Plain Sailing

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In 1670, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ordered the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to provide masts for the French navy 200 years hence. His order established one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe, carefully interplanted with beeches and larches to encourage them to grow straight, tall, and free of knots.

By the time they matured, in the 19th century, they were no longer necessary. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.”

Podcast Episode 182: The Compulsive Wanderer

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In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of “mad travelers” in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We’ll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

See full show notes …

Hill of Crosses

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses has been a site of peaceful protests since 1831, when indigenous peasants began to stage rebellions against their Russian overlords. Even when they lacked bodies to bury they erected crosses on the 33-foot mound as memorials and as symbols of peaceful resistance. The region was freed after World War I but then captured by the Nazis and later incorporated into the U.S.S.R.; again the local population planted crosses of defiance, though they were mown down three times by Soviet bulldozers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the hill has become an important symbol of political and spiritual self-determination. It now bears an estimated 100,000 crosses.

Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Work for All

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In 1914 Henry Ford adopted a policy that no one applying for work at his auto plant would be refused on account of physical condition. Of the 7,882 jobs at the factory, he’d found that only 4,287 required “ordinary physical development and strength”:

The lightest jobs were again classified to discover how many of them required the use of full faculties, and we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, 2 by armless men, 715 by one-armed men, and 10 by blind men. Therefore out of 7,882 kinds of jobs, 4,034 — although some of them required strength — did not require full physical capacity.

“That is, developed industry can provide wage work for a higher average of standard men than are ordinarily included in any normal community. If the jobs in any one industry or, say, any one factory, were analyzed as ours have been analyzed, the proportion might be very different, yet I am quite sure that if work is sufficiently subdivided — subdivided to the point of highest economy — there will be no dearth of places in which the physically incapacitated can do a man’s job and get a man’s wage.”

(Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922.)

In a Word

chomage
n. cessation of labor

hospitize
v. to extend hospitality to

sequacious
adj. disposed to follow a leader

resipiscent
adj. brought back to one’s senses

I spent an evening at the house of the president of Harvard University. The party was waited on at tea by a domestic of the president’s, who is also Major of the Horse. On cavalry days, when guests are invited to dine with the regiment, the major, in his regimentals, takes the head of the table, and has the president on his right hand. He plays the host as freely as if no other relation existed between them. The toasts being all transacted, he goes home, doffs his regimentals, and waits on the president’s guests at tea.

— Harriet Martineau, Society in America, 1837

Character Building

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“It is astonishing the influence foolish apothegms have upon the mass of mankind, though they are not unfrequently fallacies,” wrote Sydney Smith. He used to amuse himself by collecting them; the first was Because I have gone through it, my son shall go through it also:

A man gets well pummelled at a public school; is subject to every misery and every indignity which seventeen years of age can inflict upon nine and ten; has his eye nearly knocked out, and his clothes stolen and cut to pieces; and twenty years afterwards, when he is a chrysalis, and has forgotten the miseries of his grub state, is determined to act a manly part in life, and says, ‘I passed through all that myself, and I am determined my son shall pass through it as I have done;’ and away goes his bleating progeny to the tyranny and servitude of the long chamber or the large dormitory. It would surely be much more rational to say, ‘Because I have passed through it, I am determined my son shall not pass through it; because I was kicked for nothing, and cuffed for nothing, and fagged for everything, I will spare all these miseries to my child.’ It is not for any good which may be derived from this rough usage; that has not been weighed and considered; few persons are capable of weighing its effects upon character; but there is a sort of compensatory and consolatory notion, that the present generation (whether useful or not, no matter) are not to come off scot-free, but are to have their share of ill-usage; as if the black eye and bloody nose which Master John Jackson received in 1800, are less black and bloody by the application of similar violence to similar parts of Master Thomas Jackson, the son, in 1830. This is not only sad nonsense, but cruel nonsense. The only use to be derived from the recollection of what we have suffered in youth, is a fixed determination to screen those we educate from every evil and inconvenience, from subjection to which there are not cogent reasons for submitting. Can anything be more stupid and preposterous than this concealed revenge upon the rising generation, and latent envy lest they should avail themselves of the improvements time has made, and pass a happier youth than their fathers have done?

(From his memoir.)

Horizons

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I say that conceit is just as natural a thing to human minds as a centre is to a circle. But little-minded people’s thoughts move in such small circles that five minutes’ conversation gives you an arc long enough to determine their whole curve. An arc in the movement of a large intellect does not sensibly differ from a straight line. Even if it have the third vowel [‘I’, the first-person pronoun] as its centre, it does not soon betray it. The highest thought, that is, is the most seemingly impersonal; it does not obviously imply any individual centre.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858

Motor City

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In 1923 Columbia University architect Harvey Wiley Corbett proposed a novel solution to Manhattan’s traffic problem: surrender. His Proposals for Relieving Traffic Congestion in New York had four phases:

  1. The present situation.
  2. Pedestrians are transferred from street level to bridges that are cantilevered from the buildings, and patronize shops at this level.
  3. “Cut-ins” in the buildings permit six cars to move abreast, with parking space for two cars on each side.
  4. In the end the city’s entire ground level would be an ocean of cars, increasing traffic potential 700 percent, while pedestrians crossed streets on overhead bridges.

Corbett took a strangely romantic view of this: “The whole aspect becomes that of a very modernized Venice, a city of arcades, plazas and bridges, with canals for streets, only the canals will not be filled with real water but with freely flowing motor traffic, the sun glistening on the black tops of the cars and the buildings reflecting in this waving flood of rapidly rolling vehicles.”

By 1975, Corbett wrote, Manhattan could be a network of 20-lane streets in which pedestrians walk from “island” to “island” in a “system of 2,028 solitudes.” That doesn’t feel so different from what we have today.

Related: The city of Guanajuato, Mexico, is built on extremely irregular terrain, and many of the streets are impassable to cars. To compensate, the residents have converted underground drainage ditches and tunnels into roadways (below). These had been dug for flood control during colonial times, but modern dams have left them dry. (Thanks, David.)

Swearing In

Houston attorney Robert Malinak sent this courtroom transcript to the Texas Bar Journal in 1999. He said it had been sent to him by “a credible New York lawyer”:

CLERK: Please repeat after me: “I swear by Almighty God.”

WITNESS: “I swear by Almighty God.”

CLERK: “That the evidence I give …”

WITNESS: That’s right.

CLERK: Repeat it.

WITNESS: “Repeat it.”

CLERK: No! Repeat what I said.

WITNESS: What you said when?

CLERK: “That the evidence that I give …”

WITNESS: “That the evidence that I give.”

CLERK: “Shall be the truth and …”

WITNESS: It will, and nothing but the truth!

CLERK: Please, just repeat after me: “Shall be the truth and …”

WITNESS: “Shall be the truth and.”

CLERK: Say: “Nothing …”

WITNESS: Okay. (remains silent)

CLERK: No! Don’t say nothing. Say: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: Yes.

CLERK: Well? Do so.

WITNESS: You’re confusing me.

CLERK: Just say: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: Okay. I understand.

CLERK: Then say it.

WITNESS: What?

CLERK: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: But I do! That’s just it.

CLERK: You must say: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: I WILL say nothing but the truth!

CLERK: Please, just repeat these four words: “Nothing” — “But” — “The” — “Truth.”

WITNESS: What? You mean, like, now?

CLERK: Yes! Now. Please. Just say those four words.

WITNESS: Nothing. But. The. Truth.

CLERK: Thank you.

WITNESS: I’m just not a scholar.