In a Word

lipwisdom
n. wisdom in talk without practice

“It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves.” — La Rochefoucauld

Bad Neighbors

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In 1878, railroad millionaire Charles Crocker decided to buy up the lots surrounding his mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill to improve his view of the surrounding vistas. He reached agreements with all the neighbors except for German undertaker Nicholas Yung, who refused to sell.

“I would have been happier than a condor in the sky,” Crocker wrote, “except for that crazy undertaker.”

His solution was pure spite: He built a 40-foot fence around Yung’s cottage on three sides, spoiling his view in hopes that he would sell. The fence can be seen behind the central mansion in this photo; only the chimneys of Yung’s house project above it.

“How gloomy our house became, how sad,” Yung’s daughter later wrote. “All we could see out our windows was the blank wood of the rich man’s fury. … The flowers in the garden all died, and our lawn turned brown, while inside the house everything felt perpetually damp.”

Yung held out nonetheless — according to some reports he mounted a 10-foot coffin atop the wall facing Crocker’s house — and the two maintained a senseless deadlock for years. Yung died in 1880 and Crocker in 1888; only then, when the mansion was sold to a new owner, did Yung’s heirs relent and sell their lot.

Rogue Don

In 1948, while a student at Cambridge, future MP Humphry Berkeley conceived “the only practical joke that I have played in my life.” He invented a public school called Selhurst and, writing on fake letterhead, began to send letters to public figures posing as its eccentric headmaster, H. Rochester Sneath.

Sneath invited George Bernard Shaw to speak, William Reid Dick to erect a statue, and Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new house at Selhurst (all declined). But mostly he plagued and bewildered the masters of English public schools, seeking advice regarding rats, ghosts, and other peculiar problems at his college. In March 1948 he sent a warning to the master of Marlborough College:

Dear Heywood,

I am writing you this letter in the strictest confidence. I understand from a Mr. Robert Agincourt who was Senior French Master at Selhurst, for one term two years ago, that he is applying for a post on the staff of Marlborough College.

He has asked me if I could give him a testimonial to present to you and I told him that by no stretching of veracity was I able to do this. You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.

During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.

As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Should you wish any further information, I should be glad to furnish it for I could not wish another Headmaster to undergo the purgatory that I suffered that term.

(When the Marlborough master replied that the man had not approached him, Sneath reported that he had abandoned the idea of an academic career and “has now become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho.” He also asked for the name of a good private detective and a nursery maid.)

When Sneath wrote to The Daily Worker complaining that he was being prevented from teaching compulsory Russian at Selhurst, a reporter exposed the hoax. The master of Pembroke College formally rebuked Berkeley and barred him from the college for two years — though, Berkeley wrote, “I think that I saw a twinkle in his eye.”

Recalling Yesterday

From P.M.H. Kendall and G.M. Thomas, Mathematical Puzzles for the Connoisseur, 1962:

I’ve just been reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — you know, where Phileas Fogg lost a day on the way round. Our science master says that ships put it right nowadays by having a thing called a Universal Date Line in the Pacific. When you cross the line from East to West you put the calendar on a day; and when you cross it the other way you put the calendar back. What I want to know is, when Puck put a girdle round the Earth in forty minutes and presumably did the right thing on crossing the Date Line, why didn’t he get back on the day before he started — or the day after, according to which way round he went?

I asked the English master this and he got quite cross about it and said it was nothing to do with Shakespeare. But if you flew round the earth as quickly as Puck it would matter, wouldn’t it?

Wouldn’t it? Why doesn’t Puck lose a day?

Click for Answer

An Open Mind

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During the German siege of Paris in 1870, residents had to eat whatever animals were at hand. Daily News correspondent Henry Labouchère recorded his opinions:

  • Horse: “eaten in the place of beef … a little sweeter … but in other respects much like it”
  • Cat: “something between rabbit and squirrel, with a flavor all its own”
  • Donkey: “delicious — in color like mutton, firm and savory”
  • Kittens: “either smothered in onions or in a ragout they are excellent”
  • Rat: “excellent — something between frog and rabbit”
  • Spaniel: “something like lamb, but I felt like a cannibal”

“This siege will destroy many illusions,” he wrote, “and amongst them the prejudice which has prevented many animals being used as food. I can most solemnly assert that I never wish to taste a better dinner than a joint of a donkey or a ragout of cat — experto crede.”

