Exegesis of "Re: [FoRK] Calling [redacted] and all the ships at sea."

Kragen Javier Sitaker <kragen at pobox.com> on Sun Nov 4 23:13:45 PST 2007

I thought this message was awfully dense with allusions, approaching
Nordquistian levels, so I thought maybe I would see if I could unpack
them a bit so as to make the text more accessible to a broader audience.
I may not have succeeded.

Note that the message was also forwarded to "tt":

On Thu, May 03, 2007 at 07:47:40PM +0200, Dave Long wrote:
> [quoting someone anonymous]
> >Makes a nice flag..fly it
> Hofstadter's aperiodic crystals indicate that messages need framing for  

Douglas Hofstadter, famous for writing "Goedel, Escher, Bach,"
speculated at some point that texts in all writing systems had in common
that they were "aperiodic crystals" --- they have a regular, periodic
structure, but they do not repeat exactly.

> recognition: deciphering messages requires first spotting them.   

Long suggests that the reason that texts in all writing systems have
this property in common is to facilitate their recognition as texts.

> Steganography confuses the framing; valid esoteric readings are rare.  I'd  

Steganography is incorporating hidden messages in an overt message;
acrostics seem to have been the most common way to do this, but others
have existed: whitespace at the ends of lines, messages embedded in
every Nth letter or character, low-order bits of JPEG DCT coefficients.
Long suggests that steganography differs from normal writing systems in
that it lacks this aperiodic-crystal nature.

Steganography, along with other aspects of cryptography, has been a
fascination of hackers for many centuries.

The "every Nth letter" scheme has the problem that it's remarkably easy
to find false positives; the book "The Bible Code" was published some
years ago, full of claims that turned out to be such false positives.

Incidentally, "Goedel, Escher, Bach," contains at least one acrostic.

> once thought there might be some information carried in the Tao Te Ching  
> arrangement[0].

The Tao Te Ching is the sacred text of the Taoist religion, but I don't
know what he means by "arrangement".

> But it was just rewritten to make "lucky numbers".   Damn.  Bitless.

"Bitless" means "conveying no information" or perhaps more accurately
"encoding no message", because information and messages are measured in bits.

> Error correction is also problematic: hidden messages corrupt rather  
> easily, because surface corrections mess them up. 

Seemingly minor edits to acrostics can damage their message somewhat;
minor edits to an "every Nth letter" scheme can destroy the message

> (redundancy helps?)

Generally, encoding a message in more bits than the minimum possible ---
e.g. by repeating parts of the message or the 

> The saying "every jot and tittle" betrays esoteric fussiness[1].

The saying comes from the Sermon on the Mount; in Matthew in the King
James Bible, it says:

	5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the
	prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.  5:18 For
	verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or
	one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be
	fulfilled.  5:19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these
	least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called
	the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and
	teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of

Etymonline.com says of "tittle":
    1382, "small stroke or point in writing," representing L. apex in
    L.L. sense of "accent mark over a vowel," borrowed (perhaps by infl.
    of Prov. titule "the dot over -i-") from L. titulus "inscription,

and of "jot":
    1526, borrowing of L. jota, variant spelling of Gk. iota "the letter
    -i-, the smallest letter in the alphabet, hence the least part of
    anything. The verb "to make a short note of" is attested from 1721.

I think Long is saying that the importance ascribed here to the textual
integrity of the Talmudic (?) law represents a sort of Cabalistic
concern for messages possibly hidden in the text.

I'm not entirely sure I agree; today we have a similar concern for the
textual integrity of statutes, court decisions, and contracts, to
protect against accidental changes to the overt meaning, rather than
to hidden meanings.

> Why worry about hidden textual meanings if a creator makes physical
> laws plain?  Why ask for written, not empirical, messages?  Look for
> semper, ubique.

Long is contrasting the vaguely Cabalistic viewpoint in the Sermon on
the Mount with the physicist's viewpoint, which looks for "God's law" in
the behavior of nature, which holds "always, everywhere".

> "Fire burns, here and in Persia" is more than one says for holy books.   

The ancient Zoroastrian religion of the Persians uses fire as a
pervasive symbol of the creator Ahura Mazda; but this is a quote from
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, book five, "The Several Moral Virtues
and Vices --- Concluded. Justice," in the section headed, "It Is In Part
Natural, In Part Conventional":

	Now, there are people who think that what is just is always
	conventional, because that which is natural is invariable, and
	has the same validity everywhere, as fire burns here and in
	Persia, while that which is just is seen to be not invariable.

Or in the translation I have handy because it's Gutenberg etext #8438,
8ethc10.txt, which I think is by J. A. Smith:

	Further, this last-mentioned Just is of two kinds, natural and

	But there are some men who think that all the Justs are of this
	latter kind, and on this ground: whatever exists by nature, they
	say, is unchangeable and has everywhere the same force; fire,
	for instance, burns not here only but in Persia as well, but the
	Justs they see changed in various places.

