Society

Fearless

Founded in the 1880s by Manhattan rationalists, the 13 Club held a regular dinner on the 13th of each month, seating 13 members at each table deliberately to laugh at superstition.

“I have given some attention to popular superstitions, and let me tell you that argument is powerless against them,” founding member Daniel Wolff told journalist Philip Hubert in 1890. “They have a grip upon the imagination that nothing but ridicule will lessen.” As an example he cited the tradition that the mirrors must be removed from a room in which a corpse is lying. “Make the experiment yourself, and the next time you are called upon to sit up with a corpse, notice how uncomfortable a mirror will make you feel,” he said. “Of course it is a matter of the imagination, but you can’t reason against it. All the ingrained terrors of six thousand years are in your bones. You walk across the floor and catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass. You start; was there not a spectral something behind you? So you cover it up.”

As honorary members the club recruited 16 U.S. senators, 12 governors, and six Army generals. Robert Green Ingersoll ended one 1886 toast by declaring, “We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.'”

But Oscar Wilde, for one, turned them down. “I love superstitions,” he wrote. “They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Don’t make us too offensively sane.”

(Thanks, David.)

“Very Sensible”

It was well remarked by an intelligent old farmer, ‘I would rather be taxed for the education of the boy, than the ignorance of the man. For one or the other I am compelled to pay.’

Southern Cultivator, January 1848

In a Word

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meretriculate
v. to deceive in the manner of a prostitute

BOW-STREET — Eliza Merchant, a black-eyed girl, of that class of women known as ‘unfortunates,’ was charged by Garnet Comerford, a sailor, with robbing him of four sovereigns, several dollars and half-crowns, and his shoes. The tar stated that on Wednesday evening, about eight o’clock he left the house of his Captain, the honourable Mr. Duncan, at the west end of town, intending to pay a visit to a sister, whom he had not seen since he left England in the Seringapatem. On the way, he met as tight a looking frigate as ever he clapt his eyes on. She hoisted friendly colours; he hove to; and they agreed together to steer into port. They sailed up the Strand, when she said she would tow him to a snug berth, and he should share her hammock for the night. He consented; and when he awoke in the morning he found that she had cut and run. His rigging had been thrown all about the room, his four sovereigns and silver, and shoes were carried off.

The Morning Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1828

In a Word

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chirography
n. one’s own handwriting or autograph; a style or character of writing

What is this? It’s the signature of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. When Lew was nominated for the post in January 2013, it threatened to appear on all U.S. paper currency for the duration of his tenure.

Barack Obama said, “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency, should he be confirmed as secretary of the Treasury.” He did so — the current signature is below.

Lew’s predecessor, Timothy Geithner, had a similarly incomprehensible signature and produced a more legible version for the currency. “I took handwriting in the third grade in New Delhi, India,” he said, “so I probably did not get the best instruction on handwriting.”

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Land of Opportunity

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Auguste Bartholdi patented the Statue of Liberty. In 1879, seven years before its dedication in New York Harbor, the French sculptor filed a one-page abstract describing his “design for a sculpture”:

The statue is that of a female figure standing erect upon a pedestal or block, the body being thrown slightly over to the left, so as to gravitate upon the left leg, the whole figure being thus in equilibrium, and symmetrically arranged with respect to a perpendicular line or axis passing through the head and left foot. The right leg, with its lower limb thrown back, is bent, resting upon the bent toe, thus giving grace to the general attitude of the figure. The body is clothed in the classical drapery, being a stola, or mantle gathered in upon the left shoulder and thrown over the skirt or tunic or under-garment, which drops in voluminous folds upon the feet. The right arm is thrown up and stretched out, with a flamboyant torch grasped in the hand. The flame of the torch is thus held high up above the figure. The arm is nude; the drapery of the sleeve is dropping down upon the shoulder in voluminous folds. In the left arm, which is falling against the body, is held a tablet, upon which is inscribed ‘4th July, 1776.’ This tablet is made to rest against the side of the body, above the hip, and so as to occupy an inclined position with relation thereto, exhibiting the inscription. The left hand clasps the tablet so as to bring the four fingers onto the face thereof. The head, with its classical, yet severe and calm, features, is surmounted by a crown or diadem, from which radiate divergingly seven rays, tapering from the crown, and representing a halo. The feet are bare and sandal-strapped.

