“Hiawatha’s Photographing”


Lewis Carroll was an early enthusiast of photography, though he seems to have found the social aspects trying — he published this poem in 1857:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod —
Crouched beneath its dusky cover —
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence —
Said, “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.
First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
Looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning,
As of ducks that die ill tempests.
Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn’t help it.
Next, his better half took courage;
She would have her picture taken.
She came dressed beyond description,
Dressed in jewels and in satin
Far too gorgeous for an empress.
Gracefully she sat down sideways,
With a simper scarcely human,
Holding in her hand a bouquet
Rather larger than a cabbage.
All the while that she was sitting,
Still the lady chattered, chattered,
Like a monkey in the forest.
“Am I sitting still?” she asked him.
“Is my face enough in profile?
Shall I hold the bouquet higher?
Will it came into the picture?”
And the picture failed completely.
Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab:
He suggested curves of beauty,
Curves pervading all his figure,
Which the eye might follow onward,
Till they centered in the breast-pin,
Centered in the golden breast-pin.
He had learnt it all from Ruskin
(Author of ‘The Stones of Venice,’
‘Seven Lamps of Architecture,’
‘Modern Painters,’ and some others);
And perhaps he had not fully
Understood his author’s meaning;
But, whatever was the reason,
All was fruitless, as the picture
Ended in an utter failure.
Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of ‘passive beauty.’
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.
Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;
But, when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’
Bit his lip and changed the subject.
Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.
So in turn the other sisters.
Last, the youngest son was taken:
Very rough and thick his hair was,
Very round and red his face was,
Very dusty was his jacket,
Very fidgety his manner.
And his overbearing sisters
Called him names he disapproved of:
Called him Johnny, ‘Daddy’s Darling,’
Called him Jacky, ‘Scrubby School-boy.’
And, so awful was the picture,
In comparison the others
Seemed, to one’s bewildered fancy,
To have partially succeeded.
Finally my Hiawatha
Tumbled all the tribe together,
(‘Grouped’ is not the right expression),
And, as happy chance would have it
Did at last obtain a picture
Where the faces all succeeded:
Each came out a perfect likeness.
Then they joined and all abused it,
Unrestrainedly abused it,
As the worst and ugliest picture
They could possibly have dreamed of.
‘Giving one such strange expressions —
Sullen, stupid, pert expressions.
Really any one would take us
(Any one that did not know us)
For the most unpleasant people!’
(Hiawatha seemed to think so,
Seemed to think it not unlikely.)
All together rang their voices,
Angry, loud, discordant voices,
As of dogs that howl in concert,
As of cats that wail in chorus.
But my Hiawatha’s patience,
His politeness and his patience,
Unaccountably had vanished,
And he left that happy party.
Neither did he leave them slowly,
With the calm deliberation,
The intense deliberation
Of a photographic artist:
But he left them in a hurry,
Left them in a mighty hurry,
Stating that he would not stand it,
Stating in emphatic language
What he’d be before he’d stand it.
Hurriedly he packed his boxes:
Hurriedly the porter trundled
On a barrow all his boxes:
Hurriedly he took his ticket:
Hurriedly the train received him:
Thus departed Hiawatha.

He introduced it by writing, “In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject.”

The Mindset List

In 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief of Wisconsin’s Beloit College began compiling lists of what had “always” or “never” been true in the lives of each incoming class of students, to remind faculty to be mindful of the references they made in class.

For example, that first class, born in 1980, had been 11 years old when the Soviet Union broke up and did not remember the Cold War. They had never had a polio shot and never owned a record player. Their popcorn had always been cooked in a microwave, and they’d always had cable television. Here are some details of the worldview of the class of 2022:

  • Outer space has never been without human habitation.
  • They will never fly TWA, Swissair, or Sabena airlines.
  • The Prius has always been on the road in the U.S.
  • They never used a spit bowl in a dentist’s office.
  • “You’ve got mail” would sound as ancient to them as “number, please” would have sounded to their parents.
  • Mass market books have always been available exclusively as Ebooks.
  • There have always been more than a billion people in India.
  • Films have always been distributed on the Internet.
  • The detachable computer mouse is almost extinct.
  • The Mir space station has always been at the bottom of the South Pacific.

