Din Minimum

In 1958, acoustician William MacLean of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn answered a perennial question: How many guests can attend a cocktail party before it becomes too noisy for conversation? He declared that the answer, for a given room, is

cocktail party noise


N0 = the critical number of guests above which each speaker will try overcome the background noise by raising his voice
K = the average number of guests in each conversational group
a = the average sound absorption coefficient of the room
V = the room’s volume
h = a properly weighted mean free path of a ray of sound
d0 = the conventional minimum distance between speakers
Sm = the minimum signal-to-noise ratio for the listeners

When the critical guest N0 arrives, each speaker is forced to increase his acoustic power in small increments (“I really don’t know what she sees in him.” — “Beg your pardon?” — “I say, I REALLY DON’T KNOW WHY SHE GOES OUT WITH HIM”) until each group is forced to huddle uncomfortably close in order to continue the conversation.

“We see therefore that, once the critical number of guests is exceeded, the party suddenly becomes a loud one,” MacLean concluded, somewhat sadly. “The power of each talker rises exponentially to a practical maximum, after which each reduces his or her talking distance below the conventional distance and then maintains, servo fashion, just the proximity, tête à tête, required to attain a workable signal-to-noise ratio. Thanks to this phenomenon the party, although a loud one, can still be confined within one apartment.”

(William R. MacLean, “On the Acoustics of Cocktail Parties,” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, January 1959, 79-80.)

His and Hers


In 1891, while debating “the old, old question whether women’s dress is or is not sensible,” the members of a Brooklyn amateur dramatic company decided to try an experiment. First a woman tried on a man’s clothes:

My! how nice it feels to be able to run up and down stairs in these clothes. You don’t have to think about your clothes at all. Nor about your feet. It’s just splendid! I’d no idea — but my feet feel as if they had clogs on. Don’t you hear them thump? Don’t they look funny? Why, I couldn’t walk far with such weights as these dragging me down. And see my shirt. It won’t stay put. One thing is certain, you feel very free all about your body. … I did not know what to do with my hands or my legs while I was in the parlour. I was not sure of my legs one minute. I didn’t know whether they looked right when I walked; they seem exposed, you know. I wondered how I looked all the time, and when you get to wondering about any part of you, that part of you loses all its pluck. My legs got timid, and in the way. It was not any better when I sat down. Then my hands got big and stupid, and bothered me. The coat tails were in the way, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, think what I had ever seen a man do with his coat tails. The truth is, that I should not wonder if men’s clothes are better than ours, only you’ve got to get used to them. And I should want the coat to have skirts all around it, because you feel so very visible, don’t you know.

Then a man tried on a woman’s:

The queer thing about this whole rig is that you cannot get your mind off the corset. It is so stiff and tight and hot and binding that you forget the rest. I can stand up and lean back against it as if I were leaning against a swing or hammock. When I sit down, if I should lean too far forward I would fall on my face. You cannot keep your balance in the thing. If I try to pick up something from the floor beside me while sitting down, the corset catches me under the arm like a crutch. Sitting or standing, it holds me up like a ramrod — don’t I look so? My arms hang at the sides of it as if they were made afterwards and tacked on, like a doll’s arms. I could not eat a mouthful or take a glass of water with this corset on. Either I or the corset would burst. Just for fun I laid down in the thing, and I had to get Tom to help me up again or I’d have laid there yet. As for the rest of the costume, do you know, I don’t mind it. These things don’t fit, of course; the skirt is too short and the dress won’t button around my stomach; but it seems a fellow could get along with all of it except the corset. It’s queer to feel your legs for the first time. They seem to be let loose inside a sort of box. When I walk I feel the skirt hit against my heels, and when I stand up I feel my legs hot against one another. Their covering is so thin that it amounts to nothing, and so you feel those appendages as you never do in male attire. You don’t know how absurd it is not to be able to see yourself. The bust of this corset and dress stick out under my eyes, and I cannot see anything beneath it except the bottom of this dress. I feel cold half way. I can feel the tops of my stocking plainly by the difference in the temperature where they end.

