|What I Think I’m Good At||What I Am Good At|
Pop mathematics writing
Listening to distressed friends without making their anxieties worse
Nursing ill pet animals back to health
Reducto-ad-absurdum chains of humorous reasoning
Providing, when asked, historical context for minor oddities
|Telling casual acquaintances on social media how to handle it if they’ve accidentally forgotten they were on call for jury duty this week and are kind of freaking out about this|
So I was reading Jonathan Green’s The Vulgar Tongue, about the history of slang so far as that can be worked out. And it got to a section about minstrel shows and blackface jokes and what slang we get from that. Surprisingly little, it turns out. Between a whole bunch of pages that left my jaw hanging open, speechless, was this bit from Charles Townsend’s circa-1891 guide for minstrel performers, along with tips like how to get blackface:
End Men should carefully avoid anything approaching vulgarity and no offensive personalities should be introduced. Avoid slang.
I understand, intellectually, that everything that ever touches race ever is deeply screwed up in all kinds of bizarre and stupid ways. But … “don’t use slang, you want to keep your minstrel show classy and inoffensive” is why I spend more and more of every day curled up in a ball in the corner of the room.
Last week I was all set to talk Gil Thorp when I realized it was Rex Morgan, M.D.‘s turn. I won’t make that mistake again! … But I’m writing this in late September, 2017. If it’s much later than September 2017 for you, the stories might have moved on. At or near the top of this link should be my most recent talk about the high school sports comic strip of high school sports comic strips. I hope something here is what you’re looking for.
If you’re interested in other comics, my mathematics blog discusses some from the past week. I don’t think I explain any of the jokes, but I do talk about what the jokes make me think about. Might like it.
10 July – 23 September 2017
I last discussed Neal Rubin and Rod Whigham’s Gil Thorp near the end of a storyline. Spunky young reporter Dafne had discovered the Milford Mudlarks’ new pitching star was kicked out of private school for hitting his girlfriend. The secrecy that protects young, athletically skilled students makes it hard to be sure exactly what did happen. Dafne, shoving a friend into a door so hard he gets a black eye, comes to learn that sometimes battery just happens and it isn’t an open-and-shut case. She confesses her prior narrow-mindedness to the newspaper editor and is welcomed back onto the staff for a happy ending.
The 17th of July saw the start of a new storyline, one that took nearly two months to unfold. It features Heather Burns, a student who’s likely to be a great trainer or coach someday, and Jaquan Case, an alumni of Gil Thorp here for his tenth-anniversary storyline. I should say, I was not reading Gil Thorp with enough attention ten years ago to say whether Case really was a basketball star in the strip back then. It would make sense if he were. The comic has a surprisingly strong continuity. Stars of one storyline often appear as supporting players in a later one, and even make cameos after that. So I will accept Case as someone who was probably part of the basketball stories in the mid-2000s.
And then, mm. Well. There’s events. I just never got into the story. Case and his friend Trey Davis, another ex-comic-strip-character now working as a private coach, hang around the kids playing coach some. And Case is working through some stuff. He’s doing fine in the NBA, but he’s feeling like he lost something when he quit football sophomore year of college. Case wants to move back into football. A couple sessions with True Standish, a more current Gil Thorp quarterback, suggests that yeah, if he really worked at it, Case could be a plausible football player.
So, with this, Coach Thorp makes his excuses to be somewhere not involving athletes having personal problems. Heather Burns steps up, figuring out during a series of workout sessions that Case’s real problem is he doesn’t feel people’s expectations of him in basketball are in line with his idea of himself. So she does some digging and works out that Case could definitely get his Master’s degree in US History, a thing he would totally want. Maybe even go on to a PhD. He even gets ideas of maybe becoming a professor, which shows that even professional athletes in the major leagues who could plausibly switch to another major league have comically unrealistic career dreams. And Case shows his gratitude by hooking Burns up with someone at Iowa who might be able to get her a coaching gig.
And that, the 9th of September, closes out a storyline that really looks like it was something happening. But reading it daily, ugh. It just felt like people standing near sports equipment talking about how they might do a different sport instead. And it seemed to go nowhere. Every day I looked at the strip and all I saw was eight months of wandering through Featureless Manhattan in the final year of Apartment 3-G. I think the core trouble might be the premise. 30-year-old professional athlete who feels adrift going back to the High School Coach Who Made All The Difference for advice? Plausible. Getting life advice from the 17-year-old teenage girl with a talent for coaching who knows that she’ll never get a real job at it? Less so.
OK. So. The 11th saw the new storyline start. It features Rick Soto, who yields to his Uncle Gary’s pressure to play at the Elks Club Talent Show. There, apparently, his version of “Mack the Knife” steals the show. If I haven’t missed anything they haven’t said what instrument Rick plays, but that’s all right. He’s also a left tackle, which gives the Gil Thorp comic strip jurisdiction over his life story. Also, Coach Thorp is for the first time testing his players for brain function. This seems to set up a storyline about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is certainly the sort of thing this comic strip should talk about. (I do wonder, too, if the current moral imperative to Take A Knee won’t disrupt whatever Rubin and Whigham have planned.) But two weeks in there’s no guessing where any of that might go. I just include this so I have the first paragraph written of my next Gil Thorp plot summary written.
