A 19th-century cryptogram

On a wall in the cloister at Eichstätt, there is a funerary plaque:


The typography seems whimsical, which is why I took the picture. It reminded me of a 16th-century Latin book whose printer did not possess a lower-case italic W:


…and had to put a capital W into the name Chodkiewicz. But the capital letters D, I, V, C,… are not rare or exotic.

Hold on – they are also Roman numerals…

And indeed, if you add up the capital letters in the sentence that tells us that he died on the 24th of May, you get V+I+I+M+V+I+L+I+C+L+I+D+V+C+V, which adds up to 1825, which is the year in which Peter Pustett died. And if you try the same exercise on the sentence which says that he was ordained bishop on the 3rd of October, you get 1824.

Some Urgent Reforms: The Human Circulating Library

In the following reflections, my only intention is to suggest a few plain and practical reforms in our modern life — Utopian and revolutionary fancies I leave to the visionary and the poet, and the first of the institutions, for which I feel that society is crying out, is the “Human Circulating Library.” In other words, it is crying out for a Mr. Mudie, who, instead of circulating books, should circulate people.

It is generally supposed that we all believe the soul to be more important than the body, the internal condition more valid than the external act. And yet it is singular to reflect that if this conception were actually carried out in our civilisation, that civilisation would seem a city built by madmen, a prodigy to the sun and stars. In such a city it would not be important actions or sensational accidents that would be reported in the newspapers, but important emotions and sensational frames of mind. Special editions of the evening papers would declare in sprawling head lines not the fact that Botha had captured two hundred Canadians and the war was over; they would announce that Mr. Robinson, of Leeds, was in a state of spiritual exhilaration, or that seventeen persons in Paddington Green had been stricken with a rich and pensive sadness.

Such strange and pleasing sights we should see if men actually realised how much more important is the inward than the outward life, and the heart than the head. In no case would the principle be more revolutionary than in the case I have already mentioned, the case of circulating libraries. In this materialistic civilisation of ours, we insist that Mr. Mudie shall be compensated if a man has damaged his book. But who speaks of any compensation when a book has damaged a man? Who attempts to punish the slovenly and unscrupulous volume which has dog-eared a man’s opinions, soiled his ideal, torn out the coloured pictures of memory and pride? How startled Mr. Mudie would be if he received an account claiming so much for destruction of beliefs, so much for unnecessary horror, so much for waste of time. In this matter again, there would be a whole Stock Exchange of practical commerce if we realised that the soul is more than the body.

But the institution of circulating libraries is capable, as I have hinted, of another and much wider and more inspiring development. The great curse of our civilisation is that it is so large that whole masses of its inhabitants never see any but one side of life, any but one phase of thought. The modern world is so broad that all its citizens are narrow. There were a great many advantages in living in a small State, one of them was that of living in a larger world. In Athens probably a man could not put his nose outside his door without hearing Mystics and Atheists talking at the top of their voices. To-day there are whole tracts of country such as Brixton and Surbiton in which the householder might go out in perfect safety, in which great philosophers do not argue in the street, perhaps from one year’s end to another. These vast herds of suburban citizens living perpetually among people like themselves, might, indeed, be rescued to some extent from ignorance of others and of current thought by the daily Press. But here again the party system frustrates us, and a man only reads in his daily paper his own prejudices embellished with other people’s arguments. Something must be done to shift and float these vast clogged and stagnant masses of human life. Unless this is done it will be no idle jest to say that our civilisation is melting away in an apocalypse which it has not even the sense to understand. We require, in short, first and foremost, a quicker circulation of the civic blood.

