“A Rabbit Tamed”

A notable detail from Alexander Morrison Stewart’s Camp, March and Battle-Field (1865): During the Battle of Malvern Hill, a terrified rabbit darted about the battlefield looking for safety until it came upon a Union regiment lying prone:

Ere the rabbit seemed aware, it had jumped into the midst of these men. It could go no farther, but presently nestled down beside a soldier, and tried to hide itself under his arm. As the man spread the skirt of his coat over the trembling fugitive, in order to insure it of all the protection in his power to bestow, he no doubt feelingly remembered how much himself then needed some higher protection, under the shadow of whose arm might be hidden his own defenceless head, from the fast-multiplying missiles of death, scattered in all directions.

It was not long, however, before the regiment was ordered up and forward. From the protection and safety granted, the timid creature had evidently acquired confidence in man — as the boys are wont to say, ‘Had been tamed.’ As the regiment moved forward to the front of the battle, it hopped along, tame, seemingly, as a kitten, close at the feet of the soldier who had bestowed the needed protection. Wherever the regiment afterwards went, during all the remaining part of that bloody day and terrible battle, the rabbit kept close beside its new friend.

“When night came on, and the rage of battle had ceased, it finally, unmolested and quietly, hopped away, in order to find some one of its old and familiar haunts.”

Autopilot

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Image: Flickr

We often think of consciousness as fundamentally involving self-awareness. A conscious decision is one I’m aware of making; a conscious memory is one I’m aware of having. It would seem that most complex behaviors require this state. But philosopher David Malet Armstrong points out:

If you have driven for a very long distance without a break, you may have had experience of a curious state of automatism, which can occur in these conditions. One can suddenly ‘come to’ and realize that one has driven for long distances without being aware of what one was doing, or, indeed, without being aware of anything. One has kept the car on the road, used the brake and the clutch perhaps, yet all without any awareness of what one was doing.

What’s going on here? “The driver in a state of automatism perceives, or is aware of, the road. If he did not, the car would be in a ditch. But he is not currently aware of his awareness of the road. He perceives the road, but he does not perceive his perceiving, or anything else that is going on in his mind.” He is driving, it would seem, without conscious awareness of what he’s doing; we seem to be able to perform complex mental processes without conscious experience.

(From D.M. Armstrong, The Nature of Mind, 1981.)

The Warwick Lion Fight

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In 1825, impresario George Wombwell sponsored a fight between six bulldogs and a lion from his menagerie in the English market town of Warwick. Five hundred people assembled in a disused factory yard, and Wombwell arranged for the dogs to attack Nero three at a time, ignoring the pleas of a Quaker named Samuel Hoare, who asked “how thou wilt feel to see the noble animal thou hast so long protected, and which has been in part the means of supplying thee with the means of life, mangled and bleeding before thee?” The lion seemed indisposed to use its full strength against the first three dogs, swatting them away with his paws but never biting. After a 20-minute respite, Wombwell set the next three dogs upon him, and they pinned him to the floor. When a third round brought the same result, Wombwell conceded defeat for the lion, afraid that “the death of the animal must be the consequence of further punishment.”

In a second contest less than a week later, though, a Scottish-born lion known as Wallace fought back ferociously, holding one dog in his teeth and “deliberately walk[ing] around the stage with him as a cat would a mouse.” A second dog “died just a few seconds after he was taken out of the cage,” and a third remained in Wallace’s jaws until a keeper “threw a piece of raw flesh into the den.” A fourth was left in critical condition with “several of his ribs broken.”

The spectacle was widely condemned in the press and informed a new sensitivity regarding cruelty to animals. In 1838 one commentator remarked, “what dogs and lions can achieve in the arena of combat … having now been ascertained, let us hope that no closer approximation to the sanguinary games of the Roman amphitheatre may ever be attempted in Great Britain, nor her soil again polluted by a repetition of such spectacles.”

(Helen Cowie, “A Disgusting Exhibition of Brutality,” in Sarah Cockram and Andrew Wells, eds., Interspecies Interactions, 2018.)