Other recent lists are here.

Going Home

Until 2006, a British ambassador leaving his post would write a valedictory despatch to be circulated among select readers in the British government. These “parting shots” tended to be appallingly frank, combining the diplomat’s real feelings about the nation he was leaving with his often wounded resentment at the indifference of his own government:

  • Argentina: “All I knew of Argentines before coming here was that they were generally disliked by all other Latin Americans as unduly pretentious, snobbish upstarts. …. The per capita outlay on deodorants in the Argentine is the highest in the world.”
  • Finland: “It could plausibly be argued that it is a misfortune for anybody but a Finn to spend three years in Finland, as I have just done. … Finland is flat, freezing, and far from the pulsating centres of European life.”
  • Uruguay: “After living now for over two years among people who call themselves Orientals and who seem to have inherited nearly all the faults and none of the virtues of Spain (though they have many minor virtues of their own), I look forward to returning to what I conceive to be, at least by contrast, the speed and efficiency of my own country.”
  • Saudi Arabia: “It is a great tragedy that, with all the world’s needs, Providence should have concentrated so much of a vital resource and so much wealth in the hands of people who need it so little and are so socially irresponsible about the use of it.”
  • Thailand: “Decayed garbage left for months on the side of the roads; stagnant canals that serve both as cesspools and as the dumping ground for dead dogs; buses and lorries that belch uncontrolled clouds of diesel fumes; scarcely a pavement without potholes and open manholes to break the legs of the unwary; bag-snatchers in every block; assault and violence a way of life; prostitution and every form of natural and unnatural vice on a scale astonishing even in Asia; a city of 4 million with only one park, and that littered with refuse and infested by thieves; unplanned hideous ribbon development; no proper drainage, so that in the rainy season large areas of the city remain flooded for weeks on end; and the whole set in a flat mournful plain without even a hillock in sight for 100 miles in any direction: this is Bangkok, the vaunted Venice of the East.”

Matthew Parris, who published a whole collection of these in 2010, explains: “Beyond retirement there can be no reprisals.”

“The Pavior”

An Author saw a Laborer hammering stones into the pavement of a street, and approaching him said:

‘My friend, you seem weary. Ambition is a hard taskmaster.’

‘I’m working for Mr. Jones, sir,’ the Laborer replied.

‘Well, cheer up,’ the Author resumed; ‘fame comes at the most unexpected times. To-day you are poor, obscure and disheartened, but to-morrow the world may be ringing with your name.’

‘What are you telling me?’ the Laborer said. ‘Can not an honest pavior perform his work in peace, and get his money for it, and his living by it, without others talking rot about ambition and hopes of fame?’

‘Can not an honest writer?’ said the Author.

— Ambrose Bierce, The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, 1911

The Bar Problem

Suppose a local bar has 100 regular patrons. The bar is rather small, and going there is enjoyable on a given night only if fewer than 60 people show up. This is a problem: I want to go to the bar, but I expect to enjoy it only if you don’t come. But I know that you’re thinking the same thing about me. If no one communicates in advance, how many people will tend to turn up at the bar?

In a 1994 computer experiment, Stanford University economist W. Brian Arthur assigned each patron a set of plausible predictive rules on which it might base its decision. One rule might predict that next week’s attendance will be the same as last week’s, while another might take a rounded average of the last four weeks, and so on. Then, in practice, each patron would downgrade its badly performing rules and promote the more successful ones, and revise these ratings continually.

What he found is that the mean attendance converges to about 60, forming an “emergent ecology” that Arthur said is “almost organic in nature.” The population of active predictors splits into a 60/40 ratio, even though it keeps changing in membership forever. “To get some understanding of how this happens, suppose that 70 percent of their predictors forecasted above 60 for a longish time. Then on average only 30 people would show up; but this would validate predictors that forecasted close to 30 and invalidate the above-60 predictors, restoring the ‘ecological’ balance among predictions, so to speak.”

