windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: October 2017

A Measure Of Things – Part Eleven

Having explored the unnecessary complications of the British Imperial paper size system, let’s get up to date. Paper, at least in Europe and the UK – we will deal with the pesky Americans later – comes in what is known as the A-series of sizes. Office workers will be most familiar with the A3, the A4 and the A5 sizes, although the starting point is the A0. The A0 paper size is exactly I square metre in area, although its dimensions are 841 millimetres by 1,189 or, if you prefer, 33.1 inches by 46.8.

What underpins the A-series of paper sizes is that the height to width ratio of all the sizes is the square root of 2 or 1.4142 to 1, if you prefer. It was a German scientist and philosopher, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who first noticed in 1798 how useful exploiting a standard height to width ratio would be in dealing with paper. If you cut a piece of paper parallel to its shorter side to make two equal pieces, each of the resulting pieces would have the same height/width ratio of the square root of 2.

So the A1 size is half that of the A0 and is derived by halving the larger piece across its larger side. A2 is half the size of the A1 and so it continues – the A3 being half the A2, the A4 half of the A3 and the A5 half of the A4. You get the drift now with each size retaining that all important common height to width ratio. Clever, really. It was not until the 20th century that Lichtenberg’s observations were put into practical use, Dr Walter Portsmann creating a defined system of paper sizes, which were adopted in Germany in 1922 as the DIN standard.

The overpowering logic and convenience of the system meant that it was rapidly adopted elsewhere – even by the Brits in 1959 – and it became the internationally recognised standard by 1975. But what about B-series paper and C-series envelopes, I hear you cry. Well, not all of the many paper formats conform to the A-series and so the B deals with them but they are linked to the A-series. The B1 size is the geometric mean between the A0 and the A1 and so on and, of course, retaining the all-important height to width ratio of the square root of two. The C-series relates to envelopes and it is based on the geometric mean between the A and B-series of the same number. So that is why if you get a C4 envelope an unfolded A4 piece of paper fits in it like a glove.

Adopting a more metric-based system of paper sizing encouraged the Brits to change the quantities in a quire and ream to 25 and 500 respectively which is why you now buy your computer paper in bundles of 500.

In the USA, Canada, Mexico and a few other countries, the ISO 216 standard has not been adopted and they use letter paper which at 8.5 inches by 11 is slightly wider and shorter than A4, legal which is 8.5 inches by 14 and Ledger or Tabloid which is 11 inches by 17. The letter size only became a recognised standard in the States in 1921, although, somewhat bizarrely, the US government didn’t adopt it until the early 1980s, adopting a size of 8 inches by 10.5 in the interim. Presumably, the increasing sharing of digital documents forced their hand. The major problem with the American system, aside from the inconvenience of sharing and printing documents between countries adopting the different standards, is that it does not have the standard height/width ratio and so switching from one size of paper to another can cause no end of formatting problems.

It will only be a question of time before they adopt the A-series, methinks.

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A Better Life – Part Fifteen

Fountaingrove and Thomas Lake Harris (1823 – 1906)

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This is a motto that seems appropriate to describe the career of English born Thomas Lake Harris who had a number of goes at establishing utopian communities before settling on Fountaingrove, a 700 acre site in Northern California, just a couple of miles from Santa Rosa.

His first community was established with the Rev J L Scott in 1851. According to the group the site of The Mountain Cove Community of Spiritualists was the actual site of the Garden of Eden and their mission was to establish a city of refuge from which angels could come and go as they pleased. Alas, more base human emotions such as egos and jealousy prevailed and the commune didn’t last long.

After a spell back in Blighty to lick his wounds, Harris reappeared in Amenia in Dutchess County, New York where he set up a bank, mill and a vineyard and collected a group of religious disciples, about 60 in all including five clergymen and twenty Japanese from Satsuma Province. The community, now called the Brotherhood of the New Life, decided to set up camp in Brocton on the banks of Lake Eerie. The farm was more of a co-operative with each of Harris’ converts – some 2,000 at its peak – pitching in to do their fair share of the work.

The vineyard flourished. When challenged by teetotallers, Harris said that wine made by him was full of divine breath which neutralised all noxious influence – I will have to remember that one – and he was a strong advocate of the use of tobacco. He required total surrender from his adherents, including the suspension of moral judgement. In 1875 Harris and a subset of his followers crossed the country to Fountaingrove.

