In 1857 The Leisure Hour tried to imagine life in London a century in the future, that is, in 1957. Many of the predictions seem sadly optimistic (for instance, the eradication of crime), but one in particular stands out:
I observed that from each of these district shops innumerable electric wires branched off in all directions, communicating with several houses in the district to which it belonged. Thus, no sooner did a house-keeper stand in need of any article than she could despatch the order instantaneously along the wire, and receive the goods by the very first railway carriage that happened to pass the store. Thus, she saved her time, and she lost no money, because all chaffering and cheapening, and that fencing between buyer and seller, which was once deemed a pleasure, had been long voted a disgraceful, demoralizing nuisance, and was done away with.
Here are two transcriptions of a speech by Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, reprinted in the London Times on Jan. 23, 1882. At left is the column as it originally appeared; at right is the same speech in a hastily issued replacement edition. What’s the difference between them?
In the column on the left, about midway down, a disgruntled compositor has inserted the line “The speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking.”
The paper issued an apology and suppressed the offending edition as well as it could, but that only increased public interest, driving the price of a copy up from threepence to £5 in some areas (it would reach £100 by the 1990s). The Times’ quarterly index recorded the offense:
Harcourt (Sir W.) at Burton on Trent, 23 j 7 c
———Gross Line Maliciously Interpolated in a
Few Copies only of the Issue, 23 j 7 d — 27 j 9 f
The paper tried to rise above all this, but it made a new rule: If you sack a compositor, get him off the premises immediately.
Should parents be licensed? We ask teachers to study full-time for years and to pass qualifying exams before we let them educate children for six hours a day. And we carefully assess the suitability of adoptive and foster parents. But anyone has the right to become a biological parent without any training at all in child development.
Philosopher Peg Tittle writes, “How many children have been punished because they could not do what their parents mistakenly thought they should be able to do at a certain age — remember X, carry Y, say Z? How many have been disadvantaged because they grew up on junk food — for their bodies as well as their minds? How many have been neglected because their parents didn’t notice the seeds of some talent?”
Today’s children are tomorrow’s citizens, so the public has a legitimate concern in this. Psychiatrist Jack Westman writes, “The way children are parented plays a vital role in the quality of all our lives. We no longer can afford to avoid defining and confronting incompetent parenting.”
Psychologist Roger McIntire writes, “We already license pilots, salesmen, scuba divers, plumbers, electricians, teachers, veterinarians, cab drivers, soil testers, and television repairmen. … Are our TV sets and toilets more important to us than our children?”
(Peg Tittle, ed., Should Parents Be Licensed?, 2004.)
Our legal system assumes that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But what constitutes a reasonable doubt? Law professors Ariel Porat and Alon Harel suggest that an “aggregate probabilities principle” might help to determine whether an accused party is innocent or guilty.
Suppose we’ve decided that the evidence must indicate a probability of 95 percent guilt before we’re willing to declare a defendant guilty. Mr. Smith is accused of two separate crimes, with a 90 percent probability of guilt in each case. Under the 95 percent rule he’d be acquitted of both crimes. But Porat and Harel point out that there’s a 10 percent chance that Smith is innocent of each crime, and aggregating the probabilities gives a 0.10 × 0.10 = 0.01 chance that Smith is innocent of both — that is, there’s a 99 percent chance that he’s guilty of at least one of the offenses.
On the other hand, consider Miller, who is also accused of two different crimes. Suppose that the evidence gives a 95 percent probability that he committed each crime. Normally he’d be convicted of both offenses, but aggregating the probabilities gives a 0.95 × 0.95 = 0.9025 chance that he’s guilty of both offenses, and hence he’d be acquitted of one.
