Society

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

Money Market

A curious bet was made in one of the London clubs, some years ago, that will doubtless point a moral. It was that a certain member could not, within two hours, on London-bridge, sell one hundred new guineas at a penny apiece.

The man took his place on the bridge with a little tray on which he had the coins. He informed the passers-by that they were genuine gold coins from the Bank of England, and that they were to be had for a penny each.

The cartmen and policemen laughed at him. When the time had expired, such is human incredulity, that he had sold but two, which a maid-servant bought to amuse her two little charges.

London Reader, July 11, 1885

Supply and Demand

The Waterford Chronicle requests that persons supplying the Journal with obituaries will attend to the following scale of prices (the idea is droll); for a simple death two shillings and sixpence. For the death of a person deeply regretted, five shillings. For the death of a person who lived a perfect pattern of all the Christian virtues, and died regretted by the whole country, ten shillings. For the death of a person who possessed extensive literature and profound erudition, superadded to which, his whole life was remarkable for piety, humility, charity, and self-denial, one pound. For the death of a lady, whose husband is inconsolable for her loss, and who was the delight of the circle in which she moved, one pound ten shillings. For the death of a gentleman, who had only been six months married, who was an example of every conjugal and domestic virtue, and whose widow is in a state of anguish bordering on distraction, two pounds. For the death of an aristocrat, who was a pattern of meekness, a model of humility, a patron of distressed genius, a genuine philanthropist, an exemplary Christian, an extensive alms-giver, profoundly learned, unremitting to the duties of his station, kind, hospitable, and affectionate to his tenantry, and whose name will be remembered and his loss deplored to the latest posterity, five pounds. For every additional good quality, whether domestic, moral, or religious, there will be an additional charge.

Birmingham Journal, Aug. 21, 1830

Damnatio Memoriae

In October 1780, a month after Benedict Arnold defected to the British, this acrostic appeared in American newspapers:

B orn for a curse to virtue and mankind,
E arth’s broadest realm ne’er knew so black a mind.
N ight’s sable veil your crimes can never hide,
E ach one so great, ‘twould glut historic tide.
D efunct, your cursed memory will live
I n all the glare that infamy can give.
C urses of ages will attend your name,
T raitors alone will glory in your shame.

A lmighty vengeance sternly waits to roll
R ivers of sulphur on your treacherous soul:
N ature looks shuddering back with conscious dread
O n such a tarnished blot as she has made.
L et hell receive you, riveted in chains,
D oomed to the hottest focus of its flames.

Arnold’s perfidy so blackened his name that he’s strangely absent even from his own memorials. A monument (above) at the site of the Battle of Saratoga depicts only a boot, to reflect the leg wound that ended Arnold’s fighting career. His name appears nowhere in the inscription:

In memory of
the “most brilliant soldier” of the
Continental Army
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
American Revolution
and for himself the rank of
Major General.

A second monument at Saratoga includes four niches: Three contain statues of Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, and Daniel Morgan, but the fourth niche is empty.

And West Point displays a commemorative plaque for every general who served in the revolution. One plaque bears a rank and a date (“Major General / Born 1740″), but no name.

Unquote

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“It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety.” — Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1856

The Telltale Mart

The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”

In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.

If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.

So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.

A New Life

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Life in Puritan New England was so hard that children who were abducted by Native Americans often refused to come back. Eunice Williams, abducted in 1704 at age 7, refused to leave the Kahnawake Mohawks despite her father’s pleas — he found she had forgotten the English language and adopted Indian clothing and hairstyle. “She is obstinately resolved to live and dye here,” he wrote, “and will not so much as give me one pleasant look.” The Mohawks were much more indulgent of children than the colonists, and women were counted equal to men and played an integral role in society and politics. Eunice married a Mohawk and lived with him for half a century.

A returned captive named Titus King reported that many young captives responded similarly. “In Six months time they Forsake Father & mother, Forgit thir own Land, Refuess to Speak there own toungue & Seeminly be Holley Swallowed up with the Indians.” In 1753 Ben Franklin wrote:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble there is no perswading him ever to return. … When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

A 14-year-old named James McCullough, who lived with the Indians for eight years, had to be brought back in fetters, his legs tied under his horse’s belly and arms tied behind his back. Even so he escaped and returned to his Indian family. Children “redeemed” by the English often “cried as if they should die when they were presented to us.” The Indians freed children of the work obligations they faced in the colonies — boys hunted, caught fish, and gathered nuts; and girls cultivated corn but had no master “to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.”

(From Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, 2004.)

One Solution

Excerpt from the 1791 will of an English gentleman who had been sent unwillingly to live in Tipperary:

I give and bequeath the annual sum of ten pounds, to be paid in perpetuity out of my estate, to the following purpose. It is my will and pleasure that this sum shall be spent in the purchase of a certain quantity of the liquor vulgarly called whisky, and it shall be publicly given out that a certain number of persons, Irish only, not to exceed twenty, who may choose to assemble in the cemetery in which I shall be interred, on the anniversary of my death, shall have the same distributed to them. Further, it is my desire that each shall receive it by half-a-pint at a time till the whole is consumed, each being likewise provided with a stout oaken stick and a knife, and that they shall drink it all on the spot. Knowing what I know of the Irish character, my conviction is, that with these materials given, they will not fail to destroy each other, and when in the course of time the race comes to be exterminated, this neighbourhood at least may, perhaps, be colonized by civilized and respectable Englishmen.

From Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911.

A Gum Holster

https://www.google.com/patents/US2484892

Reva Keston patented this “chewed gum receptacle” in 1949. “It has always been a problem for those addicted to the habit of chewing gum, when tired of chewing, where to store the same until again wanted or as to how to finally dispose of it.” Keston’s solution was a cardboard blank scored for folding: Impale your gum on the barb, fold up the flaps, and you can carry the wad around unstickily until it’s wanted again. “The receptacle may be carried in a purse or pocket or it may be provided with a safety pin for attaching the same to a piece of clothing.”

This would have been handy in Singapore, which has banned chewing gum since vandals began sticking it on the door sensors of MRT trains in the 1990s. No gum can be bought or sold inside the country. “If you can’t think because you can’t chew,” said former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, “try a banana.”

Black Like Me

john howard griffin

In 1959, Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin used drugs and sunlamps to darken his skin and then traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia posing as a black man and keeping a diary of his experiences. He found it to be “the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and the detested.” When he applied for work at a plant in Mobile, the foreman told him, “No, you couldn’t get anything like that here.”

His voice was not unkind. It was the dead voice one often hears. Determined to see if I could break in somehow, I said: ‘But if I could do you a better job, and you paid me less than a white man …’

‘I’ll tell you … we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?’

‘I know,’ I said with real sadness. ‘You can’t blame a man for trying at least.’

‘No use trying down here,’ he said. ‘We’re gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We’re taking it slow, but we’re doing it. Pretty soon we’ll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have.’

‘How can we live?’ I asked hopelessly, careful not to give the impression I was arguing.

‘That’s the whole point,’ he said, looking me square in the eyes, but with some faint sympathy, as though he regretted the need to say what followed: ‘We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.’

In a Mississippi bus station he felt a “hate stare” that would grow familiar. “It came from a middle-aged, heavyset, well-dressed white man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: ‘What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?'”

The Dancing Plague

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In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.

The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:

There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Began dancing,
Which they kept up day and night,
Without interruption,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.

The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.

Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”