International espionage, secret government jink-enhighening, and a reporter’s last-ditch effort to save her career as we go back to Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker. Unanswerable: will we have any judge-work going on?
I don’t expect a letter of gratitude from Josh Lauer, author of Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, for being the first person to take his new book of that identity out from the library, but I wouldn’t turn it down either. Anyway, what’s got me is this mention about early credit reports:
The Merchants’ Protective Union in Norwich, Connecticut employed an even more baroque scheme. In addition to eleven uppercase alphabetical ratings, from A (“considered honest but unable to pay”) to K (“is paying on bills formerly reported”), another eighteen lowercase letters were used to indicate the type of retailer to whom debts were owed, from bakers and butchers to furniture dealers and undertakers.
So, first thought. There were enough people burying folks on credit in 19th century Norwich, Connecticut, that undertakers needed to check on who was behind on their debts to other area undertakers? I suppose that’s fair. This was an era when childhood mortality was something like 1.8 children for every child born, with the average New England wife having something like 12 pregnancies every ten years and the family only propagating by kidnapping Canadians who stood a little too close to the edge of Maine. And that’s before you factor in lives lost to cholera, malaria, more cholera, yellow fever, malnutrition, extra-cholera, train derailments, factory accidents, more yellow fever, and striking factory workers being shot by Federal troops before being run over by a cholera-bearing yellow-fever train. There was a lot of undertaking to, uh, undertake.
Second. There were eighteen kinds of retailers back then? I’ve done some reading on 19th Century American commerce. Not enough to get my Masters or anything, you know, but enough to not panic if I wandered into an academic conference about the thing. But if you asked me to list what retail establishments existed in that era I would have come up with this:
- General store selling loose, stale crackers and/or soap or possibly grain scooped out of the same wooden barrels.
- Department store where women point out lengths of ribbons they wanted to buy, which were then wrapped up and delivered to their homes, without the customer ever being allowed within ten feet of an actual product.
- Dentist who does “painless” extractions by letting the patient suckle a while on a chilled glass pacifier soaked in whiskey and arsenic.
- Yes, undertaker.
- Shoe cobbler who’s angry at all these shenanigans.
- Other, less successful, general store selling tinned items, with the clerk played by Harold Lloyd.
Yes, I know Harold Lloyd is too young to have clerked at a 19th Century general store. I am talking about how the store was portrayed in the movie about how he went from humble general store clerk to becoming the love of Mildred Davis’s life. Anyway that still leaves me short of twelve different kinds of establishment that could be owed money by creditors. I know what you’re thinking: what about the drayage industry? Won’t do. Why would the Merchants’ Protective Union have anything of interest to say to them? They’re not merchants, they’re people who have the ability to haul things from one location to another. Something is clearly missing. Oh, I guess there’s “sweets vendor who sells a lick on a ring of `ice cream’ that’s a wad of cotton glued to a metal post kept in ice water so people think they tasted something for their three cents”, but that’s still eleven more kinds of merchant to go.
Anyway the book’s interesting and I hope to read it sometime.
I got to this part in Jenny Uglow’s A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. The book is about King Charles II and Britain, mostly England, in the 1660s. And this is from right after the Great Fire of London.
It was a scene of horror, but also one of wonder, a natural curiosity drawing the observant men of the Royal Society. In the broken tombs in St Paul’s, they observed the mummified bodies of bishops buried two centuries before, while in the tomb of Dean Colet, a more recent burial, his lead coffin was found to be full of a curious liquor that had conserved the body. “Mr Wyle and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and it was a kind of insipid taste, something of an ironish taste. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like brawn.”
I grant this sounds daft that someone would go into the still-smoldering ruins of London after the greatest fire it had yet known, locate a corpse that hadn’t been destroyed, see that it was secreting some fluid, and declare, “I gotta lick that!” But that’s just what chemists had to do, back in the days before real professional laboratories with clear analytical protocols and even a concept of analysis existed. Everybody doing chemistry had to rely on touch and scent and taste. It helps us remember why Louis Pasteur was the first chemist to ever live to be 34 years old.
I certainly hope this clears up some things!
You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the history of tying shoes. This is a wise choice. There are so many other things that need thinking about. You know, like that odd smell that’s maybe of burning plastic that’s sometimes in the hallway when you were gone all day? Or what responsibility we have for that seam line visible on Saturn’s moon Iapetus? Or why all those people are setting up circus tents in your backyard? There’s got to be someone to ask about that. I broke from my habit of non-thinking about tying shoes so that we could have this done once and for all. No, I am not reading about the history of socks. You know why.
