Round and Round

Since demolishing 78 traffic signals and installing 80 roundabouts, the northern Indiana city of Carmel has reduced the number of accidents by 40 percent and the number of accidents with injuries by 78 percent.

“It’s nearly impossible to have a head-on or T-bone collision when using the roadways, and collisions that do happen tend to occur at much lower speeds,” noted Governing magazine. “Other benefits of roundabouts include reduced fuel consumption, due to a lack of idling, and a construction cost that is at least $150,000 less than installing traffic lights.”

“We have more than any other city in the U.S.,” says mayor James Brainard. “It’s a trend now in the United States. There are more and more roundabouts being built every day because of the expense saved and, more importantly, the safety.”

Green Peace

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In December 1868, having just turned 33, Andrew Carnegie sat down in New York’s St. Nicholas Hotel and wrote a memo to himself. His net worth was $400,000, and with prudent management he could expect $50,000 in dividends each year for the rest of his life. “Beyond this never earn,” he resolved. “Make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever except for others.”

Man must have an idol — The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry. No idol more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately therefor should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.

He kept the memo for the rest of his life, and by the time of his death in 1919 he had given away $350,695,650, nearly $5 billion today, endowing universities, museums, libraries, and initiatives to support science, the arts, and world peace. “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” he wrote. “Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. … Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.”

Far From Home

Two or three of them got round me and begged me for the twentieth time to tell them the name of my country. Then, as they could not pronounce it satisfactorily, they insisted that I was deceiving them, and that it was a name of my own invention. One funny old man, who bore a ludicrous resemblance to a friend of mine at home, was almost indignant. ‘Ung-lung!’ said he, ‘who ever heard of such a name? — ang-lang — anger-lang — that can’t be the name of your country; you are playing with us.’ Then he tried to give a convincing illustration. ‘My country is Wanumbai — anybody can say Wanumbai. I’m an ‘orang-Wanumbai; but, N-glung! who ever heard of such a name? Do tell us the real name of your country, and then when you are gone we shall know how to talk about you.’

— Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Aru Islands,” The Malay Archipelago, 1869

Quick Thinking

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During one of the many nineteenth-century riots in Paris the commander of an army detachment received orders to clear a city square by firing at the canaille (rabble). He commanded his soldiers to take up firing positions, their rifles leveled at the crowd, and as a ghastly silence descended he drew his sword and shouted at the top of his lungs: ‘Mesdames, m’sieurs, I have orders to fire at the canaille. But as I see a great number of honest, respectable citizens before me, I request that they leave so that I can safely shoot the canaille.’ The square was empty in a few minutes.

— American psychiatrist Paul Watzlawick, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, 1974

Land Under England

In 1862, journalist John Hollingshead accompanied a crew of workers into the sewers under London, “feeling a desire to inspect a main sewer almost from its source to its point of discharge into the Thames.” At one point he asked his guides about the unusual things they had found underground.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘the most awful things we ever find in the sewers is dead children. We’ve found at least four of ’em at different times; one somewhere under Notting Hill; another somewhere under Mary’bone; another at Paddington; and another at the Broadway, Westminster.’

‘We once found a dead seal,’ struck in one of the men pushing the boat.

‘Ah,’ continued Agrippa, ‘so we did. That was in one of the Westminster sewers — the Horseferry Road outlet, I think, and they said it had been shot at Barnes or Mortlake, and had drifted down with the tide. … We sometimes find live cats and dogs that have got down untrapped drains after house-rats; but these animals, when we pick ’em up, are more often dead ones.’

‘They once found a live hedgehog in Westminster,’ said another of the men. ‘I’ve heard tell on it, but I didn’t see it.’

At one point, on being told he was beneath Buckingham Palace, “Of course my loyalty was at once excited, and, taking off my fan-tailed cap, I led the way with the National Anthem, insisting that my guides should join in chorus. Who knows but what, through some untrapped drain, that rude but hearty underground melody found its way into some inner wainscoting of the palace, disturbing some dozing maid of honour with its mysterious sounds, and making her dream of Guy Fawkes and many other subterranean villains?”

Open and Shut

In 1917 Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim agreed to debate one another before a Chicago literary society. They chose the topic “Resolved: That People Who Attend Literary Debates Are Imbeciles.”

Hecht took the podium, surveyed the crowd, and said, “The affirmative rests.”

Bodenheim rose and said, “You win.”

