The Trent Affair

One of the greatest “what ifs” in human history involves the “Trent Affair” of the American Civil War. As you might know, the Confederate states were eager to get official recognition from European countries. This would not only give the Confederate states a huge prestige boost, it would also have given them access to loans of money, war materiel and possibly even troops to fight the Northern states. To help secure this recognition, the CSA dispatched James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana to Havana, Cuba, where they boarded the British ship R.M.S. Trent en route to meetings with British and French authorities respectively. However, on November 8, 1861 the Trent was boarded by sailors from the USS San Jacinto. The two Confederate diplomats were arrested and taken to Boston while the Trent was allowed to continue to Britain.

Not surprisingly, this action set off a firestorm of controversy in the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is alleged to have begun an emergency cabinet meeting about the affair by throwing his hat on the table and declaring, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do”. Public opinion in the UK tended to favor the South over the North in the conflict, and support for the Confederacy was even greater amongst the people that had the means of making their opinion count: the gentry and aristocracy. As you probably know, one of Britain’s key industries at this time was the export of cotton and wool fabric, and the overwhelming majority of the raw cotton sent through British looms came from the American South. Not surprisingly then, support for the Confederate states was nearly unanimous within this key British constituency. A letter was therefore quickly dispatched to the American Secretary of State demanding the release of the Confederate diplomats as well as an apology to Britain for this blatant disregard for maritime law. The British also began ramping up on war materiel such as boats, guns and ammunition, and they also began moving troops to areas where they could be quickly dispatched… to go to war against the United States.

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The Autovon Phone System

The house I lived in for the first 14 years of my life initially had an unfinished basement. Shortly after my sister was born, my parents decided to turn the basement into a rec room. When it was complete it had carpet with checkerboards and hopscotch grids dyed right in, a pool table, one of those old “console” stereo systems, and a groovy set of white leather “barrel” chairs. But the piece de resistance of the rec room was the touch tone telephone. Although touch tone phones were fairly common in corporate settings, it was truly novel to have one back in your home back in 1976. Friends and family came over to see the new rec room yet spent most of their time playing around with the phone. Kids from the neighborhood came over just to monkey around with the newfangled phone and its 12 buttons.

Although home phones have changed greatly in the past thirty years, most touch tone phones still come with the same 12 buttons that the phone in 1976 had. But some folks with military experience might remember a time when some touch tone phones had 16 buttons. Those phones were part of the military’s nuclear weapon-proof Autovon network:

Autovon stood for “automatic voice network” and was deployed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Panama, Asia and the Middle East. Although there have long been rumors about Autovon cables being buried in concrete shafts deep underground, in fact much of the system was buried in simple dirt 30 feet or so below the street surface. The system used a variety of means to achieve its “nuclear weapon proof” status, such as building in redundancies via satellite and microwave. But perhaps the most interesting feature of the system was the calling priority feature, and that’s where the 4 extra buttons come in.

To make a basic phone call, the user would simply pick up the phone and dial the number. But if the user had some vital information that absolutely, positively had to get through, he could press one of the red buttons before dialing to assign a priority to the call. The priorities (in ascending order) were P (Priority), I (Immediate), F (Flash) and FO (Flash Override). So, for example, when a “Priority” phone call reached an exchange, a “regular” phone call would be dropped (if necessary) to allow the priority call to go through. Multiple levels of call priority were needed because of the expected deluge of calls to telephone exchanges in Washington DC and other important areas in the event of a nuclear attack. So a major on a “Priority” call with some important but not critical information could get bumped by a general with crucial information on an “Immediate” call. The most interesting option of all is (of course) “Flash Override” – a priority that was strictly limited in its use to the President and members of the National Command Authority. As you might guess, Flash Override trumped any and all traffic on the network; Flash Override was designed to allow the President to get his call through no matter what.

Although the system has long since been replaced, it’s still fascinating to read about it (check out the Wikipedia article or this site dedicated to the Autovon system for more details). It almost makes me wish I had my own Autovon system – wouldn’t that have come in handy for calling TicketMaster when Madonna tickets went on sale?

The Fibonacci Sequence

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…

At first, it just seems like a string of numbers, perhaps one of those “what’s the next number in the sequence?” questions you remember from SAT or IQ tests from your school days. But these numbers, I assure you, are something completely different.

Although the interesting properties of this sequence were first noticed by a Sanskrit writer called Pingala around 500BC, it was Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa (also known as Fibonacci) who first studied them in the West in the early 1200s. Because of Leonardo’s work, the numbers are now known as “Fibonacci numbers” or a “Fibonacci sequence”. The pattern is created, simply enough, by adding the two previous numbers in the sequence to make a new number, and adding that new number to the previous one in the sequence and so on.

