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Peter and the Soviet university


Early in Peter's FBI file was a letter that he wrote to his parents (at least it seems to be to his parents), which someone had turned over to the FBI as evidence that Peter was a dangerous radical who needed to be investigated. (My strong impression from various bits of unredacted info in the FBI file is that it was specifically Peter's father who called in the FBI.) I don't have the original probably-handwritten letter, but here's the FBI's transcription of it.

A few preliminary notes:

  • In the below, the word “[REDACTED]” is a standin for the blank white redaction boxes the FBI used.
  • I'm guessing that the first redacted word was something like “folks,” and the second was something like “Pop.”
  • I mostly kept the FBI's formatting, including hyphenation, but presumably they didn't try to closely duplicate the original letter's formatting, except at the end.
  • The typos and misspellings were almost certainly introduced by the FBI; it wouldn't have been like Peter to make those kinds of mistakes.
  • The early paragraphs about Peter's friend aren't especially relevant; it's the rest of the letter that made me want to post this.
  • Peter was twenty years old when he wrote this. He had already flunked out of CalTech for drinking too much; he was living in Seattle (his parents were living in Ellensburg), but I'm not sure what he was doing at that point. He hadn't yet gone to Mexico.
  • This isn't the ten-page letter I mentioned in my first entry about the FBI file; that's still to come in a future installment. This is the letter before that one.
  • Thanks to Kathleen for scanning this document.

Here's the letter:

          This source furnished the following letters
which were received by the source from the subject during
the Spring of 1960:


     Sorry I didn't make it down to the Y the
next morning,[REDACTED]- I fell asleep.  Got the
suitcase & briefcase though - briefcase is ex-
tremely useful.
     Kind of bad thing happened which you
may have read in papers - [REDACTED] who
alternates shifts with me, was drinking two
or three glasses of beer the other night, and,
perhaps in part because of his recent split-up
with girl-friend, apparently went temporarily
berserk - stole taxi-cab, led police on 70-mph
chase through U.-district, rolled the cab, re-
sulting in totalling out of both patrol-car
and cab.
     He is in jail now, after having gotten
off active (reporting) parole only 1 month
ago (from burglary & term at Monroe - age 18).
Everyone is really sick about the whole thing -
he had been going so straight, doing so well;
hadn't missed a day of work, went to school
last quarter, was reading a lot, et al.
     Since I went to hear [REDACTED] I
have begun to take a real and increasing interest
in politics - am currently entering into Seattle
Young Socialist Club activities with much satis-
faction, anticipation.  Passed out leaflets
advertising rally tonight, attended rally, am
participating for next four weekends in protest
picketings of Woolworth's in connection with
segregated lunch-counters in South.
     Which subject laterally introduces main
topic of letter, namely, the Friendship Univer-
     You see, I have been receiving for about
a month, gratis, in order to get propaganda
slanted the other way than the American press,
the 'Soviet News Bulletin' from the Soviet em-
bassy in Toronto, Canada.  (By comparing this
and Hearst and taking an average, I believe I
come out somewhere in the vicinity of what
actually happens).
     At any rate, a recent issue introduced
me to the 'Friendship University'.  The main
fields of study are mathematico-physico-scienti-
fix realms, and politico-economic-philosophical
areas.  Students are accepted regardless of race,
nationality, citizenship, religion - i.e. anybody
     1.  is a junior or better in high
     school, in which case he goes to a
     secondary school for 2 years in Moscow,
     and then to the University for four
     years (U. is in Moscow).
     2.  has a high-school diploma, but no
     knowledge of Russian, in which case he
     goes to secondary school 1 year &
     U. 4 years. (me)
     3.  has high-school diploma and adequate
     knowledge of Russian, in which case
     he goes to the U. 4 years.