There is no doubt that Harris was a charismatic character but to many his beliefs seemed a little weird. He styled himself as the primate or pivotal man whom God had chosen to be the battleground between good and evil. He would be the mouthpiece through whom God would announce the second coming of Christ. Of particular note was his promotion of a form of breathing called Divine Respiration, a form of rhythmic breathing which enabled the practitioners to commune with God. His theory of Spiritual Counterparts required adherents to believe that each person had a counterpart in heaven. Harris declared himself to be bisexual and perhaps, unsurprisingly, the commune attracted accusations of immorality and sexual licence.

Harris left Fountaingrove in 1891 but he passed the mantle over to Kanaye Nagasawa who concentrated on the commercial aspects of the operation. Nagasawa became sole owner of the winery in the 1920s which he ran successfully until his death in 1934, after which the commune dispersed. An impressive round, red bricked building which acted as the winery’s barn can still be seen today in Santa Rosa which has an area called Fountaingrove and streets and parks which commemorate Harris and Nagasawa.

Misfortune seemed to dog Harris in his later life. A major fire in New York destroyed most of his stocks of wine. His biggest misfortune was that his claim to have discovered the secret to immortal life on earth was proven to be misguided. Like all of us will, he died. Initially Harris’ supporters claimed he was only sleeping but three months after his death on 23rd March 1906, had to acknowledge that he had really popped his clogs.

Waiting List Of The Week

What do you do when your horse has died? Buy a new one, of course. But there is the little matter of what you do with the dead one.

Well, the Danes, enterprising people that they are, offer the carcass of their beloved nags to Copenhagen zoo to feed to their pride of esurient lions. Better than feeding them giraffes, a practice that got the zoo into a spot of bother three years ago.

There is only one problem, though. So popular is this form of nag disposal – it is free, proponents claim that it puts the animals back into the food chain and owners find it more comforting than the horse becoming biodiesel and meat balls – that there is now a six month waiting list, I read this week.

The troubling aspect of this story is what do you do with your dead horse until such time as the lion keepers can fit it into their charges meal schedule? No answer is provided. I suspect, if you go to Denmark this winter, you may find mounds of rotting horse flesh.

Anyone got any spare lions, the hungrier the better, they can give to the zoo? That will solve the problem!

Airline Of The Week

A glass ceiling is a pretty dangerous thing in the aviation industry, I would have thought. It was with some relief then that I read this week that the first commercial aircraft with an all-woman crew, including both pilots, had taken off and, presumably, landed and in the right place too.

It was only when the crew were preparing for the Southwest Airlines flight from St Louis to take-off on an internal flight to San Francisco that the crew realised that there wasn’t a man around. As is the modern way, they grabbed a phone, took a group photo to mark the auspicious occasion and posted it on social media (natch).

Whether the passengers realised the import of the moment, I know not, but figures issued by Women in Aviation International suggest that only 6.7% of all pilots are female so to have two on one flight is a statistical rarity.

Glad we have got that one out of the way. As someone might have said, “one small step for woman, one large step for womankind.

For every ying there is a yang. Karon Grieve, I read this week, booked a £46 ticket to fly with Jet2 from Glasgow to Crete to find that she was the only passenger on the 4.5 hour flight. Not the first time this happened, I’m told, but a rarity nonetheless. I’m sure the service was second to none.

What Is The Origin Of (151)?…

Excuse my French

Swearing can be cathartic. If you have done something stupid, are about to blow your top or have hurt yourself, a few well-chosen oaths can make you feel better. Of course, those who pepper liberally each sentence with oaths in adjectival form can be tiresome and are often best avoided, in my experience.

There are some of us who are mildly embarrassed when an oath passes our lips and to cover this unfortunate lapse in common decency they add as a rider, excuse (or pardon) my French. As oaths are more often Anglo-Saxon in origin than French, it seems an odd turn of phrase, the origins of which are worth examining.

The earliest examples of the phrase date from around the 1830s. In Baron Karl von Miltie’s The Twelve Nights, published in 1831, we find, “bless me, how fat you have grown – absolutely as round as a ball; you will soon be embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.” By modern standards the speaker is being very rude but the reason for his apology is that his vocabulary has let him down and he has had to turn to the French version of a lard bucket.

That the origin of the phrase is really down to embarrassment for using a French term is confirmed by an extract from the Memoirs and Letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, dating to 1833. In the worthy Captain’s memoirs we find a description of the boarding of an enemy ship which includes the line, “Teddy and Lord Radstock’s son, Waldegrave, boarded the French commodore, and carried him l’épée à la main; excuse my French.

