Progress

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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.”

Guys and Dolls

‘The other day,’ said a man passenger, ‘I saw a woman in an omnibus open a satchel and take out a purse, close the satchel and open the purse, take out a penny and close the purse, open the satchel and put in the purse. Then she gave the penny to the conductor and took a halfpenny in exchange. Then she opened the satchel and took out the purse, closed the satchel and opened the purse, put in the halfpenny and closed the purse, opened the satchel and put in the purse, closed the satchel and locked both ends. Then she felt to see if her back hair was all right, and it was all right, and she was all right. That was a woman.’

The Windsor Magazine, November 1907

It is necessary for technical reasons that these warheads be stored upside down; that is, with the top at the bottom and the bottom at the top. In order that there may be no doubt as to which is the bottom and which is the top, it will be seen to that the bottom of each warhead immediately be labelled with the word TOP.

— British Admiralty, quoted in Applied Optics, January 1968

Appearances

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When he [Benjamin Franklin] was in London, a member of the House of Lords took him to see a house he had just built in a narrow street on land that was so irregular all the rooms had to be oddly shaped and inconveniently arranged. The beautiful columns decorating the front made the rest of the house seem smaller. ‘My lord,’ Franklin told him, ‘if you wish to enjoy your house and its superb colonnade more, all you need do is rent a spacious apartment directly across the street.’

— From the papers of Franklin’s friend Abbé Lefebvre de la Roche

Red and Black

Jokes from the Soviet Union, from University of Louisville historian Bruce Adams’ 2005 collection Tiny Revolutions in Russia:

A man is walking along the road wearing only one boot. ‘Did you lose a boot?’ a passerby asks sympathetically. ‘No, I found one,’ the man answers happily.

What is it that doesn’t knock, growl or scratch the floor?
A machine made in the USSR for knocking, growling, and scratching the floor.

It is the middle of the night. There is a knock at the door. Everyone leaps out of bed. Papa goes shakily to the door. ‘It’s all right,’ he says, coming back. ‘The building’s on fire.’

A shopper asks a food store clerk, ‘Are you all out of meat again?’ ‘No, they’re out of meat in the store across the way. Here we’re out of fish.’

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union send people to the Moon?
They are afraid they won’t come back.

A man fell asleep on a bus. When someone stepped on his foot, he woke with a start and applauded. ‘What are you doing, citizen?’ ‘I was dreaming I was at a meeting.’

‘What is the difference between Pravda [Truth] and Izvestia [The News]?’
‘There is no truth in The News, and no news in the Truth.’

“In the Soviet Army,” said Stalin, “it takes more courage to retreat than advance.”

A Lost Appeal

A letter from Virginia slave Sargry Brown to her husband Mores, Oct. 27, 1840:

Dear Husband —

this is the third letter that I have written to you, and have not received any from you; and dont no the reason that I have not received any from you. I think very hard of it. the trader has been here three times to Look at me. I wish that you would try to see if you can get any one to buy me up there. if you don’t come down here this Sunday, perhaps you wont see me any more. Give my love to them all, and tell them all that perhaps I shan’t see you any more. Give my love to your mother in particular, and to mamy wines, and to aunt betsy, and all the children; tell Jane and Mother they must come down a fortnight before christmas. I wish to see you all, but I expect I never shall see you all — never no more.

I remain your Dear and affectionate Wife,

Sargry Brown

It never reached him — it was discovered in the dead letter office in Washington, D.C.

Turnabout

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A Swedish minister having assembled the chiefs of the Susquehanna Indians, made a sermon to them, acquainting them with the principal historical facts on which our religion is founded — such as the fall of our first parents by eating an apple, the coming of Christ to repair the mischief, his miracles and suffering, etc. When he had finished an Indian orator stood up to thank him.

‘What you have told us,’ says he, ‘is all very good. It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider. We are much obliged by your kindness in coming so far to tell us those things which you have heard from your mothers. In return, I will tell you some of those we have heard from ours.

‘In the beginning, our fathers had only the flesh of animals to subsist on, and if their hunting was unsuccessful they were starving. Two of our young hunters, having killed a deer, made a fire in the woods to boil some parts of it. When they were about to satisfy their hunger, they beheld a beautiful young woman descend from the clouds and seat herself on that hill which you see yonder among the Blue Mountains.

‘They said to each other, “It is a spirit that perhaps has smelt our broiling venison and wishes to eat of it; let us offer some to her.” They presented her with the tongue; she was pleased with the taste of it and said: “Your kindness shall be rewarded; come to this place after thirteen moons, and you will find something that will be of great benefit in nourishing you and your children to the latest generations.” They did so, and to their surprise found plants they had never seen before, but which from that ancient time have been constantly cultivated among us to our great advantage. Where her right hand had touched the ground they found maize; where her left had touched it they found kidney-beans; and where her backside had sat on it they found tobacco.’

The good missionary, disgusted with this idle tale, said: ‘What I delivered to you were sacred truths; but what you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood.’

The Indian, offended, replied: ‘My brother, it seems your friends have not done you justice in your education; they have not well instructed you in the rules of common civility. You saw that we, who understand and practise those rules, believed all your stories; why do you refuse to believe ours?’

— Benjamin Franklin, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” 1784

World of Wonders

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It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, ‘Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,’ or ‘Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.’ They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross, 1909

In a Word

marabou
n. a person who is five-eighths black and three-eighths white by descent

griff
n. a person who is three-fourths black and one-fourth white

mulatto
n. a person having one white and one black parent

The ultimate in racist lunacy was reached in Haiti in the eighteenth century, where Saint-Mery developed a classification of physical types based on the notion that each individual was divisible into no less than 128 separate parts (rather like genes):

‘Thus a blanc (white) had 128 parts white, a nègre (Negro) 128 parts black, and the offspring a mulâtre (mulatto) 64 parts white and 64 parts black. In addition, he also listed sacatra (8 to 23 parts white), griffe (24 to 39 parts white), marabou (40 to 48); quateron (71 to 100); metif (101 to 112); mamelouc (113 to 120); quateronné (121 to 124) and finally a sang-mêlé (125 to 127).’

Given the additional presence of Indians as well as Negroes, Mexican castas were even more complex.

— Peter Worsley, The Three Worlds: Culture and World Development, 1984