Human Relations

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Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:

  • To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
  • Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
  • When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
  • When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
  • In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
  • When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
  • Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
  • Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.

Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”

A Rising Profile

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One characteristic incident of his fearlessness occurred when friends of Mahler recommended the Berlin Royal Opera to engage him just before he had signed to go to Hamburg. The intendant at the German capital, who was said to be anti-Semitic, is reported to have replied, ‘We cannot engage Mahler here, as we do not like the shape of his nose.’ When in 1897 Vienna offered Mahler the directorial and managerial control of its opera, Berlin suddenly awoke to the importance of the artist who was leaving Germany, and made him a proposition financially better than the one from Vienna. Mahler at once signed the contract to go to the banks of the Danube and telegraphed Berlin: ‘Regret that I cannot accept. My nose still the same shape.’

Musical Courier, quoted in Current Literature, July 1911

See Late Acceptance.

Team Spirit

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Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics took China by storm — phrases such as the strong are victorious and the weak perish resonated in the national consciousness and “spread like a prairie fire, setting ablaze the hearts and blood of many young people,” noted philosopher Hu Shih.

People even adopted Darwin’s ideas as names. “The once famous General Chen Chiung-ming called himself ‘Ching-tsun’ or ‘Struggling for Existence.’ Two of my schoolmates bore the names ‘Natural Selection Yang’ and ‘Struggle for Existence Sun.’

“Even my own name bears witness to the great vogue of evolutionism in China. I remember distinctly the morning when I asked my second brother to suggest a literary name for me. After only a moment’s reflection, he said, ‘How about the word shih [fitness] in the phrase “Survival of the Fittest”?’ I agreed and, first using it as a nom de plume, finally adopted it in 1910 as my name.”

(Hu Shih, Living Philosophies, 1931.)

In a Word

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interturb
v. to disturb by interrupting

In late 1908 Douglas Mawson, Alastair Mackay, and Edgeworth David left Ernest Shackleton’s party in hopes of discovering the location of the South Magnetic Pole. On Dec. 11, while Mackay left the camp to reconnoiter, David prepared to sketch the mountains and Mawson retired into the tent to work on his camera equipment:

I was busy changing photographic plates in the only place where it could be done — inside the sleeping bag. … Soon after I had done up the bag, having got safely inside, I heard a voice from outside — a gentle voice — calling:

‘Mawson, Mawson.’

‘Hullo!’ said I.

‘Oh, you’re in the bag changing plates, are you?’

‘Yes, Professor.’

There was a silence for some time. Then I heard the Professor calling in a louder tone:

‘Mawson!’

I answered again. Well the Professor heard by the sound I was still in the bag, so he said:

‘Oh, still changing plates, are you?’

‘Yes.’

More silence for some time. After a minute, in a rather loud and anxious tone:

‘Mawson!’

I thought there was something up, but could not tell what he was after. I was getting rather tired of it and called out:

‘Hullo. What is it? What can I do?’

‘Well, Mawson, I am in a rather dangerous position. I am really hanging on by my fingers to the edge of a crevasse, and I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I shall have to trouble you to come out and assist me.’

I came out rather quicker than I can say. There was the Professor, just his head showing and hanging on to the edge of a dangerous crevasse.

David later explained, “I had scarcely gone more than six yards from the tent, when the lid of a crevasse suddenly collapsed under me. I only saved myself from going right down by throwing my arms out and staying myself on the snow lid on either side.”

Mawson helped him out, and David began his sketching. The party reached the pole in January.

The Winner’s Curse

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In 1983, Max Bazerman and William Samuelson asked M.B.A. students in 12 Boston University microeconomics classes to estimate the value of each of four commodities: jars containing 800 pennies, 160 nickels, 200 large paper clips each worth 4 cents, and 400 small paper clips each worth 2 cents. Thus each jar had a value of $8.00, though the students didn’t know this. They asked the students to bid on the value of each commodity. The student whose bid came closest to the true value in each auction would win a $2 prize.

The average estimated value of all the commodities was $5.13, $2.87 less than the true value. But the average winning bid was $10.01, resulting in an average loss to the winner of $2.01. The average winning bid produced a loss in more than half of all the auctions.

This is the “winner’s curse”: The winner of an auction tends to be one of those who form the highest estimate of an item’s value — and hence one of those most at risk of overpaying.

“If an individual assumes that his or her bid will win the auction, this piece of data should indicate that the bidder has probably overestimated the value of the commodity in comparison to other competitors,” write Bazerman and Samuelson. “When the correct inference is drawn, the bidder should revise the estimate of the true value of the item downward and lower the bid accordingly. By failing to take this inference into account, the winning bidder risks paying too much for the ‘prize.'”