It was not until the 1860s that our phrase was used in association with strong language as opposed to a foreign language. In Henry Sedley’s Marian Rooke; or the Quest for Fortune, published in 1865, we find, “dreadful good brandy o’yourn. Ha! Ha! Ha! My respects. Excuse my French.” To the modern ear, dreadful isn’t the type of oath for which even the most sensitive soul would feel embarrassed about using. In this passage it is used as an intensifier but nonetheless it must have had some imprecatory connotations that pass us by. By the time it appeared in Michael Harrison’s 1936 book, All The Trees were Green, it was associated with a word which we would more readily recognise as an oath; “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.

So why French? England and France have spent more time glaring at each other across la Manche and having the occasional dust-ups than most other pairs of countries. The phrase, as we have seen, started out as an apology for actually lurching into French but there has also been a long history of using the word French adjectivally to describe something unsavoury. So we have a French letter as a euphemism for a condom and French pox to describe syphilis while a French novel or French print was a polite way of referring to pornography. To take French leave was to disappear without a by or leave, without permission.

Insults, though, are a two-way street and the French have retaliated in like form. Their equivalent of French leave is filer à l’anglaise while a condom is a capote anglaise and syphilis is la maladie anglaise. The French even have a couple portmanteau phrases to describe all that the English personify that is wrong in the world; le malaise anglais and le vice anglais.

Our phrase is an interesting example of how something which is literal in its use has turned into a more generic statement, leaving its original meaning lost in the mists of time.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Seven

Margaret Knight (1838 – 1914)

This series has been criticised, quite fairly, for ignoring the contribution of women to improving our daily life so to start to redress the balance it is my pleasure to enrol Margaret Knight into our illustrious Hall of Fame. Born in York, Maine Margaret worked in a cotton mill as a child and at the tender age of twelve witnessed an accident in the factory where a steel-tipped shuttle shot out of a mechanical loom, stabbing a work colleague. Within weeks of witnessing this traumatic event, she had invented a safety device which prevented a recurrence.

Margaret never patented her invention which was soon adopted by other mills. Indeed, quite what it was is not clear – it might have been a guard to stop the shuttle from flying off or some kind of safety device to stop the loom. Either way, Margaret made a valuable contribution to safety in the mills but never saw a penny for her initiative. Dogged by poor health, Margaret left the mill before she reached twenty.

In 1867 Margaret moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and started working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company. The industrialisation of paper bag manufacturing had taken a major leap forward when, in 1852, Francis Wolle, a Moravian priest cum schoolteacher cum business man from Pennsylvania, invented and patented a paper bag-making machine. The basics of its design are still used today. That said, the bags it produced were fairly rudimentary, were like envelopes and flimsy, without the flat bottoms that are used today for takeaways and the like. How to improve the paper gag-making machine was a challenge which Margaret could not resist.

She spent time working on a device that would cut, fold and paste the bottoms of bags. When her employer complained about the time Margaret was spending on developing her prototype, she offered him the rights, for a price, if she could come up with a solution. He agreed and after knocking out thousands of bags on her wooden model, Margaret was satisfied that she had a fully functional device. She had a metal prototype made in Boston which was a requisite for submitting a patent application.

But this is where her problems began. A chap called Charles Annan had visited the factory and paid particular attention to her prototype. So meticulous were his observations that he filed for a patent for a machine which looked suspiciously like the square bottom paper bag-making machine that Margaret had painstakingly developed and trialled. Our heroine wasn’t going to let this device slip from her grasp and filed a patent interference suit against Annan. With the bit firmly between her teeth, spent upwards of $100 a day plus expenses in garnering depositions from herself and other key witnesses in preparation for the trial.

As part of his defence Annan claimed that because Margaret was a woman, she could not possibly understand the complexities of a machine like this. Margaret’s preparation paid off though, her notes, diary entries, samples and affidavits convincing the court to dismiss Annan’s rather chauvinist arguments and to find in her favour. But it took three years to get that far. She established the Eastern Paper Bag Company and began to receive royalties for her invention.

Margaret then became a bit of a serial inventor, and is credited with around 90 inventions and twenty-two patents. Her inventions included a new window frame and sash design, a numbering machine, an automatic boring machine and a spinning or sewing machine. Although these all made her money, by the time she died in 1914 she had just $300 to her name.

Margaret, for having to fight male chauvinism to get your just deserts, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

Book Corner – October 2017 (4)

The Way of all Flesh – Samuel Butler

For the modern reader of liberal persuasion this semi-autobiographical novel, written by Butler between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903, a year after his death, is a difficult book to get your head around. It charts Ernest Pontifex’s voyage of self-discovery.

