Friday chapter from a WIP. Frankenkitty.

The Beginning.

frankenkitty It was all because of the car that ran over Mr. Snuffles. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, exactly. He’d sneaked out the back door one morning. That wouldn’t have been too bad, but then he’d dashed into the road. Had Jimmy not been learning how to drive, he’d have been able to stop in time or swerve to miss the poor cat. But he didn’t and now Mr. Snuffles lay on the side of the road, with all nine of his lives rapidly passing.

Jennifer ran from her house and picked him up, but it was too late to call the vet. He’d been named after her favorite character in a children’s show when she was three and been her constant companion ever since. Now he was gone. Jennifer’s mother came out and did her best to comfort her little girl. Not so little now, fifteen, but still crying over her best friend. She helped her daughter wrap the poor cat in a towel, then in a plastic bag.

“We’ll bury him at our vacation house. He liked it at Grandma’s and it will be good to know he’s still there.”

Jennifer tearfully agreed, and so it was that Mr. Snuffles rested in the deep freeze, awaiting the family summer trip and his ultimate fate.

In the meantime, high school beckoned. There was homework to be done, tests to be taken, boys to giggle about and parties to attend. Life, for everyone who wasn’t Mr. Snuffles, had to go on.

One way life went on was for old people to get older. The cranky, strange old woman across the street, a German war bride, was finally moving to assisted living. She, and her husband, had moved to the neighborhood when it was first built, way back in the 1950’s, and settled in for the long haul. He’d died, years ago, but she’d grimly hung on to her independence until old age, and the urgings of her children and her grandchildren, finally forced her to move. She couldn’t take the accumulation of junk from all the years with her. The family had selected what they wanted to keep, and the rest was for sale.

Despite her reputation for crankiness and order, she actually had a soft spot for Jennifer. She’d seen Mr. Snuffles fate, and knew how much the girl missed her cat. So the morning of the estate sale, before the dealers arrived to scoop up the best bits, she hobbled across the street and rang the bell.

“Mrs. Jones,” Jennifer’s mother answered the door, “What are you doing here?”

“Emily, ist your daughter here?”


“Ach gut. I have something for her. Something I think she vill like.”

“Oh, well please come in. How is the move coming along?”

“I don’t know. The Towers are a nice enough place, but there are just old people living there. It’s like a prison or warehouse. Everyone just waiting to die. I thought I left that behind mich in Germany.”

“I’m sorry. We’ll visit, if that will help.”

“If young Jennifer could, she’s always been such a gut girl. Anyway, I must get back.”

Her mother called down to her children, “Jennifer, it’s Mrs. Jones. She wants to see you, and”

Jennifer raced up from the rec-room. She’d learned one scary Halloween, when she’d been the only one of her friends willing to brave the consequences that Mrs. Jones’ crankiness and fearsome looks belied a soft heart and friendly character. She said, “Mrs. Jones I’m sorry that you’re leaving. Did you need my help for something?”

“In a way I do. Please come mit me, I haf something for you.”

Her mother nodded at her, and Jennifer helped the old lady back across the street. They entered her house and Mrs. Jones painfully lowered herself onto one of the stuffed chairs in the living room. Then she pointed to a wooden box. A shipping crate the size of a footlocker sat there on the other side of the room. It was from the late 1940’s when she and her husband had come to America.

“That is for you, my dear. Use it vell.”

“May I see what’s in it here?”

“Ov course.”

Jennifer opened the lid and looked at the contents. They were books. Dusty old hand-written books.

“Mrs. Jones, what are these?”

“They were my great grand-vaters. From his laboratory.”

Jennifer opened the one she held and tried to read it. “It’s in German. I don’t know German.”

“Not German, Schwabish. Bring it here and I’ll read the first few words. You’ll soon learn.”

“I will?”

“It’s an ancestor of English. Not Hoch Deutsch.”

Jennifer took the first volume to Mrs. Jones. The old woman opened it and began to read, “Experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.”

“What?” Jennifer asked, “What is this?”

