Invertible Minuets

schobert puzzle minuets

In A Thing or Two About Music (1972), Nicolas Slonimsky describes a series of “puzzle minuets” composed by 18th-century harpsichordist Johann Schobert:

Schobert is not a misprint for Schubert. He was an estimable Silesian-born musician who settled in Paris in 1760 and wrote many compositions in the elegant style of the time. Mozart knew his music well and was even influenced by his easy grace in writing piano pieces. Schobert was something of a musical scientist. Among his compositions is a page entitled, ‘A Curious Musical Piece Which Can Be Played on the Piano, on the Violin, and on the Bass, and at that in Different Ways.’ This page contained five minuets, one of which could be played upside down without any change, one which would result in a new piece when turned upside down, and one which would furnish a continuation upside down. Two could be played on the violin and on the bass by assigning the treble clef right side up and the bass clef upside down.

The full page is here. I haven’t tried playing it.

Désert de Retz

French aristocrat François Racine de Monville added a striking summer house to his estate in 1785 — it was designed to resemble the ruined column of an imaginary gigantic temple:

The “colonne brisée” contained four stories of oval rooms connected by a spiral staircase hung with rare plants under a skylight. It was admired by Benjamin Franklin, and it inspired Thomas Jefferson in his own architectural work. (“How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column!” he wrote to Maria Cosway.) It had fallen into disrepair by the 1950s, but it was renovated and reopened to the public in 2009.

Fleet Cuts

In 1968, American Hugo Vihlen sailed from Casablanca to Florida in a boat 5 feet 11 inches long.

In 1992, Englishman Tom McNally sailed from Portugal to Fort Lauderdale in a boat 5 feet 4.5 inches long.

In 1993 Vihlen reclaimed the record by sailing from Newfoundland to Falmouth in a boat 5 feet 4 inches long.

“Tom McNally made plans to fight back with a minuscule three-foot, eleven-inch boat, and when Vihlen later heard about that he announced his intention to build a three-foot, eight-inch aluminum boat,” writes William Longyard in A Speck on the Sea (2003). “The battle would continue between these two friends and rivals.”

(Thanks, Dave.)

Light Reading

French writer Paul Fournel’s 1990 novel Suburbia begins conventionally enough:

Table of Contents

A Word from the Publisher vi
Foreword by Marguerite Duras vii
An Introductory Note by the Author viii
Suburbia 9
Afterword by François Caradec 215
Supplement for Use in Schools 217
Index 219

And the “Word from the Publisher” promises that “the quality of this little novel, now that passions have subsided, has emerged ever more forcefully.” But the first page is blank except for four footnotes:

1. In French in the original.
2. Concerning the definition of suburb, see the epigraph et seq.
3. What intention on the author’s part does this brutal opening suggest?
4. Local judge.

The same thing happens on the second page:

1. Notice how Norbert comes crashing onto the scene.
2. This passage is a mixture of backslang and immigrant jargon. Transpose into normal English.
3. Motorcycle.
4. Obscene gesture.

And so on — except for footnotes, all the pages in Suburbia are blank. “In Suburbia Fournel was not attempting to give some postmodernist exploration of the nature of literature,” explains Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “Suburbia, instead, was written according to the lipogrammatic constraint that it contain no letters or symbols. This constraint force Fournel to write a textless narrative. Because of the footnotes on each page, it has content — it is not an empty text; it is simply a textless text, a text that just happens not to contain any words.”

Maillardet’s Automaton,_London,_England,_c._1810_-_Franklin_Institute_-_DSC06656.jpg

Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo was inspired by a real event. In 1928 Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute received the remains of an 18th-century brass automaton that had been damaged in a fire. It had been donated by the descendants of wealthy manufacturer John Penn Brock; they knew it had been acquired in France and supposed it to be the work of the German inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, famed for his metronome.

The institute’s machinist set about restoring the machine and discovered that its mechanism used an ingenious system of cams to store almost 300 kilobits of information. When he had finished his work, he placed a pen in its hand and watched it draw four strikingly elaborate illustrations and write three poems (click to enlarge):

The final poem contained a surprise — in its border the machine wrote Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet, “written by the automaton of Maillardet.” The automaton’s creator was not Johann Maelzel but the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet — and this fact had been remembered only because he had taught the machine to write his name.

Subsequent research showed that Maillardet had created the automaton in the 1700s and exhibited it throughout Europe and Russia. How it came to America is not known. It’s on display today at the Franklin Institute, which demonstrates its talents publicly several times a year.


The epilogue of The Time Machine contains this strange passage:

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now — if I may use the phrase — be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age.

What indeed can “now” mean in this context? If the Time Traveller’s life ended on a prehistoric beach, argues philosopher Donald C. Williams, then surely this became an established fact on the day that it happened. If the concept of time is to have any coherence, then history is a tapestry that is eternal and unchanging; to say that it can be changed “at” some future moment seems to be a flat contradiction. “At” where?