The “Human Circulating Library” might be conducted either as an individual or a State concern. It would be arranged on a simple principle. All those who were members of it would hold themselves ready during certain specified months of the year to stay at the houses of any other members who had taken them out of the library. In return, of course, they would themselves have the privilege of taking other people out of the library. The subscriber would send a postcard to the librarian saying, “Send me Mr. Smiles, Professor Puffy, and Unterbringen, the German Anarchist.” The librarian would reply that Professor Puffy was out at present, and that by the new regulations of circulating libraries it was impossible to procure more than one copy of the same man. He would also beg to remind the subscriber that he had already kept Miss MacDermott beyond the proscribed time, and that a penny per day was charged for the delay. At the end of the week not Mudie’s cart, but Mudie’s comfortable private omnibus would arrive and deposit two Dissenting preachers and an African explorer, with all their luggage, at the gate. Any person damaging a man would be required to make him good.

To those duller sceptics who have in every age discouraged great and practical reforms, this scheme may seem to verge even upon the fantastic. Some elements certainly there are in it which might lead to a seemingly extravagant development. Local officials might announce that owing to the kindness of Lady Warmer, “Major Barker” had been added to the library, and philanthropists might gain a reputation for munificence by giving whole sets of maiden ladies to so deserving an institution. But however unfamiliar at first the customs and phraseology of the “Human Circulating Library” might appear, its essential results would be full of unfathomable wisdom and profit. Men would begin to realise that a man is not only the most deep and vital, but the most entertaining of all studies. Ambitious young students would talk about being at work on “Wilkins” and getting up “Montmorenci.” There would in many places be two professors, nay, two schools of thought, with different theories of the same old gentleman. Some ardent young sociologist would begin with great pride with being engaged on “Miss Butterworth,” and end by being engaged to her.

I have dealt only with a few examples of the practical and even prosaic side of the scheme. Of its moral and spiritual utility and urgency I can hardly speak sufficiently. It would break down that barrier the last, the silliest and the most insolent of class barriers, more narrow and unmeaning than that between freemen and slaves, the barrier between the people we do know and the people we do not. It would erase that monstrous irony which will suddenly strike the traveller who finds himself at night alone in a long street walled on both sides by the hives of his brothers. It would destroy that last and darkest of Cosmic jests, whereby a desert can be made of houses. It will wake us all suddenly to the thought that we are all living on a desert island and have never spoken to each other.

 G.K. Chesterton



The promise of digital data is that bits don’t rot. But they do.

Data from the US Census of 1960 were lost because the tapes were obsolete and partly unreadable. They had to be restored from 300,000 rolls of microfilm stored in a refrigerated cave in Kansas.

In the mid-1970s NASA spent a billion dollars sending two Viking landers to Mars to search for life there. The biology data were lost: they were buried in thousands of pages of poor-quality microfilm archives, mixed in with engineering data and of too poor quality to be scanned; or, alternatively, stored as long sequences of numbers on CDROM without any indication of what the numbers meant. They were rescued only when a retired researcher was found to have kept some printouts on paper which could then be read and typed in by teams of students. (For reference, there is a nice Life on Mars paper here).

In 1986 the BBC’s Domesday Project was a 20th-century Domesday Book, with text and photographs from all over the country. The data were stored on two big silver laser discs and read by a special BBC-supplied computer which understood their format. There are no laser disc readers today outside museums, and the format was one that only the special computers could read. There were some of those in museums, but would any of them still work? The project was rescued from oblivion by the skin of its teeth and the data are now available on the web. The lessons of that narrow escape have been carefully forgotten: in place of video stills in an unreadable format (unless you had the right hardware and software) the photographs are compressed in JPEG format, which is unreadable unless you have the right software. Moreover, unlike the laser discs, nobody actually has the new Domesday data. We all have to rely on the BBC existing for ever and being for ever willing to keep them available to us. As available as Compuserve, BIX, or AOL? In a format as readily readable as 8″ floppy disks, Amstrad 3″ disks in their special cases, or the Sinclair Microdrive?

Meanwhile the special hardware required to read the Rosetta Stone is widely available, on either side of your nose; and the software is readily learned. The oldest photograph in the world dates from Spring 1838 and is readable with the same equipment (and no software). But what photographs does this generation have which will be readable in 175 years’ time?

