The Telegarden

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1995, artist Ken Goldberg fitted a $40,000 robot arm with a webcam and mounted it in a trough so that “virtual gardeners” from anywhere in the world could plant seeds and water them. After every hundred hits they were given the option to plant more seeds.

Organizers found that the users tended to discuss nature, technology, and interpersonal connections, with virtually no abusive language. They would ask one another to water their plants during vacations and would sometimes plant seeds “strategically” in order to be near one another. The community shared their sorrow at the death of one gardener, and a couple got engaged. One member wrote, “I am recovering from neck surgery and can not do anything. The place has been a life saver for me.” Altogether the project ran for nine years in Berkeley, California, and Linz, Austria.

“The public resonance of this installation was quite remarkable,” writes Oliver Grau in Virtual Art. “Up to this point in time, Goldberg had likened the culture of the Web as typical of that of hunter-gatherers. However, the telegarden was a symbolic model for a postnomadic society that anonymously and collectively tended plants on a minuscule piece of the earth. The members of this troup, who never actually came face to face, communicated with each other or were even aware of how many other virtual gardeners were logged in, were using the most modern medium of the time for this. Goldberg’s work was a collective intercontinental cultural production.”

Holy Orders

Until recently, it was the habit of preachers to enumerate the points they made in their sermon. The phrase ‘fifthly and lastly, dear brethren’, or whatever number it was, was a familiar one to churchgoers. St Mary Magdalen Church in Bermondsey Street, London, once had a Puritan preacher who, some four hundred years ago, preached a sermon from sixty pages of notes concluding with the words ‘one hundred and seventhly and lastly, dear brethren.’

— N.T.P. Murphy, A Wodehouse Handbook, 2013

Discretion

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A group of Oxford dons were sunbathing nude by the River Cherwell when a female student floated by in a punt.

Most of them scrambled to cover their nakedness, but Sir Maurice Bowra instead put a flannel over his head.

When asked why, he said, “I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face.”

Alone Together

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Introduced in the early 1800s, the “separate system” of prison architecture kept prisoners isolated from one another, to make them easier to control and to destroy the criminal subculture that could otherwise arise in dense populations. Prisoners were reduced to numbers, without names or histories, and the guards were forbidden to speak to them; in the exercise yard they tramped silently in rows, their faces hidden by brown cloth masks.

At London’s Pentonville prison this separation extended even to the chapel, where the assembled prisoners could see the chaplain but not each other. “Every man, as he enters, knows the precise row and seat that he has to occupy, and though some few pass in together at the same moment, these go to opposite quarters of the gallery,” observed journalist Henry Mayhew. “Each convict is able to get to his seat, and to close the partition-door of his stall after him, before the one following his steps has time to enter the same row.”

After the service, their exit was managed by a curious mechanical device that displayed each stall number in succession. “Thus the chapel is entirely emptied, not only with considerable rapidity, but without any disturbance or confusion.”

Pentonville was considered a model British prison of its time, and some 300 prisons worldwide were eventually built on the separate system. But an official report acknowledged that “for every sixty thousand persons imprisoned in Pentonville there were 220 cases of insanity, 210 cases of delusion, and forty suicides.”

(Henry Mayhew, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862.)

In a Word

baisemains
n. respects or compliments

idoneous
adj. appropriate; suitable; proper; fit

peradvertence
n. thorough care or attention

basilic
adj. royal

At the Athens Olympics of 1896, American runner Thomas Curtis asked his French competitor Albin Lermusiaux why he was putting on white gloves before the start of the 100-meter race.

Lermusiaux said, “Because I am running in front of the king.”

Planned Community

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French philosopher Charles Fourier promoted a self-contained utopian society he called the phalanstère, or “grand hotel.” Each building would be a four-story apartment complex with two wings, one for children and noisy activities and the other containing ballrooms and meeting halls. Tasks would be assigned based on each member’s interests and desires, with higher pay going to undesirable jobs.

“In Fourier’s utopia, social harmony was guaranteed by assembling exactly 1,620 members, since he believed there were just twelve common passions that resulted in 810 types of character,” writes Damien Rudd in Sad Topographies. “In this way, every possible want, need and desire could be duly satisfied. It would be a society free of government, unfettered capitalism and the oppressive labour exploitation Fourier saw as the scourge of the modern world.”

The idea fell flat in Europe, but seven years after Fourier’s death in 1837 a group of idealistic followers built a community along the Ohio River based on his teachings. For $25 each subscribing family would get a timber house and a portion of land. It fell apart when Fourier’s promised “80,000 years of perfect harmony” failed to materialize.

Nondelivery

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James McNeill Whistler to a publican:

“My man, would you like to sell a great deal more beer than you do?”

“Aye, sir, that I would.”

“Then don’t sell so much froth.”

Dueling Servilities

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An encounter between theologian and mathematician Isaac Barrow and John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester:

Barrow … met Rochester at court, who said to him, ‘doctor, I am yours to my shoe-tie;’ Barrow bowed obsequiously with, ‘my lord, I am yours to the ground;’ Rochester returned this by, ‘doctor, I am yours to the centre;’ Barrow rejoined, ‘my lord, I am yours to the antipodes;’ Rochester, not to be foiled by ‘a musty old piece of divinity,’ as he was accustomed to call him, exclaimed, ‘doctor, I am yours to the lowest pit of hell;’ whereupon Barrow turned from him with, ‘there, my lord, I leave you.’

From William Hone’s Every-Day Book, 1868.

International Relations

Inspired officials of the East German Communist party, ever diligent in setting standards to which party members may conform, issued a list of the terms which are approved for use in vilifying the West. Henceforth Red speakers will know they are on safe ground if they choose any of the following synonyms for Americans: ‘Monkey killers, lice breeders, mass poisoners, chewing-gum spivs, boogie-woogie tramps, gas-chamber ideologists, leprous heroes, breeders of trichinosis, arsenic mixers, delirious lunatics, exploiters of epidemics.’ For the British a different set of terms must be used: ‘paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch cowards and collaborators, conceited dandies or playboy soldiers.’

LIFE, Sept. 14, 1953

Migration

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When Winnie-the-Pooh was proposed for sale in East Germany, censors found its message too neutral, insufficiently progressive, and hence not representative of East German society. Here’s an extract from the print permit files of 1959:

Winnie the Pooh is exclusively about fantasy, happiness and child’s play. Certainly our children are not less imaginative in their play, but it cannot be denied that the fantasy of our children moves in another direction. Our time is not so much about a single child with his toys on his own — and if this does prevail in a child, it is not desired and does not match our didactic ideals. Thus, the value for the education of our children is minimal and it is not worthwhile spending foreign currency on it. Yet, should it be taken on in exchange for publishing one of our valuable children’s books in West Germany, a publication should not be refused.

The book did eventually get a permit and was published in 1960.

(From Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth, Translation Under State Control, 2011.)