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mcalpine folly

In 1976, when the United Kingdom’s Labour government was threatening to institute a wealth tax, Conservative Party treasurer Alistair McAlpine installed a new column at West Green House, his Hampshire estate. The inscription read:

HOC MONUMENTUM MAGNO PRETIO QUOD ALITER IN MANUS PUBLICANORUM QUANDOQUE CECIDISSET ÆDIFICATUM EST

Or:

This monument was built with a large sum of money which would otherwise have fallen, sooner or later, into the hands of the tax gatherers.

“The placing of the column so near the public road could with justice be called provocative,” wrote Clive Aslet in his 1986 biography of Quinlan Terry, who designed it. The tax was abandoned.

Dread Sovereign

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After-dinner conversation with the young Queen Victoria, 1838, from Lytton Strachey’s 1921 biography:

‘Have you been riding to-day, Mr. Greville?’ asked the Queen. ‘No, Madam, I have not,’ replied Mr. Greville. ‘It was a fine day,’ continued the Queen. ‘Yes, Madam, a very fine day,’ said Mr. Greville. ‘It was rather cold, though,’ said the Queen. ‘It was rather cold, Madam,’ said Mr. Greville. ‘Your sister, Lady Frances Egerton, rides, I think, doesn’t she?’ said the Queen. ‘She does ride sometimes, Madam,’ said Mr. Greville. There was a pause, after which Mr. Greville ventured to take the lead, though he did not venture to change the subject. ‘Has your Majesty been riding today?’ asked Mr. Greville. ‘Oh yes, a very long ride,’ answered the Queen with animation. ‘Has your Majesty got a nice horse?’ said Mr. Greville. ‘Oh, a very nice horse,’ said the Queen.

“It was over. Her Majesty gave a smile and an inclination of the head, Mr. Greville a profound bow, and the next conversation began with the next gentleman.”

All God’s Creatures

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In 1873, Methodist mission worker Etta Angell Wheeler learned that a 9-year-old girl was being confined by her adopted parents in the inner room of a New York tenement, alternately neglected and whipped, and that neither the landlord nor the city would respond to the neighbors’ pleas for help.

Wheeler was debating what to do when her niece suggested she appeal to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, saying, “She is a little animal, surely.” Wheeler mastered her fear of “what seemed absurd” and approached the organization’s founder, Henry Bergh, who took an immediate interest in the case and within 48 hours had gathered enough evidence to justify the girl’s removal.

At a trial at the New York State Supreme Court in 1874, the child, Mary Ellen Wilson, testified:

My father and mother are both dead. I don’t know how old I am. I have no recollection of a time when I did not live with the Connollys. Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip — a rawhide. The whip always left a black and blue mark on my body. I have now the black and blue marks on my head which were made by mamma, and also a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors. She struck me with the scissors and cut me; I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by any one — have never been kissed by mamma. I have never been taken on my mamma’s lap and caressed or petted. I never dared to speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped. I do not know for what I was whipped — mamma never said anything to me when she whipped me. I do not want to go back to live with mamma, because she beats me so. I have no recollection ever being on the street in my life.

Her adopted mother, Mary Connolly, was sentenced to a year in jail, and the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded the same year.

Crowd Control

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.”