Cheap Grace

From an undated letter from Benjamin Franklin to Anne Louise Brillon:

A Beggar asked a rich Bishop for Charity, demanding a pound. — ‘A Pound to a beggar! That would be extravagant.’ — ‘A Shilling then!’ — ‘Oh, it’s still too much!’ — ‘A twopence then or your Benediction.’ — ‘Of course, I will give you my Benediction.’ — ‘I don’t want it, for if it were worth a twopence, you wouldn’t give it me.’

Elsewhere Franklin wrote, “I would rather have it said, ‘He lived usefully’ than ‘He died rich.'”

Bean Counting

We tend to think that some wrongs are so small that doing them makes no difference. If I keep my heater on during a power shortage, perhaps the shortage lasts a hundredth of a second longer than it would otherwise have done. I tell myself that this effect is too small to matter.

But imagine a village in which 100 tribesmen are eating lunch. 100 bandits descent on the village, and each bandit takes one tribesman’s lunch and eats it. The bandits leave, each having denied a tribesman an appreciable amount of pleasure.

The next week, hungry again, they descend on the village and tie up the tribesmen. At first they have some moral qualms about robbing them again, but then they notice that each tribesman’s lunch consists of 100 beans.

“The pleasure derived from one baked bean is below the discrimination threshold,” writes philosopher Jonathan Glover. “Instead of each bandit eating a single plateful as last week, each takes one bean from each plate. They leave after eating all the beans, pleased to have done no harm, as each has done no more than sub-threshold harm to each person.”

The outcome of the second raid is the same as that of the first, yet this time no tribesman has been “significantly” wronged by any bandit. Can we still say that some crimes are too small to matter?

(Jonathan Glover and M.J. Scott-Taggart, “It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 49 (1975), 171-209)

Popularity Contest

popularity contest

Your friends probably have more friends than you do.

The diagram above shows friendships among eight high school girls. The first number in each circle is the girl’s number of friends; the second is the mean number of friends that her friends have. Only Sue and Alice have more friends than their friends do on average, but their popularity, by its very nature, will impress an inordinate number of people, leaving more feeling inadequate by comparison.

“Those with 40 friends show up in each of 40 individual friendship networks and thus can make 40 people feel relatively deprived,” writes SUNY sociologist Scott Feld, “while those with only one friend show up in only one friendship network and can make only that one person feel relatively advantaged.” In general, he finds, in a given network the mean number of friends of friends is always greater than the mean number of friends of individuals. But understanding this phenomenon “should help people to understand that their position is relatively much better than their personal experiences have led them to believe.”

The same principle leads college students to feel that the mean class size is larger than it really is, and all of us to experience restaurants, parks, and beaches as more crowded than they really are. A highway impresses thousands with its crowdedness at rush hour, but few with its openness at midnight. So we tend to think of it as busier than it really is.

(Scott L. Feld, “Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do,” American Journal of Sociology, 96:6, 1464-1477)

Ready Made

In 1923 the Acme Code Company published a list of “phrase codes” for use in telegrams — customers could save money by substituting a five-letter code for a longer phrase in their messages. The list of codes was charmingly comprehensive:

BIINC What appliances have you for lifting heavy machinery?

URPXO For what use was the mixing machine intended?

CHOOG lard, in bladders

GAHGU cod-liver oil

GNUEK rubber, slightly moldy

HEHST clammy condition

ZOKIX unhealthy trees

ARPUK The person is an adventurer …

BUKSI Avoid arrest if possible

NARVO Do not part with the documents

OBYNX Escape at once

CULKE Bad as possibly can be

LYADI Arrived here with decks swept … encountered a hurricane

PYTUO Collided with an iceberg

YBDIG Plundered by natives

Similarly, George Holland Ackers’ Universal Yacht Signals (1847) includes signals for “Can I have … quarts of turtle soup?”, “Marmalade — orange unless specified,” and “I can strongly recommend my washerwoman.”

In Film Facts (2001), Patrick Robertson notes that Central Casting installed a Hollerith computer in 1935 to help with the casting of extras in Hollywood films. This meant subdividing humanity into tidy categories — lawyers, for instance, were classed as Shrewd, Dixie, Hawk-faced, Inquisitor and Benevolent. “When the new system was unveiled before the press, the operator was asked to produce ten Englishmen, 6ft tall, blue-eyed, possessed of full evening dress, and able to play polo. The cards of all 600 male dress extras were run through the machine to reveal that there were only two such paragons on the books of Central Casting.”

See Enjoy Your Stay.