On This Date


  • 1452. The Byzantium Area Public Library System issues its final notice to the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos that he has accrued $4.00 in fines on a copy of So You Think Invading the Balkans Will Make You Happy Now, Do You? and if he does not return the book and the fine promptly they will turn matters over to Mehmed II’s collection agency.
  • 1492. Christopher Columbus, sailing three ships whose names were lost to history, arrives on the shores of the Guangdong area of China. The Chinese people, sensing both trouble and gullibility, spin a tale that this is actually the West Indies, thousands of miles east of where anybody wanted to be. They are delighted to find that the idea catches on, and there are no follow-on consequences that anyone has any reason to regret. The ship names were later found by history, in the junk drawer next to four pens that don’t work.
  • 1582. Nothing happens. People in Italy and Spain feel a great sense of unease. Mobs of people resolve to figure out just what’s going on when they wake up the next day, but nothing happens then either.
  • 1664. Saturn enters the house of Aries. Aries is not present. Saturn takes the chances to playfully rearrange the dishes, leaving the coffee mugs on the wrong side of the cabinet. Saturn was all set to sneak out undetected, but gave in to the temptation to go through Aries’s refrigerator and turn all the condiment bottles so the labels face the back. Aries finally arrives home, and they have an argument, and Aries doesn’t forgive Saturn for over two hundred years and a month.
  • 1805. Napoleon Bonaparte announces he intends to build a stone-arch bridge that encircles the world. His subordinates acclaim this as a bold, challenging accomplishment that will prove French greatness to the world for centuries to come. Napoleon then announces he’ll make the problem less challenging by building it as a ring just under a kilometer from the North Pole, a great distance farther north than anyone has ever been, never mind where any stone bridges have been. His subordinates nod slowly but agree this will also capture the imaginations of history, especially when they point out how hard it is to get construction-great stone up to the North Pole. Napoleon then says, you know, the Earth is round, and his subordinates ask where this is going now. He says that since it is, you could say there’s an axis through any points on the Earth. So why not declare there’s an imperial North Pole that pokes its way through the suburbs of Paris, with the actual North Pole offset from that by about 31 degrees of latitude, and build the arch around that. This leaves his subordinates pretty sure he’s messing with them. They’re honestly relieved to hear the British are attacking something, anything, at this point.
  • 1868. Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia, announces his intention to unify the states of North and South Dakota. He is finally convinced by his wife that he is getting way ahead of himself.
  • 1903. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford, racing in a car of his own design, crosses the finish line to win the New York City-to-San Francisco Driving Contest of 1902.
  • 1959. Argentina and Japan, following the discovery in June that they had never signed a peace treaty after the Crimean War, take the chance to sign one now. The purely ceremonial affair in Paris is dignified and pleasant and quite merry. It’s only spoiled near the end when a nosey Art Buchwald asks whether either of the nations had anything to do with the Crimean War in the first place. He is locked into a broom closet.
  • 1978. The first time that otters are seated in the Italian parliament. This follows elections which many say reflect a public desire to check the influence of fish in the lower house. Their first speeches on the floor are acclaimed by the press as “damp”.
  • 1996. I publish to Usenet my thesis that in the well-worn prank, the person who insists on seeing that the dictionary does indeed contain the word “gullible” is not displaying the gullibility implicit in the premise because it is an act of skepticism to insist on proving whether a possible-but-unlikely state is true, and am immediately showered with acclaim and recognition for how I am completely right and everyone arguing this point with me any further is wrong and stupid and foolish and a bad person.
  • 2015. The Byzantium Area Public Library System apologizes, saying it found that So You Think Invading the Balkans Will Make You Happy Now, Do You? had been filed wrong. It was on the shelf right next to Art Buchwald all this time and they were wrong to send the matter to collections. Whoops!
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On This Date: November 24, If You Will


2019. Highly disappointing opening of the canal between the fifth and the second floors of the West Mall in Bukit Batok, Singapore, with critics saying the whole system seems to be “just a slightly large elevator” and “not really better than riding a couple escalators would be”. The complaints are harsh but fair because riding escalators is a really grand thing. If there were some way to fix the problems of having to step onto or off of them then we’d really have something.

