A wry view of life for the world-weary

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Two

The great chess automaton of 1769

If the doom mongers are to be believed, the successful harnessing of artificial intelligence poses the biggest threat to employment prospects. Whether that will ever happen or whether some of the promised benefits of artificial intelligence will manifest themselves in my lifetime, only time will tell.

The game of chess has been at the forefront of the battle for supremacy between man and machine, principally because its moves are regulated by a number of rules and it is a game of strategy and anticipation, testing the competitors’ ability to think and plan. World chess champion, Gary Kasparov, suffered a defeat in 1997 at the hands of Deep Blue, although there were some doubts expressed as to whether conditions were fair for both contestants. These days with increased computational power and more sophisticated programming, computers can regularly defeat even the strongest chess player.

The creation of machines to ape the behaviour of living creatures particularly fascinated the so-called Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century and some astonishing examples have survives to this day. But the machine which really swept Europe by storm was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess automaton, created in 1769. By all accounts it was a splendid affair, consisting of a large wooden box stuffed full of wiring and gears, atop of which was a carved figure wearing, for exotic effect, Turkish clothes. When the mechanism was wound up, the Turk, as the chap was dubbed, would play chess against all comers. It would move pieces on its own, develop strategy and was able to react to the moves of its opponent, rather than just play in a predetermined way, irrespective of the circumstances. It was a remarkably successful player and regularly overcame opponents. Von Kempelen was moved to call it a thinking machine.

Von Kempelen took the automaton on tour around the courts and salons of Europe, challenging the great and good to pit their wits against the machine. The automaton rarely lost. One of its most famous scalps was that of Benjamin Franklin. In 1790, thinking twenty years was a pretty good run, von Kempelen dismantled the machine but on his death in 1805 his family sold it on to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who put it back together again and took it out on the road. He even took it to America in 1826. The automaton regularly won its matches.

There was intense speculation as to how the machine operated and secured its remarkable run of successes. To quell the obvious thought that there was someone in the box of trick, von Kempelen would ostentatiously open up the box to reveal its innards before each show. The mystery piqued the interest of Edgar Allan Poe who after witnessing a performance, wrote an article in which he claimed that there was someone in the figure of the Turk, rather than the box. He was almost right.

The truth came out on 6th February 1837 in the Philadelphia National Gazette Literary Register. Von Kempelen and Maelzel had employed champion chess masters who were secreted in the part of the box where the Turk came out. A series of sliding panels and a rolling chair hid them from view whilst the innards of the box were being displayed but once the box was shut, they moved back into the guts of the box. The chess masters could control the arms and hands of the automaton to ape their own hand movements and the use of magnetic chess pieces allowed them to see what was going on above their heads.

Clever, really.


Book Corner – October 2017 (3)

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

Imagine the scene. There is a gathering of local worthies in a country house. There is a scream and one of the servants rushes in to the assembled company to announce that Colonel Blimp has been found dead in the library. Who could have committed the foul dead? Fortunately, amongst the guests is an amateur sleuth, much brighter than the local constabulary, who unmasks the culprit.

Murders and detectives are such staple fare of the written page and on our television screens, that it all seems a bit hackneyed now and, sad to say, all a bit too cosy. To make matters worse, many of the novels of the so-called Golden Age of detective writing – the period between the two World Wars – are imbued with social attitudes that many in today’s more politically correct environment find unpalatable. From today’s perspective it is hard to credit how innovative many of the stories were, as writers strove to push out the boundaries and tease the little grey cells of their avid reading public. And avid the readers were, seeking an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the thirties but in a way that avoided the horrors many had to endure in the First World War.

Edwards writes an impassioned plea in defence of the genre and so convincing is his thesis that on hearing it a jury would dismiss all charges against detective stories out of hand. As a self-confessed detective fiction nut, I enjoyed this romp and have made many a note in the margins of its pages of books that I want to explore. Beware, this book could cost you serious money!