(Max Bazerman and William Samuelson, “I Won the Auction But Don’t Want the Prize,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 27:4 [December 1983], 618-634.)

Community Spirit

Louisiana State University law professor Christine Alice Corcos points out that Ghostbusters, apart from being an entertaining comedy, also offers “a thoughtful introduction to environmental law and policy, suitable for discussion in a law school class.” For example, the team has no license for the containment unit in the basement of their firehouse:

The LLRWA sets forth extremely specific terms under which sites must be proposed, evaluated, and chosen. It also mandates environmental impact statements, which the Ghostbusters could not have prepared since they did not notify any agency of their activities. Additionally, the LLRWA guidelines require that the waste being stored, and the disposal site, be structurally stable. Apparently the psychic waste being stored does not meet Class B or C waste guidelines, nor does it seem to have the minimum stability required by any other class. As we see on Peck’s second visit to the facility, it is neither liquid nor solid, and if released will likely ignite or emit toxic vapors. Furthermore, storage is likely to be advisable not for 100 years, as with Class A and B wastes, but forever. However, under RCRA, the government need only show that the waste is hazardous within the statutory definition. The EPA might prefer to exercise this option for this particular case.

On the other hand, it’s EPA lawyer Walter Peck who orders the unit to be shut down, over the team’s protests. “Peck’s unilateral action may leave the EPA liable for suit by New York City residents under the Federal Tort Claims Act,” Corcos writes. “A successful suit would have to fall outside one of two exceptions to the federal government’s waiver of immunity. The discretionary function exception, exempts the acts and omissions of a government employee ‘exercising due care in the execution of a statute or regulation,’ or specific intentional torts, such as assault, battery and false imprisonment. Peck’s behavior in forcing the release of the psychic waste arguably falls within the battery exception, as would Venkman’s claim of malicious prosecution.”

(Christine Alice Corcos, “‘Who Ya Gonna C(S)ite?’: Ghostbusters and the Environmental Regulation Debate,” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law (1997): 231-272.) (Thanks, Mark.)

The Facts

“Boarding-House Geometry,” by Stephen Leacock:

Definitions and Axioms

All boarding-houses are the same boarding-house.
Boarders in the same boardinghouse and on the same flat are equal to one another.
A single room is that which has no parts and no magnitude.
The landlady of a boarding-house is a parallelogram — that is, an oblong angular figure, which cannot be described, but which is equal to anything.
A wrangle is the disinclination of two boarders to each other that meet together but are not in the same line.
All the other rooms being taken, a single room is said to be a double room.

Postulates and Propositions

A pie may be produced any number of times.
The landlady can be reduced to her lowest terms by a series of propositions.
A bee line may be made from any boarding-house to any other boarding-house.
The clothes of a boarding-house bed, though produced ever so far both ways, will not meet.
Any two meals at a boarding-house are together less than two square meals.
If from the opposite ends of a boarding-house a line be drawn passing through all the rooms in turn, then the stovepipe which warms the boarders will lie within that line.
On the same bill and on the same side of it there should not be two charges for the same thing.
If there be two boarders on the same flat, and the amount of side of the one be equal to the amount of side of the other, each to each, and the wrangle between one boarder and the landlady be equal to the wrangle between the landlady and the other, then shall the weekly bills of the two boarders be equal also, each to each.
For if not, let one bill be the greater. Then the other bill is less than it might have been — which is absurd.

From his Literary Lapses, 1918. See Special Projects.

Oops

In 1945, the Arkansas legislature passed “An Act to Authorize and Permit Cities of First and Second Class and Incorporated Towns to Vacate Public Streets and Alleys in the Public Interest.” That seems boring enough. But § 8 read as follows:

“All laws and parts of laws, and particularly Act 311 of the Acts of 1941, are hereby repealed.”

With the stroke of a pen they had repealed every law in Arkansas. The state supreme court cleared its throat and ventured an improvement:

“No doubt the legislature meant to repeal all laws in conflict with that act, and, by error of the author or the typist, left out the usual words ‘in conflict herewith,’ which we will imply by necessary construction.”

(Act 17 of 1945 [repl. 1980; now Ark. Stat. § 14-301-301], cited in Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner, Reading Law, 2012.)

Precautions

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I should have wished also to have referred to some of the serio-comic duels, such as that fought by the famous critic Sainte-Beuve against M. Dubois, of the Globe newspaper. When the adversaries arrived on the ground it was raining heavily. Sainte-Beuve had brought an umbrella and some sixteenth-century flint-lock pistols. When the signal to fire was about to be given, Sainte-Beuve still kept his umbrella open. The seconds protested, but Sainte-Beuve resisted, saying, ‘I am quite ready to be killed, but I do not wish to catch cold.’

— Theodore Child, “Duelling in Paris,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1887