“Didn’t you know, I am a descendent of the great Dr. Baron von Frankenstein. These are his journals.”

“Did he really do it? Make dead things live again?”

“I don’t know.” Mrs. Jones smiled at her, “But it might be fun to try.”

“But why me? Surely your family.”

Mrs. Jones reached over with a shaky age-spotted hand and tousled Jennifer’s hair.

“Ach, I had these from my mother, she from hers, and she from hers. With a sacred charge to guard them. Not let them be used for evil. Mein daughter, she’d just sell them. I trust you.” She paused, “Besides, this way I know I’ll have at least one visitor at the Towers who wants to see me.”

Jennifer regarded the crate with awe. “Thank you Mrs. Jones. I don’t think I can carry all that by myself.”

“I know just the thing. There is a wagon in the garage, my son’s. Take it.”

“Is that OK with you?” Jennifer had heard about the tragedy of Mrs. Jones’ son from her parents. He’d disappeared into the jungles of Vietnam, never to be seen again. His parents had kept his room intact, almost as a shrine, pending his return.

“Yes, I’m sure he’d agree. He was a good boy and would have liked you.”

“He’d have been older than my father.”

Mrs. Jones gave her one of her cryptic fleeting smiles, then replied, “That’s true. I’d rather you have his wagon than any of those vultures.”

Jennifer brought the wagon around to the front door. Then by first unloading the crate, moving it to the wagon and then reloading it was able to take the books away. By then the crowds had started to arrive so she could only wave goodbye to Mrs. Jones.

That evening, alone in her room, Jennifer paged through the first volume. Despite Mrs. Jones’ reassurances the German didn’t suddenly spring to life for her, and the archaic Schwabian dialect gave the online translation programs she could find fits. There were a few words, “rot”, “blut”, “muskel”, “vene”, and “arterie” that she could guess. There were detailed and beautiful anatomical drawings that were drawn in the Baron’s delicate hand. She studied these intently. Then about halfway through the volume she noticed something. It was now written in English. She paged backwards to find where the language switched and came to this passage near the beginning.

“My assistant Igor has been passing copies of my notes to my rival Count Melindorf. Since neither he nor the Count read English, I shall take advantage of my time in London and continue in this barbarous and uncouth language.”

Jennifer smiled to herself. This was going to be much easier than she thought.

It was probably just as well. Mrs. Jones hadn’t lasted long in the Towers. The news came the next day when Jennifer and her mother were getting ready to visit her. The empty house across the street went up for sale that afternoon.

How FORTRAN changed my life.

Back in the day, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was a college student, I took FORTRAN. I was well on my way to applying to Medical School, great MCAT’s, good GPA at a serious university in a real subject, and it just seemed the way I would go.

Then in my final term, I took FORTRAN. WATFOR on punched cards, using a cpu-minute at a time on a big IBM mainframe. A multi-million dollar machine my laptop would run rings around today. I took to it like a duck takes to water. I was in love. Within the first day, I’d finished the book and was on my way. My backup plan, graduate school in science, became my plan. Probably for the best, as I’m not sure how inspiring a Medical Doctor I’d be.

I ended up using far more CPU time than I expect was budgeted. Tried some simple numerical integration techniques in my Statistical Mechanics class, probability distribution analysis for the lab I worked in, and even wrote routines that are still in use today. (Translated into C and incorporated in a molecular mechanics package.)

FORTRAN even influenced the science I ended up training in. The NMR people didn’t play with programming, the crystallographers did. So I started on my career developing and studying algorithms, by working out methods to squeeze big problems into little machines with appropriate approximation algorithms.

So while I’m not allowed to admit it today, at least not admit it and keep my credentials as a full fledged computer science profession, I still have a soft spot for the language.

Irish Soda Bread – with a Greek Twist

Not sure if this will work when I get back to the land of the free but it works well in the UK. My family was getting their fix of sausage, bacon, and black pudding (They’re different over here). The trouble was how to accompany them. Irish soda bread would be great, but
a) we didn’t have any baking soda, and
2) we didn’t have any buttermilk.