On the plus side it is populated with characters as vibrant, if not more so, as appear in the pages of Dickens at his best. Theobald, Ernest’s father, is a cruel, parsimonious and unfeeling man and his mother, Christina, a stupid and semi-hysterical female. Dr Skinner is a stereotypical brutal public school master and Ernest’s landlady, Mrs Jupp, is a wonderfully comic, barely respectable member of London’s working class. Butler’s ire is reserved for characters representing the various strands of religious thought – Badcock, a repulsive evangelical and the devious Pryer, a closet homosexual who characterises the venality of the High-Church.

And the book is peppered with wonderful aphorisms. To quote just four; “Youth is like spring, an overpraised season”; “It is far safer to know too little than too much. People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other”; “All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it”; “He has spent his life best who has enjoyed it most..” You can get a sense of the general tenor of the book from just reading these snapshots – it is a paean to self-indulgence and doing your own thing rather than trying to adhere to society’s and your family’s expectations.

On the other hand, there are dense and, frankly, turgid passages of religious and philosophical discussion which disrupt the flow of the narrative and at times almost made me throw the book down. And it is a bit of a slow burner – Ernest doesn’t appear until the seventeenth chapter – and the early part of the book deals with the history of the earlier generation of Pontifexes, essential for the reader to understand the psychological ties that bind Ernest so tightly that it is almost a life’s work for Ernest to break free. But perseverance is rewarded because what we have is a coruscating attack on family, religion and liberalism and which radiates warmth and common sense.

There are two forces at play for Ernest’s soul. In his youth Ernest has drummed into him what he ought to do, say and feel, to know his place and do his duty, to abide by the small-mindedness and petty do-goodery of his parent’s low-church Anglicanism. This upbringing leaves Ernest totally unprepared for the great outside world and in a series of picaresque adventures he is ripped off, incarcerated and enters into a bigamous marriage.

The other force, which ultimately prevails, is all about self-interest and self-indulgence, finding your place in the world without worrying overmuch about others, to discover the animalian desire to enjoy life. The living personifications of these attitudes are Alethea Pontifex, Ernest’s godmother, and Mr Overton, the story’s narrator and whose careful stewardship of Ernest’s legacy gives him the funds to lead the life of a self-indulgent author.

I guess this is my problem with the book. Ernest was only able to escape the ties of conventional life because he had the funds to do so – an option not available for many. And to modern eyes he cruelly cast off his own children – they were probably better off for it – in order to enjoy himself.

I’m not sure I would join George Orwell in saying it was a great book but it was full of insights and common sense. It explored well the fraught relationship between parents and children and probably put down on paper what many were thinking but did not have the courage to say. The irony, of course, is neither did Butler which is why it lay in his drawer until he snuffed it.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Five

Trump Street, EC2

You can learn a lot from history, if only you know where to look. If you stand on the northern side of Cheapside and walk up King Street, the first street on the left is Trump Street. With an almost imperceptible sense of inevitability, our street leads on to Russia Row. It has taken centuries for the denizens of London to realise the significance of this conjunction.

Cheapside, as we have seen before, was site of the principal market of the medieval City of London. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the adjacent streets bear testimony to the produce and goods that were available there. So we have Milk Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane and Poultry in the vicinity. Logic suggests, therefore, that Trump Street may have had some kind of association with a trade in the area or goods that were sold in the market. But what?

Today, apart from American Presidents, a trump is associated with a fart. Perhaps it was a street where people congregated to expel their flatulence after eating some of the fare sold at the market? Tempting though it may be to believe this flight of fancy, it is somewhat off the mark. The street first made an appearance in John Rocque’s Map of London, published in 1746. Given its location it is inconceivable that it didn’t owe its origin to the reconstruction of the area following the Great Fire in 1666. Nikolaus Pevsner’s City of London Architectural, produced in conjunction with Simon Bradley and published in 1997 gives a clue as to the possible origin of our street’s name. He noted that an inn by the name of the Trumpeter used to stand on Lawrence Lane – the modern version of the lane runs at right angles to the right hand side of Trump Street as you walk to Russia Row.

Pevsner goes on to state that the pub – alas, no longer in existence – “[was] thought to be commemorated in the post-fire Trump Street.” That we might be in pursuit of trumpeters is given more credence by a reference in Memorials of London and London Life in 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, a series of extracts from the early archives of the City, arranged in chronological order, drawn from the Letter Books of the City and edited by H.T Riley. This document saw the light of day in 1868 and when talking about a trumpet maker called Mr William Trompeor, commented that “the persons who followed this trade mostly lived, in all probability, in Trump Street…near the Guildhall.

Ridley’s in all probability does not make this assertion definitive but later historians are generally in agreement that Trump Street was the centre of London’s trumpet making industry. Of course, Trompeur may have given his name to the street – an eponym – unless his name just happened to have been what the grammarians call an aptonym, a name appropriate to the person’s occupation.

