Favourite poetry: “Angel” by Adrian Plass

So I didn’t blog in 2017, and I make no promises about 2018.

But I’ve decided that I must share one of my all-time favourite poems. I can’t spell out all of my reasons for doing this — there is subtext here — but I can give you one reason. It’s a truly beautiful poem and I love it.

Adrian Plass is a well-known religious writer, and I discovered his books back when I was religious myself. After I abandoned religion I pruned some books from my shelves, but — babies and bathwater — some things are worth keeping. Versions of the following poem can be found in at least two different books, showing that the author continued to work on it after the initial publication; my version is based on the one included in the book An Alien at St Wilfred’s (1992). I’ve made a couple of very small changes and punctuated afresh — it’s a poem for reading aloud, not for scanning from a page, so punctuation is arbitrary.

The poem is called “Angel”, and it is subtly religious, but you absolutely do not have to be religious yourself in order to love this poem to bits. Immediately below is an audio version I recorded early in 2017. Please wear headphones to listen to this because it’s binaural and I want you to hear me speaking softly into your ears.

For discussion: if it speaks to you too, what other poetry do you know that is as beautiful as this?

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Elgar’s intriguing scribble

I recently read an article on Nautilus about the Dorabella Cipher scribbled by Edward Elgar in 1897, before he became a famous composer. The cypher is made up of geometrically regular glyphs, and was given by Elgar to his young friend Dora on what seems to have been a whim. Some people claim to have decrypted it, but these solutions cannot be verified and there is no reason to expect that definitive decryption is possible.

My own thoughts and illustrations follow. It’s not that I have much to say, but a blog post is a good medium for integrating text and pictures. Also, all images embedded in this blog post are public domain, so if you want to play with the cipher yourself you’re welcome to make use of them.

First, the original cypher:

elgar original

As you can see, each glyph consists of one, two or three cusps, facing in any of eight directions. Four of those directions (left, right, up and down) I will call upright and the others (the diagonals) I will call slanted.

The geometric regularity is part of the intrigue, but when you start examining the cypher, you soon notice that Elgar’s handwriting is not exactly regular. It isn’t always clear which direction a particular glyph is supposed to be facing. For example, take the fifth glyph on line two, or the third glyph from the end of line three — in isolation these look mostly upright, but if you interpret them that way then other glyphs, ever so slightly more tilted, become ambiguous. No matter where you draw the line there are always edge cases, and I think the only solution is to document how you have interpreted the glyphs so that if other people want to change anything they can look it up and see precisely what to change.

Below is the cypher again, with the glyphs I’ve interpreted as upright in black, and the glyphs I’ve interpreted as slanted in red.

elgar interpretations

When I decided to play with the cipher, I began by replacing each glyph with a perfectly regular design, on the grounds that this might make any patterns become more obvious to the eye. I then compiled these designs into the following animation.


The outer circle represents glyphs with three cusps, the middle circle those with two cusps, and the inner circle those with one. The eight sectors represent the different directions the glyphs can face: the mapping is arbitrary, but I took the direction faced by the open side of the cusps and mapped it to the first sector clockwise from the corresponding line.

Here are the 87 frames in sequence (left to right, top to bottom, as you would read).

elgar all

The table below shows the number of times each element occurs. You should be able to translate these back to the original glyphs.

elgar tally

Of course it’s possible that Elgar’s scribble isn’t a substitution cipher at all. It could represent a piece of music, or dance steps, or the location of buried treasure. Music seems unlikely, though, as nothing in the tally suggests a pattern indicative of a bias toward dominant notes in the scale, or other regularities you’d expect.

The directions most often faced by the open sides of the glyphs — using the standard map convention — are: northwest (corresponding to the column where the numbers are 8, 11, 4), southeast, south, and then a tie for fourth place between north and east. Curiously, if we give precedence to north, then the most and least common orientations alternate in pairs (probably a coincidence but worth noting nonetheless). Below is the sequence of frames again, with the four most common orientations shaded maroon.

elgar top4

The first pattern I noticed after watching the animation you saw earlier is that a particular glyph often has either the same orientation as its immediate predecessor or the exact opposite orientation. This occurs 42 times (take note, Douglas Adams fans) out of a possible 86, whereas by chance it would occur a quarter of the time. But taking into account the distribution of the four most common orientations — which I had not tallied at the time — increases the chance prediction from 21.5 to 34 occurrences (I think), so the discrepency is greatly reduced. The 42 occurrences are highlighted below.

elgar transitions

Examining the above further shows that 23 of the 42 cases (more than half) involve the northwest and southeast directions. Of these, the most common are a northwest followed by a southeast (9 occurences), or a southeast followed by a northwest (8 occurrences). A northwest follows a northwest 5 times, and there is only one pair of consecutive southeasts.

