Riposte

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wilhelm_Steinitz2.jpg

Chess master Wilhelm Steinitz was having a heated political argument.

His opponent said, “Do you think you understand politics because you can play chess?”

Steinitz said, “Do you think you understand politics because you can’t play chess?”

Detente

In his Book of Good Love (1330), Juan Ruiz tells of a silent debate between Greece and Rome. The Romans had no laws and asked the Greeks to give them some. The Greeks feared that they were too ignorant and challenged them first to prove themselves before the wise men of Greece. The Romans agreed to a debate but asked that it be conducted in gestures, as they did not understand the Greek language. The Greeks put forward a learned scholar, and the Romans, feeling themselves at a disadvantage, put forward a ruffian and told him to use whatever gestures he felt inspired to make.

The two mounted high seats before the assembled crowd. The Greek held out his index finger, and the Roman responded with his thumb, index, and middle fingers. The Greek held out his open palm, and the Roman responded with a fist. Then the Greek announced that the Romans deserved to be given laws.

Each side then asked its champion to explain what had happened.

They asked the Greek what he had said to the Roman by his gestures, and what he had answered him. He said: ‘I said that there is one God; the Roman said He was One in Three Persons, and made a sign to that effect.

Next I said that all was by the will of God; he answered that God held everything in his power, and he spoke truly. When I saw that they understood and believed in the Trinity, I understood that they deserved assurance of [receiving] laws.’

They asked the hoodlum what his notion was; he replied: ‘He said that with his finger he would smash my eye; I was mighty unhappy about this and I got mighty angry, and I answered him with rage, with answer, and with fury,

that, right in front of everybody, I would smash his eyes with my two fingers and his teeth with my thumb; right after that he told me to watch him because he would give me a big slap on my ears [that would leave them] ringing.

I answered him that I would give him such a punch that in all his life he would never get even for it. As soon as he saw that he had the quarrel in bad shape, he quit making threats in a spot where they thought nothing of him.’

Ruiz writes, “This is why the proverb of the shrewd old woman says, ‘No word is bad if you don’t take it badly.’ You will see that my word is well said if it is well understood.”

(From Laura Kendrick’s The Game of Love, 1988.)

Podcast Episode 149: The North Pond Hermit

https://www.flickr.com/photos/38976602@N05/4806329064

Image: Flickr

Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man’s attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization.

We’ll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake.

See full show notes …

Good Night Lights

Six years ago, Providence restaurant The Hot Club started the custom of flashing its lights each night at 8:30, as a way to say good night to the children in the six-story Hasbro Children’s Hospital across the Providence River. The club would flash its neon sign, and patrons would gather on the waterfront deck to wave flashlights and cell phones.

Now hotels, boat traffic, skyscrapers, and police cruisers have begun to join in, some with permanent signals but many using handheld lights. About two dozen children are in the hospital on any given night, and they’ve taken to flashing back with lights of their own.

“No one knows who’s on the other side of the gesture,” hospital cartoonist Steve Brosnihan told the Associated Press. “People often say, ‘I get goosebumps hearing about this.'”

“They don’t know me; they could skip the step of flicking the lights, but they do it anyway,” said 13-year-old lupus patient Olivia Stephenson. “I hope they saw the thank you.”

The Arlington Ladies

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In 1948, Air Force general Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife Gladys were walking through Arlington National Cemetery when they saw a young airman being buried without any family members present — only the chaplain and military honor guard who attend every burial. Moved by the lonely ceremony, Gladys organized the Officers’ Wives Club so one of its members would attend every Air Force funeral. The other branches of the armed services have followed suit so that today an “Arlington lady” attends every funeral at the cemetery. No soldier is buried alone.

“It doesn’t matter whether we are burying a four-star general or a private,” Margaret Mensch, head of the Army ladies, told NBC. “They all deserve to have someone say thank you at their grave.”

Podcast Episode 146: Alone in the Wilderness

https://archive.org/details/aloneinwildernes00knowrich

In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself “without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Knowles’ adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization.

We’ll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers.

See full show notes …

Letter From Home

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Love Letters of the Great War (2014), Mandy Kirkby quotes this letter sent from Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, in April 1917:

Dear Husband!

