Crowd Control

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CalhounJ.JPG

In July 1968, ethologist John B. Calhoun built a “mouse utopia,” a metal enclosure 9 feet square with unlimited food, water, and nesting material. He introduced four pairs of mice, and within a year they had multiplied to 620. But after that the society began to fall apart — males became aggressive, females began neglecting their young, and the weaker mice were crowded to the center of the pen, where resources were scarce. After 600 days the females stopped reproducing and the males withdrew from them entirely, and by January 1973 the whole colony was dead. Even when the population had returned to its former levels, the mice’s behavior had remained permanently changed.

There were no predators in the mouse universe; the only adversity was confinement itself. Calhoun felt that his experiment held lessons as to the potential dangers of human overpopulation, and he urged his colleagues to study the effects of high population density on human behavior. “Our success in being human has so far derived from our honoring deviance more than tradition,” he said. “Now we must search diligently for those creative deviants from which, alone, will come the conceptualization of an evolutionary designing process. This can assure us an open-ended future toward whose realization we can participate.”

(Thanks, Pål.)

The Last Resort

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_VICTORIOUS_MOD_45137612.jpg

In the control room of each of the United Kingdom’s four nuclear submarines is a safe. Inside the safe is another safe, and inside that is a handwritten letter from the prime minister to the submarine’s commander telling him what to do if a nuclear strike has destroyed the British state.

When a new prime minister takes office, his letters are destroyed unopened, so it’s not clear how extensive the instructions are. According to the 2009 BBC Radio 4 report The Human Button, they include these options:

  • Retaliate with nuclear weapons.
  • Do not retaliate with nuclear weapons.
  • Use your own judgment.
  • Place yourself under the command of the United States or Australia, if possible.

“In that letter,” wrote the Daily Mail in 2008, “Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”

(Thanks, Zach.)

Kids Today

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times. It is false and wrong and no longer does anyone pay attention to what our beloved old masters wrote about composition. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

I remain faithful to the pure old composition and pure rules. I have often walked out of the church since I could no longer listen to that mountain yodeling. I hope this worthless modern coinage will fall into disuse and that new coins will be forged according to the fine old stamp and standard.

— Samuel Scheidt, to Heinrich Baryphonus, Jan. 26, 1651

Overtime

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Armand_Kohl22a.jpg

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

— Bertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness,” 1935

Sunset

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:African_sunset.jpg

In May 1856, an African teenager named Nongqawuse had a vision: If her people killed all their cattle, she said, their long-dead ancestors would rise and drive out the European settlers.

Word spread quickly, and they did as she urged. In 10 months that followed, the Xhosa nation killed 400,000 cattle, driven by mounting rumor and revelation that great fields of corn would also spring into existence, that their ancient heroes would return to life, and that sickness and old age would disappear. In his Compendium of South African History and Geography of 1877, George McCall Theal records the climax:

At length the morning dawned of the day so long and so ardently looked for. All night long the Kaffirs had watched, with feeling stretched to the utmost tension of excitement, expecting to see two blood-red suns rise over the eastern hills, when the heavens would fall and crush the races they hated. Famished with hunger, half dying as they were, that night was yet a time of fierce, delirious joy. The morn, that a few short hours, slowly becoming minutes, would usher in, was to see all their sorrows ended, all their misery past. And so they waited and watched. It came, throwing a silver sheen upon the mountain peaks, and bathing hill-side and valley in a flood of light, as the ruler of day appeared. The hearts of the watchers sank within them; ‘What,’ said they, ‘will become of us if Mhlakaza’s predictions turn out untrue?’ It was the first time they had asked such a question, the dawn of doubt had never entered their thoughts till the dawn of the fatal day. But perhaps, after all, it might be midday that was meant, and when the shadows began to lengthen towards the east perhaps, thought they, the setting of the sun is the time. The sun went down behind clouds of crimson and gold, and the Amaxosa awoke to the reality of their dreadful position.

The ensuing famine killed 40,000 Xhosa. “Nongqause escaped, and is still living,” Theal wrote. “For prudential reasons she has ever since resided in the colony, where she preserves an unbroken silence concerning the deeds in which she played so prominent a part.”

