearly related key (commencement of Ex. 29) and then comes the passage by which we return to the first subject in its original form and key.
“How succulent this is,” Shaw wrote, “and how full of Mesopotamian words like ‘the dominant of D minor.’ I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated ‘analysis’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style”:
Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.
“I break off here, because, to confess the truth, my grammar is giving out,” he wrote. “But I want to know whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; while the more a music critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.”
(From The World, May 31, 1893.)
In 2006 I noted this excerpt from Lillie de Hagermann-Lindencrone’s 1912 book In the Courts of Memory:
I sang, and thought I sang very well; but he just looked up into my face with a very quizzical expression, and said, ‘How long have you been singing, Mademoiselle?’
The bolded section is a “pangrammatic window,” a string of naturally occurring text that contains all the letters of the (English) alphabet. This one is 56 letters long.
That was nine years ago. Can we do better? In 2012 a 42-letter example was discovered in Piers Anthony’s novel Cube Route:
‘We are all from Xanth,’ Cube said quickly. ‘Just visiting Phaze. We just want to find the dragon.’
Last year, Jesse Sheidlower wrote a bot that retweets pangrams that it finds on Twitter. Inspired by this, Google software engineer Malcolm Rowe set out to search first Project Gutenberg and then the web for the shortest possible window. Remarkably, he found one of only 36 letters, in a review of the film Magnolia by Todd Ramlow, for PopMatters:
Further, fractal geometries are replicated on a human level in the production of certain ‘types’ of subjectivity: for example, aging kid quiz show whiz Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and up and coming kid quiz show whiz Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) are connected (or, perhaps, being cloned) in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.
(The link seems to be down at the moment.)
“I’m pretty impressed by this result,” Rowe writes. “It’s only one letter longer than “The quick brown fox …”, and while that’s not the shortest possible pangram by far, it is one of the more coherent ones.”
If you fit Pascal’s triangle into a grid, then each cell displays the number of distinct paths that lead to that cell from the upper left (assuming only rightward and downward movements and no backtracking).
So, above, the cell marked 4 in the second row, fourth column, can be reached in 4 ways: 1-1-1-4, 1-1-3-4, 1-2-3-4, and 1-2-3-4.
For Fuse 18, the experimental typographic publication that appeared in February 2001, type designer Matthew Carter reflected on the grand lettering that appears on public buildings: It’s meant to last for eternity, but inevitably it’s effaced by weather, by other inscriptions, and by the graffiti of vandals.
So, wryly, he offered DeFace, which speeds up the process.
“This typeface,” he wrote, “contains a set of inscriptional capitals that are self-vandalizing: each letter has graffiti associated with it that deface neighboring letters. Depending on the text, the graffiti can vandalize both the underlying capitals and other graffiti to make a palimpsest of marks that are individually legible but obscure in combination.”
“If I don’t know I don’t know, I think I know. If I don’t know I know, I think I don’t know.” — R.D. Laing
“One-Eyed Charley” Parkhurst drove a stagecoach throughout California during the height of the Gold Rush, rising to the top of a difficult, dangerous, and highly competitive profession at its historic peak. Only after his death in 1879 at age 67 was it discovered that Charley was a woman. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell what’s known of Charley Parkhurst’s courageous and enigmatic life story.
We’ll also hear listeners’ input on the legalities of an anti-Christian town and puzzle over a lucky driver and his passenger.
Sources for our feature on Charley Parkhurst:
Dan L. Thrapp, ed., Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, 1991.
Gloria G. Harris and Hannah S. Cohen, Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present, 2012.
Alton Pryor, Fascinating Women in California History, 2003.
“Thirty Years in Disguise,” New York Times, Jan. 9, 1880.
Mark McLaughlin, “Sierra History: The Strange Tale of Stagecoach Driver Charley Parkhurst,” Tahoe Daily Tribune, July 11, 2015.
“The Secret of One-Eyed Charley,” Palm Beach Post, June 29, 1958.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at email@example.com. Thanks for listening!
The 19th canto of the Sanskrit epic poem Shishupala Vadha is a tour de force of ingenious wordplay, including double meanings, constrained writing, and concrete poetry. The 27th stanza has been called “the most complex and exquisite type of palindrome ever invented” — it produces the same text when read forward, backward, down, or up:
“[That army], which relished battle, contained allies who brought low the bodies and gaits of their various striving enemies, and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments.”
The Babylonian Theodicy is a cuneiform poem of 27 stanzas of 11 lines each. All the sentences in each stanza begin with the same sign, and if these signs are read in order, they produce an acrostic that identifies the author:
a-na-ku sa-ag-gi-il-ki-i-na-am-ub-bi-ib ma-áš-ma-šu ka-ri-bu ša i-li ú šar-ri
“I, Saggil-kīnam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king.”
See also The Star Gauge. (Thanks, Sujan.)
On July 21, 1904, the London Times published a curious letter from H. Rider Haggard. On the night of Saturday, July 9, he said, he had gone to bed at about 12:30 “and suffered from what I took to be a nightmare”:
I dreamed that a black retriever dog, a most amiable and intelligent beast named Bob, which was the property of my eldest daughter, was lying on its side among brushwood, or rough growth of some sort, by water. In my vision the dog was trying to speak to me in words, and, failing, transmitted to my mind in an undefined fashion the knowledge that it was dying. Then everything vanished, and I woke to hear my wife asking me why on earth I was making those horrible and weird noises. I replied that I had had a nightmare about a fearful struggle, and that I had dreamed that old Bob was in a dreadful way, and was trying to talk to me and to tell me about it.
The following morning Haggard and his wife told the story to their daughters, and it was not until that evening that the family realized that Bob was missing. Haggard began to investigate, and on Thursday morning he and a groom discovered the dog’s body floating in the River Waveney about a mile and a quarter from the author’s home. Haggard was also approached by two railway plate-layers who on Monday had found the dog’s collar atop a bridge that crossed the water between Ditchingham and Bungay. “It would seem that the animal must have been killed by an excursion train that left Ditchingham at 10.25 on Saturday night, returning empty from Harlestone a little after 11.” This was the last train that ran that night, and no trains ran on Sunday.
It appeared that the train had knocked the dog into the reedy margin of the water, where, if it was still alive, “it must have suffocated and sunk, undergoing, I imagine, much the same sensations as I did in my dream, and in very similar surroundings to those that I saw therein — namely, amongst a scrubby growth at the edge of water.”
I am forced to conclude that the dog Bob, between whom and myself there existed a mutual attachment, either at the moment of his death, if his existence can conceivably have been prolonged till after one in the morning, or, as seems more probable, about three hours after that event, did succeed in calling my attention to its actual or recent plight by placing whatever portion of my being is capable of receiving such impulses when enchained by sleep, into its own terrible position.
The full letter is here. Haggard added a certificate by a veterinary surgeon, affirming that Bob must have been in the water three days; from his wife and children, confirming his description of the nightmare on Sunday morning; from the plate-layer who discovered the collar; and from the groom who had found the dog with him. Draw your own conclusions.