The Spirit Battery

https://books.google.com/books?id=FtEPAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA101

When the electric telegraph was making its appearance in the 1840s, it was strangely easy to confuse it with spiritualism: Both were uncanny means of talking with absent people through systems of symbols. In a bid for legitimacy, spiritualists appealed to the principles of “electrical science.” In his 1853 book The Present Age and Inner Life, Andrew Jackson Davis proposed a “spirit battery” by which a medium could improve her contact with the spirit world by asking her guests to hold a magnetic rope whose ends were dipped in water-filled buckets made of copper and zinc:

The males and females (the positive and negative principles) are placed alternately; as so many zinc and copper plates in the construction of magnetic batteries. The medium or media have places assigned them on either side of the junction whereat the rope is crossed, the ends terminating each in a pail or jar of cold water. … But these new things should be added. The copper wire should terminate in, or be clasped to, a zinc plate; the steel wire should, in the same manner, be attached to a copper plate. These plates should be dodecahedral, or cut with twelve angles or sides, because, by means of the points, the volume of terrestrial electricity is greatly augmented, and its accumulation is also, by the same means, accelerated, which the circle requires for a rudimental aura (or atmosphere) through which spirits can approach and act upon material bodies.

“We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us,” Davis wrote. “The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.”

Alarming bonus factoid: When Samuel Morse appeared before Congress in 1838 to seek funding for an experimental telegraph line, some congressmen introduced amendments that would provide funds for research on mesmerism as well. The committee chair wrote, “It would require a scientific analysis to determine how far the magnetism of mesmerism was analogous to the magnetism to be employed in telegraphs.” When the bill came to a vote, 70 congressmen left their seats; many hoped “to avoid spending the public money for a machine they could not understand.”

(From Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, 2000.)

Better People

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liezen_R%C3%A1k%C3%B3czi_Rodost%C3%B3ban.jpg

Horace Walpole on the preferability of animals’ companionship to that of humans:

“Sense and fidelity are wonderful recommendations; and when one meets with them, and can be confident that one is not imposed upon, I cannot think that the two additional legs are any drawback. At least I know that I have had friends who would never have vexed or betrayed me, if they had walked on all fours.”

(From a letter to the Earl of Strafford, Oct. 11, 1783.)

Podcast Episode 251: Joseph Palmer’s Beard

https://books.google.com/books?id=Wc0QAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA56

In 1830 Joseph Palmer created an odd controversy in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: He wore a beard when beards were out of fashion. For this social sin he was shunned, attacked, and ultimately jailed. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of a bizarre battle against irrational prejudice.

We’ll also see whether a computer can understand knitting and puzzle over an unrewarded long jump.

See full show notes …

Crowd Control

Tokyo has the world’s busiest train stations, handling 13 billion passenger trips a year. To keep things running smoothly it relies on some subtle features to manipulate passenger behavior.

Blue lights mounted discreetly at either end of a platform, the points at which prospective suicides contemplate leaping into the path of oncoming trains, have been associated with an 84 percent decline in such attempts.

Rail operator JR East commissioned composer Hiroaki Ide to replace the grating buzzer that used to signal a train’s departure with short, pleasant jingles known as hassha melodies. These have produced a 25 percent reduction in passenger injuries due to rushing.

Stations also disperse young people by playing 17-kilohertz tones that can generally only be heard by those under 25. And rail employees are trained to use the “point and call” method, shisa kanko, in executing tasks. Physically pointing at an object and verbalizing one’s intentions has been shown to reduce human error by as much as 85 percent.

(Thanks, Sharon.)

Podcast Episode 249: The Robbers Cave Experiment

robbers cave

In 1954 a social psychologist started a war between two teams of fifth graders at an Oklahoma summer camp. He wanted to investigate the sources of human conflict and how people might overcome them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the Robbers Cave Experiment and examine its evolving reputation.

We’ll also dredge up a Dalek and puzzle over a hazardous job.

See full show notes …

More Madan

Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):

[Eton] masters asleep during Essay in various abandoned attitudes. Hornby like a frozen mammoth in a cave; Stone drooping; Vaughan like a monarch taking his rest; Churchill like a fowl on a perch with a film over his eyes.

A.E. Housman’s epitaph: the only member of the middle classes who never called himself a gentleman.

“It is the cause”: theory that Othello closes and lays down a Bible.

Gladstone’s Virgil quotations, like plovers’ nests: impossible to see till you’ve been shown.

“Love gratified is love satisfied, and love satisfied is indifference begun.” — Richardson

“It matters not at all in what way I lay this poker on the floor. But if Bonaparte should say it must be placed in this direction, we must instantly insist upon its being laid in some other one.” — Nelson

“Conservative: a man with an inborn conviction that he is right, without being able to prove it.” — Revd. T. James, 1844

“Lord Normanby, in recklessly opening the Irish gaols, has exchanged the customary attributes of Mercy and Justice: he has made Mercy blind, and Justice weeping.” — Lord Wellesley

Auld Lang Syne

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alcatraz_Island_at_Sunset.jpg
Image: Wikipedia

The yacht club, which was directly across from the island, would always have a big New Year’s party. If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could actually hear people laughing, you could hear music, you could hear girls laughing. You know, you could hear all the sounds coming from the free world, at the Rock. And New Year’s was always the night we heard it.

There was never a day you didn’t see what the hell you were losing, and what you were missing, you know. It was all there for you to see. There’s life. There’s everything I want in my life, and it’s there. It’s a mile or a mile and half away. And yet I can’t get to it.

— Jim Quillen, Alcatraz Inmate 586, in narration recorded for the self-guiding tour

Reflection

There was once a man who married a sweet little wife; but when he set out with her from her father’s house, he found that she had never been taught to walk. They had a long way to go, and there was nothing for him to do but to carry her; and as he carried her she grew heavier and heavier.

Then they came to a wide, deep river, and he found that she had never been taught to swim. So he told her to hold fast to his shoulder, and started to swim with her across the river. And as he swam she grew frightened, and dragged him down in her struggles. And the river was deep and wide, and the current ran fast; and once or twice she nearly had him under. But he fought his way through, and landed her safely on the other side; and behold, he found himself in a strange country, beyond all imagining delightful. And as he looked about him and gave thanks, he said to himself:

‘Perhaps if I hadn’t had to carry her over, I shouldn’t have kept up long enough to get here myself.’

— Edith Wharton, The Valley of Childish Things, and Other Emblems, 1896

Podcast Episode 246: Gene Tierney’s Secret Heartbreak

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GeneTierneyLeaveHerToHeavenTrailerScreenshot1945.jpg

At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Tierney’s years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them.

We’ll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse.

See full show notes …