Expertise

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold.jpg

In 1877 James McNeill Whistler sued John Ruskin for panning his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now,” Ruskin had written, “but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The trial saw this exchange between Whistler and Ruskin’s attorney, Sir John Holker:

Holker: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?

Whistler: Oh, I “knock one off” possibly in a couple of days — one day to do the work and another to finish it.

Holker: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?

Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.

Whistler won.

Similar: When Henry Ford’s engineers were unable to solve a problem with a huge new generator, he called Charles Steinmetz. Steinmetz listened to the generator for two days, made some calculations, mounted a ladder, and drew a chalk mark on its side. If the engineers would remove 16 windings from the field coil at that location, he said, the generator would work perfectly. He was right.

Afterward, Ford received a bill for $10,000. When he respectfully asked for an itemization, Steinmetz sent this:

Making chalk mark on generator: $1
Knowing where to make mark: $9,999
Total due: $10,000

A Caged Bird

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fanny_Hensel_1842.jpg

At least six of Felix Mendelssohn’s songs were written by his sister. Like Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn had trained as a child with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who wrote to Goethe in 1816 that she “could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.” But the bias of the times restricted a woman’s ambitions, and a lady of leisure could not be seen to pursue a profession publicly. Like the Brontës, George Sand, and George Eliot, Fanny found an outlet by publishing under a man’s name.

In an 1842 visit to Buckingham Palace, Mendelssohn found a copy of his Opus 8 songs on the piano in Queen Victoria’s sitting room. When he asked to hear her sing, she chose Fanny’s song Italien. Mendelssohn wrote to his mother, “After I had confessed that Fanny had written the song (which I found very hard, but pride goes before a fall) I begged her to sing one of my own works.”

Progress

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:T.H.Huxley(Woodburytype).jpg

T.H. Huxley defined “four stages of public opinion” of a new scientific theory:

  1. Just after publication — The novelty is absurd and subversive of religion and morality. The propounder both fool and knave.
  2. 20 years later — The novelty is absolute truth and will yield a full and satisfactory explanation of things in general. The propounder man of sublime genius and perfect virtue.
  3. 40 years later — The novelty won’t explain things in general after all and therefore is a wretched failure. The propounder a very ordinary person advertised by a clique.
  4. A century later — The novelty is a mixture of truth and error. Explains as much as could reasonably be expected. The propounder worthy of all honour in spite of his share of human frailities, as one who has added to the permanent possessions of science.

J.B.S. Haldane had a more concise list:

  1. This is worthless nonsense.
  2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
  3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
  4. I always said so.

Divorce Decree

http://books.google.com/books?id=FjVLAAAAMAAJ

A novelty ring for grass widows is now on the market. It is worn on the same finger as the wedding ring, the design being a broken Cupid’s arrow. For those who have the habit, space is provided for jewels, each jewel to signify one divorce.

Popular Mechanics, April 1922

In 1961 a couple in Oregon could be divorced if one partner could prove that the other had broken the marital contract, for example by committing adultery. If the court found that both spouses were equally at fault, no divorce would be granted.

This was bad news for the Zavins, who accused one another of cruel and inhuman treatment. Indeed, in the words of the Oregon supreme court, “Each party pleaded nearly every variety of cruelty for which descriptive words could be found.” But they could not prove their allegations.

The marriage was clearly dead, so some fault must have existed, but without proof the court had to assume equal fault … so it dismissed the case and sent the Zavins back home.

Ten years later Oregon allowed that divorce could be granted when “irreconcilable differences between the parties have caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage.” What became of the Zavins is not recorded.

(Zavin v. Zavin, Supreme Court of Oregon, 1961, 229 Oregon 289, 366 P.2d 733.)

Tender Minded

Artist J.S.G. Boggs hand-draws depictions of U.S. banknotes and exchanges them for goods and services — he’ll trade a drawing of a $100 bill for $100 worth of goods. The drawings are one-sided, and the patrons understand that they’re not actual currency; they’re choosing to trade goods for artwork rather than for money.

Is this counterfeiting? Well, what is money? A $100 bill is valuable only because we all agree that it is — it’s an arbitrary social convention. If someone can create an alternative that people value equally, shouldn’t he be free to trade it in the same fashion, if all parties are informed?

“It’s all an act of faith,” Boggs says. “Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands for. … That’s … what my work is about.”