Now, the next things are:
     1.  they pay your way over and back (ha-ha)
     & pay your room, board, tuition, fees,
     books, and medical expenses while at-
     tending schools,
     2.  Russian mathematics occupies quite
     emminent position in academic ratings
     at present - i.e., about 1/2 of all math
     being published today is publ. in Russian,
     they are supposed to be 12 years ahead
     of us in linear partial differential
     equations, etc., etc.  Thus I think
     I could gain a mathematical education
     without equal anywhere else in world.
     3.  I have read so much Dostoiavsky,
     Gogal, Lermoutov, Tolsto: et al., that
     I would really like to read them in
     the original language; and, I am
     extremely desirous of examining at
     first hand the present day culture of
     4.  Travel is br-r-roadening; I would
     learn fluent, modern, idiomatic Russian;
     Eurasian colleges are (I believe)
     much better in general than American;
     I would get to actually see and live in
     this bugbear (bugaboo? bughear? bete
     noir?) economic-political system of
     Communism; actually see what the people
     are like; make fast friendships with a
     few of the students probably.......and
     on, and on, (I invite comment on 'Friend-
     ship U.')

So, I am anyways going to apply for admittance
to these schools (which are brand-new, just
starting this Sept.), though I doubt that I would
stand much of a chance, since my competition will
be world-wide.  But, oh well, it won't hurt to
try. A A Ay Ay Ah!?  fantastic idea - [REDACTED] ought
to apply too - take the whole family - live off
royalties from magazine articles - 'The Difficulties
of Raising American Children in Russia..' ech. oh,

So anyway, how's everything in E-burg?  Hope you
aren't patronizing Woolworth's or Kress',
just kidding - the only values these protest rallys
have are
     1.  symbolic (in number of senses)
     2.  a large-scale boycott can sometimes
          convince a manager that his prejudices
          are too expensive.

     Ah, I've shot off mouth enough for one letter
- write when anybody gets time - sorry to've missed
sending you birthday present,[REDACTED]: will make it
up to you.

See-what-I-told-you-dept. - I forgot to send in
income-tax --- never did find or get W2-forms
from Boeing, have forms for $25 from U. math
                    WHAT SHALL I DO?

                               E       have commenced
PS.  Oh, yeah -                 L      over-ambitious
I certainly hope that my         P     study-program for
newly-burgeoning political        !    self, really
interests (or rather                   reading a lot,
their socialistic tendencies)          both lit. & math.
are not disturbing to you - -
if so, I just become more
I guess -

                             [REDACTED]         never wrote
PPS:  current debts          should arrive      to Merit
                             any time

I owe               people owe me
$20? Tall's          $3.60 )
$??? Parents         $6.00 )  _________(illegible)
$1.45 friend         $4.60 )
$2.60 - "            $(illegible) total     great, huh?

Big Band music and electric organ


Peter liked a variety of different kinds of music. My impression was that among his favorite performers were the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and several big-name jazz musicians. I know that he loved Pat Metheny; I went to a couple of Metheny concerts with him, and he owned at least a couple of the albums. He also liked Big Band music, including the Toshiko Akiyoshi–Lew Tabackin Big Band; he took me to one of their concerts once, probably in the early 1980s.

He had a couple of songbooks, but there was one Big Band songbook that I think he was particularly fond of. He had an electric organ—a portable electronic keyboard maybe three feet long and a foot deep, but I think designed specifically to sound like an organ rather than a piano—and he would regularly play songs from the songbook. He sometimes asked me to play along on my violin, which I was never much good at. Deep Purple, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Stardust, Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree, Tangerine; I'm sure there were more, but those are the ones I remember most.

Another song just occurred to me, but now I can't recall whether he played it on the organ or just had a recording of it: "El Paso." It's not really much in keeping with the other kinds of music he tended to listen to, but I just learned that the Grateful Dead played it for many years; I wonder if their version was the one I heard as a kid. If I'm remembering right, Peter was the one who told me that Faleena's appearance to the dying cowboy at the end was just a hallucination, that she wasn't really there. But I may be mixing up all sorts of things. (And I always assumed her name was spelled "Felina" until now, which suggests that I may not have seen it written down in a songbook.)

...And now I wish that I had thought to tell him about the Cats & Jammers at some point. I bet he would've liked them.

Million-dollar ideas

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Oddly, I don't seem to have written here about Peter's “million-dollar ideas.”

Every so often, he would come up with an idea that he was certain was amazing and never-before-thought-of. He always offered us these ideas for free, with the suggestion that if we were to implement one of them, it would make us a lot of money. It's possible that he was jokingly exaggerating, but I think he was always at least half-serious about these ideas and their potential value; he was always enthusiastic about them, and he often expressed concern that someone else might steal one of them.

