A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Measure Of Things – Part Eight

Having looked at beer, it would only be appropriate to look at some of the measurements associated with wine. Perhaps it is no surprise that until 1826, a wine gallon was different from a beer or ale gallon. From at least the 16th century and by statute from 1707 a wine gallon was designated as 231 cubic inches or 3.7854 litres or about 6.66 imperial pints. This reflected the amount of liquid you could store in a cylinder six inches high and seven inches in diameter, if you allocate the approximate value of 22/7 to pi.

But there were variants. John Wybard, who conducted some experiments between 1645 and 1647, found that the wine gallon standard adopted at London’s Guildhall was 224 cubic inches while John Reynolds, a colleague of Wybard’s, found that the standard used at the Tower of London was 231 cubic inches. These variations not only caused confusion but meant that as the tax man based their excise calculations on the 231 standard, those who used the other measures were either overpaying or underpaying tax. To sort out the mess, an Act of Parliament in 1707 imposed the 231 standard. In 1826 the imperial gallon was adopted as the measure for the wine gallon.

We’ve met the Single Bottle Act of 1861 before but this had a transformational effect on the consumption of wine. It meant, for the payment of a licence fee, retailers could sell wine for drinking off their premises. The principal means for conveying the vino from the offie to the home was a bottle, a glass one at that. Before then, wine was stored in casks and barrels and these came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes.

The largest was a tun which held 252 wine gallons. However, the standard seems to have been a bit fluid because there is a list of custom duties dating to 1508 which equates a tun to sixty sesters, a sester being four gallons. Whether 252 or 240 wine gallons, the tun was the measure against which the other, smaller sizes were compared. When the imperial gallon was adopted, a tun was 210 gallons.

A pipe or a butt was half a tun in volume. Perhaps the most famous butt was that in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned on 18th February 1478. Although there is no incontrovertible evidence that this was the way poor old George was assassinated, it makes for a good story. A puncheon held a third of a tun and possibly was so called because the barrel was marked with a punch to denote its contents. A puncheon had an alternative name, tertian, which clearly denotes that its volume was a third of a tun.

A hogshead of wine was the next size down and that denoted a volume equal to half of a butt or a quarter of a tun. A tierce held half a puncheon or a third of a butt or a sixth of a tun. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term was first used in printed English to denote a measurement of volume in 1531. The poet and playwright, Ben Johnson, in his role as poet laureate, successfully negotiated a pay rise in 1630. Part of the enhanced pay and benefits package was an annual tierce of Canary wine, doubtless to aid inspiration. This not inconsiderable perquisite went with the position until the disastrous appointment of Henry James Pye in 1790 – his verse could have done with the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol.

To complete the set, a wine barrel was half a hogshead or an eighth of a tun or 26.25 gallons and rundlet a seventh of a butt or a fourteenth of a tun.

I think I will just stick with a bottle for the time being.

Pee Of The Week

It’s a funny thing but whenever I’m watering the garden, I almost immediately feel the need to relieve myself. Fortunately, I have sufficient self-control to make it to the toilet before letting go. Not so, I learned this week, stable staff when they are mucking out their horses. Their habit of having a wazz, whilst going about their horsekeeping duties, is so endemic that trainers are now erecting signs in their yards reminding their staff not to urinate in the boxes.

It all came to light when a horse, Wotadoll, finished unplaced in a race in Wolverhampton last year but was found to have a metabolite of the painkiller, Tramadol, in her system. An enquiry has revealed that the probable cause was Shaun Cuddy having a wazz while mucking out. So seriously have the British Horseracing Authority taken this behaviour that they fined the horse’s trainer £750 for spending a penny.

Leaving a deposit has had even more disastrous consequences for Andrew David Jensen who allegedly broke into a house in the Californian city of Thousand Oaks. Whilst he was rifling through the house owner’s possessions, he answered an urgent call of nature. The police were able to collect sufficient DNA from his poop to identify Jensen on their database. Some nine months after the burglary, he has had his collar felt and is up before the beak. Always flush after you’ve been is my motto.

Sporting Event Of The Week (6)

News has reached me of Paul “Under-the-thumb” Browse’s success at the 9th World Thumb Wrestling Championship held at the Locks Inn at Gedleston in Norfolk last weekend. He beat Tom “Young Dumb and Full of Thumb” Wright from this year’s City of Culture, Hull, in a tense and thrilling final to retain his crown.

The sport is fairly simple. Competitors stick their thumb of choice through a hole in a wooden board which is decorated to resemble a wrestling ring. Elbows are to be firmly planted on the surface at all times. Contests last for two rounds of sixty seconds and the winner is the one who, in the referee’s opinion, has pinned their opponent’s thumb down for the length of time it takes to say “one, two, three, four, I win the thumb-o-war.” If there is no winner there is a sort of penalty shoot-out in th form of a sudden death game of scissors, paper and stone.

