A recurring frustration of the publishing business is that every week, we receive a handful of copies returned to us by the U.S. Postal Service with cryptic messages that addresses that for several years had proved valid are now showing up as undeliverable. It's as though those subscribers had just dropped off the face of the Postal Service's earth.
Yet even with that weekly experience, we weren't quite prepared in mid-September to receive the Postal Service's official notice that nearly 500 WORLD subscribers had that week become unreachable. They were our good friends in southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. For some of them, of course, it wasn't just that they had taken a few weeks' leave and would soon be wanting resumption of their WORLD subscriptions to the same address. Those addresses had, in fact, been obliterated. We'll work hard to re-establish contact with those subscribers. By last week, the undeliverables were down to about 300-but the task is still daunting.
All that was a small but poignant reminder of the devastating reach of Katrina-an event that rattled and scattered our lives in hundreds of unexpected ways. Reflecting that fragmentation, this week's column is a potpourri of items calling for attention.
- Our inability to deliver WORLD to subscribers in the Gulf Coast area reminded us that Louisiana is one of the seven states where, even before Katrina, WORLD had done least well in finding subscribers. Other states where we're behind are Nevada, Utah, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Our seven best states, where we have the highest density of WORLD subscribers, are Montana, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Overall, one household out of every 800 in America receives WORLD magazine.
- A high point of the week for our reporting team came when Jamie Dean, seeking to join our reporting effort in New Orleans, was firmly rebuffed by the Louisiana Highway Patrol and other security officers guarding the city. Frustrated, Jamie headed back up the highway toward central Mississippi. "But maybe," she thought with determination, "I should try one more time." So she did another U-turn, headed back to the checkpoint, and explained again, but this time to a different officer, how important to her job assignment it was that she get through. When she flashed her press pass, the officer exclaimed, "WORLD magazine! I love WORLD magazine. I read it every week." He ushered her through the roadblock (see "Long haul, slow crawl").
- More than 150 of you took time to respond to the "slightly related aside" in my Sept. 10 column. I offered a six-month extension of a WORLD subscription to the first person who called or e-mailed me "with an accurate two-part explanation of these lines seen occasionally in daily newspapers a generation and more ago: etaoin shrdlu etaoin shrdlu etaoin shrdlu etaoin shrdlu. What was happening? And what was the significance of the specific letters?"
The letters etaoin shrdlu have been considered, in order, the most frequently used letters in the English alphabet. Their appearance in print stems from the Linotype machine, which from the 1890s until the 1970s was the mainstay of typesetting around the world. Linotypes were equipped with a 90-character keyboard, and the first two vertical rows, on the left side of the keyboard, included the 12 letters in question. A Linotype operator's left hand controlled etaoin and sh (along with the space bar), while the right hand wandered all over the other 82 keys-and I can tell you from experience that your left hand, because of the letter frequency, was still twice as busy as your right!
When testing the machine or when deciding that a half-set line contained too many errors for easy correction, a Linotype operator would slide his fingers down the first two rows of keys, filling it with the famous sequence of nonsense letters. If the operator forgot to discard it, or if the proofreader missed it, the combo would find its way into print.
Just eight or 10 of you actually knew the answer based on your own experience. What I didn't take into account was the research power of Google and other search engines. About 140 of you used that fully legitimate means to check out what I thought was an esoteric and arcane bit of whimsy. Prof. Jason Baker of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., with a correct response on Friday, Sept. 2, was the winner of our admittedly offbeat contest.