There were dozens of million-dollar ideas over the years, but the only one that I specifically remember came at a time when there was a big push to pass a law banning the burning of an American flag. (I think this was in the mid-'90s or so.) His million-dollar idea on that topic was to use a slide projector to project an image of an American flag onto a piece of fabric, and then burn the fabric, thereby getting around the proposed law (by not actually burning a real flag per se). It was not at all clear how one might go about monetizing this idea, but he nonetheless didn't want me to talk with people about it, because that might jeopardize the million dollars.

I should note that most of his million-dollar ideas were more practical than that, in that they involved creating some sort of actual product or service that one could sell. None of them, though, ever sounded to me like something that there would be much demand for.

What brought all this to mind is that I was searching through my old email recently for something else, and came across the following note from Peter, from April 2000:

Hi again --
I realize that I didn't send you my BIG IDEA...

By the right-hand rule in physics, if you have magnetic lines of force at a
right angle to an electric current, motion results in the third direction.
This principle has been used for the last ten years or more to propel ocean

My BIG IDEA is to apply this principle to the area in which Ley & von Braun
were concerned...   Not to spell it out in too much detail for all the world
to eavesdrop on...

What do you think?


I'm not sure what he was talking about. Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun were concerned with rocketry in general, and apparently they wrote a book called The Exploration of Mars, so I assume that Peter was suggesting that rockets could be propelled using electromagnets. But there must have been more to it than that, because that doesn't sound like a remotely new idea to me. Railguns have been used in sf as spaceship-launch mechanisms for decades, and Peter would have been well aware of that.

Anyway, this was a rare instance of his not saying that one of his big ideas was worth a million dollars. But I'm sure it was.

Cocktail onions

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Not an anecdote, just a memory:

Peter almost always had a little jar of pickled cocktail onions in the fridge. Not for cocktails; he would just take one out and eat it as a mini-snack every now and then.

I don't know whether that was a lifelong thing or not. I associate it with him strongly enough that I sometimes get some of those onions around an anniversary and eat them; I like them too, but I think of them specifically as a favorite food of Peter's.

Any of you know more about this? Did he always eat them, or was it just for a brief period?

Peter's "neat words" list, part 4

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Here's part 4 (and last) of Peter's "neat words" list. (See earlier entries: part 1, part 2, part 3.) These are the words starting with R through Z.

radar raffis rara-avis ratite recuse riant riant rococo rodomontade romanesco rondo ronyon rumper rumply runcible-spoon rupicolous sackbut satrap schwa scrawny scrim scrimshaw scrod scrofulous scruff scruffy scrum scumble scurf scutch scuttlebutt sedge sepulchre shibboleth shill shillelagh singeing sisyphian slumgullion slurry smirch snaffle snarf snath snell snickersnee snide sniffish sniggle snivel snook snooker snoose snoozle snorkel sny sophistry sororate spindrift spondulix spuddy spume spunk spunky spurge spurious squalidity squandermania squeegee squiffed squinch steatopygous stint stricture stupefacient stylite subterfuge supercilious supine surd surruptitious suspire susurrus sutler swamper swank swarf synecdoche syrinx syzygy tangential tarn tatting-shuttle tawdry teasel tedder teratology tergiversation tesselation thrumming thurl toady tor trull trumpery tweeze twigging twit tyrannicide usurious uxorious veleity vernacular vernier vinculum virago virgule wale whee whelk widget winsome wonk yclept zephyr

Movies Peter watched as a kid

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Another of the files rescued from Peter's hard drive was a letter containing stories and anecdotes about Peter's father and about Peter's childhood. A lot of them were pretty bitter and unpleasant, and I won't post those; and most of them aren't directly about Peter anyway. But here's one bit that I thought was interesting enough to post, about how Peter would spend his 25¢ weekly allowance as a kid:

each Saturday, after I finished my chores, I was allowed to go to the magic lantern (movie theater). The admission was 15¢, and popcorn was 10¢! For this munificent sum, what I got was 3 feature movies: a) sometimes war movies, with Japanese generals playing Go under naked light bulbs in tents!; b) sometimes science fiction; c) sometimes adventure (Kim, or King Solomon's Mines...); d) sometimes westerns (I remember Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid...); and always about 12 cartoons (pretty dumb, but I liked them anyway); 1 or 2 "shorts"; a newsreel; and a Superman serial (I "dug" "Superman vs. the Mole Men")....