For the second-longest time there just wasn’t any tying of shoes. This had four reasons, one of them being that there were no shoes. Shoes were invented for Napoleon Bonaparte’s army after it was noticed that tromping through a thousand miles of Russian snow was really hard on the bare foot. It didn’t help the snow any either, but this is the wrong time of year for me to write about the history of snow-clearing or maybe ice-skating. Napoleon agreed this was a lot of trouble for feet and ordered experts to come up with a way to cover the foot. They did this by the simple process of covering the foot. It was a rousing success and everybody agreed they should have been making shoes for hundreds of years now. This and the overcoming of the other three reasons let shoes become really quite popular.
Still, the earliest shoes weren’t easy to put on or take off. They were slabs of leather that one would fit around the foot and, using needle and thread and Grandmom who knows how to use those sewing tools that look faintly like surgical instruments, stitch closed. This could take until well near bedtime. The British Army spent most of the 1830s with its soldiers never leaving their bunks, just sewing and unsewing their boots all day. This lead to peaceful times and the First Reform Act.
The countries of Western Europe competed to find ways to easily tightening and loosening shoes. Through much of the Civil War the Union armies experimented with welding shoes into place, an action that resulted in many burned ankles and slugged welders. In Scotland rivets were tried. These were of limited use as the striking action of putting rivets in place could magnetize the iron slugs, causing people to walk to the north and find they ran out of Scotland, to their chagrin.
So naturally the breakthrough came in the Ottoman Empire. In 1878 a shoemaker for the Sultan Abdul Hamid II asked, “Why don’t we just punch parallel rows of uniformly spaced holes in the shoes, and then thread a strong string or small rope through the holes to fit them together?” The Sultan, who was in another room, didn’t hear the suggestion but approved it. When this turned out to be a pretty darned good idea after all he nodded as if that had been his intention all along, and quickly ordered an investigation to just what was going on with shoes. I hope this doesn’t end up in his report. He’s got to be expecting something really great if it’s taken all this while to get something on his desk. I’m not arrogant enough to think my essay here that great, but I am earmarking it for this year’s Robert Benchley Society essay contest. Just saying.
Still the early forms were not precisely what we see today. When are they ever? The first attempts used separate laces and loops for each pair of holes, which took forever to deal with. Folks trying to save time as telegraphs and railroads got all snappy and romantic started just tying the top loop together. This made their toes pop out the middle. So they retaliated by poking laces through the other, non-top holes. And so by 1889, on a Tuesday, shoes were finally tied in ways that we would recognize today, on a Friday.
Is there room for improvement? Surely. The glue-covered shoelace solved the problem of unraveled knots, but at the cost of being a right mess. And nobody has anything but embarrassed coughs to say about the frictionless superfluid lace that would slither out of its holes and into the pantry. We may yet scrap the whole project and go back to being barefoot.
No photograph, because I was driving and I’m not that reckless just yet. But if I didn’t read it wrong, the retirement community billboard said you didn’t have to be a Mason to live here. And I’m glad to know that, I guess, what with it not being like enough people have homes. And I’ve only had two encounters with Masons that I’m aware of, one when I donated blood at the Masonic Hall in grad school and then like fifteen years later a Red Cross flyer suggested I might make it to a donation drive they were having there again. The other was a guy I was chatting with online who mentioned he was off to a lodge meeting and I was surprised because I knew he was under the age of Like 80. Also I guess it’s nice to know this retirement community has gotten past the hot social struggles of 1856? Well, I’m glad at least someone has.
If I were to ask what you thought vacuum cleaners were I expect your first response would be to wonder if you’d heard the question right. It seems like a strange thing to ask. You probably can’t figure why I would need to know this about you. Let’s suppose it was someone else who asked you the question. You’d want to know who it asked you. For convenient let’s suppose it was Frederick J Lawton, Harry Truman’s director of the Bureau of the Budget from 1950 to 1953, and that the question was issued in 1952. It’s your business what you’re doing in 1952 and falls outside the scope of my article.
We forget that vaccuum cleaners used to be people, not machines. The first vacuum cleaner was a now-anonymous assistant to Evangelista Torricelli. His name was removed in 1964 as proof emerged he had bet on baseball games. The great physicist (Torricelli) had in 1643 poured mercury into a tube sealed at one end and then turned the tube upside-down. This produced a perfect vacuum at the top of the tube and a perfect mess at the bottom of the tube and all over the table. Naturally Torricelli ordered the cleaning of the table, the tube, and as long as he was at it, the vacuum, which just looked perfectly adroit. I say “adroit” to tease science-major types who were waiting for me to use a different word beginning with ‘a’ there. I’ve got some self-awareness. The word was “adiabatic”. But with a few quick sweeps of a damp cloth the assistant had created a new profession.