This is the last letter I am writing to you, because on the 24th I am going to marry another man. Then I don’t have to work any longer. I have already been working for three years as long as you are away from home. All the other men come home for leave, only you POWs never come. Nobody knows how long it will take until you come home. That’s why I am going to have a new husband. I will give the children to the orphanage. I don’t give a rat’s ass about a life like that! There is no way to survive with these few Pfennig benefits. At work they have a big mouth about the women. Now I don’t need to go to work, now the other man is going to work for me. All wives whose husbands are POWs will do the same thing and they will all get rid of the children. Three years at work are too much for the women and 20 Mark for benefit and 10 Mark child benefit are not enough. One cannot live on that. Everything is so expensive now. One pound of bacon costs 8 Mark, a shirt, 9 Mark.

Your wife

“We don’t know anything more about this unfortunate couple, but the strain of separation has brought the wife to breaking point,” Kirkby writes. “Whether she carried out her threat, we’ll never know.”

Shame and Fortune

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1503504&partId=1&searchText=cruikshank+hanging&page=3

In 1818 caricaturist George Cruikshank saw several people hanging from a gibbet near Newgate Prison in London and learned to his horror that they had been executed for passing forged one-pound notes — at the time, doing so even unknowingly was punishable by death or transportation.

The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me — and I at that moment determined, if possible, to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud; and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London, I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin-shops to ‘get something to drink,’ and thus pass the notes, and hand them the change.

He went home and dashed off this sketch, which was then printed on the post paper used by the bank, so that it would resemble counterfeit currency. “The general effect was of a counterfeit, but closer examination revealed that every element of the official design had been replaced by a savage parody,” writes Robert L. Patten in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art. The seal shows Britannia eating her children, the stamp depicts 12 tiny heads in prison, and the pound sign is a coiled hangman’s rope.

The protest created a sensation, and remedial legislation was passed. Cruikshank’s satire, noted the Examiner, “ought to make the hearts of the Bank Directors ache at the sight.”

Good Luck

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Jr_Wiltberger,_Temperance_Map,_1838_Cornell_CUL_PJM_1049_01.jpg

C. Wiltberger created this allegorical map of temperance in 1838 (click to enlarge). The goal is to get from the Ocean of Animal Appetite in the west to the Ocean of Eternity in the east. It would be natural enough to investigate Indulgence and Generosity Islands, but this will lead you to Evil Company Island, and once you’re through the Devil’s Trap you’ll have to negotiate the Sea of Intemperance, with its islands of Murder, Arson, Larceny, and Quarrel. Beyond the Great Gulf of Wretchedness lies the Sea of Anguish, which puts you out at Suicide Island (and its capital, Spontaneous Combustion).

The better plan is to head north immediately and enter the Cold Water River at Hope Island. Bear south at Knowledge toward Cultureville and Mount Science and take the Tee Total Rail Road to the Sea of Temperance, and then head north through the Old Age Outlet past Comfortville and Restburg and safely into Eternity. (Beware the Gulf of Broken Pledges — even at this late stage, it will lead you directly to Desperation Point.)

My favorite part: Poverty Island has a port called Nosupper.

Small Claims

In 1895, when a Chicago landowner failed to pay his taxes, a bidder acquired a claim to the east one-vigintillionth part of the lot. The insurance company tried to foreclose, arguing that the owner had allowed a cloud to come on the title by the loss of this small fraction. But the county court held that a vigintillionth (1/1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000) was practically nothing, as “its width would be so fine that the most powerful magnifying glass ever made could not discover it: it would be utterly incapable of physical possession.” In a little rhapsody, the Northwestern Law Review agreed:

If the surface of the earth were rolled out flat and a vigintillionth sold off the east side and sold to pay the taxes of the owner thereof, the purchaser at the tax sale would get a strip about 500 quin-decillionths of an inch wide. Hardly large enough for even a Pingree potato patch.

If the holder of the fee simple title to the section of space between the earth and the sun, (taken at 93,000,000 miles), should be unfortunate enough to be sold out to the tax buyer, he would, if he failed to redeem, lose title to a strip along one side of his holding, (say next the sun), some 140 qual decillionths of an inch in width.

Or, if the ‘unknown owner’ of the space between here and the nearest fixed star, (Alpha Centauri), something like twenty million millions of miles from the Northeast corner of Randolph and State Sts. should be unfortunate in his real estate venture and fall into the greedy hands of the tax buyer, he would have to yield up dominion over a strip on the East side of his subdivision some 645 dio decellionths of an inch across.

So did the Economist. But a higher court reversed the ruling, arguing that although a vigintillionth of the property “could not be appreciated by the senses, it is recognizable by the mind,” and that its existence left the rest of the property inaccessible by the street on the east side.

This must be some odd trend of American law in the 1890s — in his Strangest Cases on Record (1940), John Allison Duncan mentions another such case in Arapahoe County, Colorado. He includes a photograph of the certificate of purchase.