Twice-Told Tale

In 1986 the Los Angeles Times received a peculiar 167-page novel from Lawrence Levine of St. Augustine, Fla. Titled Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo, it began “Tacit, I hate gas (aroma of evil), masonry …” It ended “No, Sam — live foam or a sage Tahiti CAT!” And the very middle read “I deplore media, rats, gals, a tar bag and a maniac Dr. Awkward ‘Cain,’ a mad nag, a brat, a slag star. Ai! Demerol, pedicular addenda, Edgar!”

Working four hours a day for five months, Levine had composed a novel that was one long palindrome, 31,594 words.

“There were lessons in trial and error, in logic, in vocabulary, in syntactics, and a wide-ranging lexical development that I never thought possible,” Levine revealed elsewhere. “I wrote the novel because to my knowledge no other person had ever composed an equal nonesuch. I decided, as it were, to be the first.”

The Times responded, “The world needs more Levines — playful eccentrics determined to scale the heights where no one has gone before, even if getting there isn’t much of an accomplishment. Or, as the metaphysicians say, ‘No lemons, no melon.'”

Small World

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella The Little Prince, the narrator encounters “a most extraordinary small person” whose planet is “scarcely any larger than a house.”

This led University of Ljubljana physicist Janez Strnad to consider the implications. If the radius of the prince’s planet were 64 meters and it had Earth’s density, then the weight of a prince with a mass of 30 kg would amount to 0.003 newtons, corresponding on Earth to the weight of a mass of 0.3 g. (If the planet had the density of an asteroid, his weight would be lower still.)

The planet cannot have an atmosphere, because the mean velocity of gas molecules is greater than the escape velocity.

If the prince moved faster than 80 millimeters per second he’d be sent into orbit around the planet; if faster than 11 centimeters per second he’d leave it altogether.

“He could overcome the limitations concerning his velocity by either binding himself with a rope to his planet or building a spherical shell around it,” Strnad concluded. “The human body adapts to weightlessness and astronauts have to perform special gymnastic exercises not to suffer on returning to the Earth. For the little prince, coming to Earth would be a serious adventure, were he not a fictitious character.”

(Janez Strnad, “The Planet of the Little Prince,” Physics Education 23:4 [1988], 224.)

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?'”

The Boekenkast

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the Kinkerbuurt, Amsterdam, the streets are named after Dutch poets and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Correspondingly, Yugoslavian artist Sanja Medic transformed the façade of a local building into a case holding 250 ceramic “books” by these authors.

It’s a substantial library — each volume weighs more than 25 kg, so the frontage had to be reinforced to support them.

Another First

Jules Verne’s 1882 novel La Jangada tells the story of Joam Dacosta, a Brazilian man wrongly accused of theft and murder. In Book Two his friends struggle to save him by solving a cryptogram, whose last paragraph is given in the text:

Phyjslyddqfdzxgasgzzqqehxgkfndrxujugiocytdxvksbxhhuypo
hdvyrymhuhpuydkjoxphetozsletnpmvffovpdpajxhyynojyggayme
qynfuqlnmvlyfgsuzmqiztlbqgyugsqeubvnrcredgruzblrmxyuhqhp
zdrrgcrohepqxufivvrplphonthvddqfhqsntzhhhnfepmqkyuuexktog
zgkyuumfvijdqdpzjqsykrplxhxqrymvklohhhotozvdksppsuvjhd.

In the end this works out to:

Le véritable auteur du vol des diamants et de l’assassinat des soldats qui escortaient le convoi, commis dans la nuit du vingt-deux janvier mil huit cent vingt-six, n’est donc pas Joam Dacosta, injustement condamné à mort; c’est moi, le misérable employé de l’administration du district diamantin; oui, moi seul, qui signe de mon vrai nom, Ortega.

In the article linked below, Miami University mathematician Frederick Gass explains rigorously how the cipher might be solved. In the novel, Judge Jarriquez has a brainstorm: He learns that the writer might have been named Ortega, guesses that the declaration might end with that signature, and works out the rest from there.

“By virtue of this solution, Jules Verne is credited with the first published exposition of the probable word method for Gronsfeld ciphers.”

(Frederick Gass, “Solving a Jules Verne Cryptogram,” Mathematics Magazine 59:1 [February 1986], 3-11.)

A Glass Darkly

In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” an old book collector visits John Watson’s house, “his precious volumes, a dozen of them at least, wedged under his right arm.” He says, “Maybe you collect yourself, sir; here’s British Birds, and Catullus, and The Holy War — a bargain every one of them. With five volumes you could just fill that gap on that second shelf.”

Now, this must mean either that two of the titles comprised two volumes apiece or that one comprised three volumes, a point first made by Magistrate S. Tupper Bigelow. But which is it? In the strangely half-specified world that Holmes and Watson inhabit, the fact of the matter seems not to exist.

Philosopher Terence Parsons asks whether Holmes has a mole on his back. Since the stories are silent on this point, it seems that he neither has one nor doesn’t.

See Truth and Fiction.

Never Mind

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“I do not remember this day.” — Dorothy Wordsworth, diary, March 17, 1798

“Such a beautiful day, that one felt quite confused how to make the most of it, and accordingly frittered it away.” — Caroline Fox, diary, January 4, 1848

“I shall not remember what happened on this day. It is a blank. At the end of my life I may want it, may long to have it. There was a new moon: that I remember. But who came or what I did — all is lost. It’s just a day missed, a day crossing the line.” — Katherine Mansfield, diary, Jan. 28, 1920

“Wrote nothing.” — Franz Kafka, diary, June 1, 1912

“I awakened feeling dull. The weather is neither cheerful nor depressing. It makes me restless. The trees are tossed by gusty, fantastic wind. The sun is hidden. If I put on my dressing-gown I am too hot, if I take it off I am cold. Leaden day in which I shall accomplish nothing worth while. Tired and apathetic brain! I have been drinking tea in the hope that it would carry this mood to a climax and so put an end to it.” — George Sand, diary, June 1, 1837

Samuel Johnson resolved 14 times “to keep a journal.” The first resolution was in 1760, the last in 1782.

Podcast Episode 315: Beryl Markham’s Unconventional Life

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Beryl Markham managed to fit three extraordinary careers into one lifetime: She was a champion racehorse trainer, a pioneering bush pilot, and a best-selling author. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review her eventful life, including her historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1936.

We’ll also portray some Canadian snakes and puzzle over a deadly car.

See full show notes …

Risk Analysis

The Society of Actuaries holds a regular speculative fiction contest. Here’s an excerpt from “The Temple of Screens,” by Nate Worrell, FSA, MAAA, recognized last year for describing the “most innovative actuarial career of the future”:

‘Ever since humans began to be aware of a future, we’ve wanted to explore it. We’ve cast stones, searched in tea leaves, held the entrails of animals in our hands to try to extract some knowledge of our fate. Some of our stories try to show us that like Oedipus, we can’t change our fate. In other stories, we find an escape, we have the power of choice, at least to some degree. But in either case, knowing our future changes how we act. Now that you’ve seen your possible futures, they are tainted. If you were to go back in, they’d all change, reflecting that you had some knowledge. The algorithm would reallocate a new set of weights to your tendencies, increasing some behaviors and decreasing others.’

A wave of anger flashes through me, and I stand and start pacing. ‘So what’s the use of this?’

‘To help you embrace what’s possible, to come to terms with it. You came here because you were afraid of a certain future, one you hoped to avoid somehow. We can’t fight or flee from the future, whatever one we fall into. But we can find serenity in any of our futures, if we so desire.’

MetaFilter has a guide to past contests.