And why was there a demand for trumpets? Well, the City’s watchmen carried them in case they had to sound the alarm to warn the citizens that intruders were attempting to breach the walls.

As for Russia Row, the origins of its name are lost in the mists of time. There is no record of any particular association with Russia or trade of goods from Russia there or of it being home to an enclave of Russian emigres. Perhaps the authorities responsible for naming the street knew that there would eventually be an association with that street and Trump Street at some point in time.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Fourteen

Henrietta Howland “Hetty” Green (1834 –1916)

This series is about eccentricity. Just to prove that eccentricity is neither a male preserve or, despite Voltaire’s assertion, a peculiarly English trait, we will shine our light on Hetty Green, whose behaviour earned her the unflattering sobriquet, the Witch of Wall Street. She was a successful investor, amassing over her career a fortune of over one hundred million dollars of liquid assets, at a time when financiers were almost exclusively male and were generally making a poor fist of it.

Perhaps Hetty is the epitome of that old saying, look after the cents and the dollars will look after themselves. She was notorious for her parsimony. Some of the tales about her are the stuff of urban legend but what we can be certain of is that she cut a rather striking, and dare I say, smelly dash. Hetty only owned one dress at a time which started its life out as black and would over time take on a green or brown hue as it got dirtier. She would order her laundress to only wash the bottom of her dress – after all, she surmised, this was the part that got dirty and to launder the whole garment would be time-consuming and an unnecessary expense. Rather disconcertingly, Hetty would wait in her petticoats until the laundress had finished her work.

Whilst in New York, she was a habitue of Pie Alley where the meal of the day cost just fifteen cents. When out shopping, she would walk (natch), buy broken biscuits rather than whole ones as they were cheaper and carry a can to get the cheapest priced milk for her cat. Her dog did not miss out – Hetty would use her negotiating skills to persuade the poor shopkeeper to throw in a bone gratis for the honour of receiving her patronage. It was usual for shops to offer money back if you returned the box in which your goods were packed. Of course, Hetty took full advantage of this largesse.

Life at home was spartan. Hetty would not heat the place up or use hot water. She is reputed to have eaten her oatmeal cold, because it saved the cost of heating the stuff. Despite being a successful investor, Hetty would not incur the cost of renting her own office. Instead she would take up residence in the offices of the Seaboard National Bank, surrounded by suitcases full of her papers which she would transport back and forth in an old, battered carriage.

But her stinginess did come with some personal cost. She had a hernia and went to the local doctor. He recommended an operation which would have set her back 150 dollars. Of course, she refused to pay that amount and lived with the pain for the rest of her life, some twenty years or so. More tragically, her miserliness affected her son, Ned, who somehow managed to break his leg severely. Hetty took him to a free hospital but the doctor recognised her and said that he would not treat the poor lad unless she paid for his services. Of course, she refused but sadly gangrene set in, Ned had his leg amputated above the knee and was fitted with a cork leg. It is thought that his father met the bill.

When she reached the age of seventy-eight, Hetty is reported to have attributed her longevity to her habit of chewing baked onions. Sadly, she suffered a number of strokes towards the end of her life and spent her last years in a wheelchair.

And why was she called the witch? Her appearance was so startling that children associated her long black dress with the attire of the witches they saw in their story books.

Farts Of The Week

In a week when the skies above Blogger Towers took on an apocalyptic, reddish-orange hue, my thoughts turned to climate change. Astonishingly, according to some Swedish scientists, an unexpected contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly methane and nitrous oxide, are shellfish who seem to trump away with gay abandon. The scientists calculate that the shellfish contribute about 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases released in the Baltic Sea region, the equivalent to a herd of 20,000 flatulent cows. I’m sure they are not covered by the Paris climate accord.

How much damage will be done to the atmosphere by three Japanese performance artists, Reno Amhara, Miu Anemi and Meru Iroha, who are reviving the art of the professional flatulist,is a matter of some conjecture. They have just announced that they will be putting on a show called “Let’s All hear Beautiful Girls Fart Together” in Tokyo, promising various styles of fart produced whilst the girls wear a variety of costumes. It brings to mind some pictures of He-gassen competitions I saw at the British Museum a few years ago.

Before you get too excited, the promoters warn that “depending on their physical condition, it may be impossible for them to fart no matter how hard they try.” Perhaps before each show, they should post a list of what they have eaten so that punters can make an assessment as to whether it is worth parting with their hard-earned cash.

The promoters are hoping for many repeat performances and that the show will run and run. I’m not so sure. Perhaps they should have some shellfish on standby!