One, Two, Three …

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s ironic that hopscotch has come to be known as a little girl’s game, because it couldn’t have a more masculine pedigree. The first hopscotch courts were used in military training exercises in ancient Britain during the early Roman Empire. Footsoldiers wearing field packs and full body armor ran through courts 100 feet long, much as football players run through truck tires today.

Imitating the soldiers, Roman children drew their own smaller courts and added a scoring system, which has been preserved remarkably well for more than a thousand years as the game has spread to France (where it’s called “Marelles”), Germany (“Templehupfen”), the Netherlands (“Hinkelbaan”), India (“Ekaria Dukaria”), and even Vietnam (“Pico”) and Argentina (“Rayuela”).

Today’s children still draw their hopscotch courts with the word “London” at the top, without knowing that they’re representing the Great North Road, a 400-mile Roman road from Glasgow to London that was frequently used by the Roman military.

Watch Your Step

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Vaucanson’s Shitting Duck was one of the more unsavory products of the French Enlightenment.

When it was unveiled by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, thousands watched the “canard digérateur” stretch its neck to eat grain from a hand. The food then dissolved, “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released.” These inner workings were all proudly displayed, “though some ladies preferred to see them decently covered.”

Why make fake duck shit when the world is so well supplied with the real thing? It was part of the Enlightenment’s transition from a naturalistic to a mechanical worldview. Suddenly a duck was not a God-given miracle but a machine made of meat, and complex automatons carried the promise of mechanized labor, stirring a cultural revolution.

Goethe mentioned Vaucanson’s automata in his diary, and Sir David Brewster called the duck “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made.” Sadly, the whole thing was a fake: The droppings were prefabricated and hidden in a separate compartment. Back to the drawing board.

A Farewell Letter

A farewell letter from kamikaze pilot Masahisa Uemura to his daughter:

Motoko,

You often looked and smiled at my face. You also slept in my arms, and we took baths together. When you grow up and want to know about me, ask your mother and Aunt Kayo.

My photo album has been left for you at home. I gave you the name Motoko, hoping you would be a gentle, tender-hearted, and caring person.

I want to make sure you are happy when you grow up and become a splendid bride, and even though I die without you knowing me, you must never feel sad.

When you grow up and want to meet me, please come to Kudan [a national shrine for fallen soldiers]. And if you pray deeply, surely your father’s face will show itself within your heart. I believe you are happy. Since your birth you started to show a close resemblance to me, and other people would often say that when they saw little Motoko they felt like they were meeting me. Your uncle and aunt will take good care of you with you being their only hope, and your mother will only survive by keeping in mind your happiness throughout your entire lifetime. Even though something happens to me, you must certainly not think of yourself as a child without a father. I am always protecting you. Please be a person who takes loving care of others.

When you grow up and begin to think about me, please read this letter.

Father

He added a postscript: “P.S. In my airplane, I keep as a charm a doll you had as a toy when you were born. So it means Motoko was together with Father. I tell you this because you being here without knowing makes my heart ache.”

Har, Jim Lad

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Pirates get a bad rap. Their trade was often the only course open to a poor person in the 17th century, and as an institution it treated its people uncommonly well, if you overlook the pillaging and murder.

On the Spanish Main, most pirate ships were democracies. You elected your captain, and you could vote to replace him. Spoils were divided evenly. Morale was generally high, so much so that pirates often overwhelmed trade vessels by force of numbers. And there was even a social insurance system, so a wounded pirate would be guaranteed money or gold at a certain scale.

Best of all, buccaneers were egalitarian. If they took a slave ship, they freed the slaves. Occasionally they’d force carpenters or other specialists to sail with them, but they’d free them afterward, and they could join the crew if they chose. That’s more noble, in its way, than a lot of lawful enterprises.

Who’s On First?

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml

Mount Everest has lost a lot of its intrigue since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit in 1953. Indeed, it’s become a big business in Nepal: Between 1998 and 2001, 560 people reached the “top of the world”; last year Pemba Dorjie Sherpa set a new record by making the climb — five miles straight up — in 8 hours and 10 minutes.

Still, it’s perilous, particularly in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. Hundreds have died, and most of the corpses remain where they fell, frozen solid.

One of those bodies may hold some astounding evidence — proof that the summit was reached 29 years before Hillary’s achievement.

In June 1924, two British climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, had climbed to within a few hours of the top. They were using oxygen, which doubled their speed; their geologist reported seeing them climbing “with great alacrity … near the base of the final pyramid” shortly after noon. But the climbers were obscured by mist, and vanished. Had they succeeded?

In 1933 one of their ice axes was found above a large snow terrace. This narrowed the search. If the bodies could be found, Eastman Kodak thought it could retrieve “fully printable images” from their cameras, which would presumably show the summit if they’d reached it. (Irvine was an avid photographer.)

At first the mystery only deepened. A Chinese porter told of finding an “English dead” near the terrace in 1975, but he died in an avalanche before he could reveal any details. Then, in 1999, Eric Simonson found Mallory’s body, with rope trauma indicating that the two climbers had fallen together. But there were no cameras, and still no sign of Irvine’s body.