Vacuum cleaning, done then by people, was regarded for ages as an affectation for the scholarly classes, who needed the affection. For much of the 17th century it was nearly as popular as making up grammatical rules or wearing caps and gowns everywhere. Scholars didn’t need a passport even when travelling between nations at war; a well-tidied and dust-free vacuum was their standing invitation to the world of letters that existed beyond mere mortal politics. It was not until the reign of France’s King Louis XV (there was no Louis XV, but he was hastily inserted when the French realized they had gone right from Louis XIV to Louis XVI and once you learned enough Roman numerals it looked funny to have the number laying about there un-Louised) that it made the social jump from the laboratory to the royal court. While doing so it slipped on the windowsill and suffered a sore ankle for months, with relapses when a cold front was moving in.
The post of Royal Vacuum Cleaner was soon established. With that, they needed assistants, keepers, letters-go, attendants, absentias, abstainers, the follow who owned the mop, the keeper of the mop, the fetcher of the mop, the keeper of the fetcher, the fetcher of the keeper, the assistant fetcher of the keeper, the keeper of the assistant fetcher, and so on, and that’s even before getting into the buckets issue or who would provide water for the cleaning of the vacuum and assistants thereof. Within a generation, vacuum cleaning at Versailles involved over 52,006 people. You can understand the scandal when in 1722 someone noticed they didn’t have any vacuums.
But then scholars argued the absence of any vacuums was itself a vacuum, this in the property of vacuum-ness. Therefore the vacuum which should be cleaned was the vacuum of vacuums to be cleaned. This argument may not be logically sound, but they were good at going on about it at such length that any disputants would have to sit down until their heads stopped spinning. If you don’t sympathize I have another 150 words that I cut from this paragraph because they made my sinuses hurt.
This all being a lot of good fun it had to come to an end, of course. So it did in 1867 thanks to one Ives W McGaffney of Chicago, Illinois, as there were not two of him. With dedication and ingenuity he put together a hand-cranked vacuum cleaner which all the people who’d had respectable enough lives cleaning vacuums professionally naturally hated. But he persisted and with the coming of power to private homes, mechanical vacuum cleaners would take over the public’s imagination for this sort of thing in fewer than 82 years. Today we just assume that a “vacuum cleaner” is a machine and not a profession, or even an aspiration. Is that not always the way? Yes, unless I mean no.
Is there an easier way to attract readers and get engagement than to prepare a set of Usage Guidelines and insist everyone follow them? No, probably not. Although everybody likes to make Usage Guidelines, the United States is the world’s undisputed leader in this trade. The average American will make over 14 Usage Guidelines per year. We’ll generate policies to cover everything from how many spaces should follow the end of a sentence to under what circumstances one may double up the use of those little paper cups when gathering Horsey Sauce at Arby’s. And under what circumstances these can be substituted for one another. Compliance with these policies will rise, some years, to as high as 0.4 people per year. This gives us all the chance to seethe at how people are messing up what would be a neat orderly life.
So I’m leaping in to this racket. I want to express my idealistic hopes about how the world can be easily made much better. Plus if I can get enough people feeling like they should pay attention to me I can start selling guidebooks and retire on the profits from How To Do Stuff So It’s Not Wrong Already or whatever I end up titling it. Let me give you a tease of some of the first couple good ideas.
First: we’ll need a policy about acronyms. Acronyms were introduced to English during the First World War, as war planners feared the Germans might overhear what we were saying about them as if they couldn’t guess already. This way, if they did overhear they wouldn’t know what the subject was. The fears proved unfounded, as postwar analysis indicated the Germans spent most of their time in Germany and/or Belgium, out of earshot. Still, they’ve remained as popular linguistic roadblocks to comprehension. My guideline: on first use, expand the acronym into full words. For example, “NASA, the National Acrobatics and Slurry Accordion, announced today it is not sending anybody to Mars, as investigation showed we had enough in the pantry to last until the weekend”. Exceptions: ISBN, GIS, HONClBrIF, MRxL, NJIT.
Second: we should clear up dangled participles. I admit I’m fuzzy on just what makes a participle or how one dangles it. But I hear it’s a thing people keep doing. Since I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the dangling is correct I say let’s set a rule that people submit a clear plan to dangle participles to a specially appointed participle coordinator. This will be a small office staff in Syracuse, New York, whom we will be able to catch completely by surprise with our subissions. The statements of intent should be sent by postcard, rather than letters in envelopes, as an economy measure; we can put the time that would have gone into opening envelopes to something more urgent. Put a strip of clear plastic tape over the proposed participle so that it will not get smeared in transit.
Third: alarm clocks should refrain from being so alarming. We have frayed enough nerves these days, what with how everything is alarming and most of it is terrible and about the only good things left anymore are anecdotes about small pets that had problems that looked serious but were actually funny. They should phase down to being responsible-concern clocks and maybe we could go without them altogether.
Fourth: we need to identify the people responsible for iTunes and hold them accountable.