That’s basically all I have. I just wanted to mess around with the cipher for a while, to see what I could make of it. I didn’t expect to make a historical breakthrough; I expected to have fun. I hope this has been fun for you too, and perhaps you are inspired to explore further.

Results of punctuation experiment

Thanks to everyone who took part in my punctuation experiment. I got more responses than I thought possible, thanks largely to Stan Carey spreading the word on Twitter.

To begin this discussion of the results, here is a photograph of all the books I took quotations from. The full-size image is large enough to read most of the small print.

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Punctuation experiment rehearsal

Over on Stan Carey’s blog there’s talk of conducting a punctuation experiment sometime. It’s an idea that I tried out on something he wrote, after which we agreed that we should try it on a more organised scale, with more people involved.

Now, there’s only one reason for me not to have a turn at conducting such an experiment — namely that I just don’t have the readership to make it worthwhile. I would be lucky to get one response.

But it occurs to me now that this doesn’t feel like a problem if we call my version a rehearsal. Let Stan conduct the experiment proper, but in the meantime a rehearsal may be a good way to better determine the number, nature and length of quotations that should be used. (In other words, I would like a turn . . . and a little post-hoc justification never hurt anyone.)

[UPDATE: The experiment has now ended, and the results published here, although that needn’t stop you from submitting your answers anyway if you want to.]

So if you would like to take part in this rehearsal, here are your instructions:

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Ficly picks

My previous post included links to a couple of blog posts by ElshaHawk, friend and regular commenter in these parts. Which reminds me of something I’ve always intended to blog about.

I met Elsha through the story-writing website ficly.com, where she is a frequent participant. I’ve published a few stories there too, but not for a while, and my friendship with Elsha is the main lasting thing I got out of it. That said, it was a lot of fun, and I’d go back if there were more hours in a day.

Ficly is a website where people write stories of no more than 1000 characters, and then write prequels and sequels to other people’s stories. There are also challenges – where people create their own story-writing competitions for other people to enter – and various other features I won’t list here. Below are three examples of stories from ficly.com, each consisting of an episode written by someone else and a sequel written by me.

If you want to, you can decide what happens next.

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Thinking of the sky

Many years ago, I bought a copy of the Doctor Who tie-in book The Monsters by Adrian Rigelsford and Andrew Skilleter. I still have the copy, though it’s showing signs of wear and the jacket is lost. Anyway, one of the introductory pages features the poem “I could not sleep for thinking of the sky” by John Masefield, for which I composed a tune and have made several attempts to record it over the years.

Update: Replaced with new recording, 2017.

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Memories of Childcraft

In a shop recently, Mum found second-hand copies of the Childcraft series from World Book Encyclopedia, which were among my favourite books as a child. I’ve often remarked they’d make great gifts for relatives who are about the same age now, so with this in mind, she bought them.

The Childcraft series is still being published, but in a form so different from the books I had that they can scarcely be recognised (over the years they’ve gone through many different editions, with some changes to the titles at each revision). Reading the series was a very significant part of my childhood. I received them about one volume a month when I was about seven years old — as an extended birthday present — and their contribution to my quest for knowledge is incalculable.

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Skepticism in reverse

The Australian Skeptics have recently announced the date of this year’s national convention, to be held here in Adelaide in October. I plan to attend, with the hope of meeting some interesting people. In the lead-up to this event, I thought I’d try to post a few items that would be of interest to skeptics. This is one of them.

Whenever intelligible phrases are discernable in speech or music that’s played backwards, we know that those phrases must have been put there by the Devil and have supernatural significance. We also know that the Australian Skeptics are indisputably a Satanic bunch if ever there was one. Reflecting upon these facts, I wondered what we might find if we took audio material published by the Australian Skeptics and played it backwards.

The Great Skeptic CD 2 (available on the Australian Skeptics’ website under “Shop”) contains, among other things, several poems by Jim Wilshire. The following is a list of phrases that can be discerned when these poems are played backwards. Audio files are included as proof.

Greeting cards

Here’s a blog post idea for you. Look through the greeting cards that people have sent you over the years, and select one that most accurately captures your personality. Then share it with the world.

I’d have to choose this one, which I was given for my 22nd birthday in 1999:


Scene: Aliens on spaceship.
Outside: “Make your birthday one of those nutty, irresponsible days when you do anything you want just for the fun of it.”
Inside: “You know, like when we made those guys build stonehenge.”

Another of my favourite birthday cards is below.

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Personal limerick

Back in 2002, on alt.fan.pratchett, Diane L. composed limericks dedicated to various denizens of the newsgroup. I’ve reproduced mine below (with slight modifications for reasons of personal taste):

A dragon who’s partial to flesh
Will eat pedants as long as they’re fresh.
But if he’s well-fed
He can just keep his head
And be trusted in charge of a creche.

I like it.

Of course, creche doesn’t rhyme with flesh, and I have nothing in particular against pedants, but I love the overall sentiment.