It never occurred to me before that it's possible that I got my interest in movies from Peter; even though we never had much money, it was always understood that we would go see movies now and then. I think that, at least for a while, the allowances we received were specifically intended to be enough to see a movie each week.

Peter's "neat words" list, part 3

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Here's part 3 of Peter's "neat words" list. (See earlier entries: part 1, part 2.) These are the words starting with J through Q.

jabberwocky jactitation jape jejune jocularity jodhpurs kerf kith klinker kludge krait kwashiorkor lambent lethargy ligature liminal lissome lowboy lubricious lucubration Luddite lugubrious luminous-flux lumpenproletariat lumper lustrum macron maelstrom malfeasance manque meander mellifluous meretricious merryandrew mewling micturate mimosa moire Momus moxie multiplicity muzzy nabob natty nictitate nidget nidification nulliparous nullity numinous nutation obelus oblivious obloquy obnubilate obsequy obtestation obviate occipital odalesque offal ogee oldbrick omphaloskepsis opprobrious orlop ormolu orphic orthogonality osculating pædogogue palimpsest parse peduncle pelage pelagic pelf pellucid phalanges phantasmagorical picaresque picaro picayune Pick's-Theorem pickthank pish-and-tosh plangent pluperfect poetaster polyandry pome proboscis psychomimetic punctilious pursy pyknic pyx queazily querist quern querty quintessence quirt quixotic quizzical quoin

Peter's "neat words" list, part 2


Here's part 2 of Peter's "neat words" list. (See earlier entry for part 1 and background.) These are the words starting with F through I. There are quite a lot of F words, for some reason.

fandango fanfaronade fantoccini fantod faradism farfel fasces fatuity filch flaccid flang flange flapdoodle fleer flense fletch flibbertigibbet flimsy flinch flinders flinger flinty flip-flop flippancy flirtigig flitch flittermouse flocculate flocculus flogger flooey floozy flotsam flout flub-dub fluctuant flummery flummox flurry fluxion fœtid fœtor frangible frangipani frank frantic fraught frenetic fricassee fricative frizz frop froward frowsty frump frustum fulgent fulgurate fuliginous fuller's-earth fulminate fulsome funambulism functor fungible funicular furbelow furring fussbudget fustian fustigate futtock fylfot gallimaufry gambrel gauche gawky gentian gibbous glaucous gleet glissade glockenspiel gooney grabble grabble graffle gratuitous gribble gristliness grok grovel gutbucket gyromagnetic ha-ha habiliment hagiolatry halcyon hamlet ideomotor idiolect ignis-fatuus impecunious inchoate indolent ingenuous insipid inspissated intrados involute iodoform irruptive ischemia ishmael isinglass isthmus

Peter and email (and computers)

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Some of the first email I ever sent was to Peter, back in college, back in the days when you had to specify the full path from one computer to another of how to reach a recipient.

But I don't think he was ever all that into email. I think there were periods of years when he had no email access at all.

And at one point, as I mentioned in an entry in my main blog a few years back, he told me that he he only checked mail at home every couple of weeks, and so sometimes he would have as much as ten or twelve pieces of spam to deal with, and that was just too much.

I now see that as part of an odd anti-computer streak in Peter's personality; see also my recent entry about his use of calculators. Given that he had a lifelong interest in science fiction, given that he made his living for a long time working with and/or programming computers, I was always surprised and a little puzzled that he wasn't more interested in using them in his daily life.

Writing this entry got me curious, so I went and looked through some old files, and found email from Peter from mid-1988, when he was doing QA at Olivetti. Here's most of it:

well i finally finished the review of the help files i was doing: 440 bugs plus 230 instances of 1 bug = 670 all told. of course the product has already been released... but i think 670 bugs will grab somebody's attention enough to do a recycle. i hadn't read my mail for 10 days because there was one message telling me to stop work on that project, & i diddn wanna. (nice name for a char. in a story: I. Didden Wannah...) so now that i finished i can safely read the mail. i disposed of 270 messages in about half an hour.

anyway, an exciting time is coming up: a) john is coming 7/22 & staying for 16 days!! b) starting 7/23 is Olivetti's forced vacation: i am OFF WORK until 8/1!!! c) you are coming 8/13? ... hooray!! d) i may be going to Japan for two weeks on or about 8/15!!!! to do some QA on a new product! so i'd miss most of your visit. i should find out within a week or so if i'm going.

