In a Word

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transpicuous
adj. transparent

In 1922, magician Harry Price published “Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena” in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, showing that so-called “spirit photographs” could be created using simple double exposures. In support of the exposé, Harry Houdini had himself photographed with Abraham Lincoln.

The Time Store

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Anarchist Josiah Warren believed that the only just measure of a product’s value was the amount of labor that went into producing it. Charging more than this was “cannibalism” — interest, rent, and profit were state-sanctioned usury. Accordingly, he proposed a system where goods would be traded explicitly on this basis — “he who employs five or ten hours of his time, in the service of another, receives five or ten hours labour of the other in return.”

As an experiment, Warren opened a “time store” at the corner of Fifth and Elm Streets in Cincinnati in 1827. He priced all the goods at the amount he had paid for them, plus a small surcharge to cover overhead (his books were available for inspection at the back of the store), and customers could buy goods using “labor notes” — promises to perform labor, like the one above. As he accumulated notes, Warren would redeem those that he could use and endorse the rest, using them to buy more goods, following a list of their average cost in labor. In this way he set up a small economy among like-minded citizens in Cincinnati — each received fair compensation for his labors, but none could gouge another merely because “the market would bear it.”

In like spirit, Warren charged for his own time in running the store, using a clock — if it took him half an hour to help a customer buy groceries, 25 cents would be added to the customer’s bill. “This arrangement sweeps away at once all the higgling and chaffering about prices, so disgusting in the present system, but which is inseparably connected with it,” he explained in his 1852 book Equitable Commerce.

The store operated successfully for three years, with such low prices that the competitor on the next corner asked Warren’s help in coverting his own store to Warren’s system. Warren closed the time store voluntarily in May 1830 — because, according to one account, he felt he had no claim to the increase in value of the land on which it stood.

House Call

Letter from Charles Dickens to a chimney sweep, March 15, 1864:

Dear Sir,

Since you last swept my study chimney it has developed some peculiar eccentricities. Smoke has indeed proceeded from the cowl that surmounts it, but it has seemingly been undergoing internal agonies of a most distressing nature, and pours forth disastrous volumes of swarthy vapour into the apartment wherein I habitually labour. Although a comforting relief probably to the chimney, this is not altogether convenient to me. If you can send a confidential sub-sweep, with whom the chimney can engage in social intercourse, it might be induced to disclose the cause of the departure from its normal functions.

Faithfully yours,

Charles Dickens

The Conscience Fund

During the Civil War, the U.S. Treasury received a check for $1,500 from a private citizen who said he had misappropriated government funds while serving as a quartermaster in the Army. He said he felt guilty.

“Suppose we call this a contribution to the conscience fund and get it announced in the newspapers,” suggested Treasury Secretary Francis Spinner. “Perhaps we will get some more.”

Ever since then, the Treasury has maintained a “conscience fund” to which guilt-ridden citizens can contribute. In its first 20 years, the fund received $250,000; by 1987 it had taken in more than $5.7 million. One Massachusetts man contributed 9 cents for using a damaged stamp on a letter, but in 1950 a single individual sent $139,000.

In order to encourage citizens to contribute, Treasury officials don’t try to identify or punish the donors. Most donations are anonymous, and many letters are from clergy, following up confessions taken at deathbeds.

Many contributions are sent by citizens who have resolved to start anew in life by righting past wrongs, but some are more grudging. In 2004, one donor wrote, “Dear Internal Revenue Service, I have not been able to sleep at night because I cheated on last year’s income tax. Enclosed find a cashier’s check for $1,000. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the balance.”

The Parent Trap

The founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, had no children of her own and decried the commercialization of the holiday.

Jarvis had proposed a national Mother’s Day in 1907, in part to honor her own mother. She promoted the idea with governors, congressmen, editors, and the White House, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson set aside the second Sunday in May to honor the nation’s mothers. But the holiday was almost immediately co-opted by merchants, a turn that horrified Jarvis. “Confectioners put a white ribbon on a box of candy and advance the price just because it’s Mother’s Day,” she complained in 1924. “There is no connection between candy and this day. It is pure commercialization.”

She tried to stem the tide by legal means, incorporating herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and threatening copyright suits against what she felt were commercial celebrations. She had recommended the wearing of carnations to mark the holiday; when florists raised the price she distributed celluloid buttons instead at her own expense.

She reserved a special bitterness for sons who bought mass-produced cards for their mothers. “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world,” she said. “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

“The sending of a wire is not sufficient. Write a letter to your mother. No person is too busy to do this.”

It was hopeless. Her spirit never flagged, but her finances began to give way, and in 1943, penniless and almost blind, she was admitted to a Philadelphia hospital. Her friends pledged funds for her support, and she died in a West Chester sanitarium in 1948.

