Beyond the Pale

Expressions banned from use in New Zealand parliamentary debate:

1933
Blowfly-minded

1943
Retardate worm

1946
Clown of the House
Idle vapourings of a mind diseased
I would cut the honourable gentleman’s throat if I had the chance

1949
His brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides

1957
Kind of animal that gnaws holes

1959
Member not fit to lick the shoes of the Prime Minister

1963
Energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral

1966
Shut up yourself, you great ape
Snotty-nosed little boy
You are a cheap little twerp
Ridiculous mouse

1974
Could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in
Dreamed the bill up in the bath
Frustrated warlord

The full list is here. In brighter news, saying that a fellow member “scuttles for his political funk hole” was deemed allowable in 1974.

The Inman Diaries

When chronic illness confined Boston poet Arthur Crew Inman to a darkened room, he turned inward, scribbling his thoughts and feelings into an enormous diary that eventually filled 155 volumes with 17 million handwritten words — most of them peevish:

A Lithuanian came to read to me. I disliked her at once. She was common. Her voice sounded like an ungreased axle. She spoke with a pronounced accent. She would start to read fairly well, but in short order she would become interested in the book, forget me, let the reading go as it might. I began to ask her questions. She answered in monosyllables. She used gutter slang. Her father, she said, had fled from Poland to escape the Russian term of army service. He had come to America where he had stayed for a while in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After saving some money, he took his family to Amsterdam, New York, and started a dry goods store. The girl had been one of six children. She had not learned to speak English until she was thirteen. She had gone to public school. Now she is studying music at the Boston Conservatory.

Harvard professor Daniel Aaron, who edited the diaries for publication in 1985, called them “surely one of the fullest and largest diaries ever kept by any American.” Inman would have agreed with him. “I trust to do in nonfiction what Balzac did in fiction,” he said. Perhaps he succeeded — the diaries were turned into an opera in 2007, and a film version starring John Hurt is in development.

Junk Mail

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aftermath_of_San_Francisco_earthquake,_1906.jpg

After the San Francisco earthquake, James Jones wrote this letter on a detachable shirt collar and mailed it without postage to his son and daughter-in-law in New York:

Dear Wayland and Gussie: All safe but awfully scared. Frisco and hell went into partnership and hell came out winner — got away with the sack. Draw a line from Ft Mason along Van Ness Ave. to Market St., out Market to Dolores to Twentieth, thence to Harrison, 16th & Portrero Ave. R.R. Ave. to Channel St. and bay. Nearly everything east and north of this boundary line gone, and several blocks west of it, especially in Hayes Valley as far as Octavia St. from Golden Gate Ave. east. Fire is still burning on the northside but is checked in the Mission. I and a band of 40 or 50 volunteers formed a rope and bucket brigade, back-fired Dolores from Market to 19th, pulled down houses and blanketed westside Dolores and won a great victory. More with paper & stamps. James G. Jones. April 21st, 1906.

It was delivered. The post office had resolved to handle “everything, stamped or unstamped, as long as it had an address to which it could be sent,” remembered William F. Burke, secretary to the city postmaster. When he made the rounds of camps, “the wonderful mass of communications that poured into the automobile was a study in the sudden misery that had overtaken the city. Bits of cardboard, cuffs, pieces of wrapping paper, bits of newspapers with an address on the margin, pages of books and sticks of wood all served as a means to let somebody in the outside world know that friends were alive and in need among the ruins.”

At the close of the first day, “95 pouches of letters carrying mail composed of rags and tatters and odds and ends — and burdened with a weight of woe bigger than had ever left the city in a mail sack — were made up for dispatch. … It came to our knowledge later that not one piece of this mail that was properly addressed failed of delivery.”

A Pleating Feat

kiechle paper man

In 2011 Australian architect Horst Kiechle created an entire human torso from paper, as a geometric sculpture, for the science lab at the International School Nadi in Fiji.

He’s made the templates available for free — you can fold your own paper man, complete with removable organs.

An Invisible Map

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iceal_gene_hambleton.jpg

Shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, Air Force navigator Iceal Hambleton needed to reach the Cam Lo River but was surrounded by enemy forces who might intercept any radio messages sent to him. After some consultation, rescuers told him to play the first hole at the Tucson National Golf Course. “Before you start be damned sure you line your shot up properly,” they said. “Very bad traps on this hole.”

Hambleton was bewildered at first but came to understand. As an avid golfer he was familiar with a number of American courses, and he had a photographic memory of each hole’s length and layout. The first hole at Tucson was 430 yards long and ran southeast, so he set off accordingly across country, following an imaginary fairway.