Non-Starter

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A man decides to walk one mile from A to B. A god waits in readiness to throw up a wall blocking the man’s further advance when the man has travelled 1/2 mile. A second god (unknown to the first) waits in readiness to throw up a wall of his own blocking the man’s further advance when the man has travelled 1/4 mile. A third god … &c. ad infinitum. It is clear that this infinite sequence of mere intentions (assuming the contrary-to-fact conditional that each god would succeed in executing his intention if given the opportunity) logically entails the consequence that the man will be arrested at point A; he will not be able to pass beyond it, even though not a single wall will in fact be thrown down in his path. The before-effect here will be described by the man as a strange field of force blocking his passage forward.

— Jose Benardete, Infinity: An Essay in Metaphysics, 1964

Escalation

Back in 2005 I mentioned that Baldwin Street, in Dunedin, New Zealand, was the steepest street in the world.

Last month it was surpassed: Guinness World Records certified that Ffordd Pen Llech, in the Welsh seaside town of Harlech, has a gradient of 37.45%, more than 2 percentage points steeper.

Businessman and architectural historian Gwyn Headley told the Associated Press he felt “jubilation” at the news. He said he feels sorry for New Zealand, but “steeper is steeper.”

Time to Kill

Suppose I pull a trigger at time t1, releasing a bullet that hits you, and you die of the wound at time t2. Certainly I’ve killed you, but when? If the act of killing transpired in the time it took me to pull the trigger, then somehow the killing has been accomplished before you’ve died. That seems absurd, and the absurdity increases the longer it takes the bullet to reach you.

But if the killing is over only after you’ve died, then I might still be “killing” you when I’ve gone on to some other activity, or even after I myself have died. When does a killing take place?

(Ruth Weintraub, “The Time of a Killing,” Analysis 63:3 [2003], 178-182.)

Outreach

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During a 1968 visit with the Pope, William D. Borders, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Florida, observed that arguably he was now bishop of the moon.

According to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was in force at the time, any newly discovered territory fell under the jurisdiction of the diocese from which the discovering expedition had left — and Borders’ diocese included Brevard County, home of Cape Canaveral.

Arguably, then, Borders’ diocese encompassed 14.5 million square miles. The pontiff’s reaction is not recorded.

(Thanks, Jon.)

Also-Rans

Japanese racehorse Haru Urara became “the shining star of losers everywhere” when she racked up a record of 0 wins and 113 losses in the early 2000s. In the face of a national recession, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “The horse is a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat.” For the horse’s 106th race, Japan’s premier jockey, Yutaka Take, was brought in to ride her. She placed 10th out of 11.

British Thoroughbred Quixall Crossett ran to 103 consecutive defeats in the 1990s. Assistant trainer Geoff Sanderson said, “He got the most tremendous cheer you’ve ever heard on a race course. … The horse doesn’t know he gets beat because he gets a bigger cheer than the winner.”

American Thoroughbred Zippy Chippy retired in 2010 with a lifetime record of 0 wins in 100 starts, though he did once outrun a minor league baseball player. Racing historian Tom Gilcoyne said the horse “hasn’t done anything to harm the sport. But it’s a little bit like looking at the recorded performances of all horse races through the wrong end of the telescope.”

The Letters of Utrecht

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Utrecht contains a poem. Each Saturday at 1 p.m. a letter is hewn into another cobblestone in a line along a central thoroughfare:

You have to begin somewhere to give the past its place, the present matters ever less. The further you are, the better. Continue now, leave your footprints. Forget the flash, in which you may exist, the world is your map.

Written by a succession of poets from the city’s poetry guild, the poem grows by about 5 meters a year, and it takes about 3 years to publish a sentence.

As a theme and as an undertaking, the project appeals specifically to the passing of time and the benefit of future generations. Its creators have linked it explicitly to the 10,000-year clock being built in Texas’ Sierra Diablo Mountain Range and the 7,000 oak trees planted in Kassel, Germany, by artist Joseph Beuys. Each cobblestone is sponsored by a citizen, often to commemorate a milestone such as a birthday, anniversary, or marriage.

If the funding continues, the poem will grow forever. In time the line of cobblestones will itself describe a U and a T in the city’s center, and the residents in that time (the year 2350) can decide where it goes after that.