Fifth: we need to better organize scheduling of the city’s summer concert festival series. There’s always the trouble of deciding whether to support the community’s summer concert series or to save ourselves the hassle of going out and finding parking and pushing through the crowds and does it look like rain? Shouldn’t it? If we squint can we make it look like rain? Also, are they going to search our bags? Are they going to search the camera bag even though it’s just big enough to hold a camera? It always feels so good to have gone somewhere, but it’s so much hard work to go there. We could make our lives better if we just had the summer concert series scheduled for the week we were going to be out of town anyway.
I should have some more later on, but if we could get on this we’ll have a world that’s better in easily two, maybe three ways.
If anything characterizes what I think is funny, it’s “slightly over-researched stuff”. So here’s some pieces that exemplify that. When Time Came To New Jersey was somehow not that week’s long-form piece, but rather just a little something dashed off because I got to thinking about the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. And the question it raises I still haven’t answered, although I also haven’t asked any of the many people I in principle could to get some kind of answer.
In Why I Never Finish Just Reading A Stupid Book Already I get thrown off a book about usury and debt by a casual line about what the Secretary of the Treasury was doing in 1853. So I’m not just a person who reads about a history of usury and debt but also thinks about the change of office between Secretaries of the Treasury that happened in 1853.
And then in What Causes People To Sometimes Read About Canada there I go again, reading about the prelude to the British North America Act of 1867 (oh hey, happy birthday and stuff there) gets me thinking about the nature of boredom.
If you needed something else to read, here Twenty Books About Things That Changed The World and I thought I had read a majority of them. Huh.
The only hard part of programming computers is you’re expected to make a computer program. And even that wouldn’t be so bad except for the expectation the program will work. There’s where programming falls down. Economists say this is from purely rational market motivations, because economists think it’s very important things result from purely rational market motivations and they’d feel awful if they ever found something that didn’t. In just the past month economists have identified purely rational market considerations behind how buses never run from anywhere anyone is to anywhere anyone wants to go, potato chips which resemble celebrities, the way that nobody has correctly identified sarcasm since 1986, the Balmer spectrum of Hafnium, and certain highly educated pebbles.
In this case, the economists have a point, and don’t think they aren’t all smug about it. Imagine you were a computer program that worked. You’d be put to work, likely at impossible times such as 5:15 am, instead of doing what you’d like. What you’d like would be trying to remember old cartoons you’re pretty sure you didn’t make up. To get to do what you want instead, you have to do the stuff you’re expected to do wrong.
And so programs have bugs. For example a program to alphabetize the boroughs of New York City lists “Queens” and then drives the computer off a cliff, causing a steam locomotive in 1908 to explode. This gives the program hours to establish that yes, Gary Coleman was an angel this one cartoon, and is he dead or was that somebody else? It also gives physicists something to argue over, and helps historians. These days the Haymarket Square Riot is understood to have been triggered by beta-testing of Microsoft Access 2016, with the real tragedy being that the upgrades could have been handled in a Service Pack. Also all the death.
Now to practical examples. Begin with a good software development environment. There are none. But there are neat packages which turn words different colors and send code flying all over tab stops. This is soothing to the eye. These development environments adapt their color schemes to the seasons. They’ll show more words in red and green around Christmas, purple and green around Easter, green and green around June, and so on. This way you can easily tell what time of year it is. It is too late in the year.
Let us use as demonstration the famous “Hello world” program, because that never demonstrates anything useful. This can be as simple as a line to the effect of:
As your development environment puts “System” in blinking blue and white, celebrating Greece’s Independence Day, you can compile and try running it. If it were to run, the program would justly fear being put to work by economists, therefore, we get a series of errors like:
- Package ‘System’ cannot be found.
- Thingy ‘out’ does not exist.
- File cannot be found.
- Function ‘writeln’ not defined in this context.
- ‘System’ is a little fishy too.
- We changed that ‘l’ to a lowercase ‘one’ to look better.
- File cannot be written.
- Not in that context either.
- File cannot be read.
- We’re none too sure about this ‘world’ thing either.
- We’re pretty sure it’s nowhere near Greece’s Independence Day.
- File cannot be.
- Don’t think of bringing up that context either, that’s right out.
- We want to punch an economist.
- Does Greece even celebrate an Independence Day?
- “Being” is an Aristotelean property inappropriate to the complex post-Alfred-Korzybski world.
- “Hello” still feels slangy.
- Put that context down, you’re getting fingerprints on it.
- Development environment wants a hug.
- Not from you.
More advanced environments may also be a little snarky about the alleged grammar of “Hello world”. Just try diagramming that sentence, see where you get. Turn off the prescriptivist settings, which could be found under Edit/Tools/Preferences/Checking/Grammar/Advanced, if you were using a different version of the environment from what you are, and from what every person offering advice on StackOverflow.com has.
Your environment might list what lines raise the objections. If you’ve programmed well enough, these numbers will have nothing to do with where the problems actually are, or with the number system. Go to any line you like, for example number square-root-of-seventy-A, which is blank. Comment out all the blank lines, then the non-blank lines, and soon you will trigger Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Now step away and sulk until the office closes and that’s your work accomplished. And if you look in your hand you’ll see your card is the six of clubs. Am I not correct?