But why is this interesting? Because the Fibonacci sequence is literally everywhere in nature. According to Wikipedia, the “branching patterns of leaves in grasses and flowers, branching in bushes and trees, the arrangement of pines on a pine cone, seeds on a raspberry, and spiral patterns in horns and shells” are all done in Fibonacci sequences. The genealogy of male bees follows a Fibonacci sequence. I can personally tell you from my days in Liberal Arts Math that, with the exception of 2 or 3 oddball varieties, every species of daisy has a number of petals that follow the Fibonacci sequence.

But wait – there’s more! If you divide a Fibonacci number by the one that precedes it, you’ll notice an interesting pattern starting to take shape. The result of the equation always remains close to 1.618, which is also known as the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is considered (in the West, anyway) to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing forms around. The facade of the Parthenon is based on the Golden Ratio. The shape of most books and cereal boxes is based on the Golden Ratio. Read up on this stuff… it’s really interesting!

The Mysterious “Voynich Manuscript”

You know how I love history’s mysteries? Well, one of the best there is is the mysterious “Voynich manuscript”, a book now owned by Yale University. The book is around 240 pages (out of an estimated original 272), and is thought to be from between 1450 and 1520AD. The book is handwritten on vellum and is chock full of illustrations (albeit none as fancy as most other European manuscripts). What makes the Voynich manuscript such a mystery is that it’s written in a completely unknown language. There are approximately 170,000 unknown glyphs in the text, yet there are many curious facts about the glyphs: they appear to follow some sort of grammar (certain glyphs appear in combination with other glyphs, just as English has common letter combinations like “ie” or “th”). The text seems to follow Zipf’s Law (which is a word frequency analysis; for example, Zipf’s Law states that “the” will probably be the most common word in an English language text). And the glyphs themselves seem to have been written in a flowing, graceful hand (which suggests familiarity with the language). On the other hand, the “language” of the Voynich manuscript seems to be a mish-mash of European and Arabic. For example, some glyphs appear only at the beginning or end of a “word” (like Arabic, but unlike European languages), yet there are no words longer than 10 characters nor are there any with just one or two characters (unlike either Arabic or European). The origin of the text is unknown. Some suspect that it’s the work of Roger Bacon or John Dee (among others). Many scholars think it’s an outright 600 year-old hoax. But the sheer amount of work that went into the book – not to mention the thought about grammar and letter frequency, which were barely understood by most people in the Middle Ages – makes me think that it’s not a hoax. In any case, the Voynich manuscript has befuddled some of the best cryptographers in the world – even the wunderkids from Bletchley Park.

Read more about the Voynich manuscript here.

Candy Jones, Super Spy

One movie that totally exceeded my expectations was George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The movie, based on the “autobiography” of television personality Chuck Barris, deals in large part with Barris’ allegations of being a hit man for the CIA. Now I haven’t read the book, but the movie leads one to ask all kinds of questions. At first glance, it’s easy to think that Barris is either pulling a fast one on us or is simply crazy. But his stories are so rich in detail yet so simple in their nature that one almost stops and wonders if he was indeed hired by the CIA to carry out all kinds of nasty deeds. And then there’s the question of motive… Barris was already a household name when his book came out; as far as I know he didn’t have any projects coming out that might have benefited from the book’s publicity. Why would someone make a story like that up?

But then you have the twisted tale of Candy Jones. Born Jessica Wilcox in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on December 31, 1925, the future Miss Jones had a rough childhood. Her father left when she was three (but not before reportedly crushing her fingers in a nutmeg grater), while her mother was a cold disciplinarian that locked poor Jessica alone in her room for long stretches at a time. To combat the loneliness, Jessica invented several imaginary friends, one of whom – a cold, calculating girl named “Arlene” – would never quite go away.

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Woo-Hoo – I entered the 21st Century!

OK, so… I’ve gone and installed WordPress on my site, and have big plans to convert the entire site over to it. Yes, it’s finally time to ditch FrontPage, so those of you out there who have given me grief about using FrontPage (and you know who you are)… you can now shut up about it!

I have no idea of how long it’s gonna take to convert the old site over (months, I’m guessing), so I’ll be running a “split site” in the mean time – just go to jimcofer.com and click on the link to the old site, and you’ll be able to get all the old info there. Nothing new should be posted over there, but you never know. Perhaps the WordPress thing will be a complete disaster. Or a smashing success. Who knows?

In the meantime… enjoy!