Self-Service

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A Mrs. Harris published this verse in Golden Days on Oct. 10, 1885:

He squanders recklessly his cash
In cultivating a mustache;
A shameless fop is Mr. Dude,
Vain, shallow, fond of being viewed.
‘Tis true that he is quite a swell —
A smile he has for every belle;
What time he has to spare from dress
Is taken up with foolishness —
A witless youth, whose feeble brain
Incites him oft to chew his cane.
Leave dudes alone, nor ape their ways,
Male readers of these Golden Days.

It reads so naturally that it’s surprising to find that it contains a double acrostic: Taking the fourth letter of each line spells out QUANTITATIVE, and taking the last letter spells out HEEDLESSNESS.

Sunrise, Sunset

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Is it unjust to adopt a constitution that binds both ourselves and future members of our society? We need a set of fundamental laws to regulate ourselves, but is it fair to extend that to future citizens? Shouldn’t they have the right to choose their own rules?

Thomas Jefferson thought so. In a 1789 letter to James Madison, he held that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living”: He thought a constitution (or any law) should expire automatically when succeeding generations make up a majority of the population. “The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished … in their natural course with those who gave them being,” he wrote. “This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. … If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

There’s a tension here: In order for a constitution to be successful, it has to define the organization of its society and the freedoms of its citizens, and these rules need to remain in effect for at least several generations in order to produce a healthy liberal democracy. “But those born under a perpetual constitution are expected to acquiesce to the foundational norms approved by their predecessors with neither their consent nor their participation,” writes McGill University political philosopher Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli. “If a constitution is discussed, negotiated, and approved by citizens who are, necessarily, contemporaries, what normatively binding force does it retain for future generations who took no part in its discussion, negotiation, or approval?”

(Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli, “The Problem of a Perpetual Constitution,” in Axel Gosseries and Lukas H. Meyer, eds., Intergenerational Justice, 2009.)

Downtime

Recreations listed in Who’s Who by eccentric Scottish MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn:

1975: Creative
1976: Creating
1977: Bunking and debunking
1979: Upholding what’s right and demolishing what’s left
1980: Giving and forgiving
1981: The cure and eradication of British tick fever
1983: Being blunt and sharp at the same time
1984: Philanthropy and philogyny
1986: Ornitholatry
1987: Serving queens, restoring castles, debunking bishops, entertaining knights, befriending pawns
1988: Snookering the reds and all other proctalgias
1989: Draining brains and scanning bodies
1990: Growling, prowling, scowling and owling
1991: Loving beauty and beautifying love
1993: Drawing ships, making quips, confounding Whigs and scuttling drips
1995: Languishing and sandwiching

In 1973 he listed his recreations as “Making love, ends meet and people laugh.” He said, “I think most people, if they were honest, will admit that those were their main recreations — apart, perhaps, from Ted Heath, who would probably miss out on the first and third.”

(from Neil Hamilton, Great Political Eccentrics, 1999.)

Missing You

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The first men to spend a winter in Antarctica were so desperate for feminine society that they organized a “beauty contest” among the illustrations in a Paris journal. Icebound in the Bellinghausen Sea in 1898, the men of the Belgian research ship Belgica numbered 464 magazine pictures, “illustrating women famous for graces of form and manner, and public notoriety,” and for each of its members the group chose the woman “most suitable for his welfare, happiness, etc.” They also awarded a “prize of honor” to the most beautiful woman:

https://books.google.com/books?id=BRs-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA251

The rules say that hydrographer Georges Lecointe, “Minister of the Land of Beautiful Women,” planned to send the awards to the women themselves when the ship reached port. I don’t know whether this ever happened. “The presentation of the prizes is conditional upon the later appearance of the woman before the committee to exhibit the parts for which ballot has been cast, not for re-examination, but to obtain an official photograph.”

(From Cook’s Through the First Antarctic Night, 1900.)

A Modest Proposal

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Mr. J. Armour-Milne refers to ‘the amount of drivel that is to be found in the Letters to the Editor.’ Whether or not you, in fact, publish drivel is not for me to decide, but a sure method of raising the standard of letters that you receive would be not only to publish your usual selection of letters, but also to print, each day, a complete list of the names of those correspondents whose letters you have rejected. The thought of possibly being included in your Rejects List, and then to have one’s acquaintances saying, ‘I see that you have had yet another letter refused by The Times,’ would be too much of a risk for most people.

