City/State

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In 1801, distressed at the “incoherence” and “bizarreness” of Paris street names, J.B. Pujoulx proposed turning the city into a stylized map of France in which the streets were named after towns and localities, with the size of each town reflected in the size of the street. Rivers and mountains would be represented by especially long streets that crossed several districts, “to provide an ensemble such that a traveller could acquire geographic knowledge of France within Paris, and reciprocally of Paris within France.”

How fine it would be, he wrote, “for the resident of the South of France to rediscover, in the names of the various districts of Paris, those of the place where he was born, of the town where his wife came into the world, of the village where he spent his early years!” Louis-Sébastien Mercier added, “Paris would be the map and hackney coaches the professors.”

Perhaps unwittingly, Pujoulx was echoing the cartographer Étienne Teisserenc, who in 1754 had offered a “Dictionary, Containing the Explanation of Paris or Its Map Turned into a Geographical Map of the Kingdom of France, to Serve as Introduction to General Geography; An Easy and New Method to Learn in a Practical Manner and on the Spot All the Principal Parts of the Kingdom as a Whole and Each Through the Others” (above). He suggested that this system might be extended to every state in the world.

The Russian Prison Tapping Code

When Yevgenia Ginzburg became a prisoner at Stalin’s Black Lake prison in the 1930s, she and her cellmate noticed a curious pattern. “On the days when our neighbor went to the washroom before us — this we could tell by the sound of the footsteps in the corridor — we always found the shelf sprinkled with tooth powder and the word ‘Greetings’ traced in it with something very fine like a pin, and as soon as we got back to our cell, a brief message was tapped on the wall. After that, he immediately stopped.”

After two or three days, she realized what it meant. “‘Greetings’! That’s what he’s tapping. He writes and taps the same word. Now we know how we can work out the signs for the different letters.” Ginzburg remembered a page from Vera Figner’s memoir in which she described an ancient prison code devised in the Czarist era — the alphabet was laid out in a square (this example is in English):

A B C D E
F G H I J
K L M N O
P Q R S T
U V W X Y

Each letter is represented by two sets of taps, one slow and the other fast. The slow taps indicate the row and the fast the column. So, here, three slow taps followed by two fast ones would indicate the letter L. They tapped out “Who are you?”, and “Through the grim stone wall we could sense the joy of the man on the other side. At last we had understood! His endless patience had been rewarded.”

Prisoner Alexander Dolgun deciphered the same code in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, memorizing it with the help of matches. Finally he understood that the man in the next cell had been asking him “Who are you?” over and over — and felt “a rush of pure love for a man who has been asking me for three months who I am.”

(From Judith A. Scheffler, Wall Tappings, 1986.)

A Father’s Advice

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Maxims of George Washington:

  • It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.
  • The most liberal professions of good will are very far from being the surest marks of it.
  • Good company will always be found less expensive than bad.
  • By acting reciprocally, heroes have made poets and poets heroes.
  • When there is no reason for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent.
  • It is easy to make acquaintances but very difficult to shake them off.
  • Too much zeal creates suspicion.
  • Ridicule begets enmity not easy to be forgotten but easily avoided.
  • Do not conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds.
  • Nothing is more useful for the formation of correct habits than the turning of our comments upon others, back upon ourselves.

“Wherever and whenever one person is found adequate to the discharge of a duty by close application thereto, it is worse executed by two persons, and scarcely done at all if three or more are employed therein.”

Misc

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  • By age 14, Harry Truman had read every book in the Independence, Missouri, library.
  • In honor of Ray Bradbury, a web page censored by a government returns HTTP error status code 451.
  • Wyoming, Wisconsin, is in Iowa County.
  • Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dalí were both named after dead brothers who had preceded them.
  • “Virtue is insufficient temptation.” — George Bernard Shaw

Plaudits

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

King Darius of Persia copied orders onto wax-covered tablets and gave them to famously efficient postmen. “Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers,” Herodotus marveled. “These men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to do, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light of the torch-race.”

When New York’s James A. Farley Post Office opened in 1914, architect (and philhellene) William Mitchell Kendall inscribed a modified translation over the door: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

“Many have assumed that this is the motto of the U.S. Postal Service, but the USPS doesn’t have one,” writes Devin Leonard in Neither Snow Nor Rain, his history of the service. “It was just the world’s largest postal service nodding respectfully to one of its most illustrious forbears.”

International Relations

Inspired officials of the East German Communist party, ever diligent in setting standards to which party members may conform, issued a list of the terms which are approved for use in vilifying the West. Henceforth Red speakers will know they are on safe ground if they choose any of the following synonyms for Americans: ‘Monkey killers, lice breeders, mass poisoners, chewing-gum spivs, boogie-woogie tramps, gas-chamber ideologists, leprous heroes, breeders of trichinosis, arsenic mixers, delirious lunatics, exploiters of epidemics.’ For the British a different set of terms must be used: ‘paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch cowards and collaborators, conceited dandies or playboy soldiers.’

LIFE, Sept. 14, 1953

Salute

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When George Washington died in 1799, the British Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet lowered its flags to half mast.

The London Courier wrote, “The whole range of history does not present to our view a character upon which we can dwell with such entire and unmixed admiration.”

Slip Coaches

In 1858 British railways found a unique way to save time: Rather than stopping at an intermediate station, an express train would simply uncouple a car full of passengers, which would roll into the station under its own momentum, slowed by a guard using brakes. At the station the passengers could disembark, or their coach might be connected to a train that served a branch line. Eventually a local train would deliver the coach to a station where it might be connected again to the express.

This practice continued until 1960 — the last “slip” is documented above.

(Via MetaFilter.)

Family

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Carter’s decision to run for president occurred during his gubernatorial term. One clear September morning in 1973 Governor Carter stopped by to visit his mother, who was resting in her bedroom. Carter pulled up a chair and propped up his feet on the foot of her bed. When his mother inquired as to his plans after leaving the governor’s office, he replied: ‘I’m going to run for president.’ ‘President of what?’ his mother asked, and Carter replied: ‘Mama, I’m going to run for president of the United States, and I’m going to win.’ Mrs. Carter then told him to get his feet off the bed.

— Larry F. Vrzalik and Michael Minor, From the President’s Pen, 1991

Podcast Episode 206: The Sky and the Sea

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard opened two new worlds in the 20th century. He was the first person to fly 10 miles above the earth and the first to travel 2 miles beneath the sea, using inventions that opened the doors to these new frontiers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Piccard on his historic journeys into the sky and the sea.

We’ll also admire some beekeeping serendipity and puzzle over a sudden need for locksmiths.

See full show notes …