In essence, Edwards tells the story of the Detection Club, established in 1930 and meeting occasionally in London to provide a social network for crime writers. To be admitted to the club writers had to have produced work of “admitted merit” and there was an elaborate, slightly gothic and certainly bizarre initiation ceremony to be undergone. Principal luminaries of the club were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton and Anthony Berkeley and these take centre stage in Edwards’ narrative. Each in their own way had troubled personal lives and sought solace in writing. All the other 35 members in the inter-war period feature in the book and it is from their pen pictures that I have built up my reading list for the future.

There are some fascinating insights. I didn’t know, for example, during the Second World War Christie came under suspicion of being a German spy because she called a character Bletchley – the code-cracking centre was hush-hush at the time – in her novel N or M? and because she was living in a block of flats known to be frequented by spies. In a period of economic turmoil, bankers and inheritors of fortunes found themselves victims of murder plots and heinous murders of spouses sometimes reflected the desires and tortured love lives of their authors.

As the world moved inexorably towards a second major conflict, the genre explored the question of whether it was possible to commit a good murder, whether eliminating a Nazi or a prominent fascist was really a crime, a theme initially explored by Edgar Wallace in Four Just Men. Interestingly, neither Sayers – she had found religion – nor Berkeley – he had gone into deep depression – wrote detective fiction after the outbreak of the war and by the time peace had broken out, the emphasis was more on the psychological thriller.

If you are interested in the genre, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make – Part Three

The Inland Customs Hedge of India

It was all about tax and salt. In the unforgiving heat of India it was estimated that an adult needed an ounce a day to survive and whilst there were plentiful supplies of the mineral in Eastern India, other parts were poorly served. One of the most egregious taxes imposed on the natives by the East India Company and then the British Raj was the salt tax which made the mineral prohibitively expensive. And where there is tax, there is an incentive to evade it, principally through smuggling.

So concerned was the East India Company about smuggling and the impact on its revenue that from 1803 a series of customs houses were built across the major roads and rivers of Bengal to collect taxes. But this was not altogether successful as the crafty locals would just go round the posts. In 1834 G H Smith developed a more substantial structure, running from Agra to Delhi and consisting of customs posts at mile intervals linked by a raised path with gates every four miles to allow movement from one side to the other. 6,600 employees staffed the line and there were border patrols operating a couple of miles or so behind the line. There were cells where smugglers were detained – these were known as chowkis, from which our word chokey

Control of most of India passed from the East India Company to the British government following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and in 1869 they ordered that the various customs lines be integrated into a single structure, running some 2,504 miles from the Himalayas to Orissa. To give some sense of the profitability of the salt tax some 12.5 million rupees were collected in 1869-70 and by 1877 it was worth 29.1 million rupees.

One of the problems facing the British administrators was the absence of natural material with which to build the wall. But you don’t get to rule an empire without showing some ingenuity and this ia where Allan Octavian Hume came in. To supplement the earth and bricks, dry hedging had been used, principally from dwarf Indian Plum. Some of it had taken root and Hume’s brainwave in 1869 was to plant a hedge. That year he began experimenting with various types of local bushes. The key requisites were that they would grow in the various soil conditions and that they were thorny. He came up with a mix of Indian plum, babool, karonda and various species of euphorbia.

Around 800 miles of hedge was planted, never less than eight feet high and four feet wide and often up to twelve feet tall and fourteen feet thick. In Hume’s own words, it was “in its most perfect form.. utterly impassable to man or beast.” Of course, some tried, by driving their camels straight at the hedge or throwing the bags over the hedge and there were clashes. Two administrators tried to arrest 112 smugglers in 1877 and died in the attempt. Bribery and corruption was rife. But the main bug bear was that the hedge disrupted trade and free movement. Who’d have thought it?

Once the Brits had secured control of salt production and introduced a refinement of the salt tax which varied between regions, thus making smuggling uneconomic, there was little need for the hedge. In 1879 work stopped on building and maintaining it and when India gained independence in 1947 the last remaining remnants of the hedge were ripped up.

The customs hedge had a significant impact on India. It is estimated that millions of Indians died because of their inability to afford salt and it stoked up resentment against the Brits, something that Gandhi was able to exploit with his first piece of civil disobedience, his salt satyagraha. On the plus side, the customs line provided the only surveyed straight line in the area and so it was used for the route of a number of roads.  But if you are searching for the hedge, you will be sorely disappointed.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty One

Merchant’s Gargling Oil

The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.

