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Fitting

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South Africa’s Table Mountain is sometimes overspread with a tablecloth of cloud.

William Webster, surgeon of the British sloop Chanticleer, described the phenomenon in 1834:

When a south-east wind, passing over the southern shores of the Cape, prevails sufficiently to surmount the Table Mountain, the first notice of the fact is a little mist floating as a cloud on a part of it about ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon. By noon the mountain becomes fringed with dew; and half an hour after, a general obscuration takes place by the mist. In another half hour the little cleft between the Devil’s Berg and the Table Mountain pours over the cloudy vapour; and at two the Devil’s Berg is capped by the cloud. The table-cloth is now completely spread. … While the Table Mountain remains covered with the dense cloud, fragments of the vapour are torn from it by the force of the wind, and are hurried about the sides of the mountain, assuming a variety of fantastic shapes, and playing about the precipice according to the direction of the different currents of wind. This phenomenon lasts till about five in the afternoon, when a little clearing, which takes place on the western edge of the mountain, announces that the table-cloth is about to be folded up. By six or seven the clearance has considerably advanced; and by eight or nine every vestige of it is gone, and nothing is seen about the mountain but an ethereal sky and the twinkling stars.

Bean Counting

We tend to think that some wrongs are so small that doing them makes no difference. If I keep my heater on during a power shortage, perhaps the shortage lasts a hundredth of a second longer than it would otherwise have done. I tell myself that this effect is too small to matter.

But imagine a village in which 100 tribesmen are eating lunch. 100 bandits descent on the village, and each bandit takes one tribesman’s lunch and eats it. The bandits leave, each having denied a tribesman an appreciable amount of pleasure.

The next week, hungry again, they descend on the village and tie up the tribesmen. At first they have some moral qualms about robbing them again, but then they notice that each tribesman’s lunch consists of 100 beans.

“The pleasure derived from one baked bean is below the discrimination threshold,” writes philosopher Jonathan Glover. “Instead of each bandit eating a single plateful as last week, each takes one bean from each plate. They leave after eating all the beans, pleased to have done no harm, as each has done no more than sub-threshold harm to each person.”

The outcome of the second raid is the same as that of the first, yet this time no tribesman has been “significantly” wronged by any bandit. Can we still say that some crimes are too small to matter?

(Jonathan Glover and M.J. Scott-Taggart, “It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 49 (1975), 171-209)

Industrial Devolution

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In 1830 engineer James Nasmyth visited England’s Black Country:

The earth seems to have been turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder-heaps and mounds of scoriae. The coal, which has been drawn from below ground, is blazing on the surface. The district is crowded with iron furnaces, puddling furnaces, and coal-pit engine furnaces. By day and by night the country is glowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hovers over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered with smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving about amongst the glowing iron and the dull thud of forgehammers.

Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted. The ground underneath them had sunk by the working out of the coal, and they were falling to pieces. They had in former times been surrounded by clumps of trees; but only the skeletons of them remained, dilapidated, black, and lifeless. The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphureous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly gray — the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect. Vulcan had driven out Ceres. In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no! the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains, which were placed in small tunnels beneath the hedgeless road.

He added: “I sat down on an elevated part of the ruins, and looked down upon the extensive district, with its roaring and blazing furnaces, the smoke of which blackened the country as far as the eye could reach; and as I watched the decaying trees I thought of the price we had to pay for our vaunted supremacy in the manufacture of iron. We may fill our purses, but we pay a heavy price for it in the loss of picturesqueness and beauty.”

Us and Them

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Red deer still honor the Iron Curtain. During the Cold War, barbed wire and an electric fence divided Eastern Europe from the West, separating the deer population into two groups. Deer follow traditional trails, which are taught to each generation by its forebears. Now that the fence is gone, red deer range on both sides of the border but refuse to cross it.

“In the past, the deer didn’t go to the Czech side because of the fence,” German biologist Marco Heurich told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “Now the fence is gone but they still stop at the border.” Film producer Tom Synnatzschke added, “The wall in the head is still there.”

As with humans, it’s the young deer who are testing the old ways. “Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally,” said zoologist Pavel Sustr. “The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before.”