Addendum: after I wrote most of this entry, I was going through some old files and found about twenty emails from Peter from April '93 through January '94; apparently he was writing to me every couple of weeks, sometimes every couple of days, during that period. He had an email account at Western Washington University, where he was in grad school. I'll go through those notes and extract interesting stuff to post. Anyway, so I'm revising my theory: I think he was happy to send and receive email at times when he had easy access to it at work or school, but I think it wasn't a priority for him to obtain access when it wasn't easy.

But that's really just a guess. Did he email y'all very often? Were there periods of more and less email from him?

Peter's "neat words" list, part 1

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Kam rescued a bunch of files from the hard drive from Peter's computer. Most of them are either mundane (mostly syllabi for the classes he taught) or not suitable for public display (private letters).

But two of the files are titled "peters neat words" and "peters neat words 2"; they consist entirely of lists of neat words.

The first one is in apparently random order; I suspect he just added words to the end of it over time, as he thought of them.

The second one is the same list, alphabetized (plus one new word); that's the one I'm posting here. My text editor says there are 441 words total.

I thought about trying to present this in alternative ways—as a bulleted list, for example—but it's going to be long no matter what, so I'm leaving it formatted the way he had it, with words separated by spaces. And I'm breaking it up into chunks to keep it from being too overwhelming all at once.

Here's part 1, words starting with A through E:

abashment abecedarian abjection abjure abstemious abysmal aerie akimbo alembic alopecic animadversion anomie arcana arete autodidact bamboozle bellicosity bells-and-whistles berm bezel bloviate blurb bolo bombast bonhomie bonze bosky botchwork bouzouki braggadocio breechclout buncombe burl Bushido cantankerous chillum chimæra clandestine claptrap coda confuter crapulous craunch crepuscular crucifer cruet cudgel curlew daquoit defalcation defenestration demijohn diæresis dingle dirndl dither dog-and-pony-show dubbin dubiety ebullience eddy effluvium effrontery electron-drift ellipsis enervate ennui epistemologist ersatz eructation eschatological escutcheon estivate etiolate exegesis expectorate


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I posted this back in 2005, in an entry in my main blog, but I think it's worth reposting here.

One of the few things other than papers and photos that I brought home with me after that first week was Peter's slide rule. I always wanted that slide rule when I was a kid. I didn't (and still don't) know how to use it properly, but I knew it was a device for doing math, and I thought that was cool.

I didn't bring home any of his multitude of graphing calculators. I was surprised, though, looking at his books, to realize how long calculators had been an interest of his; there were calculator-tricks-and-games books dating back to when I was a kid. I remember the first calculator I saw, possibly the first one he owned, an HP-25 programmable calculator (photo); some of the earliest programming I did was on that calculator. I'm still sometimes a little more comfortable with Reverse Polish Notation than with more straightforward regular calculators. . . . Hey, nifty! There's a Java simulation of an HP-25 available free online!

Peter once promised me a calculator of my own if I learned the squares of all the numbers up to 25. I knew most of 'em, but never did memorize the late teens and early twenties.

At some point in high school or college I somehow managed to lose his HP-25, but he went on to more advanced calculators: a 41C (photo), an 11C (photo), maybe also a 16C (photo), though I'm not sure about that last. I think he didn't make the switch to graphing calculators until he started to teach math sometime in the '90s.

The funny thing is that he never owned a PDA and rarely used a computer (outside of work) for anything but playing games; that always seemed a little odd to me, but I wonder if he continued to think of calculators as primarily calculating devices, like the slide rule, rather than small computers.

Strangely Attracted To Chaos


Brother Peter was fascinated by:

Chaos Theory,     Fractals,     M. C. Escher,     Op Art,     Möbius strips,    
Kline bottles,     Tessellations,     Penrose Tiling,     and     Puzzles,    

don't you think?

BTW, I found this unattributed limerick on the internet...
"A mathematician confided
That a Möbius band is one-sided,
And you'll get quite a laugh,
If you cut one in half,
For it stays in one piece when divided."