The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”

The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it.  The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”

The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.

So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.

As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.

Sporting Event Of The Week (7)

Those of us who mourn the fact that the game of conkers has rather gone into the doldrums  thanks to the questionable efforts of the ‘Elf and Safety brigade, at least in schools, fearing that the little darlings will get a wrap on the knuckle from a stray shot or that fragments of an exploding conker will get into their eyes, will be heartened by the news that that the Northamptonshire village of Southwick hosted the World Conker Championships last weekend.

230 competitors from 14 countries as far-flung as New Zealand, the United States and Russia took part in the championship which was held, as usual, in the grounds of the Shuckburgh Arms. The winner of the male competition was an 85-year-old Chelsea Pensioner, John Riley, while Julie Freeman won the women’s competition and then claimed the overall crown by overcoming Riley’s stout resistance.

The competition nearly didn’t go ahead because there was a shortage of decent conkers. Many had dropped early this year – autumn does seem to have arrived earlier this year – but enough were gathered to save the day.

For those interested in playing the game properly, there must be at least 8 inches of lace between your knuckle and the conker and each player takes three alternate strikes at their opponent’s nut. The game is decided when one conker is smashed. If there is no result after five minutes, then each player is allowed a further nine strikes. If there is still no result, the winner is the one who struck his opponent’s conker most times.

It brought back wonderful memories of my childhood.

Wedding Hitch Of The Week

There is so much to think about when you are arranging a wedding – the right venue, seating plan, rings, suit etc – that it is easy for something to slip your mind as a poor groom found in Bingley in West Yorkshire last weekend.

Pride of place in the wedding celebrations was a white Lamborghini Huracán complete with red ribbons. Unfortunately, it had slipped the groom’s mind to insure the thing and so the Old Bill came along and impounded it, no doubt making it a wedding to remember for the assembled guests.

As is the way these days, the police put the boot in on Twitter, tweeting under the hashtag #Lamboseizey “Happy wedding day, can I have the keys please the officer said to the groom.

If you are getting married with a flash car, check the insurance. Another thing to add to the list!

What Is The Origin Of (149)?…

Without let or hindrance

I thought my passport was due for renewal in the next year or so and with some foreign expeditions in mind, I dug it out. Other than to bemoan the verisimilitude of my portrait I have never really paid the document much attention but my eye was caught by the rather impressive italicised statement on the inside front cover, to wit, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” I am sure we are all reassured by this demand, the modern-day equivalent of civis Romanus sum.

The phrase that particularly caught my attention was without let or hindrance which means without obstruction, save a wait of a couple of hours to get through border controls. Hindrance, as a noun, dates back to the 15th century and is a modernisation of the Middle English word, hinderaunce. It is a compound of the word hinder and the suffix –ance which is used to form nouns from adjectives or verbs. Its sense has not changed in six centuries.

What is more interesting is the noun, let. Nowadays, when we use the word let, it is normally as a verb and means to allow. It has had this sense since the 10th century but clearly the noun in our phrase cannot have this meaning as it would contradict hindrance and make nonsense of Her Britannic Majesty’s demand – something we surely cannot allow to happen.

It turns out that from the 9th century let had another meaning, total opposite to that which we associate the word with today. In other words, it meant to hinder or obstruct and in our phrase is used to strengthen and reiterate the demand for untrammelled passage. Around the 12th century it began to appear in noun form and obstacles were known as lets. To this day it survives in this sense in our phrase and in the terminology associated with the game of lawn tennis. In the rules of the game a let is where some obstruction has occurred, such as the ball clipping the net from a serve or some encroachment onto the playing surface, necessitation that the point be played again.

So having got that sorted out, the next thing to exercise our mind is when let and hinder were first conjoined. John Baret’s useful and, presumably, enormous Aluearie or triple dictionarie in Englishe, Latin and French: very profitable for all such as be desirous of any of those three languages, published in 1574 mentions the phrase let or hinder so it must have been in use at least in the 16th century.

