Gene’s puzzling column from the future


(Eric Shansby)
Gene Weingarten
Columnist March 20

Stardate 4017.9

To: The Hon. Phad~9^, Lord Protector of Bleeth

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

From: Froth`nib, second daughter of Weenad6 and Fn

Excellent news, Your Lordship. Our text analysts have decoded that deep-space data transmission we accidentally intercepted, and it is proof that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Universe!

We have found it to be a collection of documents titled “Crossword Puzzles From The New York Times.” On examination, these items appear to be a light form of diversion; nonetheless, by analyzing word frequency and emphasis, we have been able to construct what we believe to be a detailed, highly accurate portrait of this planet’s unusual society.

They are a warlike people but apparently conduct their hostilities humanely, through single-combat proxy: Although they possess “Abombs” and “Hbombs,” by far the most common form of military engagement appears to be dueling through swordplay, using “epees.” We conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that the manufacture of epees is a major world industry.

While some applied sciences are advanced — these documents evince a deep familiarity with DNA, RNA and “ions” — the practice of medicine is exceedingly primitive, limited almost exclusively to a single herbal remedy of dubious value. All ailments appear to be treated by application of a fragrant leaf-paste called “aloe.”

We conjecture that a leading cause of death in this society is reptile bite, because the planet seems to be overrun by venomous snakes called “asps.” Another common plague are “tsetse flies.”

The people make and use common tools, particularly hoes and adzes, which are small, sharp axes most likely used in asp control.

We suspect a recent planetwide famine, possibly involving the extinction of large numbers of food animals and edible plant life. We conclude this because at the time of this transmission, the people appeared to survive on a highly limited diet consisting almost entirely of a beverage called “Nehi,” a snack foodstuff named “Oreo” and a paste called “poi.”

To take their minds off their dire straits, the people patronize the performing arts. The most important actor of all time is “Alan Alda,” followed closely by “Ed Asner,” “Bert Lahr” and “Stephen Rea.” The most revered actors of the child-bearing sex are “Talia Shire,” “Uma Thurman,” “Uta Hagen,” “Oona Chaplin” and “Theda Bara.”

For further diversion, the people also attend sporting events. By far the most popular sport is “jai alai.” A secondary sport is called “baseball”; its all-time legends are “Mel Ott,” “Enos Slaughter” and an entire family named “Alou.” Also, people sometimes pay to watch someone named “Bobby Orr” perform something called “hockey.” Whatever his skill, it is apparently unique and noncompetitive, because we detect no evidence that anyone else has ever participated in hockey.

All structures on this planet were designed by “Eero Saarinen.” The most famous musician is “Brian Eno,” and the most famous band is “Abba.” The planet’s two greatest novelists are “Erle Stanley Gardner” and “Herman Melville,” who wrote by far the most famous and influential book in the history of that world. It is titled “Omoo.”

We have not yet determined the initial location of this transmission or even from what galaxy it originated, but we feel prepared to hazard a guess, with some degree of confidence, as to the name this civilization has given its planet. Judging from sheer ubiquity on these translated pages we think it reasonably likely that whatever its initial name, the world has been renamed “Yokoono,” for its greatest citizen.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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