Bartholdi also received copyright 9939G for his “Statue of American Independence,” and architect Richard Morris Hunt received copyrights for the pedestal.

Barry Moreno’s Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia (2005) recounts the memory of a German immigrant who encountered the statue in 1911: “I remember we see Statue of Liberty. Gus asked me, ‘What’s the statue?’ And then we’re looking … and his father say, ‘That’s Christopher Columbus.’ And I put my two cents out. I say, ‘Listen, this don’t look like Christopher Columbus. That’s a lady there.'”

The Wisdom of the Crowd

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At a livestock exhibition at Plymouth, England, in 1907, attendees were invited to guess the weight of an ox and to write their estimates on cards, with the most accurate estimates receiving prizes. About 800 tickets were issued, and after the contest these made their way to Francis Galton, who found them “excellent material.”

“The average competitor,” he wrote, “was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”

Happily for all of us, he found that the guesses in the aggregate were quite accurate. The middlemost estimate was 1,207 pounds, and the weight of the dressed ox proved to be 1,198 pounds, an error of 0.8 percent. This has been borne out in subsequent research: When a group of people make individual estimates of a quantity, the mean response tends to be fairly accurate, particularly when the crowd is diverse and the judgments are independent.

Galton wrote, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”

(Francis Galton, “Vox Populi,” Nature, March 7, 1907.)

A Second Paradox of Blackmail

We covered one paradox regarding blackmail in 2010: If it’s legal for me to reveal your secret, and it’s legal for me to ask you for money, why is it illegal for me to demand payment to keep your secret? In the words of Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren, “Why do two rights make a wrong?”

Here’s a second paradox: If you had initiated the same transaction — if you had offered to pay me for my silence, and I’d agreed — then we’d have the same outcome, but this time it’s legal. “It is considered paradoxical that the sale of secrecy is legal if it takes the form of a bribe, yet is illegal where the sale of secrecy takes the form of blackmail,” writes Loyola University economist Walter Block. “Why should the legality of a sale of secrecy depend entirely upon who initiates the transaction? Why is bribery legal but blackmail not?”

(Walter Block et al., “The Second Paradox of Blackmail,” Business Ethics Quarterly, July 2000.)

Particulars

We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, justice or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, individualized, unique. And consequently judgments as to acts to be performed must be similarly specific. … A man who aims at health as a distinct end becomes a valetudinarian, or a fanatic, or a mechanical performer of exercises, or an athlete so one-sided that his pursuit of bodily development injures his heart. When the endeavor to realize a so-called end does not temper and color all other activities, life is portioned out into strips and fractions. Certain acts and times are devoted to getting health, others to cultivating religion, others to seeking learning, to being a good citizen, a devotee of fine art and so on. This is the only logical alternative to subordinating all aims to the accomplishment of one alone — fanaticism. This is out of fashion at present, but who can say how much of distraction and dissipation in life, and how much of its hard and narrow rigidity is the outcome of men’s failure to realize that each situation has its own unique end and that the whole personality should be concerned with it?

— John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920

Reflection

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“Sir Winston Churchill once told me of a reply made by the Duke of Wellington, in his last years, when a friend asked him: ‘If you had your life over again, is there any way in which you could have done better?’ The old Duke replied: ‘Yes, I should have given more praise.'” — Bernard Montgomery, A History of Warfare, 1968

The Panopticon

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In the 18th century Jeremy Bentham proposed building a circular prison in which well-lit cells face a central “inspection house” where a single watchman dwells. Because the prisoners can’t see the watchman, they never know when they’re being watched and so must constantly police their own behavior.

Bentham called this “a mill for grinding rogues honest” and listed the benefits in the preface to a 1791 book: “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

He was so taken with the idea that he proposed putting it into practice himself. “Allow me to construct a prison on this model,” he wrote to the Committee for the Reform of Criminal Law. “I will be the gaoler. You will see … that the gaoler will have no salary — will cost nothing to the nation.” He spent much of the 1790s pursuing the project, but he couldn’t find enduring support for it and nothing was ever built.