The Pizza Principle

In 1980, New York patent lawyer Eric Bram correctly predicted that the city’s transit fare would increase. He explained his reasoning to the New York Times: “Since the early ’60s, the price of a slice of pizza has matched, with uncanny precision, the cost of a New York subway ride. Right now, it is impossible for any discerning New Yorker to find a decent slice of pizza for less than 60 cents. The 50-cent fare was doomed.”

He was right. In 1960, the fare was 15 cents, and so was a slice of pizza (a regular slice, mozzarella and tomato sauce, no toppings). In the early 1970s, both rose to 35 cents, and the two continued to rise together. By 2002, pizza had risen to $2 in midtown, while the fare lagged at $1.50; sure enough, the fare rose to $2 the following spring, after eight years without a change.

In 2003 the subway system switched from tokens to MetroCards, finding them more efficient in a digital age. “Who knows if the fundamentals of economics will hold?” Bram asked.

They did. As the price of pizza rose, the fare followed it, rising to $2.25 in 2009 and to $2.50 in 2011. “Don’t ask why,” wrote Clyde Haberman, who tracks all this in the Times. “It simply is so, and has been for decades.”

Books and Benches

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Letter from Petrarch to Zanobi da Strada, April 1, 1352:

Let them teach who can do nothing better, whose qualities are laborious application, sluggishness of mind, muddiness of intellect, prosiness of imagination, chill of the blood, patience to bear the body’s labors, contempt of glory, avidity for petty gains, indifference to boredom. You see how far these qualities are from your character. Let them watch boys’ fidgety hands, their wandering eyes, their sotto voce whisperings who delight in that task, who enjoy dust and noise and the clamor of mingled prayers and tears and whimperings under the rod’s correction. Let them teach who love to return to boyhood, who are shy of dealing with men and shamed by living with equals, who are happy to be set over their inferiors, who always want to have someone to terrify, to afflict, to torture, to rule, someone who will hate and fear them. That is a tyrannical pleasure, such as, according to the story, pervaded the fierce spirit of that old man of Syracuse, to be the evil solace of his deserved exile. But you, a man of parts, merit a better occupation. Those who instruct our youth should be like those ancient authors who informed us in our own early age; as those who first aroused our young minds with noble examples, so should we be to our successors. Since you can follow the Roman masters, Cicero and Virgil, would you choose Orbillius, Horace’s ‘flogging-master’? What is more, neither grammar nor any of the seven liberal arts is worth a noble spirit’s attention throughout life. They are means, not ends …

Zanobi, a poor Florentine schoolmaster, was so affected by his friend’s words that he gave up teaching and became a government official. Three years later he was crowned poet laureate of Pisa, annoying Petrarch, who in 1341 had been crowned the first laureate since antiquity in Rome.

Riding for Two

On Nov. 8, 2005, Candace Dickinson was pulled over for driving in the carpool lane on Interstate 10 in Phoenix. When police sergeant Dave Norton asked how many people were in the car, “she said two as she pointed to her obvious pregnancy.”

Dickinson argued in court that since Arizona traffic laws don’t define when personhood begins, she and her unborn child constituted a carpool. Judge Dennis Freeman favored a “common-sense” interpretation of the statutes in which a person occupies a “separate and distinct … space in a vehicle.” He upheld Dickinson’s $367 fine.

California courts have encountered the same argument — it appears on the frequently asked questions page of the California Highway Patrol. The answer: “California law requires that in order to utilize the HOV lane, there must be two (or, if posted, three) separate individuals occupying seats in a vehicle. Until your ‘passenger’ is capable of riding in his or her own seat, you cannot count them.”

Kid Vision

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In 1927, Eleanor Roosevelt composed a seven-point “ethics of parents”:

  1. Furnish an example in living.
  2. Stop preaching ethics and morals.
  3. Have a knowledge of life’s problems and an imagination.
  4. Stop shielding your children and clipping their wings.
  5. Allow your children to develop along their own lines.
  6. Don’t prevent self-reliance and initiative.
  7. Have vision yourself and bigness of soul.

“The next generation,” she wrote, “will take care of itself.”

The Mere Addition Paradox

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From Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons: World A contains a large group of people (say, 10 billion), all of whom have a high level of happiness. The width of the bar represents the size of the group, and its height represents their happiness.

World A+ contains the original group, plus a second group who are worse off. Assuming their lives are still happy, though, it appears that A+ is no worse than A. (Assume that the groups don’t know of one another, so there is no social injustice.)

In B-, the two groups are still distinct and of equal size, but all the inhabitants are somewhat happier than the average level in A+ — say, four-fifths the level in A.

Now combine the groups to produce B. This seems as good as B-, since we’ve only merged the two populations.

Intuitively, many people would feel that World B is worse than World A — all its inhabitants are less happy. But the logic seems to indicate that B is better — that “merely adding” people with tolerably happy lives makes the world a better place. Does it?