The legal profession then seem to have got hold of it and used it specifically to describe the actions of those who obstruct representatives going about their lawful duty. Samuel Freeman had a long career as clerk to the state courts of Massachusetts and in 1799 distilled his long experience into a manual called the Town Officer, which included inter alia oaths, instructions, descriptions of the powers and duties of officials and a table of crimes and punishments. There we find “persons who wilfully let or hinder any sheriff or constable.

Satisfied, I shall put my passport away until I next pack my suitcase.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Forty One

The Oriental Club

This club is slightly away from London’s traditional club land, having moved to Stratford House, just off Oxford Street, in 1960. The name on the tin says it all – it was originally designed to draw its membership from those who had seen service or made their fortunes in the East, principally in India. The driving force behind the foundation of the club was Major General Sir John Malcolm.

A founding committee was established in 1824 and a series of adverts were posted in the right sort of papers and journals to attract the right sort of chaps – chapesses were not eligible for membership until 2010. The club was seeking to recruit “Noblemen and gentlemen associated with the administration of our Eastern empire, or who have travelled or resided in Asia, at St. Helena, in Egypt, at the Cape of Good Hope, the Mauritius, or at Constantinople. The initial committee consisted of “forty individuals of rank and talent” including the Duke of Wellington.

According to the prospectus, “the club will be established at a house in a convenient situation” – the first premises occupied was at No 16 Lower Grosvenor Street but in 1827-8 a purpose-built club house was constructed in Hanover Square where the club remained until decamping to the present site in 1960. The prospectus went on to state that “The utmost economy shall be observed in the whole establishment, and the subscription for its foundation and support shall not exceed fifteen pounds entrance, and six pounds per annum.”

As the club increased in popularity, subscriptions had increased. An account of the club in The Great Metropolis, written by James Grant and published in 1837, noted that The admission money to the Oriental Club is twenty pounds, the annual subscription is eight pounds. The number of members is 550.” A casual observer of proceedings at the club could play a sort of Oriental bingo. Grant commented, “I have often thought it would be worth the while of some curious person to count the number of times the words Calcutta, Bombay and Madras are pronounced by the members in the course of a day.” Members by that time were persons who are living at home on fortunes they have amassed in India. India and Indian matters form the everlasting topics of their conversation.”

One of the conspicuous habits of nabobs, as men who had return from the East having made prodigious fortunes in double quick time were known as, was their taking of snuff. The legacy of this habit can be seen today at the club. In the Old Smoking Room is to be found an elaborate ram’s head snuff box together with snuff rake and spoons. But if Grant is to be believed, the members must have brought their own snuff as, according to Grant, the amount in the club’s accounts for snuff was a paltry 17 shillings and 10 pennies.

The club, known pejoratively amongst Hackney carriage drivers as the Horizontal, was not to everyone’s taste. It was known for its library-like atmosphere and The New Monthly Magazine wryly commented, From the outside it looks like a prison;—enter it, it looks like an hospital, in which a smell of curry-powder pervades the ‘wards,’—wards filled with venerable patients, dressed in nankeen shorts, yellow stockings, and gaiters, and faces to match. There may still be seen pigtails in all their pristine perfection. It is the region of calico shirts, returned writers, and guinea-pigs grown into bores.” Perhaps we need to take this description with a pinch of curry powder!

Book Corner – October 2017 (2)

Malice Aforethought – Francis Iles

First published in 1931, Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an inverted narrative crime novel. What this means is that the focus is not on solving the crime a la Sherlock Holmes and Maigret but on seeing how the murder was carried out and to understand the motivation and psychological make-up of the murderer. After all, Iles aka Anthony Berkeley aka Anthony Berkeley Cox baldly states in the opening sentence that Doctor Bickleigh, a hen-pecked man with a pronounced inferiority complex, is going to do away with his wife. For the reader the principal interest is how he did it and whether he got away with it.