Because sometimes you just run up to deadline and you have to go with what you have and those are always the bits people like best anyway and sometimes I wonder why I go into writing a second hundred words anyway and I just want a hug thank you.
Meanwhile: if you need to score a movie or TV scene and want to evoke mid-80s nostalgia without digging deep you’re going to pick “Out Of Africa”, sure. But what’s the equivalent for other decades? If you just want a wash of mid-90s nostalgia without digging deep then, sure, Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic”, or maybe Nirvana’s “Oh Whatever You Have On Hand”. But what about the 70s? The 60s? For the 50s I’d say “Mister Sandman” but that might just be Back To The Future talking. For the 40s there’s Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol”. How about the rest? Yes, start from the 1750s.
Also not depicted: realizing like thirty years after that of course the song isn’t called “Out Of Africa” and you’ve been naming it wrong all this time.
So I was enjoying some of my light early-summer reading, Carl B Boyer’s The History of the Calculus and its Conceptual Development, 1939’s feel-good hit of the mathematical history book trade. And early on in the second chapter he had this:
Pythagorean deduction a priori having met with remarkable success in its field, an attempt (unwarranted, it is now recognized) was made to apply it to the description of the world of events, in which Ionian hylozoistic interpretations a posteriori had made very little headway.
Well, I mean, good grief, how did Dr Boyer even figure that sentence was needed? Is there anyone who goes around saying, “boy, but the Ionian hylozoistic interpretation a posteriori is a fantastic description of the world of events”? We’re not savages. My father — Dad, back me up on this one — I remember sitting me down, before he ever took us up to see Santa Claus at Macy’s in Manhattan for the first time, pointing out the unwarranted nature of applying Pythagorean deduction to the world of events. I don’t even know who those parentheses are for. It’s like he has no conception of his audience. Ionian hylozoistic interpretations, sheesh!
In August of 1817 President James Monroe, as part of a tour of the several states, visited Detroit. But he did not visit the nearby, newly-created Monroe County. It would have been easy enough for him to visit, since it was only about a day’s travel away. But he didn’t. According to the article, nobody from Monroe County invited the President over. President Monroe might have expected Monroe County residents to come to Detroit to see him, but nobody did. You can forgive them this, because nobody told any Monroe County officials that President Monroe was going to visit the area. Anyway, they probably didn’t care, since nobody lived there except some French-Canadians who’d been ruined in the War of 1812 and didn’t much care about the American government, the Canadian government, or any of that. And Monroe probably didn’t care since there were already four other counties named for him. I mean, I’d be thrilled to have a fifth county named for me, but James Monroe lived a way more fascinating life than I have. He had other stuff on his mind.
I know anything about this because of an article in the March/April 2017 issue of Michigan History. And I couldn’t help reading choice quotes from this to my love. I have a habit of doing this. My love appreciates my reading stuff from the books and magazines I’m going through. I assume, anyway, based on how much time my love spends not punching me in the kidneys.
Anyway where this gets really fascinating is that nobody in Monroe County much cared about how President Monroe didn’t come visit them. It had been a long trip and he just wanted to go home. Until 1937, anyway, when one local historian declared that President Monroe had so visited the county, and even found a log cabin where he allegedly spent the night. This set off a little flurry of local historian claims that Monroe might have set foot in Monroe County. But, the article goes on to explain, historians do not regard this as credible, and they have their reasons.
And as I sat there, reading quotes to my love about this time 200 years ago that President Monroe did not visit Monroe County, and while there were people who thought he did, here are the reasons we think there was no such visit and why nobody much cared, I realized: I am living my Vic and Sade spec script. It’s every bit as wonderful as I imagined.
A note about methodology: Thomas Jefferson is counted as an 18th-century Vice-President and wouldn’t affect the count either way. Garret Hobart is counted as a 19th-century Vice-President but that hardly matters since he was dead at the time of the 20th century. Al Gore is counted as a 20th-century Vice-President and he would’ve affected the count one way or the other. Future Disgraced Former Vice-President Mike Pence is not counted as it’s too soon to tell when he’ll leave office. David Rice Atchison is not counted as Vice-President for good reason. John Adams is counted as having a full term despite the 1789-1793 Presidential administration being that far short of four full years. Ditto John Nance Garner although for the 1933-1937 term. Also hey, Daniel D Tompkins, good job pulling that off. I completely forgot about you so I’m glad I looked it up. Shut up, you’re the person who knows an unsettling amount about 19th-century United States Vice-Presidents for someone who isn’t a 19th-century United States Vice-Presidential historian.
March 25th is the 90th day of the year or so. Something like that. Good grief, is the year that little done? It feels like more. Anyway there are some six days remaining in the month unless we find a stray Tuesday that rolled under the couch? Something like that.