2020. The Internet has one of those weird spasms where everybody gets hung up on how the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, Kent, England, was renamed “Benbom Brothers Theme Park” in the 1980s just because that sounds like the name you’d create if you were in the 90s and doing a bad translation of a Japanese RPG. Within 14 hours, it passes, leaving no harm done.

2026. The “Inbox Zero” e-mail productivity fad gives way to the “Inbox Infinity” model as this turns out to be a great deal easier for everyone and their nerves needed it by this point.

2064. Last specific reprinting of Art Buchwald’s column about introducing Thanksgiving to the French, which is a shame since that bit about translating Miles Standish’s name as “Kilometres Deboutish”? That’s solid enough.

2065. Mutual occultation of Venus and Jupiter happens, two days late, following last-minute negotiations when the planets can’t agree about whether it should be the occultation of Venus by Jupiter or of Jupiter by Venus, and a furious debate on the Wikipedia talk page about “Crayons”, where the debate somehow settled in a process people were still trying to explain to their great-grandchildren.

2085. We fix the problem of having to step onto or off of escalators with the invention of shoes that can’t get caught in the teeth of those things but keep you pretty stable when you’re stepping into the belt.

2121. Bigfoot’s job hunt lands him a career as the mascot for the Jersey Devils. He lasts nearly eight years at the post before going on to greater fame as the official public greeter for Baltimore, Maryland (starting the 26th of July, 2129) and sees the Devils to two World Series appearances when their bus gets lost.

2200. The Universal Postal Union agrees that next year shall be 2200: The Gold Edition”, although it will be labelled as “2201” for the sake of not breaking anyone’s database software.

2243. 186th anniversary of the 24th of November, 2057, passes without turmoil but with many people asking “Huh?” and “Why?” and “This is a thing because of why?”

2371. Deep in a star system nearly 75,000 light-years from Earth the locals begin producing a program known as Star Trek: Voyager. It’s purely coincidence, though, as the vastness of the universe and the enormity of the number of peopled worlds and the relatively small number of sounds that are likely to be made into words cause a program that happens to have that name without actually being a remake or continuation of the United Paramount Network classic program. It is in fact a shot-for-shot remake of Star Trek: The Original Series except in this one Lieutenant Uhura gets along great with Elaan, the Dohlman of Elas, and critics say this one little change drastically improves the whole body of work.

2618. After years, maybe a decade, of cruel taunting about what work it does exactly that ‘S’ and ‘K’ don’t do just as well the letter ‘C’ declares it’s had enough and leaves the alphabet. While people are able to carry on mostly fine, what with having both ‘S’ and ‘K’ there, it does leave words such as “church” pretty well stuck. The letter ‘J’ steps up to remind everyone that it could totally do the hard ‘ch’ sound, and is told to sit down because it’s done “so much already” and is really appreciated “right where it is” by letters that are rolling their eyes.

4211. No end of discussion about the way the dates of the year line up, if you’re in the United States, and a lot of arguing that the United States way of listing the dates is just stupid and dumb and wrong. By the time it’s over very few people are still talking to each other. It’s a good way to figure out who you need to stop interacting with, though. Consider it.

Me Week: How To Write Out Numbers


When I was barely old enough to understand any of the editorial page writers, I understood and loved Art Buchwald’s Thanksgiving-Explained-To-French-People essay. The love’s stayed with me. A good nonsense explanation is maybe perfectly fitted to my attitudes. I love learning things, and yet, I love seeing the form of exposition smashed and scattered about and rebuilt into gibberish. It’s a tough mode to get right. It needs to have a strong enough factual backbone that the piece has the grammar of explanations. But it also needs a strong enough whimsical and absurdist backbone to carry the reader through.

How To Write Out Numbers, from April 2014, is one of my attempts at this that I’m happy with. In it I get to blend my love of mathematics with my deep interest in copy editing and standard-setting. I know what sort of person this makes me, but maybe you’ll also like it. If you don’t, that’s all right. We still probably have some things we can talk about.