This is heartening to see, because life is full of such murky decisions. “There is no deductively rational solution — no ‘correct’ expectational model,” Arthur writes. “From the agents’ viewpoint, the problem is ill-defined, and they are propelled into a world of induction.”

(W. Brian Arthur, “Inductive Reasoning and Bounded Rationality,” American Economic Review 84:2 [May 1994], 406-411.)

Gödel’s Loophole

At Princeton in the 1940s, Albert Einstein became a close friend of logician Kurt Gödel, whose incompleteness theorems lie at the heart of modern mathematics. Toward the end of his life Einstein said that his “own work no longer meant much, that he came to the Institute merely … to have the privilege of walking home with Gödel.”

In 1947 Einstein and economist Oskar Morgenstern accompanied Gödel to his U.S. citizenship exam because they were concerned about his unpredictable behavior: During his voluminous preparation for the exam, Gödel said, he had uncovered a flaw in the U.S. constitution that could lead to a dictatorship. Einstein and Morgenstern told him that the exam would really be quite simple and urged him not to prepare so extensively.

At the hearing, judge Phillip Forman asked Gödel:

“Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?”

“Where I come from? Austria.”

“What kind of government did you have in Austria?”

“It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.”

“Oh! That is very bad. This could not happen in this country.”

“Oh, yes,” Gödel said. “I can prove it.”

“So of all the possible questions, just that critical one was asked by the Examinor,” Morgenstern wrote later. “Einstein and I were horrified during this exchange; the Examinor was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and say, ‘Oh, God, let’s not go into this.'”

The logician got his citizenship and the friends returned to Princeton. What was the flaw that Gödel had found? There’s no record of it in Morgenstern’s account, so we don’t know. Stephen Hawking suggests that it involved the president’s power to fill vacancies during Senate recesses, and Barry University law professor F.E. Guerra-Pujol conjectures that it might involve the constitution’s power to amend itself. Maybe it’s best if we never discover it.

(Thanks, Louis.)



Aristotle referred to humans as the “state-building animal.” Other names our species has proposed for itself, in various writings:

Homo absconditus: “man the inscrutable”
Homo adorans: “worshipping man”
Homo aestheticus: “aesthetic man”
Homo amans: “loving man”
Homo animalis: “man with a soul”
Homo avarus: “man the greedy”
Homo creator: “creator man”
Homo demens: “mad man” (the only creature with irrational delusions)
Homo discens: “learning man”
Homo domesticus: “domestic man” (because he builds his environment)
Homo duplex: “double man” (because of his animal and social tendencies)
Homo economicus: “economic man”
Homo educandus: “to be educated” (we require education to reach maturity)
Homo ethicus: “ethical man”
Homo excentricus: “not self-centered” (we’re capable of objectivity and self-reflection)
Homo faber: “toolmaker man”
Homo ferox: “ferocious man” (T.H. White)
Homo grammaticus: “grammatical man”
Homo humanus: “human man” (as opposed to Homo biologicus)
Homo hypocritus: “hypocritical man” (Robin Hanson, who also called us “man the sly rule bender”)
Homo imitans: “imitating man” (capable of learning by imitation)
Homo inermis: “helpless man” (devoid of animal instincts)
Homo investigans: “investigating man” (curious and capable of learning by deduction)
Homo laborans: “working man” (capable of dividing labor and specializing)
Homo logicus: “the man who wants to understand”
Homo loquens: “talking man”
Homo loquax: “chattering man” (Henri Bergson)
Homo ludens: “playing man” (Schiller)
Homo mendax: “lying man” (able to tell lies)
Homo metaphysicus: “metaphysical man” (Schopenhauer)
Pan narrans: “storytelling ape” (Terry Pratchett)
Homo necans: “killing man”
Homo patiens: “suffering man” (Viktor Frankl)
Homo pictor: “depicting man”
Homo poetica: “man the poet”
Homo religiosus: “religious man”
Homo ridens: “laughing man”
Homo reciprocans: “reciprocal man” (a cooperative actor)
Homo sanguinis: “bloody man”
Homo sciens: “knowing man”
Homo sentimentalis: “sentimental man” (empathizing and idealizing emotions)
Homo socius: “social man”
Homo sociologicus: “sociological man” (prone to sociology)
Homo technologicus: “technological man”
Homo viator: “man the pilgrim” (on his way toward finding God)