It seems to be fairly widely believed that Zoroastrianism was already
well-established in Persia at the time that Aristotle wrote this.  Maybe
Aristotle didn't mean to allude to Zoroastrianism here; I don't know.

The point Long seems to be making is that holy books are different
everywhere, just as Aristotle is saying that people's ideas of justice
are different everywhere.

> (which book, even?)

This part mystifies me.

> Still, people enjoy hiding things.  So maybe they hide messages that
> gods would leave in sight.  Do angels bother with hiding content, or
> is it a folly of mortals?  Adam Smith rewrote Daniel to invisible
> *economic* hand.  That hand, having writ[2]...

Adam Smith wrote about an "invisible hand" that seems to guide the
collective decisions made by groups of people; this was a
well-established metaphor in the 1700s when he wrote:

	By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign
	industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing
	that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the
	greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this,
	as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an
	end which was no part of his intention.  Nor is it always the
	worse for the society that it was no part of it.  By pursuing
	his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society
	more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The last sentence, "That hand, having writ..." alludes to the best-known
verse from the best-known English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar
Khayyam, by Edward Fitzgerald:

	The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
	Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
	Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line;
	Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

This translation or adaptation alludes to some text from the Book of

	5:3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of
	the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the
	king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in
	them.  5:4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of
	silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.  5:5 In the
	same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over
	against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the
	king's palace: and the king [Belshazzar] saw the part of the
	hand that wrote.

And it turns out that young Daniel can read the writing, although nobody else can:

	5:24 Then was the part of the hand sent from him [God]; and this
	writing was written.  5:25 And this is the writing that was
	written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.  5:26 This is the
	interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy
	kingdom, and finished it.  5:27 TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the
	balances, and art found wanting.  5:28 PERES; Thy kingdom is
	divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

Long seems to be saying that Smith was also alluding to this Biblical

Thus, in a nicely recursive fashion, Long's passage about how mortals
enjoy hiding meanings in things has some meanings that were not obvious
to me at first.  I still don't know how Adam Smith's invisible hand
relates to the rest of the paragraph --- does Long think Smith was
concealing an esoteric message about the doom of an 18th-century

> [0] Some chinese framing is interesting. When using hanzi, patterns line  

"Hanzi" is "Chinese characters", which are traditionally written in a
grid pattern, rather like the fixed-width characters traditionally used
to write programs.

> up.  Someday I'd like to try recomposing the Tao, but explicitly using  
> grids.

I don't know what "explicitly using grids" means.  Perhaps he intends to
try to hide messages in the Tao Te Ching by adjusting the lengths of
lines (or columns).

> [1] Verse has redundancy over prose.  Meter and rhyme aid error  
> correction.  (even Homer nods!)  Programmers have other pattern  
> encodings.  (we check ourselves with test suites)

Good software is written along with self-test routines which can often
tell you whether a change to the software has inadvertently broken some
functionality its author thought was important.

> [2] _Huckleberry Finn_ said not to look for symbolism.  But just like  
> Homer's structures, searching finds it.  The Dead used to play, so they,  
> not publishing executives, got paid.  Did buggy whip manufacturers try to  
> coerce legislative rents, too, once the autos started taking over?

The major political issue of today [0] is that music distribution
companies based on obsolete physical-media-distribution models ("record
labels") are trying to force owners of new distribution mechanisms,
mostly built on the internet, to pay them for the privilege of competing
with them; the musical group "The Grateful Dead" used to permit their
fans to distribute their music by making copies of taped performances,
and most of the money the Dead made came from these performances; it is
traditional for performances not to send any revenue to the record
label.  Long compares the record labels to buggy-whip manufacturers, who
are the standard historical symbol for companies who went out of
business because of technological change.

This clearly relates to the passage the footnote is attached to, which
is about the parallel between Adam Smith's economic "invisible hand" and
the somewhat more visible hand that wrote the king's doom on the wall in
Daniel; in this case, the invisible hand has written the doom of the
record companies on the wall, and their tears will not wash out a word
of it.  What this has to do with Huckleberry Finn's prohibition on
seeking symbolism or morals in the book, I don't know, although clearly
Huckleberry Finn's prohibition relates to mortals hiding messages in

[0] Yes, this means I think this is more important than the struggle
over energy, or the International Criminal Court, or global warming, or
nuclear proliferation --- the issue is whether people should be
permitted to control the machines they use to communicate with one
another, in short, whether private ownership of 21st-century printing
presses should be permitted.  (Sorry my politics intrude into this
message, but I thought "the major political issue of today" required
some justification, but needs to be there to explain the context to
people reading this message who don't know about it.)

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