Subscriber Trouble

A letter to the New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1998:

To the Editor:

I read the review of Nathan Miller’s ‘Star-Spangled Men’ (Feb. 22) by Douglas McGrath, who challenged the reader to produce a sentence with three prepositions in a row, after I had picked my copy of The New York Times up from under the front porch, thankful that I didn’t have to get it down from above the porch roof, and at the same time, knowing that the delivery boy usually threw it to within a foot of the door, leaving me a quick way back in out of the cold each morning, I decided not to yell at him, especially since an argument was not something I wanted to get into outside of the house at this time of the morning, but still thinking that this was a matter that should be taken up from inside of the house by writing a letter to the editor, being careful not to use up to over three or four prepositions in a row in any sentence.

George F. Werner
Edgewood, N.M.

A Keypad Oddity

A.F. Bainbridge of British Aerospace noticed this curiosity in 1991. On a calculator keypad like this:

1 2 3
4 5 6
7 8 9

… choose two three-digit numbers (say, 435 and 667) and multiply them (290145). Now use symmetrical paths on the keyboard to find two “complementary” numbers (that is, symmetrical across the center, here 675 and 443) and multiply those (299025).

The difference between these two products (299025 – 290145 = 8880) will always be evenly divisible by 37.

(A.F. Bainbridge and P.A. Binding, “Symmetrical Paths on a Calculator,” Mathematical Gazette 75:474 [December 1991], 399-401.)

Music and Identity

What is Chopin’s B Minor Sonata? What constitutes its identity? Not the fact that it’s part of Chopin’s conscious experience, because it continues to exist after his death. And not the fact that it’s part of any listener’s experience, because it continues to exist when those experiences have ended. It can’t be identified with any particular performance, and it’s different from its score, since the sonata is a sounding work and the score is an arrangement of graphic signs.

If the sonata is not material, and if it’s different from the experience of both the composer and the listener (in fact, it continues to exist if no one takes any conscious interest in it at all), how can it exist? How do we discern the same “original” work in a hundred different performances?

Is the sonata an ideal object, immutable and atemporal, like a mathematical concept? Well, no, because Chopin created it at a particular time. Perhaps there is no sonata, only individual performances? But then there’d be no sense in distinguishing a performance from the work itself, or in talking about the identity of a work (“Chopin’s B Minor Sonata”), or in arguing over whether a given performance was faithful to the original.

“For what is the point of saying that one performance rather than another gives a more nearly accurate account of the B Minor Sonata when the sonata does not in fact exist and when there is nothing real with which these performances may be compared?” asks philosopher Roman Ingarden. “Are we really going to agree that such judgments concerning the sonata itself and its performances are all false and stupid?”

(Roman Ingarden, The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity, 1986.)

The Paul Rubin Cipher

On the morning of Jan. 20, 1953, the body of 18-year-old Paul Emanuel Rubin was found at the bottom of a ditch near the Philadelphia International Airport. The coroner found there was enough cyanide in his body to “kill 10 men,” and taped to his abdomen was a 7″ x 3″ piece of paper with an enciphered message:

rubin cipher

Rubin’s mother hadn’t seen him since the previous morning, when he’d cut some strips of adhesive tape before leaving the house. He was studying chemistry at New York University and would have had access to cyanide, but his mother said he was in good mental and physical health and hadn’t appeared worried about anything. (About 20 minutes before the body was found, the Rev. Robert M. Anderson had wished Rubin good morning; he found him “wild-eyed” and said “he was staring straight ahead and … the pupils of his eyes were dilated.”)

A friend mentioned that Rubin had been working with codes: “They’re very complicated. Anyone who reads science fiction will know what I mean.” Rubin was carrying a copy of Galaxy Science Fiction, as well as a plastic cylinder containing a signal fuse, the casing of a spent .38 caliber bullet, a “fountain pen gun” of uncertain purpose, four keys, and 47 cents. He’d had $15 when he’d left home the previous morning.

An inquest turned up nothing, and the case was closed in March. The cipher has never been solved. The Cipher Foundation has more details about the case, as well as a link to Rubin’s FBI file (8 MB PDF). The fullest account of the case that I know is in Craig Bauer’s excellent Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies (2017).

A Time Machine

The life of a good book is far longer than the life of a man. Its author dies, and his generation dies, and his successors are born and die; the world he knew disappears, and new orders which he could not foresee are established on its ruins; law, religion, science, commerce, society, all are transformed into shapes which would astound him; but his book continues to live. Long after he and his epoch are dead, the book speaks with his voice.

— Gilbert Highet, on Juvenal


When University of Pennsylvania law professor Austin Tappan Wright died in a highway accident in 1931, he left behind a surprising legacy: an enormous novel about a nonexistent country. Wright had begun the project secretly as a young lawyer in the Boston office of Louis Brandeis, first preparing a 400-page summary of the country’s history, literature, peerage, and philosophy, as well as a detailed geography, contoured maps, weather, and import and export statistics. When Brandeis ascended to the Supreme Court Wright went on to teach at Berkeley and Penn, but none of his colleagues ever knew of the project.

Apparently Wright had found his own civilization lacking and devised this alternative as a sort of refuge. His hero, John Lang, becomes consul to the island nation, but rather than open it for trade he decides to remain there, “because the Islandian way is a better one. There a man is not split so that body and mind fall apart, the one going too far from earth, the other sinking too low in it. Here the labor which is regarded as the highest knows the realities on which men live only at second hand. We think too much about thoughts and not enough about feelings and things. Men specialize and deal with fragments and not with wholes. And our over intense brain life either desiccates the pure animal soul in man or makes an unmanlike beast of it. Desire becomes impure, perverse, a thing to be hidden and not to be faced.”

After Wright’s death, his wife typed out the 2,000-page manuscript, his daughter edited it down to a publishable length, and they put it out in 1942. We’ll never know what precisely it meant to its author, but the care he lavished on it is obvious. UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell called it “one of the most completely documented imaginative works ever conceived,” and in the Pacific Spectator Kenneth Oliver wrote, “No other author of a utopian novel has known the land of his creation as intimately as Austin Wright knew Islandia.”

Podcast Episode 231: The Halifax Explosion
Image: Flickr

In 1917, a munitions ship exploded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastating the city and shattering the lives of its citizens. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the events of the disaster, the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima, and the grim and heroic stories of its victims.

We’ll also consider the dangers of cactus plugging and puzzle over why a man would agree to be assassinated.

See full show notes …