— P.H.H. Moore, letter to the London Times, 1970

Shifting Ground

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For her 2000 book Obituaries in American Culture, Janice Hume collated thousands of newspaper death notices to reveal the most admired characteristics of American men in various eras:

1818: Patriotism, gallantry, vigilance, boldness, merit as an officer
1838: Benevolence, intellect, kindness, affection, indulgence, devotion to family
1855: Public esteem, activity, amiability, fame, intelligence, generosity
1870: Christianity, education, generosity, energy, perseverance, eminence
1910: Professional accomplishments, wealth, long years at work, associations, education
1930: Long years at work, career promotions, education, associations, prominence, fame

In general, men who died in the 19th century were remembered for personal virtues such as piety and kindness, while 20th-century obituaries listed associations and accomplishments. Women, when they were remembered at all in 1818, were praised for passive traits such as patience, resignation, obedience, and amiability; by 1930 women were becoming recognized for accomplishments such as political voice and philanthrophy, but their most noted attribute was still their association with men.

One for All?

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Image: Flickr

Suppose that there’s a power outage in your neighborhood. If someone calls the electric company, they’ll send someone to fix the problem. This puts you in a dilemma: If someone else makes the call, then you’ll benefit without having to do anything. But if no one calls, then you’ll all remain in the dark, which is the worst outcome:

volunteer's dilemma payoff matrix

This is the “volunteer’s dilemma,” a counterpart to the famous prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Each participant has a greater incentive for “free riding” than acting, but if no one acts, then everyone loses.

A more disturbing example is the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death outside her New York City apartment in 1964. According to urban lore, many neighbors who were aware of the attack chose not to contact the police, trusting that someone else would make the call but hoping to avoid “getting involved.” Genovese died of her wounds.

In a 1988 paper, game theorist Anatol Rapaport noted, “In the U.S. Infantry Manual published during World War II, the soldier was told what to do if a live grenade fell into the trench where he and others were sitting: to wrap himself around the grenade so as to at least save the others. (If no one ‘volunteered,’ all would be killed, and there were only a few seconds to decide who would be the hero.)”

The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Yaghan word mamihlapinatapai as the “most succinct word.” It’s defined as “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin.”

(From William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 1992.)

Heady Matters

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Hat-wearing rules in the British House of Commons, 1900:

At all times remove your hat on entering the House and put it on upon taking your seat; remove it again on rising for whatever purpose. If the MP asks a Question he will stand with his hat off and he may receive the Minister’s answer seated and with his hat on. If, on a Division, he should have to challenge the ruling of the Chair, he will sit and put his hat on. If he wishes to address the Speaker on a Point of Order not connected with a Division, he will do so standing with his hat off. When he leaves the Chamber to participate in a Division he will take his hat off, but will vote with it on.

As the century wore on hats grew rare, but technically a Member still had to be properly “seated and covered” to raise a Point of Order during a Division. Accordingly the Serjeant at Arms began to keep two collapsible opera hats for the purpose. In Great Political Eccentrics, Neil Hamilton writes, “Often, several Members wished to raise Points of Order in rapid succession, causing the opera hat to race around the Chamber like a relay baton.”

During one hot spell in July 1893, T.P. O’Connor called Joseph Chamberlain a Judas and a brawl broke out. In the words of Chamberlain’s biographer, “one could see the teeth set, the eyes flashing, faces aflame with wrath and a thicket of closed fists beating about in wild confusion.”

In the midst of this the Serjeant at Arms appeared and addressed himself to a Member standing below the gangway. “I beg your pardon,” he said, “but you’re standing up with your hat on, which you know is a breach of order.”

09/15/2016 UPDATE: The tradition lives on in the Australian House of Representatives: Just two weeks ago MP Christopher Pyne, stuck without a tophat, held a sheet of paper over his head while speaking to Labor’s Tony Burke. Members are required to “speak covered” when the Speaker has called a division.

Big News

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The Soviet Union took propaganda to a ludicrous extreme in the 1930s with the Maksim Gorki, a multimedia communications empire in the sky. With a wingspan of 206 feet and a takeoff weight of 42 tons, it was the largest land aircraft ever built at the time, requiring eight huge 900-horsepower engines to get aloft.

Aboard were a complete printing plant, capable of printing 10,000 copies per hour of an illustrated 12″ x 16″ newspaper, a photographic darkroom, and a high-speed radio apparatus and telegraph. On the ground, a projection room could cast movies onto a folding screen for up to 10,000 spectators through a window in the fuselage.

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“The aircraft also contained a cafe, its own internal telephone exchange, and sleeping quarters and toilets,” notes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft. “Four auxiliary engines were required to generate the power to run the huge loudspeakers that broadcast the Soviet message down upon the astonished peasants over which the aircraft flew, and at night to power a system of lights along the underside flashing slogans.” Whether anyone wanted to hear all this is another question.

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.”