“I would not dare appear in company in this rig, even if it fitted me; at least not without taking a course of instructions first,” the man said. “You see, I know enough to put my hands in my lap; but they don’t go there. I keep hanging them down by my sides. Then I cannot cross my legs. Every time I try it I get the petticoats and dress all mixed up with my knees. When I sit down I feel as if I was sitting on a pair of long coat-tails all rumpled up. The dress and other things all get into creases and lumps under me. There are some good points about the costume. It is easy round the neck, and your legs are so free that you feel as if you were walking on air; but even in this warm room I would get pneumonia in four hours, for my legs are stone cold and my chest is not much warmer, though my waist is burning hot. Then there is a dragging weight on my hips, while as for the corset — Get out of the room, boys, and let Tom help me off with the blessed thing.”

(From “A Petticoat in Trousers,” Modern Society, Jan. 31, 1891.)

Label Mates

An exchange of letters in the Times, November 1941:


Among the minor reforms that are coming would not the suppression of ‘Esquire’ in general and business correspondence be welcomed? It is a relic of mid-Victorian snobbery, and has little or nothing to commend it. I believe the United Kingdom is the only part of the Empire that uses it.

Yours truly,

Loughlan Pendred


How right Mr Loughlan Pendred is in denouncing the use of this word as ‘a relic of mid-Victorian snobbery’ and in demanding its ‘suppression’! But why does he not go further? Is not our all too frequent utterance or inscription of the word ‘Mr’ an equally gross survival from an era which men of good will can hardly mention without embarrassment and shame? I do hope Pendred will go further.

Your obedient servant,

Max Beerbohm


Beerbohm’s suggestion that the prefix ‘Mr’ should be abolished does not go far enough. We are still left with our surnames, and this is undemocratic. I demand that we should all be called by the same name, as plain a one as possible. If this should render difficult the filling up of forms, a number could be attached to each — or rather the same — name.

Yours faithfully,

Osbert Sitwell

Blind Man’s Buff


Carlisle H. Dickson’s “interpersonal-introduction signalling system,” patented in 1979, takes some of the pain out of the singles scene. Each person at a gathering carries a transceiver encoded with his or her own characteristics and preferences. So, for example, a woman can program her receiver to ignore every message except “I am a male, I want to dance with you, my music preference is hard rock.” When that signal is received, her receiver signals that the man can approach “with confidence not only of mutual interest, but of receptive mood.”

At this point the man doesn’t know exactly who or where she is, only that there’s a (minimally) compatible woman somewhere in the crowd. He begins to home in her using something like a Geiger counter, and this gives her time to spot him and change her mind — “at any time she may switch off her receiver, transmitter or both.”

“In a particularly novel construction, the apparatus may be further provided with a decoy means such that if the receiving party decides not to meet, the apparatus can be switched to create a false signal, such as the reversing of the characteristic created to assist the parties approaching each other.”

Rules of the Game


In December 1941, after eight months in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, 19-year-old Nina Masel observed that “the main consequence of a lot of women living together seems to be that … conventional barriers and restraints are torn down and conversation gets down to bedrock.” The women all shared the same circumstances and had the same goal, so there was no point in pretending otherwise.

“And what is this thing we’re all after?” she asked. “Obviously, a man.” She estimated that 85 percent of the women’s conversation was about men, 15 percent about domestic and shop matters, and “a negligible proportion” about other things. So frank was the women’s talk that Masel was able to write out the rules of “The Great Man-Chase”:

1. Quality: The desirable qualities are rank, wings, looks, money, youth in that order. Rank is unbelievably important. There’s a Wing-Commander here whose only redeeming feature is that he’s young. He isn’t good-looking, he’s owned to be a great bore and he’s extremely ‘fast’ (which is not a recommendation) yet he could go out with any woman on the station he cared to ask. No one would refuse. … The height of sex-rank is commission and wings. Higher commission, the better. Sergeant pilots and ground commissions tie for second place. This includes army officers. Ground stripes come a poor third. For the rest as far as most Ops girls are concerned, there is little hunting-value. In the term ‘looks’ I include charm, personality, etc. This counts only as a narrow comparison viz P/O [Pilot Officer] A is better than P/O B because he is more charming, but we’d rather go out with P/O B who is not charming, than with Sergeant C who is (and he’s good-looking too). Members of the Army without commissions don’t get a look in at all …
2. Quantity: Naturally the more men one can fasten to one’s train the more prestige one gains in the Chase.
3. Intensity — a deliberately vague term embodying length of affair, extent of ardour and its manifestations.