“Time travel,” Williams writes, “is analyzable either as the banality that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one we occupied before, or the contradiction that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one which we are then occupying — that five minutes from now, for example, I may be a hundred years from now.”

(Donald C. Williams, “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy, July 1951.)

“Curious Sculpture”

A letter from W.C. Trevelyan to John Adamson, secretary of the Antiquarian Society of Newcastle, Jan. 20, 1825:

In the autumn of 1823, I visited the interesting Church at Bridlington [Yorkshire] (founded about 1114, by Gilbert de Gant). On examining a tomb stone with an inscription and date of 1587, standing on two low pillars of masonry near the font, I found some appearances of sculpture on the under side of it, and having obtained leave to turn it over, the curious sculpture represented in the etching herewith sent, was discovered.

Its meaning, or date, I cannot attempt to explain. Can it have any reference to the building of the church? You will perceive both the circular and pointed arch (though the latter is probably only accidental, the space being limited).

The roof, I think, resembles some of the Roman buildings of the lower empire of which I have seen engravings.

The tiles, in shape, correspond exactly with those which were found among the remains of a Roman villa discovered a few years since at Stonesfield, near Oxford. The upper figures are very like some on Bridekirk Font (of the 10th century).

The figures of the Fox and Dove remind one of Æsop’s fable of the Fox and the Stork.

The society published the plate in its Archæologia Æliana. The best guess I can find is that it’s a 12th-century coffin lid that had been appropriated as a tombstone in 1587. But the meaning of the figures is unclear.


When engineer E.W. Barton-Wright returned to England after three years in Japan, he brought with him a new discipline: Bartitsu, a martial art of his own devising that combined jujutsu, judo, boxing, and stick fighting. He listed its essential principles in an article in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1899:

1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
3. If necessary to subject the joints of any part of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strain which they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

The combination of systems, he wrote, “can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent. One of its greatest advantages is that the exponent need not necessarily be a strong man, or in training, or even a specially active man in order to paralyse a very formidable opponent, and it is equally applicable to a man who attacks you with a knife, or a stick, or against a boxer; in fact, it can be considered a class of self-defence designed to meet every possible kind of attack, whether armed or otherwise.”

In 1899 Barton-Wright established an academy in London to promote the new art, but he proved an indifferent promoter and the school closed its doors within three years. His eccentric fighting style might have been forgotten entirely but for one immortal mention: In The Adventure of the Empty House, when asked how he defeated Professor Moriarty in their climactic struggle at the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes credits “baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”


Circling the earth aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, John Glenn had an odd encounter:

The strangest sight of all came with the very first ray of sunrise as I was crossing the Pacific toward the U.S. I was checking the instrument panel and when I looked back out the window I thought for a minute that I must have tumbled upside-down and was looking up at a new field of stars. I checked my instruments to make sure I was right-side-up. Then I looked again. There, spread as far as I could see, were literally thousands of tiny luminous objects that glowed in the black sky like fireflies. I was riding slowly through them, and the sensation was like walking backwards through a pasture where someone had waved a wand and made all the fireflies stop right where they were and glow steadily. They were greenish yellow in color, and they appeared to be about six to 10 feet apart. I seemed to be passing through them at a speed of from three to five miles an hour. They were all around me, and those nearest the capsule would occasionally move across the window as if I had slightly interrupted their flow. On the next pass I turned the capsule around so that I was looking right into the flow, and though I could see far fewer of them in the light of the rising sun, they were still there. Watching them come toward me, I felt certain they were not caused by anything emanating from the capsule. I thought perhaps I’d stumbled into the lost batch of needles the Air Force had tried to set up in orbit for communications purposes. But I could think of no reason why needles should glow like fireflies, nor did they look like needles. As far as I know, the true identity of these particles is still a mystery.

They seem to have been ice crystals, flakes of frost shed by the capsule and illuminated by the sun. Scott Carpenter saw a similar display on the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, a few months later.

(John Glenn, “If You’re Shook Up, You Shouldn’t Be There,” Life, March 9, 1962.)

The Peace Arch

The border between the United States and Canada blurs a bit between Blaine, Wash., and Surrey, B.C. There stands the Peace Arch, a 20-meter monument to amity between the two nations commissioned by railroad executive Sam Hill in 1921.

The arch stands precisely on the border, at the center of an international park: Citizens of either nation can pass without passport or visa into the other nation’s territory, provided they don’t stray beyond a dedicated area.

The U.S. side of the arch bears the inscription “Children of a common mother,” and the Canadian side reads “Brethren dwelling together in unity.” An iron gate stands open on either side, and an inscription above reads “May these gates never be closed.”