Unquote

“Now she is like everyone else.” — Charles de Gaulle, at the funeral of his daughter Anne, who had Down syndrome, February 1948

Things to Come

We can foresee the development of machinery that will make it possible to consult information in a library automatically. Suppose that you go into the library of the future and wish to look up ways for making biscuits. You will be able to dial into the catalogue machine ‘making biscuits.’ There will be a flutter of movie film in the machine. Soon it will stop, and, in front of you on the screen, will be projected the part of the catalogue which shows the names of three or four books containing recipes for biscuits. If you are satisfied, you will press a button; a copy of what you saw will be made for you and come out of the machine.

After further development, all the pages of all books will be available by machine. Then, when you press the right button, you will be able to get from the machine a copy of the exact recipe for biscuits that you choose.

– Edmund Callis Berkeley, Giant Brains, 1949

He adds, “We are not yet at the end of foreseeable development. There will be a third stage. You will then have in your home an auto­matic cooking machine operated by program tapes. You will stock it with various supplies, and it will put together and cook whatever dishes you desire. Then, what you will need from the library will be a program or routine on magnetic tape to control your automatic cook. And the library, instead of producing a pictorial copy of the recipe for you to read and apply, will produce a routine on magnetic tape for controlling your cooking machine so that you will actually get excellent biscuits!”

Tanya

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In August 1942 a students’ nursing brigade discovered 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, weak with hunger, living alone in an apartment in Leningrad, which had been besieged by Hitler since September 1941. She had kept this diary:

  1. Zhenya died on December 18, 1941, at twelve noon.
  2. Grandma died on January 25, 1942, at three in the afternoon.
  3. Leka died on March 17, 1942, at five o’clock in the morning.
  4. Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at two o’clock at night.
  5. Uncle Lesha on May 10, 1942, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
  6. Mama died on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning.
  7. The Savichevs are dead.
  8. Everyone is dead.
  9. Only Tanya is left.

The nurses evacuated her along the narrow lifeline that had been opened that summer by the Soviet army and placed her in an orphanage in a nearby village, but she died there, probably of chronic dysentery, in July 1944. The diary is kept today in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

“The Poets in a Puzzle”

Cottle, in his life of Coleridge, relates the following amusing incident:–’I led my horse to the stable, where a sad perplexity arose. I removed the harness without difficulty; but, after many strenuous attempts, I could not remove the collar. In despair, I called for assistance, when Mr. Wordsworth brought his ingenuity into exercise; but, after several unsuccessful efforts, he relinquished the achievement as a thing altogether impracticable. Mr. Coleridge now tried his hand, but showed no more skill than his predecessor; for, after twisting the poor horse’s neck almost to strangulation, and the great danger of his eyes, he gave up the useless task, pronouncing that the horse’s head must have grown since the collar was put on; for he said, ‘it was a downright impossibility for such a huge os frontis to pass through so narrow an aperture.’ Just at this instant, a servant-girl came near, and understanding the cause of our consternation, ‘Ha! master,’ said she, ‘you don’t go about the work in the right way: you should do like this,’ when, turning the collar upside down, she slipped it off in a moment, to our great humiliation and wonderment, each satisfied afresh that there were heights of knowledge in the world to which we had not yet attained.

– William Evans Burton, The Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor, 1898

Post Chase

concrete arrow

In 1924, air mail pilots were having trouble finding their way across the featureless American southwest, so the Post Office adopted a brutally low-tech solution: Every 10 miles they built a large concrete arrow illuminated by a beacon. Each arrow pointed the way to the next, so that a pilot could stay on course simply by connecting the dots.

The system was finished by 1929, permitting mail planes to find their way all the way to San Francisco. It was quickly superseded by more sophisticated navigation methods, but today the arrows still dot the American desert, ready to confuse hikers and, probably, future archaeologists.

(Thanks, Ron.)

Two for One

Longfellow thought that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Victorian poet and painter, was two different people. On leaving Rossetti’s house he said, “I have been very glad to meet you, Mr. Rossetti, and should like to have met your brother also. Pray tell him how much I admire his beautiful poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel.’”

In Philosophical Troubles, Saul A. Kripke offers a related puzzle. Peter believes that politicians never have musical talent. He knows of Paderewski, the great pianist and composer, and he has heard of Paderewski the Polish statesman, but he does not know that they are the same person. Does Peter believe that Paderewski had musical talent?

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