All in the Family

Relationships among U.S. presidents:

  • James Madison was the half first cousin twice removed of George Washington.
  • Zachary Taylor was the second cousin of James Madison.
  • Grover Cleveland was the sixth cousin once removed of Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Theodore Roosevelt was the third cousin twice removed of Martin Van Buren.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the fourth cousin once removed of Ulysses S. Grant, the fourth cousin three times removed of Zachary Taylor, and the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (although his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a niece of Theodore).
  • Harry S. Truman was the great-great-great nephew of John Tyler.
  • Richard Nixon was the seventh cousin twice removed of William Howard Taft and the eighth cousin once removed of Herbert Hoover.
  • George H.W. Bush was the fifth cousin four times removed of Franklin Pierce, the seventh cousin three times removed of Theodore Roosevelt, the seventh cousin four times removed of Abraham Lincoln, and the eleventh cousin once removed of Gerald Ford.

Drake’s Plate of Brass

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Drake’s Plate of Brass is a museum curator’s nightmare: A priceless artifact revealed as historians’ in-joke gone terribly awry.

The story surrounds a golden plate that Francis Drake reportedly left as a monument when he visited Northern California in 1579. Hoping to fool one of their number, a group of local historians hammered out a fake version in 1936 and planted it near Drake’s landing point.

Sure enough, it made its way to the victim, historian George Bolton of Berkeley. Before they could reveal the joke, though, Bolton vouched for the plate’s authenticity, engaging the University of California and paying $2,500 for it.

Now that the hoax was so painfully public the conspirators had to move carefully. They tried discreetly to reveal their joke, but then to their horror Columbia University confirmed the plate as genuine. It was added to textbooks; likenesses were sold as souvenirs; copies were presented to Queen Elizabeth II herself on several occasions.

Only 40 years later, after exhaustive testing at Oxford, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and MIT, was the plate confirmed as a fake, and it was several years before the whole story was pieced together. The plate is still on display at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, an embarrassing testament to the gullibility of an excited historian.

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?

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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.”