As well as locals competitors came from as far as America, Poland, Germany, Australia, India and South Africa to stand thumb to thumb with the champ. Several hundred spectators watched the fun and, I understand, that next year’s competition is to be streamed live to a worldwide audience.

The rule that fingernails are to be kept short does not deter the fairer sex and Becca ‘Thumby Thumbkenstein’ Anne from Gillingham in Norfolk won the Women’s Championship.

What Is The Origin Of (140)?…

Beg the question

One of the fascinating things about the English language is how words and phrases have changed their meaning over the centuries or, in the case of this week’s phrase, as a result of ignorance and mistranslation. When we use beg the question these days, it prefaces an indirect question we require answering. But, at least according to grammarians, logicians and other pedants, this is an incorrect usage and it begs the question (sic) how this all came about.

In an age where we have so many sources of information, some of which even bear some resemblance to the truth, it is hard to credit that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had such a profound influence on Western European thought and learning for over a millennium. The foundation of the educational system was the trivium, consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Of the three, logic was probably the most fun for the student because lessons would consist of dialectical debates where, as Aristotle described in Book 8 of Topics, there would be a questioner and an answerer. The object of the exercise was for the answerer to defend a proposition and the questioner to refute it by asking questions that can only be answered yes or no. What the questioner could not do was to take the very proposition the answerer was making, turning it into a question and asking that. Not only was that bad form but the answerer would have committed the error of asking for the initial thing or as Aristotle put it, “to to en archêi aiteisthai.

Outside of the precious atmosphere of the logician’s class, the error to which Aristotle drew attention became something akin to taking the conclusion you are trying to prove and making it one of the premises of your argument, in other words making a circular argument. An example would be “I’m always right because I say so regularly.” The proof is merely a restatement of the premise. Aristotle’s rule was turned into the Latin phrase, petitio principis which appeared in English in around the 1580s as “I say this is stille to begge the question”.

The difficulties around our phrase lie in the interpretation of beg and question. We use the verb beg to describe the act of making an entreaty or a request. It is clear, however, that it had a different meaning, particularly when associated with a question, the rather loose and, dare I say it, inaccurate translation of petitio. The Oxford English Dictionary sheds some light on its other meaning, defining it as “take for granted without warrant,” placing it fairly and squarely in the realm of an Aristotelian logistical faux-pas. It provides us with other examples such as from Bishop G Burnet’s Some Passages from the Life of Rochester, published in 1680, “This was to assert or beg the thing in Question” and E Settle’s Reflections on the Dryden’s Plays from 1687, “Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning.”  A later example is to be found in Rogers’ Eclipse of Faith published in 1852, “Many say it is begging the point in dispute.

Petitio, in this context, is not a question but is the proposition being debated and beg is used to indicate that you are assuming something, the proposition, to be true without adducing any logic to show why the statement is true.

So as a consequence of a mistranslation of petitio and the logistical sense of beg falling into obscurity, our phrase has moved from a logician’s circular argument to one that raises a question. It just goes to show that you ignore Aristotle at your peril.

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

Baron George Haas Jr (c 1877 – 1945)

Eccentricity is not a peculiarly English characteristic, notwithstanding what Voltaire may have had to say on the subject, nor is love of animals. Just to prove the point we will relate the curious story of Baron Haas who was the son of a Czech businessman, ennobled in the late 19th century.

Home for the Baron was Hrad Bitov, or Bitov Castle, which nestles on a steep promontory above the river Zeletavka, some 25 kilometres north west of Znojmo in the Czech republic. Built in the 11th century but extensively altered in the 19th century, it is one of the oldest and largest Moravian castles. So Haas had plenty of space and money to engage in his hobbies, the principal of which was collecting animals. Over time he designed a state-of-the-art zoo in the castle grounds, featuring paddocks which he stocked with exotic creatures from around the world, aviaries and terrariums.

Naturally, Haas also had a string of household pets, particularly dogs. If you visit his erstwhile home, Bitov Castle in the Czech Republic, you will come across an astonishing room demonstrating the art of the taxidermist. It is full of stuffed dogs in all sorts of poses as well as badgers, cats and squirrels, the latter bedecked in rather fetching fezzes. There are over fifty dogs in the room which is the castle’s principal tourist attraction and a particular favourite of young children. Haas was so enamoured with his favourites that he always wanted them around. So as soon as one of them kicked the bucket, he would call in the local taxidermist and have it stuffed with sawdust.

Mind you, visiting the castle when Haas was in residence could be an off-putting experience. He had imported a fully grown lioness which he named Mietzi-Mausi and to which he gave free rein of the house. Guests would be terrorised when they encountered the beast, particularly as it had a penchant for nibbling shoes. The only duty the lioness had to perform was to have lunch with the Baron every day. Quite what she ate and whether she had to sit down on a chair is unclear.