Tethered Clouds

http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=9PopAAAAEBAJ

Patented in 1991, Frederick Sevilla’s helium-filled sun shade combines protection with effortless portability.

It must be tricky to manage, though — one slip and you’ll never see it again.

Most Wanted

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In 2007 Irish police noticed an alarming trend: They had written more than 50 tickets to one driver, a Prawo Jazdy. In traffic stops he had offered Polish credentials with varying addresses, and the repeated citations had failed to improve his driving.

In June they realized their mistake: Prawo Jazdy is Polish for “driver’s license.”

See Nothing Doing.

The Unseen Gardener

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Two people return to their long neglected garden and find among the weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, ‘It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these plants.’ Upon inquiry they find that no neighbour has ever seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other, ‘He must have worked while people slept.’ The other says, ‘No, someone would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants would have kept down these weeds.’ The first man says, ‘Look at the way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes. I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find confirmation of this.’ They examine the garden ever so carefully and sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work. Besides examining the garden carefully, they also study what happens to gardens left without attention. Each learns all the other learns about this and about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says, ‘I still believe a gardener comes’ while the other says, ‘I don’t,’ their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, no difference as to what they would find in the garden if they looked further and no difference about how fast untended gardens fall into disorder. … What is the difference between them?

– John Wisdom, “Gods,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944

Antony Flew asks, “Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

Sea War

http://books.google.com/books?id=2sAWAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

On the afternoon of June 21, 1818, the crew of the packet Delia, plying between Boston and Hallowell, Maine, came upon a struggle between a sea serpent and a large humpback whale, according to a statement sworn before a local justice of the peace. From Henry Cheever’s The Whale and His Captors (1850):

The serpent threw up his tail from twenty-five to thirty feet in a perpendicular direction, striking the whale by it with tremendous blows rapidly repeated, which were distinctly heard and very loud for two or three minutes. They then both disappeared, moving in a west southwest direction, but after a few minutes reappeared in shore of the packet, and about under the sun, the reflection of which was so strong as to prevent their seeing so distinctly as at first, when the serpent’s fearful blows with his tail were repeated and clearly heard as before. They again went down for a short time, and then came up to the surface under the packet’s larboard quarter, the whale appearing first and the serpent in pursuit, who was again seen to shoot up his tail as before, which he held out of water some time, waving it in the air before striking, and at the same time, while his tail remained in this position, he raised his head fifteen or twenty feet, as if taking a view of the surface of the sea. After being seen in this position a few minutes, the serpent and whale again sunk and disappeared, and neither were seen after by any on board.

Sea serpents, it seems, tend to win these contests — the English barque Pauline witnessed a similar drubbing half a century later.

Double Scotch

In the early 1970s, University of Minnesota chemical engineer Rutherford Aris received a letter from Who’s Who in America requesting a biography of “Aris Rutherford.” Aris wrote back, explaining their mistake, but the requests kept coming. So in 1974 Aris gamely sent in a biography of Aris Rutherford:

  • Born in Scotland, he earned a degree in 1948 from the Glenlivet Institute of Distillation Engineering.
  • In 1955 he became the chief design engineer and tester for the Strath Spey Distillation Company.
  • From 1960 to 1964, he was a visiting professor of distillation practice at the Technological Institute of the Aegean, in Corinth.
  • He was active in the Distillation Club of Edinburgh and wrote three books, including Distillation Procedures (1963).

The news media quickly learned of the hoax, and Who’s Who cut the entry in the following year’s edition. That’s a pity, Aris said — his alter ego was about to publish another book, American Baseball: A Guide for Interested Englishmen.