(Thanks, Anna.)

In a Word

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vitilitigate
v. to be particularly quarrelsome

rixation
n. a quarrel or argument

cavillation
n. the raising of quibbles

snoutband
n. one who constantly contradicts his companions

Behind Schedule

In 1980 Philip K. Dick was asked to forecast some significant events in the coming years. Among his predictions:

1983: The Soviet Union will develop an operational particle-beam accelerator, making missile attack against that country impossible. At the same time the U.S.S.R. will deploy this weapon as a satellite killer. The U.S. will turn, then, to nerve gas.

1989: The U.S. and the Soviet Union will agree to set up one vast metacomputer as a central source for information available to the entire world; this will be essential due to the huge amount of information coming into existence.

1993: An artificial life form will be created in a lab, probably in the U.S.S.R., thus reducing our interest in locating life forms on other planets.

1997: The first closed-dome colonies will be successfully established on Luna and on Mars. Through DNA modification, quasi-mutant humans will be created who can survive under non-Terran conditions, i.e., alien environments.

1998: The Soviet Union will test a propulsion drive that moves a starship at the velocity of light; a pilot ship will set out for Proxima Centaurus, soon to be followed by an American ship.

2000: An alien virus, brought back by an interplanetary ship, will decimate the population of Earth, but leave the colonies on Luna and Mars intact.

2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.

Also: “Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts.”

(From David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, The Book of Predictions, 1980.)

Unquote

Weil’s Law of University Hiring: “First-rate people hire other first-rate people. Second-rate people hire third-rate people. Third-rate people hire fifth-rate people.” (from French mathematician André Weil)

“Slowness is frequently the cause of much greater slowness.” — Montesquieu

Client Management

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A good anecdote is told of Josquin [des Prez] and his royal patron, Louis XII. The king was particularly fond of a certain popular song, and desired Josquin to arrange it for several voices, and to include a part for himself (Louis). The last condition was rather a puzzle for the composer, as the king knew nothing of music, and had a very bad and unpliant voice; however, he set to work, wrote a canon on the melody for two boys’ voices, added a part for the king which he marked ‘Vox Regis,’ consisting of only one constantly repeated note, and placed below a bass part which he took himself.

Musical Times, June 1, 1884

Parting Words

The 2007 funeral of Amir Vehabović was poorly attended — 46 people had been invited to the ceremony, but only his mother turned up.

The other 45 received this letter:

To all my dear ‘friends,’

Some of you I have known since early school days, others I have only forged a relationship with in the last few years. Until my ‘funeral,’ I considered all of you close friends. So it was with shock and, I admit, sadness and anger that I realized not one of you managed to find the time to come and say goodbye to me when you heard I was to be buried. I would have understood if just some of you came, bearing flowers or words of apology from others who could not make it. But no. Not a single one of you turned up to pay your last respects. I lived for our friendships. They meant as much to me as life itself. But how easy it was for you all to forget the pledges of undying friendship I heard on so many occasions. How different our ideas of friendship seem to be. I paid a lot of money to get a fake death certificate and to bribe undertakers to handle an empty coffin. I thought my funeral would be a good joke — the kind of prank we have all played on one another over the years. Now I have just one last message for you: my ‘funeral’ might have been staged, but you might as well consider me dead, because I will not be seeing any of you again.

Safe Travel

London resident Louisa Llewellin filed this dramatic patent in 1904. If there’s a story behind it, I haven’t been able to discover it:

This invention relates to improvements in gloves for self-defence and other purposes and more especially for the use of ladies who travel alone and are therefore liable to be assailed by thieves and others.

The object is to provide means whereby a person’s face can be effectually disfigured and the display of the article which forms the subject of my invention would speedily warn an assailant of what he might expect should he not desist from pursuing his evil designs, and the fact that he would in the case of persistance be sure to receive marks which would make him a noticeable figure would act as a deterrent.

In carrying my invention into effect I provide gloves having sharp steel nails or talons at the ends of the fingers with or without similar talons on other parts of the gloves.

In use the gloves could be worn during the whole journey or put on when required and by drawing them over a person’s face it would be so severely scratched as to effectually prevent the majority of people from continuing their molestations.