This worked. By invoking additional holes from three Air Force bases, as well as a par 3 from Augusta National, rescuers led Hambleton to the river, where a Navy SEAL picked him up.

“Two things kept me alive,” he told Golf Digest in 2001. “The will to live, and my wife. And we’re playing golf Friday.”

A Beautiful Belt

Completed in 1997, German artist Jo Niemeyer’s 20 Steps Around the Globe installed 20 high-grade steel columns on a great circle around the earth, establishing the distances between them using the golden ratio φ, 1.61803398875.

The first poles, shown here, were erected in Finnish Lapland, north of the polar circle. The first two were placed 0.458 meters apart; the third was placed 0.458 × φ = 0.741 meters beyond the second; and so on, marching off in a beeline toward the horizon. The first 12 poles are in Finland; the 13th and 14th in Norway; the 15th, 16th, and 17th in Russia; the 18th in China; and the 19th in Australia. The 20th coincides with the first back in Finland.

In this way the project models the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence, tailoring them to our planet. Niemeyer calls it “an interdisciplinary expedition into the secrets of the power of limits.”

Unquote

“My view of life is, that it’s next to impossible to convince anybody of anything.” — Lewis Carroll

Chladni Figures

In 1680 Robert Hooke sprinkled a plate with flour, drew a violin bow across its edge, and saw the flour spring into surprising geometric shapes. The plate was resonating, driving the flour into invisible nodal lines on its surface that were not vibrating.

German physicist Ernst Chladni pursued these experiments in the 18th century and published his results in Discoveries in the Theory of Sound in 1787. Today they’re known as Chladni figures.

“The universe is full of magical things,” wrote Eden Phillpotts, “patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Higher Math

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GermanyHyperChart.jpg

During the hyperinflation that followed World War I in the Weimar Republic, a 5,000-mark cup of coffee could cost 8,000 marks by the time it was drunk. Newspapers published the stupefying multipliers by which prices had risen each day:

Tramway fare: 50,000
Tramway monthly season ticket:
— For one line: 4 million
— For all lines: 12 million
Taxi-autos: multiply ordinary fare by: 600,000
Horse cabs: multiply ordinary fare by: 400,000
Bookshops: multiply ordinary price by: 300,000
Public baths: multiply ordinary price by: 115,000
Medical attendance: multiply ordinary price by: 80,000

By the end of 1923 there were 92,844,720,742,927,000,000 marks circulating in the German economy, nearly 93 quintillion (note the logarithmic scale in the chart above).

This had a curious psychological effect. In December Time reported, “With the price of bread running into billions a loaf the German people have had to get used to counting in thousands of billions. This, according to some German physicians, brought on a new nervous disease known as ‘zero stroke,’ or ‘cipher stroke,'” a “desire to write endless rows of [zeros] and engage in computations more involved than the most difficult problems in logarithms.”

Human minds are not made to comprehend such large numbers. Foreign minister Walther Rathenau called it the “delirium of milliards”: “What is a milliard? Does a wood contain a milliard leaves? Are there a milliard blades of grass in a meadow? Who knows? If the Tiergarten were to be cleared and wheat sown upon its surface, how many stalks would grow?”

Fortunately the madness was stemmed with the introduction of a new currency — in 1924 one could exchange a trillion of the old marks for a single new Rentenmark, and the economy was finally stabilized.

Leonard Trask

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AS_trask.jpg

Maine farmhand Leonard Trask was 28 years old when he was thrown by a horse and began to develop a curious stiffness in his back and neck. The following spring his neck and spine began to curve, forcing him to “bow forward,” but he was able to continue working.

He suffered another fall in 1840, though, and the condition grew worse. He went to 22 physicians seeking advice but was finally told that “no benefit would be likely to result therefrom.” According to an 1857 account, “his neck and back have continued to curve, more and more, every year, drawing his head downwards upon his breasts so there appears but little room to press it further without stopping entirely the movement of the jaws.”

In time he had difficulty even in sitting and reading, and he felt unsafe in riding a horse because he could not see where he was going. In his prime he had stood 6 foot 1, but by 1857 his stature had shrunk to 4 feet 10.5 inches, as his head had bowed entirely below his shoulders. He wrote:

In that celestial, bright and happy land,
Beyond this vale of sorrow, pain and tears,
Where I, erect in glory, hope to stand,
In faith and hope, the future bright appears.

Trask’s condition was unknown at the time of his death in 1861, but it was diagnosed afterward as ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease of the skeleton in which vertebrae can fuse together. His was the first published clinical account of the disease in the United States.