The Enemy Within

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla circulated an essay among his friends titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” He listed five fundamental laws:

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The diagram above elaborates the third law. Intelligent people contribute to society and themselves benefit by this. Helpless people make contributions but are victimized in return. Bandits seek to help themselves, even if this means harming those around them. And stupid people harm both themselves and others. This makes stupid people even more pernicious than bandits: While a bandit’s behavior is at least comprehensible, “you have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy.”

The full essay is here. “Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm,” Cipolla writes. “Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation — or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”

Sorted

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In the U.S. presidential election of 1884, Republican James G. Blaine was accused of having sold his influence in Congress and of manipulating stocks. Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock and had paid a substitute $150 to take his place in the Civil War. One journalist wrote:

Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is so admirably fitted to adorn.

The people agreed, narrowly electing Cleveland and breaking a six-election losing streak for the Democrats.

Love Maps

land of tenderness

Here’s why your relationships keep falling apart — finding the right course is almost impossible. The French noblewoman Madeleine de Scudéry devised this map of the “Land of Tenderness” in 1653, for her romance Clelia. A couple starting at New Friendship, at the bottom, can take any of four roads. Two of them stay safely near the River of Inclination: One of these passes through Complacency, Submission, Small Cares, Assiduity, Empressment, Great Services, Sensibility, Tenderness, Obedience, and Constant Friendship to reach “Tender Upon Recognisance”; the other passes through Great Spirit, Pleasing Verses, A Gallant Letter, An Amorous Letter, Sincerity, A Great Heart, Honesty, Generosity, Exactness, Respect, and Goodness to reach “Tender Upon Esteem.” But there are two more dangerous outer roads: One passes through Indiscretion, Perfidiousness, Obloquy, and Mischief to end in the Sea of Enmity; the other through Negligence, Inequality, Lukewarmness, Lightness, and Forgetfulness to reach the Lake of Indifference. And even lovers who reach a happy outcome may go too far, passing into the Dangerous Sea and perhaps beyond it into Countreys Undiscovered.

road of love

Even worse is this vision, a “Map or Chart of the Road of Love, and Harbour of Marriage” published by “T.P. Hydrographer, to his Majesty Hymen, and Prince Cupid” in 1772. The traveler has to find the way from the Sea of Common Life at left to Felicity Harbour and the Land of Promise at right, and the only way to get there is by the Harbour of Marriage, in which lurk Henpecked Sand and the disastrous Whirlpool of Adultery. The explanation at the bottom describes the treacherous course:

From the Sea of Common Life, we enter the Road of Love thro’ Blindmans Straits, between two noted Capes or Headlands; steering first for Money, Lust, and sometimes Virtue, but many Vessels endeavouring to make the latter are lost in the Whirlpool of Beauty; from this Road are many outlets, yet some Mariners neither steer through these, nor continue their Voyage but come to their Moorings at Fastasleep Creek. Those who proceed reach Cape Ceremony, pass into the Harbour of Marriage through Fruition Straits and touch at Cape Extasy; care must be taken to keep still to the Starboard, lest we run upon sunken Rocks which lye about Cape Repentance; a good Pilot will also keep clear of the Rocks of Jealousy & Cuckoldom Bay and at least get into that of Content, some have past pleasant Straits and have arrived safe at Felicity Harbour, a Monsoon constantly blows from Fruition Straits quite up the Road, which renders a Passage back impracticable; a Tornado also arises sooner or later in those Parts and drives all Shipping tho moor’d at Content & even Felicity itself, thro the Gulf of Death, the only Outlet, terminating in the Lake of Rest.

The map provides some general advice: “Your Virtue must your Pilot be; Your Compass, Prudence, Peace your Sea; Your Anchor, Hope; your Sto[w]age, Love; (To your true Course still constant prove) Your Ballast, Sense, and Reason pure, Must ever be your Cynosure.”

(From Ashley Baynton-Williams, The Curious Map Book, 2015.)

Crime and Punishment

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

German playwright Ernst Toller was arrested for socialist activities in 1919. His 1937 collection of letters from prison, Look Through the Bars, includes this memory:

Stadelheim 1919

Dear ——,

We are a hundred men here in prison, separated from our wives for months. Every conversation between any two men always ends in the same way — women.

The high walls prevent any view. Within the walls is a small hut. It was, we heard, some sort of wash-house, which was not used. One day one of us saw that the shutters of the hut were opened. He saw two women at work. One stayed in the wash-house, the other went away and locked the door. Soon we knew all. The two women were a wardress and a prisoner, who was to be released in a short time. She had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for child-murder. She had already served five years; in a few weeks’ time she was to be pardoned.

It would be too complicated to tell you how we contrived to exchange notes with the girl. First playful and harmless ones, then feverish, passionate and confused ones. Everything which, in that closed-in existence, had come in dreams, wishes and fantasies went out to that woman. One morning she gave us a signal. We were to stand near the window at a certain hour.

Impossible to describe what happened. The woman opened her dress and stood naked at the window. She was surprised and taken away. We never saw her again. But we learned that the pardon had been annulled.

Never has a woman moved me so much as that little prisoner, who, in order to make men happy for a few seconds (in a very questionable way) suffered with unsophisticated wisdom three more years in prison.

Query

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Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife, Mina, in Morse code.

“My later courtship was carried on by telegraph,” he wrote in his diary. “I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word ‘Yes’ is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak of it, she might have found it harder.”

Appeals

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Advertisements in the Sing Sing inmate newspaper Star of Hope, May 19, 1900:

WANTED — A home-like home. Present one, not what it is cracked up to be. Address Clinton 4,320.