1409 — Opening of the Council of Pisa following the belated discovery of the can opener. In resolving the Western Schism between the popes in Rome and Avignon the council settles on the innovative approach of declaring everyone who passes by the front door, including four stray cats and a flock of pigeons, to be Pope. The problem is left unsettled but it is still a major holiday in Rock Dove Orthodox Catholicism.
1584 — Sir Walter Raleigh receives a patent to colonize Virginia, catching him off-guard. “I thought I’d get a copyright or maybe a service mark on Virginia, but you know, I’ll make do with what I have,” he says in a telephone interview by Bob Newhart. Unfortunately unsettled trade conditions and unstable capitalization foil his efforts to make money in the manufacture and trade of Virginias, and by 1792 he admits it isn’t working out nearly like he figured. Today only the prototype Virginia and one late-run production model Virginia still remain, preserved in a special museum-grade display with inert gas.
1802 — By the terms of the Treaty of Amiens, France and England resolve to stop fighting and never go to war ever again for all time except for this one more time for last licks, that’s fair, right? Sure it is.
1821 — Traditional start of the Greek War of Independence, which actually began over a month before, but they say it’s this for symbolically important reasons, and that isn’t even me making a whimsical joke but just how things are really done if Wikipedia isn’t fibbing me.
1894 — Coxey’s Army begins its march on Washington to establish that unemployment is a failure of society to provide for its citizens and not the result of personal immorality among the jobless. Oh lord we’re not living up to the moral standards of the 19th century, what are we even doing?
1950 — 25th anniversary of March 25, 1925.
1979 — Delivery of the first fully-functional space shuttle, Columbia, to the Kennedy Space Center, although the vehicle is not launched for over two years owing to the keys being locked inside and nobody knowing how to get them out without breaking a window open. They ultimately have to wait for the completion of the space shuttle Discovery and hope the keys for that fit the first, and they do, with a little jiggling around. Discovery’s first launch is delayed while the space program finds a Two Guys that will grind out a duplicate set of keys. “Look, we just want to be sure someone else can open the trunk, all right?” explains Kennedy Space Center director Richard G Smith, reminding us how there used to be a whole different key for the trunks and why was that exactly? The past is weird, that’s all.
1995 — Establishment of WikiWikiWeb, the first user-editable web site, opens an innovative new way that people who read way too much of The Straight Dope as kids can argue about David Rice Atchison in the Talk page.
2000 — 50th anniversary of the 25th anniversary or March 25, 1925.
2017 — I’m like one day ahead of deadline.
Born On This Day:
Religious troublemaker John Calvin (maybe?), Army marcher Jacob Coxey (like a one in 365 chance), Vulcan inventor D C Fontana (Star Trek if I got lucky), probably some European royalty with a name like John IV or Jacob III or Katerina The Rather So (here I’m just playing the odds). You know what, let’s say Howard Cosell too, just so there’s a name that anyone can recognize if they’re not like four months younger than me.
Died On This Day:
Do we need this installment? It’s so depressing.
This is the earliest day on which Seward’s Day can fall. Seward’s Day is the day when Alaskans observe William Seward. It should not be confused with Alaska Day, but I bet it is all the time and is fed up with it. It is observed as Wright Brothers Day by confused aviation enthusiasts. Until 1752 it was the start of the New Year in England, Wales, Ireland, and the American Colonies, which raises disturbing implications about just how many days there were between March 27, 1751 and March 22, 1751. Don’t stare to hard into that one. You won’t like what you find.
I was reading Eric Jager’s Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection In Medieval Paris, about the murder in 1407 of Louis of Orleans and the criminal investigation headed by Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris. It’s one of the earliest criminal inquiries for which we have really good documentation, like, depositions and all that. We can follow Guillaume de Tignonville’s careful investigation all the way through to when John, Duke of Burgundy, called the other dukes over to say he did it and then fled Paris. At that point the investigation was considerably simplified apart from John getting away with it. Anyway, in part of the backstory to the murder comes this event from January 1393:
… One of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting was to be married, and, to everyone’s delight, the king offered to host the wedding feast and the dancing to follow at the royal palace. A young nobleman, a friend of the king’s, proposed privately to Charles [VI] an entertainment to add excitement and pleasure to the ball: He and the king, and a few friends, would beforehand and in great secrecy put on linen costumes covered with pitch and stuck full of fine yellow flax that looked like the hair of beasts. Sewn into these close-fitting garments and completely disguised from head to foot as wild men or savages, the king and his friends would burst into the ballroom during the dancing to surprise and amuse the guests. The king thought it a splendid idea, and they set the plan in motion, telling only a few servants whose help they needed.
It all ended in tragedy, because everything in that era ended in tragedy, including for the person who thought to warn folks not to let the torches get too near the people dressed in linen with straw pasted all over them by oil and tied together by ropes. But what’s got me is that the King of France thought this sounded like great entertainment. And apparently the guests did too, just thrilled by how much fun it all was, at least until the tragedy started and spread out to help the nation plunge into civil war because everything in that era eventually plunged the nation into civil war.