In A Mathematical Medley (2010), mathematician George Szpiro points out that this practice can produce some paradoxical outcomes. Peter and Paul are each accused of a crime, each with a 90 percent chance of being guilty. Normally both would be acquitted. But suppose that each was accused of a similar crime in the past, Peter with a 90 percent chance of guilt and Paul with a 95 percent chance. Accordingly Peter was acquitted and Paul went to prison. But historically Peter has now been accused of two crimes, with a 90 percent chance of guilt in each case; according to the reasoning above he ought to be convicted of one of the two crimes and hence ought to go to jail today. Paul has also been accused of two crimes, with a 0.95 × 0.90 = 0.855 chance that he’s guilty of both. He’s already served one prison term, so the judge ought to acquit him today.
Szpiro writes, “Thus we have the following scenario: in spite of the evidence being identical, the previously convicted Peter is acquitted, while Paul, with a clean record, is incarcerated.”
In Languages and Their Speakers (1979), linguist Timothy Shopen shows how greetings and leave-takings can reflect a society’s cultural values. First he gives a typical American conversation in which one friend encounters another who is 15 minutes late for work:
— Hi! How are you?
Sorry, I’m in a hurry.
— Yeah, me too.
See you on Saturday.
The whole interaction lasts five seconds; it includes a greeting and a leave-taking, but there is no actual conversation between. Here’s the same interaction in the Maninka culture of West Africa:
Ah Sedou, you and the morning.
— Excellent. You and the morning.
Did you sleep in peace?
— Only peace.
Are the people of the household well?
— There is no trouble.
Are you well?
— Peace, praise Allah. Did you sleep well?
Praise Allah. You Kanté.
— Excellent. You Diarra.
— And the family?
I thank Allah. Is there peace?
— We are here.
How is your mother?
— No trouble.
And your cousin Fanta?
— Only peace. And your father?
Praise Allah. He greets you.
— Tell him I have heard it.
And your younger brother Amadou?
— He is well. And your uncle Sidi?
No trouble, Praise Allah …
Where are you going?
— I’m going to the market. And you?
My boss is waiting for me.
— O.K. then, I’ll see you later.
Yes, I’ll see you later. Greet the people of the household.
— They will hear it. Greet your father.
He will hear it.
— May your day pass well.
Amen. May the market go well.
— Amen. May we meet soon.
May that “soon” arrive in good stead.
“Time elapsed: 46 seconds,” Shopen writes. “It is more important to show respect for a friend or a kinsman than to be on time for work, and thus we have the example of Mamadou Diarra above, already fifteen minutes late for work and not hesitating to be even later in order to greet a friend in the proper manner. First things first, and there is no question for the Maninka people about what is most important.”
v. to call heaven to witness; to protest against
n. a traitor; a betrayer
Is a union breaking the law if it posts a giant inflatable rat outside an employer’s facility? No, it’s not, according to a 2011 decision by the National Labor Relations Board. The Sheet Metal Workers’ Union had sought to dissuade a hospital from using non-union workers by stationing a 16-foot rat near the building’s entrance. The NLRB held that the “the use of the stationary Giant Rat (i) constituted peaceful and constitutionally protectable expression, (ii) did not involve confrontational conduct that would qualify as unlawful picketing, and (iii) did not qualify as nonpicketing conduct that was otherwise unlawfully coercive.”
The “rat collosi” are multiplying (gallery). Let’s hope they don’t stage an uprising themselves someday.
Why do we cultivate friendships? What reason do I have to be a friend to another person, that is, to care about him for his own sake? In order to make the friendship worthwhile, such a reason would have to explain how doing it makes my own life better. But that’s a problem: If I pursue the friendship in order to improve my own life, then I’m not really being a true friend, caring about my friend for his own sake.
University of Newcastle philosopher Joe Mintoff writes, “The problem is that, even though many of us think that being a true friend makes our lives better, paradoxically this thought had better not guide our pursuit of friendship, lest this mean that we are not true friends and that our lives are not made better.” Why, then, do we seek to befriend others?
(Joe Mintoff, “Could an Egoist Be a Friend?,” American Philosophical Quarterly 43:2 [April 2006], 101-118.)
In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.
We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.