She adds, “The invention can also be used by mountain climbers to enable them to catch hold of whatever they pass over during a fall.”

Crime and Punishment

In the eyes of the law, a corporation is a person. But it’s a strangely bodiless person, which makes it tricky to punish with laws designed for human offenders.

Tired of this, federal judge Robert Doumar in 1988 sentenced Allegheny Bottling Company to three years in prison and a fine of $1 million. The company had been caught in a price-fixing scheme that cheated consumers out of at least $10 million. “Congress has not said a corporation could not be imprisoned,” Doumar said. “This court will deal with any individual who similarly disregards the law.”

How? The court decided that the essence of imprisonment is restraint, or a deprivation of liberty, and that it could restrain or immobilize a corporation — by closing the physical plant and guarding it, for example. Doumar suspended the sentence but said that if the company violated its probation he would send a U.S. Marshal to “padlock every facility Allegheny owns.”

“Some 200 years ago, the Lord Chancellor of England said, ‘You cannot expect a corporation to have a conscience when it has no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked,'” he said. “Obviously, Allegheny Bottling Company did not have a conscience.”

More recently, California resident Jonathan Frieman put a charity’s incorporation papers in his passenger seat and drove in the carpool lane, arguing that his car now had multiple occupants.

“After I explained the reason I was citing him, he explained to me that he was exempt because he was in essence a corporation,” CHP Officer Troy Dorn testified. “I explained to him I was not sure about his standing as a corporation but he could explain it later in a Marin County court.”

Jurist Frank Drago admired the novelty of Frieman’s argument but said, “I look at it a little differently. … Common sense says carrying a sheath of papers in the front seat does not relieve traffic congestion. And so I’m finding you guilty.”

Pomp and Circumstance

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Why do we hold graduation ceremonies? You don’t have to attend the ceremony to collect your degree; your education would be just as complete without it. Why do we maintain this seemingly needless ritual?

Philosopher Elijah Millgram argues that the ceremony provides a motivation to persist through an otherwise uninspiring mountain of work. Education is a “jam-yesterday-jam-tomorrow” good — we value it when it’s in our future or in our past, but the experience itself is often stressful, difficult, or boring. “On any given occasion, a student is likely to be plowing through a hard-to-read book, or writing a difficult paper, or trying not to doze off in lecture,” he writes. “The education is all these things, and is correctly understood to be a great (and an intrinsic) good; but it is hard to stay focused on its value just because one does not see it, moment to moment.”

The graduation ceremony, with its colors, music, and ritual, provides a highly visible “dummy goal” that helps to motivate students to complete their requirements. Without it, the vague prospect of “jam tomorrow” — the promised satisfaction of holding a degree — might be too little to spur some students to finish their studies. “If students had to make their own moment-to-moment decisions as to whether to read the book, or write the paper, or stay in the lecture, on the basis of its intangible contribution to their education,” Millgram writes, “they would be all too likely to put off the unpleasant tasks to some other time.”

(Elijah Millgram, “Virtue for Procrastinators,” in Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, eds., The Thief of Time, 2010.)

The Stag Hunt

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Rousseau asks: Suppose that you and I hunt a stag. This requires long hours lying in wait along the trail, and it entails the risk that the stag will not appear. If, after some time has passed, a hare appears, either of us could seize it, abandoning the hope of capturing the stag but getting an immediate meal for himself. To hunt the stag successfully we have to agree to trust one another, knowing that each of us has an immediate reason to betray the other.

This gets even harder when many people are involved. David Hume writes, “Two neighbors may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each others mind, and each may perceive that the immediate consequence of failing in his part is the abandoning of the whole project. But ’tis difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action.”

How did our society ever get off the ground when cooperation requires a faith in one another that simple self-reliance does not? It seems that our very rationality makes such a leap harder: Animals such as social insects work harmoniously together, but “the agreement of these creatures is natural,” writes Thomas Hobbes. “That of men is by covenant only, which is artificial.”

