How One Man Solved a "Baroque" Mystery

In 2003, Neal Stephenson's book Quicksilver hit the stands. It was the first in a series called The Baroque Cycle, featuring (among many other things) the exploits of alchemists and mathematicians. But before Quicksilver was released, a promotional website appeared, featuring a mysterious opening page followed by some basic information -- an author bio, some sales information, and an excerpt of the upcoming novel. But what of that opening page? It was apparently an encoded message in graphical form, presented for fans to solve. It looked like this:

Readers around the world rallied to crack the code, but Todd Garrison ultimately solved it. Garrison wrote an account of the decipherment, which makes for really interesting reading. With minimal knowledge of cryptology (apparently mainly from Stephenson's own novel Cryptonomicon), Garrison ran through a series of hypotheses related to encryption, ciphers, and so on. After many false starts, he discovered that the message wasn't "encrypted" at all -- it was just in a very, very obscure language. Still, deciphering that language was an immense task that involved finding a book more than 300 years old and reverse-engineering the language to figure out English words from the promotional website. Anyway, without giving anything more away, here's a selection from Garrison's account:

The key to deciphering the message seemed to be predicated on finding a real-life example of this strange writing. Once that happened, the pieces would fall into place, and the mystery would be solved. But how to go about it? The problem--a rather immense one, in fact--meant taking something that was graphic in nature and trying to conduct research using text-based tools. I had in front of me an entire page of these squiggly lines and no real way to come up with decent keywords to use in a search engine. How does one ask, for example, "What can you tell me about this symbol, comprised of a horizontal line with two crooked arms attached to it, bisected by a funny S-shaped line with a tiny circle at its base?" It wasn't gonna work. First I was going to have to figure out who had created this monster.

The only thing I could think of was to search for examples of ancient writing and cross-reference the results with names like Newton, Liebniz, Hooke, et al. As I had feared, nothing seemed to turn up graphically; plenty of information was available in text form, but nothing seemed to be visually helpful, leaving me with a big fat goose egg. While it was interesting to read about, I had no idea whether I was on the right track or not. The net result meant having to pore over copious amounts of material in hopes that eventually something would show me the way.

Read the rest for a great bit of puzzle-solving!

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]


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