That’s where the mystery stands now. Last year a new effort began to recover Irvine’s body — details are at Mallory & Irvine: The Final Chapter. So far they’ve retrieved some puzzling artifacts, but no clear answer. Stay tuned.

Lexicon Balatronicum

Excerpts from the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, by Captain Grose (1811):

  • ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite to him.
  • ANGLING FOR FARTHINGS. Begging out of a prison window with a cap, or box, let down at the end of a long string.
  • APPLE DUMPLIN SHOP. A woman’s bosom.
  • BACK GAMMON PLAYER. A sodomite.
  • DUCK F-CK-R. The man who has the care of the poultry on board a ship of war.
  • GREEN GOWN. To give a girl a green gown; to tumble her on the grass.
  • HEMPEN WIDOW. One whose husband was hanged.
  • HISTORY OF THE FOUR KINGS, or CHILD’S BEST GUIDE TO THE GALLOWS. A pack of cards.
  • MANOEUVRING THE APOSTLES. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, i.e. borrowing of one man to pay another.
  • PISS PROPHET. A physician who judges of the diseases of his patients solely by the inspection of their urine.
  • SON OF PRATTLEMENT. A lawyer.

And a THOROUGH-GOOD-NATURED WENCH is “one who being asked to sit down, will lie down.”

Flirting and Its Dangers

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13444

“Flirting and Its Dangers,” circa 1920:

  1. No Excuse. – In this country there is no excuse for the young man who seeks the society of the loose and the dissolute. There is at all times and everywhere open to him a society of persons of the opposite sex of his own age and of pure thoughts and lives, whose conversation will refine him and drive from his bosom ignoble and impure thoughts.
  2. The Dangers. – The young man who may take pleasure in the fact that he is the hero of half a dozen or more engagements and love episodes, little realizes that such constant excitement often causes not only dangerously frequent and long-continued nocturnal emissions, but most painful affections of the testicles. Those who show too great familiarity with the other sex, who entertain lascivious thoughts, continually exciting the sexual desires, always suffer a weakening of power and sometimes the actual diseases of degeneration, chronic inflammation of the gland, spermatorrhoea, impotence, and the like. – Young man, beware; your punishment for trifling with the affections of others may cost you a life of affliction.
  3. Remedy. – Do not violate the social laws. Do not trifle with the affections of your nature. Do not give others countless anguish, and also do not run the chances of injuring yourself and others for life. The society of refined and pure women is one of the strongest safeguards a young man can have, and he who seeks it will not only find satisfaction, but happiness. Simple friendship and kind affections for each other will ennoble and benefit.
  4. The Time for Marriage. – When a young man’s means permit him to marry, he should then look intelligently for her with whom he expects to pass the remainder of his life in perfect loyalty, and in sincerity and singleness of heart. Seek her to whom he is ready to swear to be ever true.
  5. Breach of Confidence. – Nothing is more certain, says Dr. Naphey, to undermine domestic felicity, and sap the foundation of marital happiness, than marital infidelity. The risks of disease which a married man runs in impure intercourse are far more serious, because they not only involve himself, but his wife and his children. He should know that there is nothing which a woman will not forgive sooner than such a breach of confidence. He is exposed to the plots and is pretty certain sooner or later to fall into the snares of those atrocious parties who subsist on black-mail. And should he escape these complications, he still must lose self-respect, and carry about with him the burden of a guilty conscience and a broken vow.
  6. Society Rules and Customs. – A young man can enjoy the society of ladies without being a “flirt.” He can escort ladies to parties, public places of interest, social gatherings, etc., without showing special devotion to any one special young lady. When he finds the choice of his heart, then he will be justified to manifest it, and publicly proclaim it by paying her the compliment, exclusive attention. To keep a lady’s company six months is a public announcement of an engagement.

From Searchlights on Health — The Science of Eugenics: A Guide to Purity and Physical Manhood; Advice to Maiden, Wife and Mother; Love, Courtship, and Marriage, by Prof. B.G. Jefferis, M.D., Ph.D., and J.L. Nicols, A.M.

Project Habbakuk

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During World War II, Lord Mountbatten and Geoffrey Pyke approached Winston Churchill with a novel plan to reach German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, where land-based planes couldn’t reach them. They wanted to build an aircraft carrier out of solid ice.

It sounds crazy today, but if they’d gone through with it Project Habbakuk might well have lived up to its biblical billing (“be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told”). Mountbatten and Pike planned to assemble 280,000 blocks of ice into a ship 600 meters long, with a displacement of 2 million tons (today’s Nimitz-class carriers are 333 meters long and displace 100,000 tons). It would carry electric motors, anti-aircraft guns, an airstrip, and a refrigeration unit to keep everything from melting.

Pro: It would be practically unsinkable.

Con: It would take 8,000 people eight months to build it, at a cost of $70 million.

In the end they made a little prototype in Alberta, but the project never got any further. Still, it’s a credit to Churchill that he even considered such an outlandish idea. “Personally I’m always ready to learn,” he once said, “although I do not always like being taught.”