Voynich Manuscript

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Some writers seem to crave anonymity. None more so than the author of the Voynich manuscript, who invented a mysterious language and an unknown alphabet that has been defying scholars for 500 years.

To judge from the illustrations, the text deals with astronomy, biology, cosmology, herbs, and recipes. Handwriting experts say that the glyphs were written with speed and care, as if the author were facile with them. Statistical analysis seems to show that it’s a natural language, but the vocabulary is unusually small, and in some ways it seems to resemble Arabic more than European languages.

Because no one knows precisely what the 240-page book is, it’s hard to guess who wrote it. Suspects include a who’s who of Europe in the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon and John Dee among them. The cipher has resisted even the National Security Agency, leading some to think it’s a hoax, but even that is hard to prove conclusively.

There’s a great irony at the bottom of this. The mysterious author was one of the most successful cryptologists in history — so successful, in fact, that we may never know who he was.

Crypt of Civilization

Partial contents of the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule to be opened on May 28, 8113 A.D.:

  • 5 phonograph records (transcriptions)
  • 1 set Lionel model train (6 cars, 1 track)
  • 1 set Lincoln Logs (toys)
  • 1 telephone instrument dial phone (desk type)
  • 2 microfilm readers and 2 microfilms (Oglethorpe Book of Georgia Verse)
  • 4 skeins of rayon, 1 electric iron
  • 2 electric lighting fixtures and 2 acetate shades
  • 1 “Comptometer,” serial number J246635
  • 1 package Butterick dress patterns
  • 1 slide rule and instructions
  • 1 package 2nd carbon copy of teletype news
  • 1 cover for milk bottle
  • 1 asbestos mat
  • 1 tube rayon thread
  • 1 set of 6 radio tubes
  • 1 “Negro doll”
  • 1 blotter, 1 inkwell (sealed)

These things were sealed away in 1940, and already they’re almost unrecognizable.

Big-Band Propaganda

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml

The biggest trouble with diabolical schemes is the quality control.

Case in point: Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once actually put together his own big band, plotting to use “degenerate” swing music to hypnotize decadent Americans.

“Charlie and His Orchestra” were broadcast to the United States, Canada and England, playing popular tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “Stardust,” and “The Sheik Of Araby.”

About halfway through each song, when he had the audience’s attention, “Charlie” (Karl Schwendler) would leave off singing and launch into a Nazi tirade about war, privation, death, pain, and the master race. Unfortunately, Schwendler’s snarling is not on a par with his bandleading, so he comes off sounding like Colonel Klink in fourth grade:

Thanks for the memories/It gives us strength to fight/For freedom and for right/It might give you a headache, England/That the Germans know how to fight/And hurt you so much …

It’s said that the act picked up its own following in Germany after the war. The band is actually not bad, but whoever wrote the propaganda probably raised American morale.

Easy Street

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Don’t laugh, you don’t have to mow it.

Baldwin Street, in Dunedin, New Zealand, is thought to be the steepest public street in the world. It has a grade of 38 percent; San Francisco’s steepest are 31.5 percent.

There’s a sign warning motorists not to attempt it, but that hasn’t discouraged runners, who gather each summer for the “Baldwin Street Gutbuster.” In the first event, serious runners climb to the top, then, even harder, try to get down again. In the second, skaters, skateboarders, and pram-pushers try to cover the same 400-meter circuit. One guy actually succeeded on a unicycle.

There’s also a charity event each July in which contestants roll candies down the hill. No injuries have been reported.

“I Find You to Be the Only Fool!”

Excerpt from The Eye of Argon, a famously bad fantasy novella written by Jim Theis in 1970:

Utilizing the silence and stealth aquired in the untamed climbs of his childhood, Grignr slink through twisting corridors, and winding stairways, lighting his way with the confisticated torch of his dispatched guardian. Knowing where his steps were leading to, Grignr meandered aimlessly in search of an exit from the chateau’s dim confines. The wild blood coarsing through his veins yearned for the undefiled freedom of the livid wilderness lands.

At science fiction conventions, fans try to read it aloud with a straight face. The “grandmaster challenge” is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium.

Rubber-Stamp Poetry

“Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” a poem by Zhao Yuanren, in English:

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o’clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.

… and in Hanyu Pinyin:

Shishi shishi Shi Shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi.
Shi shishi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi Shi Shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi.

Nude, Descending

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Goya’s La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida. In 19th-century Europe, it was common to have two paintings of the same subject, swapping them out depending on who’d be visiting. Still, the Inquisition confiscated both of these as obscene.

Said the Duchess of Alba to Goya,
“Do some pictures to hang in my foyer”;
So he painted her twice —
In the nude to look nice,
And then in her clothes to annoy ‘er.

— Cyril Bibby

Globetrotters

When you’re a traveling pig, you need a good phrasebook. Estonian pigs go rui, French groin, Polish chrum, and Czech, improbably, chro. English pigs have been oinking only since 1940. And in Rome, presumably, they speak Pig Latin.