There is an enjoyable article on digital preservation here. At least, there was when I wrote this blog entry. The link may rot at any moment.


I’ve been reading Halfway to Venus, Sarah Anderson’s memoir about having one arm: an experience enriched for me by the fact that when I met her on the train I never even noticed the empty sleeve.

She says at one point that being one-armed is in some ways more disabling than being one-legged, since losing a leg makes locomotion difficult but losing an arm transforms one’s life completely. My first thought was that I hadn’t thought of it like that – and naturally my second thought was: how would having only one arm transform one’s jiu-jitsu?

The answer is that it doesn’t stop one from becoming a black belt. A One-Armed Guide to Jiu Jitsu describes exactly how the black belt Aaron Lapointe deals with the situation, and his opponents. Like any black belt’s description of his own game, it makes one think more deeply about one’s own.

Off to Breakin’ Convention this weekend, and coincidentally ILL-Abilities will be performing again.

Dangerous to exceed the stated doze

In the days when I did not suffer from insomnia on trains the way I do now, the nearest railway station to home was Tonbridge, about 45 minutes from London.

The next station after Tonbridge was Ashford, 30 minutes further down the line. This was not theoretical knowledge. I knew it from experience.

It follows that when, one day, I woke up and the train was stationary at Tonbridge, I moved with lightning rapidity. I gathered together bag, coat, books, magazines, whatever, and tumbled with them, in a heap, onto the platform.

I was safe.

I then looked round and realised, one by one, three things.

  1. I was in London, at Waterloo East station, which looks a lot like Tonbridge.
  2. But it was all right, I had not leapt off the train 42 minutes too early, because…
  3. … I was not travelling home from London at all, I was travelling to London from home, for a party.

Crowdsourcing in a nutshell

One of the things we are promised the Web will do for us is answer all our questions without anybody having to be paid to collect and collate the information. Whatever you ask, someone will know the answer.

Only an out-of-date cynic would say that a random person with no known credentials may not be the best source of information.

What this out-of-date cynic did was look at Yahoo! Answers. I wasn’t looking round for a target to croticize: I genuinely wanted to know the atmospheric pressure at 3000 metres, because I’ve skied at that height and I’ve been able to breathe.

Continue reading

Star cluster simulation

Here is a video showing two star clusters colliding, lurching round each other, and eventually settling into one. Quite a few stars get catapulted out of the picture in the process.

What I find interesting about this is that it all comes from one simple force, gravity. Gravity pulls things towards one another; or, if they are whirling round each other, it keeps them whirling rather than just zooming off into space. That is all – and yet, looking at the video, one gets a sense of viscosity, as if the clusters were embedded in invisible treacle.

How to sign up to a foreign App Store

There are two legitimate reasons for wanting to sign up to the App Store of a country other than your own:

  1. You are a reviewer and have received a promotional code for an app you want to review, but you do not live in the USA.
  2. Someone has sent you an app as a gift but you do not live in the same country as the donor.

Here is how to set up an App Store account for a foreign country:

What you need

  1. An email address other than the one you are using as the ID for your existing iTunes account.
  2. An address in the country concerned. It doesn’t have to be a real address – just something that looks plausible. Search the Web for a suitable address and change the house number and perhaps the street name. Apple will not send anything to this address.
  3. A phone number in the country concerned. It doesn’t have to be a real number – just something that looks plausible. Search the Web for a suitable number and alter it. Preferably, remove a digit from the number. Apple will not call this number in any case.

What you do

Follow Apple’s instructions: Create an iTunes App Store account without a credit card.

What you can do once you’ve done it

  • You can still buy apps, music and other content from your own App Store.
  • You can still install free apps from your own App Store.
  • You can install free apps from the foreign App Store.
  • You can use promotional codes that are valid in the foreign App Store.
  • You cannot buy apps, music or other content from the foreign App Store.