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.”

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.)