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
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
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.
In 1969, solicitor James Jarvis booked a skiiing holiday in Switzerland. A brochure from Swan Tours Ltd. described the attractions in Mörlialp, Giswil, thus:
House Party Centre with special resident host. … Mörlialp is a most wonderful little resort on a sunny plateau … Up there you will find yourself in the midst of beautiful alpine scenery, which in winter becomes a wonderland of sun, snow and ice, with a wide variety of fine ski-runs, a skating rink and exhilarating toboggan run … Why did we choose the Hotel Krone … mainly and most of all because of the ‘Gemütlichkeit’ and friendly welcome you will receive from Herr and Frau Weibel. … The Hotel Krone has its own Alphütte Bar which will be open several evenings a week. … No doubt you will be in for a great time, when you book this houseparty holiday … Mr. Weibel, the charming owner, speaks English. …
All these House Party arrangements are included in the price of your holiday. Welcome party on arrival. Afternoon tea and cake for 7 days. Swiss dinner by candlelight. Fondue party. Yodeler evening. Chali farewell party in the ‘Alphütte Bar’. Service of representative.
He flew out on Dec. 20 and flew back on Jan. 3 in a bitter and unrefreshed state of mind. Mr. Weibel, the charming owner, certainly had not spoken English, and the vaunted house party had amounted to 13 people in the first week and zero in the second. In the subsequent lawsuit for breach of contract, Tom Denning, the Master of the Rolls, wrote:
So there was Mr. Jarvis, in the second week, in this hotel with no house party at all, and no one could speak English, except himself. He was very disappointed, too, with the ski-ing. It was some distance away at Giswil. There were no ordinary length skis. There were only mini-skis, about 3 ft. long. So he did not get his ski-ing as he wanted to. In the second week he did get some longer skis for a couple of days, but then, because of the boots, his feet got rubbed and he could not continue even with the long skis. So his ski-ing holiday, from his point of view, was pretty well ruined.
There were also no Swiss cakes, just crisps and little dry nut cakes. The ‘yodeler’ was a local man who came in work clothes and sang four or five songs quickly. The ‘Alphütte Bar’ was empty and only open one evening.
Jarvis had paid £63.45, and the trial judge, estimating that he’d received about half of what was promised, awarded him £31.72. But Denning went further: He judged that Jarvis’ disappointment in itself constituted a damage and deserved to be compensated. “I think the judge was in error in taking the sum paid for the holiday £63.45 and halving it. The right measure of damages is to compensate him for the loss of entertainment and enjoyment which he was promised, and which he did not get.” He awarded Jarvis £125.
A striking paragraph from A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, Caroline Davidson’s 1982 history of housework in the British Isles:
One woman actually entered the nascent electrical industry in the 1870s. Pretending to be a man (she assumed the name of Charles Torr) she rose to become managing director of a large Birmingham firm called Winfield’s which produced ornamental brass-work, chandeliers and fittings suitable for interior electric lighting. She joined a dining society of electrical engineers called the ‘Dynamicables’ where many of the problems facing the new industry were discussed. She obviously had the vision to see electricity’s brilliant future, as well as a flair for business and exceptional talent for concealing her sex. For, in the early 1880s, she approached Rookes E.B. Crompton with a proposal that their two firms should go into partnership; Compton’s was to carry out lighting installations and Winfield’s was to supply the capital and fitments. Her plans were extremely grand: she wanted to apply for a Parliamentary act to light Birmingham and to sell electrical goods world-wide. However, after the two firms had co-operated for several years, Winfield’s ran into financial difficulties and Charles Torr committed suicide: only then did her colleagues learn her true sex.
I haven’t been able to learn anything more. Davidson cites Crompton’s Reminiscences of 1928, which is unfortunately rare.
Here’s a forgotten punishment. In the 17th century, in return for a minor offense such as not attending to a sermon, a wrongdoer might be required to place his finger into an L-shaped hole over which a block was fastened to keep the knuckle bent. “[T]he finger was confined, and it will easily be seen that it could not be withdrawn until the pillory was opened,” writes William Andrews in Medieval Punishments (1898). “If the offender were held long in this posture, the punishment must have been extremely painful.”
In his 1686 history of Staffordshire, Robert Plot recalls a “finger-Stocks” “made for punishment of the disorders, that sometimes attend feasting at Christmas time.” Into this “the Lord of misrule, used formerly to put the fingers of all such persons as committed misdemeanors, or broke such rules, as by consent were agreed on for the time of keeping Christmas, among servants and others of promiscuous quality.”
In February 1943, hundreds of German women joined in a spontaneous protest in central Berlin. They were objecting to the roundup of some of the city’s last Jews — their husbands. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Rosenstrasse protest, a remarkable example of civil disobedience.
We’ll also ponder whether a computer can make art and puzzle over some unusual phone calls.
In the face of a driving rain the president and Mrs. Taft at 4:30 o’clock this afternoon left the White House, dodging the guardian, Major Butt, and the secret service men, and for two hours tramped together through the streets, dropping in at the homes of friends to wish them the compliments of the season.
Reportedly Calvin Coolidge also walked Washington with a single Secret Service guard in the 1920s, his identity “often … never suspected”:
One story had it that on an icy Winter’s day pedestrians on a downtown street noticed a thin man without an overcoat, gazing intently into a restaurant window where a girl was busily turning griddle cakes. As one passerby was pitying him for his apparent cold and hunger, the man turned and walked rapidly away, followed by another man in a greatcoat. The thinly clad one was the President.
(From Richard J. Ellis, Presidential Travel, 2008.)
What rules underlie natural conversation? In a lecture at Harvard in 1967, British philosopher H.P. Grice set out to specify them using a mathematical approach, as Euclid had done in plane geometry. First, he said, the participants in a conversation follow a Cooperative Principle:
Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.
Then he derived more specific principles under four headings:
Make your contribution as informative as is required.
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
Try to make your contribution one that is true.
Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Avoid obscurity of expression.
These are useful, but they’re not axioms. “[I]t is possible to engage in a genuine and meaningful conversation and yet fail to observe one or more of the maxims Grice listed,” writes Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin. “The maxims seem more a matter of an obligation of some kind.” In Grice’s own words, “I would like to be able to think of the standard type of conversational practice not merely as something which all or most do in fact follow, but as something which it is reasonable for us to follow, which we should not abandon.”
(Keith Devlin, “What Will Count as Mathematics in 2100?”, in Bonnie Gold and Roger A. Simons, eds., Proof & Other Dilemmas: Mathematics and Philosophy, 2008.)