What we had was self-raising flour (coarser ground and a different wheat from the US), Greek yogurt and the ability to improvise.

Preheat the oven to 200C (figure this out yourself if you want to use irrational units – but 350F would be a good guess).
While the oven is heating mix and then kneed gently:

2 cups (more or less) or about 250 grams of self-rising flour. In the USA, use plain flour and add a tablespoon of baking powder. Self rising flour in the USA is very salty and a touch bitter, nasty stuff.
1 tsp salt
100g +- of Greek Yogurt. (about a cup, you can mix in a little milk if it’s too solid)
This should form a dampish dough. You may need to add some water, or flour, but the dough should hold together and not be sticky.

Put it on a floured baking sheet, and cut a cross in the top. It should look something like this:

After about 1/2 hour in the hot oven, it will look like this:

It will also sound hollow when you tap it. (Much like yeast bread). It goes very well with bitter, sausage and carrots.  It can be a bit tricky, and will sound hollow when slightly underdone, so if you’re not sure wait a few minutes.

I “re-purposed” an old post for this. Here’s what it looks like in the USA

2015-10-22 18.14.38 2015-10-22 17.22.13

This recipe would work as a “damper” bread and bake well in a Dutch oven.


Continuing on from yesterday…

Even if you use a cipher system that does not carry incriminating evidence, you’re still left with the problem of sending the message. There were more than a few German spies picked up by the British in WW2 because one of their suitcases concealed a radio set.

If a message is obviously secret, even if it can’t be read, it’s obvious that the sender was trying to hide something. That could mean a short stay in a nasty prison followed by a short drop on a patented neck stretching machine or a shave with the ‘national razor.’ Neither is recommended for your health.

By the way this is a problem with book codes. Possession of a certain edition of a book, unless it’s dead common, could be evidence.

So what is a refined genteel lady of the regency to do?

Secret inks and concealed communications.

Step 1: write a letter. Not a problem, then as now females wrote lots of communications. Not email, twitter or texting, but on paper. Remember to inquire after everyone’s health and to tell the recipient up front that everyone here is well. (or not).

Step 2: Prick out or underline certain letters or words in the message. These are the real message. If these markings are noticed, and they will be if they’re in plain ink, you may be in trouble. On the other hand, if they spell out a love missive, you will be excused. It was not uncommon in the days when parents read every young ladies correspondence, to use a subterfuge like this.

Step 3: Use a secret ink to mark out the real real message. You could skip step 2 if appropriate.

So what can you use for an ink?

Here’s the problem, possessing the ink is evidence of your intent to conceal. A Lady of Quality would have vinegars, a few cosmetics, and even the contents of the ‘gozunda’ available to her. These make reasonably decent ‘organic’ inks, where the compound alters the browning temperature of the paper. Heat it and the message is revealed. (There were ‘sympathetic’ inks which required a developing reagent available at the time, but they’d be problematic for a Lady to be carrying around.)


One of the books I’m writing involves a young woman training to be a secret agent in 1803 England. The running title is either “The Art of Deception” or possibly “Pride and Extreme Prejudice.”

Spies like her would need to be versed in secret communications. Unfortunately, possession of a code machine – like Jefferson’s disks – would automatically show that she was a spy. So would possession of secret inks.

She needs a cipher, one that she could easily generate, and one where she could easily destroy the evidence. Given what was available at the time, the best idea seems to be to move the invention date of the “playfair” cipher back a few years and have her use it.

Playfair was the top British cipher for much of the 19th century, which only shows how lame were the opposition. It is one step up from mono-alphabetic encryption (the cryptograms you sometimes have in the better newspapers (although not the AJC)). It encrypts pairs of letters, but in a systematic manner. On a small enough and random enough set of messages this can be really tough to break. A not dissimilar approach occupied Alan Turing for much of 1942 and 1943 when trying to break the German Naval Enigma (they used it to encrypt the rotor settings). Long chunks of text and repeated keys are much easier.

It starts with a keyword and a square (could be a rectangle).  Say “nevermore” and a 5×5 square.