So this was grand entertainment. Everybody thought a couple people dressed in linen and flax and tied together and running around was just the best idea. These people were starved for entertainment. One good parlor game could have changed the whole course of what tragedies plunged the nation into civil war.
There’s a longstanding tradition in science fiction stories where someone from the present falls into history and makes his fortune “inventing” new technologies. OK, I think there’s like four of them, one of which I refuse to read. And another of which debunks the whole story idea. Anyway, I realize now this inventing-future-technology stuff is useless. Even if I could figure out how to make a transistor there’s no market for it in 14th-century France. Plus the era was centuries away from even Alessandro Volta’s most basic prototype of the mini-USB plug that doesn’t fit any cord you, or anyone else, has ever had.
But the era still needed amusements. They had some, yes, but in impossibly primitive and needlessly complicated form. The chess board, for example, was three by forty squares wide, yet it held only five pieces, and four of them were bishops. And they weren’t allowed to move. All they could do is excommunicate the Patriarch of Constantinople. You could only take three turns per day, except days that allowed five turns, and none at all on Feast Days, except one after sunset. The game innovator who first introduced the “rook” was branded a madman and sentenced to live in Gascony. “That’s all right, I’m from Gascony,” he said (in Gascon French), so that at least had a less-tragic-than-usual ending, but still, it took his reputation decades to recover. They had backgammon boards, but hadn’t yet invented its rules. They just moved markers back and forth until they got bored, which is all I know about backgammon too. And the video games were none too good, what with the screens being embroidery taking upwards of sixty weeks to render a single frame.
So what I need to prepare for in case of being lost in the distant past is to be able to “invent” some games that don’t involve open flame. Even with my scattered brain I bet I could reconstruct a basic Yahtzee set or put together a minimally functional Connect 4. Paper football matches could change the whole course of how the nation plunges into civil war. And if I spent some time preparing? Think what society could do with eight centuries and the plans for Hungry Hungry Hippos. You may call this problem ridiculous, as long as I’m not in earshot, but I like to think I have this one solved, and that’s at least something going well right now.
So the other day I mentioned the English sport of competitively dancing while the opposing team throws a beer-soaked rag at you and I supported that by linking to Wikipedia’s entry about the English sport of competitively dancing while the opposing team throws a beer-soaked rag at you. There I figured the matter rested, since England has all sorts of things to do and they will include things like hitting each other on purpose. Also I swear I saw this show where there was a football match that had gone on at a public school for over a century now without either team scoring or being expected to score, but I can’t find the reference now and for all I know somebody’s gone and scored.
Anyway, my love came across this and figured that can’t possibly be. And then went and actually read the article and came to the conclusion that it didn’t make any sense, and the more you looked at it the less sense it made. And read the citations, all of which made very little sense and the less the more you looked at them. And the comments, which in the least sensible thing of all, don’t make the reader despair of the concept of humanity.
So there we have it. The whole thing looks to be a hoax, more or less. At least, it started out as a prank perpetrated for the comedy show It’s A Square World and it’s sort of stumbled on from there. I should have known, since the whole of England is pretty much a prank that got going so successfully that sometime around when they pulled the “Parliament of Bats” and nobody called them on it they realized they were stuck holding an actual country. I suppose dancing while the opposing team throws a beer-soaked rag at you isn’t likely to have such far-reaching global implications. Still, I feel a fool for not going and actually checking and I can only thank my love for showing where I was fooled. It was called the Parliament of Bats because attendees weren’t allowed to take their swords in with them, not because they were small flying mammals, which is all the more shame.
- Carrots are good for the eyes. Myth started by the British during World War II as cover for radar’s abilities to detect airplanes.
- Carrots are good for the ears. Myth started by the British during World War I as cover for sonar’s abilities to detect submarines.
- “Carrot” the plant is the same word as “carrot” the vegetable. These are etymologically completely separate words that happen to be spelled alike, much like “bear” the animal and “bear” meaning to-put-up-with, that were merged in the one act of simplifying English that anyone was ever able to agree on.
- Carrots are good for the sense of touch. Myth started by the British during the Franco-Prussian War just in case they had to get involved and needed cover for their long-stick technologies.
- Carrots are naturally orange. They were bred to be orange; in their natural state they are polka-dotted.
- Carrots are good for the sense of taste. Myth started by the British immediately after the Battle of Austerlitz because apparently you can get Germans at war to believe anything about carrots.
- Carrots are kind of long, tapered candle-shaped things. They are actually five-dimensional spheres and this is just how they appear projected into our three-dimensional Euclidean space.
- Carrots are good for the smell. Myth started by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War because they wanted in on this fun too as long as they had to deal with Hessians.
- Carrots have never started forest fires. Well, often myths have an element of truth to them. In fact carrots have never put out forest fires, but not for want of trying.
- It’s interesting whether Mel Blanc liked carrots or not. He was an actor hired to play someone who liked carrots.