In some ways Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer. He is trapped in a loveless marriage – Julia, his wife, is portrayed as an awful, domineering woman. Her bullying and unsympathetic manner is given full rein in the opening scenes of the book during the preparations for a tennis party to which the great and the good of Wyvern’s Cross are invited. Mind you, Bickleigh is no saint. He is a philanderer and has a string of lady friends, including the faithful Ivy whom Bickleigh treats with disdain. At the tennis party, Bickleigh’s advances are rebuffed by Gwynyfryd Rattery. A new woman, Madelaine Cranmere arrives in the village and when Bickleigh falls for his charms and demands a divorce which Julia refuses, you know her fate is sealed.

The other sense in which Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer is that he is a Doctor, a profession which gives him easy access to drugs and poisons. I will not spoil the story but, suffice to say, that his chosen profession proves very helpful.

Iles’ approach allows us insights into Bickleigh’s mind and thought processes. He is characterised as a rather pompous man, self-satisfied and convinced that he has planned the perfect murder. But as events go somewhat out of control, the reader begins to realise that Bickleigh is not as clever as he thinks he is and is increasingly deluded about the natures and motives of those around him. He is not a sympathetic character and although I was drawn into the book, fascinated by the modus operandi of the murderer and the tensions around whether the crime would be detected, I found it mattered not to me whether he got away with or swung.

Iles is particularly good at painting quick character sketches and gets the insular and bitchy world of English country life down to a tee. The unsettling thought is that many of us find ourselves trapped in some aspects of our lives, desperate to find a way out. How easily would we be tipped towards a path which results in murder?

Iles presumably got his inspiration for the book in part from Dr Crippins and Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the so-called Hay poisoner and the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England. The book takes an unexpected twist right at the end. If you are tempted to read it and have a battered second-hand copy, make sure that it contains the Epilogue. I may be old-fashioned but I much prefer a whodunit!

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Four

The Grand Central Information Booth scam, 1929

Sometimes I stumble on stories that seem too good to be true and I bring this one to your attention with some trepidation as the jury is out as to whether it really happened or not. However, the New York Central Railroad attested it in their brochure about the architectural wonder that is the Grand Central station in the late 1960s and in the absence of anything to the contrary, that’s good enough for me.

The marks in this scam were two Italian entrepreneurs, Tony and Nick Fortunato (or not so, as it turned out) who ran the Fortunato Fruit Company. In early 1929 their premises were visited by a well-dressed man from the Grand Central Holding Corporation, called T Remington Grenfall. He had an astonishing proposition for them. The information booth that was in the central of the hall was going to be closed down and travellers would have to get travel information from the ticket desks. The reason, he cited, was that too many members of the public were asking stupid questions and the central position of the booth was disrupting the flow of people to the platforms.

What this meant was that there was an amazing piece of prime real estate available for rent to the first merchants who recognised the gold mine that the opportunity was. The Fortunatos fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

In order to secure the site which was directly underneath the Golden Clock, the Fortunatos had to come up with a year’s rent in advance, a cool $100,000. The next day the brothers visited the Grand Central Holding Corporation offices, next door to the station (natch), and handed over the money to the so-called President, one Wilson A Blodgett. In return they received a contract which stated that on 1st April 1929 (April Fools’ Day, note) they were entitled to take possession of the space.

When 1st April arrived, the Fortunatos, accompanied by a number of workers and a large amount of timber, walked into the hall of the station to take possession of their spot, as per the contract. Imagine their surprise, then, when they saw that not only was the information booth still in situ but that it was manned and operating as normal. The employees manning the booth refused to leave their posts and, worse still, the Fortunatos were requested to leave. Inevitably, the station denied all knowledge of any plan to rent out space in the hall and refused to honour the contract the increasingly frustrated Fortunato’s waved in their face.

Eventually, it dawned on the Italians that they had been had and their next recourse was to go to the police. Despite an exhaustive search, neither hide nor hair of Messrs Grenfall and Blodgett was ever seen and the Fortunatos were forced to write off their loss to experience. When something seems to good to be true, it generally is.

But Grand Central had not seen the last of the Fortunatos. Every now and again they would return to the station and intimidate the poor folk working in the information booths and shout at railway officials. So notorious was their behaviour that people would often go to the station on spec just to see whether the Italians would turn up and put on a show.