1 2 3 4 5

Put the keyword (nevermore in this example) in the first row, dropping repeated letters. Then fill in with the rest of the alphabet. Have I and J in the same square.

n e v r m
o a b c d
f g h i k
l p q s t
u w x y z

Then for each pair of letters do one of three things.

  • If they’re in opposite corners of a rectangle (th above) take the other corners of the rectangle th -> kq and ht -> qk.
  • If they’re in the same row or column (gh above) take the letters to their right or below gh ->hi, is -> sy. Wrap around if you have to. There are alternatives here. It’s a pity they weren’t used because this is a weak point.
  • If the same letter occurs twice in a row, ‘ll’ for example, encode it as lx lx.

That’s all reasonable, except the distribution of pairs of letters is not flat. ‘th’ is by far the most common pair, and much more common than ‘ht’. So given a long enough message we can count pairs and from that deduce the structure of the 5×5 square. Repeated pairs are very useful because they define relationships between infrequent letters.

One simple way to harden playfair (though not enough to make it secure by modern standards) is to make the key ‘progressive.’

a n e v r
m o b c d
f g h i k
l p q s t
u w x y z
a b n e v
r m o c d
f g h I k
l p q s t
u w x y z

And so on until the 13th iteration. After that it begins to lose too much key to be unique. (Iteration 25 would always be just the alphabet in the square.)

a b c d e
f g h i k
l m n v o
r p q s t
u w x y z

Other schemes would be better than this, but you get the idea.

Rock Cakes, Translating an old recipe

A recipe from the “Sure to Rise Cookbook.” About 1900. This is a typical Victorian cookie or biscuit, and something that would have dated back to the regency. Modern baking powders only date from 1843, but there were other approaches that would have been used before that.

From P.G. Wodehouse

This is one cook who thinks rock cakes aren’t rock cakes unless you break a tooth over them. (Clara Lippet in Sam the Sudden)

I’ve always been curious to see how they taste.


1 breakfastcup flour

2 heaped dessertspoons sugar

2 ozs currants

2 ozs butter (or lard)

1 oz or 1 round candied peel

1 dessertspoonful Edmond’s Baking Powder

Milk to mix.

Rub the butter into the flour, then add the other dry ingredients, the egg beaten and sufficient milk to make stiff dough. Place in rocky shapes on cold greased oven shelf, and bake in hot oven 10 or 12 minutes.

The first thing to note is there is no egg in the list of ingredients. It’s basically a shortbread with fruit. So time for a little research. I found similar recipes on an Australian web site, and they use eggs. It looks like the idea is to make shortbread-like bits and then suspend them in a looser mix.

Using conventional ratios for flour and baking powder (1 teaspoon/cup) I get:

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoons sugar.

Mix, then work in 2 oz butter.  It’s probably a good idea to chill this for a bit so it hardens.

Add 50 g raisins (can’t easily find currants in the US) and 50 g candied peel (I’ll weigh these, but it’s about a quarter cup of each). The Australian recipe uses 115 g of each and a 1 1/2 cups flour but 28 g is an ounce.

beat one egg and mix. Do not over work this. It took 5 teaspoons of milk to make it into a dough.

bake at 350 F (200 C) on a greased cookie sheet. (I use a silicon sheet, but grease will do.) Use lumps about the size of walnuts.

2015-10-19 18.00.55 Before mixing
2015-10-19 18.11.17 After the egg and 5 teaspoons of milk.
2015-10-19 18.13.52 Before baking
2015-10-19 18.32.50 After they’re done.

How’d it do?

  1. They’re not rocks. Very delicate texture.
  2. Not as sweet as modern cookies. Modern recipes have more sugar and vanilla which make them decidedly sweet.
  3. D*mned good.  I’d repeat this recipe.

Fall in Alabama

The leaves haven’t really started to change color, yet. Some of the hickory’s are yellow, the sweet gum purple, and the oaks a tad brown. but the fall flowers, butterfly’s and mushrooms are out. There was even a bee gather some last minute supplies for her hive.
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