WANTED — A good night’s rest. Gallery shouters and instrumentalists take note. Nemo, Star Office.

WANTED — An eraser, (must be mighty sharp) to blot out the past. A stock of experience, (fringed and threadbare) given in exchange. For particulars, Auburn 20,101.

WANTED — That rara avis, the con who does not think he is better able to manage the Star than the present Editor. Applications solicited by Sing Sing 51,094.

WANTED — A few blank pages in the Book of Life, wherein we desire to make some new entries — on the Cr. side. Address Summa Summarum, New York State Prisons.

WANTED — Immediately — an Opportunity. Price no object if goods are fair and in good working order. Anxious, Clinton 4,298.

WANTED — Anno Domini 1902. Will give in exchange one and a quarter yards of warranted genuine, homemade Spring po’ms — just too lovely for every day wear. Samantha, Auburn 595 (W. P.)

LOST — Five days’ ‘short time.’ Finder can have same by arranging with the Powers That Be. Address Nostalgic, Auburn 20,210.

(From Karel Weiss, The Prison Experience, 1976.)

A Separate Peace

After 30 years of searching, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton thinks he’s found the “quietest square inch in the United States.” It’s marked by a red pebble that he placed on a log at 47°51’57.5″N, 123°52’13.3″W, in a corner of the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in western Washington state. The area is actually full of sounds, but the sounds are natural — by quietest, Hempton means that this point is subject to less human-made noise pollution than any other spot in the American wilderness.

Hempton hopes to protect the space by creating a law that would prohibit air traffic overhead. “From a quiet place, you can really feel the impact of even a single jet in the sky,” he told the BBC. “It’s the loudest sound going. The cone of noise it drags behind it expands to fill more than 1,000 square miles. We wanted to see if a point of silence could ripple out in the same way.”

His website, One Square Inch, has more information about his campaign. “Unless something is done,” he told Outside Online, “we’ll see the complete extinction of quiet in the U.S. in our lifetime.”

Class Warfare

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“There is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school.” — George Bernard Shaw

“I sometimes think it would be better to drown children than to lock them up in present-day schools.” — Marie Curie

“Nearly 12 years of school … form not only the least agreeable, but the only barren and unhappy period of my life. … It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony. … I would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messenger boy, or helped my father to dress the front windows of a grocer’s shop. It would have been real; it would have been natural; it would have taught me more; and I should have done it much better.” — Winston Churchill

“Not one of you sitting round this table could run a fish-and-chip shop.” — Howard Florey, 1945 Nobel laureate in medicine, to the governing body of Queen’s College, Oxford, of which he was provost

Podcast Episode 113: The Battle Over Mother’s Day

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Anna Jarvis organized the first observance of Mother’s Day in 1908 and campaigned to have the holiday adopted throughout the country. But her next four decades were filled with bitterness and acrimony as she watched her “holy day” devolve into a “burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift-day.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll follow the evolution of Mother’s Day and Jarvis’ belligerent efforts to control it.

We’ll also meet a dog that flummoxed the Nazis and puzzle over why a man is fired for doing his job too well.

Intro:

For its December 1897 issue, The Strand engaged three acrobats to create a “human alphabet.”

In 1989 researchers discovered a whale in the Pacific that calls at 52 hertz — the only one of its kind.

Sources for our feature on Anna Jarvis:

Katharine Lane Antolini, Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control for Mother’s Day, 2014.

Katharine Lane Antolini, “The Woman Behind Mother’s Day,” Saturday Evening Post 288:3 (May/June 2016), 82-86.

“Miss Anna Jarvis Has New Program for Mother’s Day,” The [New London, Conn.] Day, May 9, 1912.

“The Forgotten Mother of Mother’s Day,” Milwaukee Journal, May 13, 1944.

“Founder of Mother’s Day Dies Penniless, Blind at 84,” Pittsburgh Press, Nov. 26, 1948.

Cynthia Lowry, “Woman Responsible for Mother’s Day Died Without Sympathy for Way It Turned Out,” Associated Press, May 4, 1958.

Associated Press, “Mrs. Anna Jarvis Inspires ‘Mother’s Day’ Observance,” May 10, 1959.

Daniel Mark Epstein, “The Mother of Mother’s Day,” Toledo Blade, May 3, 1987.

Marshall S. Berdan, “Change of Heart,” Smithsonian 38:2 (May 2007), 116-116.

Jackie the parodic Dalmatian:

“Hitler-Saluting Dog Outraged Nazis,” World War II 26:1 (May/June 2011), 16.

“Hitler-Mocking Dog Enraged Nazis, According to New Documents,” Telegraph, Jan. 7, 2011.

“Nazi Germany Pursued ‘Hitler Salute’ Finnish Dog,” BBC, Jan. 7, 2011.

Kirsten Grieshaber, “‘Heil Rover!’ Hitler-Imitating Dog Enraged Nazis,” NBC News, Jan. 7, 2011.

Nick Carbone, “Man’s Best Fuhrer: Was Hitler-Saluting Dog a Threat to the Nazis?”, Time, Jan. 9, 2011.

Michael Slackman, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Finland Who Was Trained to Give a Nazi Salute,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2011.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

One World

Malcolm Townsend’s U.S.: An Index to the United States of America (1890) contains this table of absurd racial hair-splitting from 1850s Louisiana:

olmsted table

The source is Frederick Law Olmsted’s A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, from 1856.

Olmsted wrote, “All these varieties exist in New Orleans with sub-varieties, and experts pretend to be able to distinguish them.”