Wikipedia lists 72 of these. Douglas Adams wrote, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”



Modern lighting is so ubiquitous that we scarcely think about it, but from prehistory to A.D. 1782 there were just a few primitive means to banish the dark, chiefly fires, rushlights, and tallow candles. And even these were rather precious — in the 17th century John Aubrey wrote of William Oughtred that “his wife was a penurious woman and would not allow him to burne candle after supper, by which means many a good notion is lost.” In 1763 James Boswell was midway through a night of writing when disaster struck:

About two o’clock in the morning I inadvertently snuffed out my candle, and as my fire before that was long before black and cold, I was in a great dilemma how to proceed. Downstairs did I softly and silently step to the kitchen. But, alas, there was as little fire there as upon the icy mountains of Greenland. With a tinder box is a light struck every morning to kindle the fire, which is put out at night. But this tinder box I could not see, nor knew where to find. I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night. I was also apprehensive that my landlord who always keeps a pair of loaded pistols by him, might fire at me as a thief.

What did he do? “I went up to my room, sat quietly until I heard the watchman calling ‘past three o’clock’. I then called to him to knock at the door of the house where I lodged. He did so, and I opened to him and got my candle re-lumed without danger. Thus was I relieved and continued busy until eight the next day.”

(William T. O’Dea, The Social History of Lighting, 1958.)

Signing Off

donne letter

In England and France, from the 1500s to the 1700s, the placement of a letter writer’s signature on the page conveyed meaning as to his relationship with the recipient. In his 1568 letter-writing manual Enimie of Idlenesse, William Fulwood writes that the subscription and signature of the letter “must be doone according to the estate of the writer, and the qualitie of the person to whom wee write: For to our superiors wee must write at the right side in the neither end of the paper, saying: By your most humble and obedient sonne, or seruant, &c. Or, yours to commaund, &c. And to our equals we must write towards the middest of the paper, saying: By your faithfull friend for euer, &c. Or, yours assured, &c. To our inferiours wee may write on high at the left hand, saying: By yours, &c.”

In 1601 John Donne married Anne More without the blessing of her father, who was lieutenant of the Tower of London. Donne was incarcerated, and in his letters begging for clemency he crammed his signature into the bottom right-hand corner of the page to signal his self-abasement.

(From Sam Willis and James Daybell, Histories of the Unexpected, 2018.)

Filial Duty


Most people would agree that children have special duties to their parents, even once the children have grown up. We might feel an obligation to keep in touch with them, for example, or to care for them in their old age. Where do these duties come from?

  • Certainly my parents have done a great deal for me, so perhaps I owe them a debt. But it seems there’s no way to repay this debt completely, and I seem to owe it regardless of how great (or small) a burden I was to them as a child. (Also my obligation to them seems to vary with my own circumstances, which is not the case with other debts.)
  • Perhaps what I really owe them is an appropriate gratitude for what they’ve done for me. But this doesn’t seem right either — if I help my mother through a difficult time, fundamentally it’s because she wants me there, not to show that I recognize and appreciate what she’s done for me. Also, I seem to feel a duty to her even if I required relatively little sacrifice as a child, which is not normally how we think about gratitude.
  • Maybe my parents and I are friends, and I owe them the duties that come with friendship. But I can’t choose to end our relationship, as I can with friends, and I would never feel an obligation to provide medical care (say) for my friends, as I would for my parents.

Each of these explanations is unsatisfactory, writes Boston University philosopher Simon Keller. “Each tries to assimilate the moral relationship between parent and child to some independently understood conception of duty, but this relationship is different in structure and content from any that we are likely to share with anyone apart from a parent.” So what’s the source of our obligation to our parents?

(Simon Keller, “Four Theories of Filial Duty,” Philosophical Quarterly 56:223 [April 2006], 254-274.)