The longer a woman could keep a man, the higher she ranked in the competition, particularly if he was passionately attached to her. “It seems to me that practically the entire object of the Chase is a matter of vanity and prestige,” Masel concluded. After participating in the Chase for a few months she had found:

a. “That I am happiest when I am conducting two or three successful affairs with eligibles as above.”
b. “That I am second happiest when I am pretending to other girls that they are successful affairs as above.”

“A girl in our Control had been trying very hard to get a date with a new officer,” she wrote. “She was sitting next to him in the Ops room one day full of concentration in her conversation when suddenly she smiled, looked across at me, and mouthed the words ‘Got him!'”

(From Angus Calder and Dorothy Sheridan, Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology, 1937-49, 1984.)


  • A pound of dimes has the same value as a pound of quarters.
  • The French word hétérogénéité has five accents.
  • 32768 = (3 – 2 + 7)6 / 8
  • Can you deceive yourself deliberately?
  • “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” — Thomas Paine

In 2000, Guatemalan police asked Christmas revelers not to fire pistols into the air. “Lots of people die when bullets fall on their heads,” National Civilian Police spokesman Faustino Sanchez told Reuters. He said that five to ten Guatemalans are killed or injured each Christmas by falling bullets.

The War Prayer


In 1905 Mark Twain wrote a story in which a pastor leads a prayer asking God’s support for recruits about to march away to war. A white-robed stranger enters, takes the pastor’s place, and explains that he has come from heaven. God has heard the prayer, but wants them to understand its full import. Their wish, cast in other words, is this:

Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Twain’s daughter Jean urged him not to publish the story, fearing that it would be seen as sacrilege.

“Still, you are going to publish it, are you not?” asked a friend.

“No,” Twain said after some reflection. “I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”


From Henry Sampson’s History of Advertising From the Earliest Times (1875):

In 1821 Lord Camden decided to postpone the start of the fall hunting season. He directed a servant to notify the people, and the servant posted this handbill all over Kent:

Notice is hereby given that the Marquis of Camden (on account of the backwardness of the harvest) will not shoot himself, nor any of his tenants, till the 14th of September.

The Earl of Jersey had similar troubles — his servants once posted this notice at Osterly Park:

Ten shillings reward. Any person found trespassing on these lands or damaging these fences on conviction will receive the above reward.

“Somebody once said that nobody expects to find education or ability in a lord,” wrote Sampson, “but that is because his household are expected to fulfill his duties properly.”



Letter from the Bishop of Chelmsford to the Times, Feb. 3, 1923:

Sir, I wonder how many of us, born and brought up in the Victorian era, would like to think that in the year, say, 5923, the tomb of Queen Victoria would be invaded by a party of foreigners who rifled it of its contents, took the body of the great Queen from the mausoleum in which it had been placed amid the grief of the whole people, and exhibited it to all and sundry who might wish to see it?

The question arises whether such treatment as we should count unseemly in the case of the great English Queen is not equally unseemly in the case of King Tutankhamen. I am not unmindful of the great historical value which may accrue from the examination of the collection of jewelry, furniture, and, above all, of papyri discovered within the tomb, and I realize that wide interests may justify their thorough investigation and even, in special cases, their temporary removal. But, in any case, I protest strongly against the removal of the body of the King from the place where it has rested for thousands of years. Such a removal borders on indecency, and traverses all Christian sentiment concerning the sacredness of the burial places of the dead.

J.E. Chelmsford

Object Lesson

In 1969, Sufi scholar Idries Shah published a volume called The Book of the Book. Its opening pages told of a king whose people would not listen to his teachings, as he lacked an instrument with which to teach them.

The king meets a stranger who tells him of a revered wise man who attributed his knowledge to a tome kept in a place of honor in his room. When the wise man died, his followers eagerly opened the book and found writing on only one page. “When you realise the difference between the container and the content,” it said, “you will have knowledge.”

The rest of Shah’s 200-page book was blank.