Carper’s Index

No one knows who devised the cross-references in William Hawkins’ 1795 Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, but he was either very wry or very cynical:

Cattle see Clergy.
Chastity see Homicide.
Coin see High Treason.
Convicts see Clergy.
Death see Appeal.
Election see Bribery.
Fear see Robbery.
Footway see Nuisance.
Honour see Constable.
Incapacity see Officers.
King see Treason.
Knaves see Words.
Letters see Libel.
London see Outlawry.
Shop see Burglary.
Threats see Words.
Westminster Hall see Contempt and Lie.

“A plain, unlettered man is led to suspect that the writer of the volume and the writer of the index are playing at cross purposes,” noted the Monthly Magazine. Perhaps they were.

In a Word

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macrobian
adj. long-lived

annosity
n. fullness of years, length of life, agedness

Index entries from A. Lapthorn Smith’s How to Be Useful and Happy From Sixty to Ninety, 1922:

Absurdity of voluntary retirement at sixty
Adding ten years to life
Alcohol as cure for insomnia, very bad
All day in garden
Beard, long white, don’t wear
Carriage and pair shortens life
Cause of insomnia must be found
Cook, good, source of danger to elderly men
Crime to die rich
Engine drivers over sixty, what to do with them
Garrett, Mrs., of Penge, active voter at 102
If no relatives, spend on poor
Young people, company of, at sixty, how to keep

See Jonathan Swift’s “Resolutions — When I Come to Be Old.”

Flash Mob

Pipe plot - 1877 - George Henry Boughton

When Wilhelm Kieft tried to outlaw smoking in New Amsterdam in the 1630s, he brought on a unique protest. Washington Irving writes:

A mob of factious citizens had … the hardihood to assemble before the governor’s house, where, setting themselves resolutely down, like a besieging army before a fortress, they one and all fell to smoking with a determined perseverance, that seemed as though it were their intention to smoke him into terms. The testy William issued out of his mansion like a wrathful spider, and demanded to know the cause of this seditious assemblage, and this lawless fumigation; to which these sturdy rioters made no other reply, than to loll back phlegmatically in their seats, and puff away with redoubled fury; whereby they raised such a murky cloud, that the governor was fain to take refuge in the interior of his castle.

Wilhelm finally gave in — people could smoke, he said, but they had to give up long pipes. “Thus ended this alarming insurrection, which was long known by the name of the pipe plot, and which, it has been somewhat quaintly observed, did end, like most other plots, seditions, and conspiracies, in mere smoke.”

(Thanks, Dan.)

Self Sacrifice

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Educator Bronson Alcott punished students by making them punish him:

“One day I called up before me a pupil eight or ten years of age, who had violated an important regulation of the school. All the pupils were looking on, and they knew what the rule of the school was. I put the ruler into the hand of that offending pupil; I extended my hand; I told him to strike. The instant the boy saw my extended hand, and heard my command to strike, I saw a struggle begin in his face. A new light sprang up in his countenance. A new set of shuttles seemed to be weaving a new nature within him. I kept my hand extended, and the school was in tears. The boy struck once, and he himself burst into tears. I constantly watched his face, and he seemed in a bath of fire, which was giving him a new nature. He had a different mood toward the school and toward the violated law. The boy seemed transformed by the idea that I should take chastisement in place of his punishment. He went back to his seat, and ever after was one of the most docile of all the pupils in that school, although he had been at first one of the rudest.”

Some of this may have been wishful thinking. Alcott’s grand ideas were often poorly received, and he found it a struggle to support his family, including daughter Louisa May. He once told his mother he was “still at my old trade — hoping.”

A Point of Law

A gentleman, who had been described as a ‘Pettifogger,’ accused another gentleman, whom he had styled a ‘Fish-fag,’ with an assault. It being a very intricate point, it was of course referred to the Lord Mayor. It stood as follows: — ‘Whether puffing a cloud of tobacco-smoke in a man’s face constituted an assault?’ After some grave consultation with that encyclopaedia of wisdom, Mr. Hobler, the decision ran thus — The Lord Mayor: ‘There has been no assault; nothing but words, words.’ — Complainant: ‘I beg pardon, my Lord.’ — The Lord Mayor: ‘Well, then, all smoke, if you please, or words and puffs. There have been no blows.’ — Now we beg his Lordship’s pardon. Pray what is a puff but a blow?

The Age, Aug. 8, 1830