Haas got on famously with Homo sapiens as well, ingratiating himself with the locals by standing enormous rounds in the local taverns. Perhaps this was guilt money because he had quite a roving eye. It is said that he had over eighty mistresses and many a local wench would have fallen for his charms. Spending a little money to placate an irate father or boyfriend was perhaps a small price to pay, after all.

Alas, though, Haas went on to pay a far higher price. He was an ethnic German and at the end of the Second World War despite being an ardent anti-fascist he was turfed out of the country by Czech partisans, leaving his collection of stuffed animals behind. It is not certain whether Mietzi-Mausi was still alive at this point. He fled on foot over the Austrian border and a few days later the 68-year-old was found dead from gunshot wounds. It is thought he had taken his own life.

A sad end to the local taxidermist’s dream client.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Two

Ludgate Hill, EC4M

Besides Cornhill, the other hill that dominated the City of London was Ludgate Hill, the highest point of which, just north of St Paul’s, stands at fifty-eight feet above sea level. With all the tall buildings in the area it is hard to imagine the original topography and today the road which bears its name runs from the cathedral in the east to the junction with Farringdon Street from the north and New Bridge Street from the south. When it continues its journey westwards it becomes Fleet Street. It was one of the principal thoroughfares into the old city from Ludgate, one of the City’s seven gates. The gate, along with its gaol, was demolished in 1780.

The area was transformed beyond recognition in the late 1860s when the rabbit warren of alleyways was swept away to make room for a railway station to serve the London, Chatham and Dover Railway between Water Lane and New Bridge Street. A railway viaduct was constructed to span the hill, a change that was not universally approved. “Of all the eyesores of modern London, surely the most hideous is the Ludgate Hill Viaduct— that enormous flat iron that lies across the chest of Ludgate Hill like a bar of metal on the breast of a wretch in a torture-chamber… The railway bridge lies flat across the street, only eighteen feet above the roadway, and is a miracle of clumsy and stubborn ugliness, entirely spoiling the approach to one of the finest buildings in London,” wrote one contemporary. The viaduct remained a feature of the London scenery until 1990, although the station shut its doors for the last time in 1923.

Fleet Street is associated with the newspaper industry in London but the observant will note a blue plaque at the foot of Ludgate Hill which proclaims “In a house near this site was published in 1702 The Daily Courant first London daily newspaper.” It was produced by Elizabeth Mallet and consisted of one sheet with news on the front and adverts on the back. Mallet would only print foreign news stories and eschewed editorial comment, reckoning that her readership had “sense enough to make reflections for themselves,” an editorial policy I would welcome many an organ to adopt today. The paper lasted until 1735 when it was incorporated into the Daily Gazetteer.

Located on the north side of Ludgate was to be found between at least the 15th century and 1873 an inn which over the centuries  went by many a name including Savage’s Inn, The Bell Savage and the Bell on the Hoop. Amongst its more famous guests was Thomas Wyatt who stayed there when he found the gate shut to his rebels who were protesting against Queen Mary and in 1616 Pocahontas and her retinue took up residence in the pub.

From 1575 the Bell Savage became one of four inns in London allowed to perform plays and balconies surrounding the inner court served as the circle and rooms in the tavern as boxes. Other entertainments offered included exhibitions of fencing, bear-baiting and William Bankes and his trick horse Marocco. Although burnt down in the Great Fire it was rebuilt and in 1684 was advertising a new attraction – a “Rhynoceros, lately brought from the East Indies”, the first to be seen in the country. It must have attracted quite a crowd of the curious to pay a “small fee” for the privilege.

The pub was quite extensive, boasting 40 rooms and stabling for 100 horses. But the railway boom did for the coaching trade and the pub became very dilapidated. Attempts were made to refurbish it in the 1850s, although these plans went awry when John Cassell’s printing presses occupied part of the building, the thunder and vibration of the machinery disturbing the guests. The pub, alas, was demolished to make way for the viaduct.

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

Dennis Dupuis and Radol

A few months ago I found a lump on my neck and decided to get it checked out. Fortunately it turned out to be benign but a century or so ago I may have been interested in a nostrum plugged heavily by a Dr Rupert Wells from St Louis – his real name was Dennis Dupuis. The adverts offered hope to those who had contracted any form of cancer. A typical example was this advert from 1907; “I have discovered a new and seemingly unfailing remedy for the deadly cancer. I have made some most astonishing cures. I believe every person with cancer should know of this marvellous medicine and its wonderful cures, and I will be glad to give full information to those who write me and tell me about their case”.

The symptoms that the respondent described would always convince Wells that they had a form of cancer or consumption, if they responded to the consumption advert. They would receive a standard letter which was so designed that all the ingenious Wells had to do, as well as fill in the date and name and address of the would-be victim, was to enter the location of the body where the cancer was located. The letter boasted of Wells’ credentials – he had carried out investigations into radium-administration at the college where he was a professor, hogwash all – and claimed that he was able to cure consumption and cancer through the internal and external application of Radol, a proprietary brand containing radium in fluid form. It went on to claim he had effected many cures and, of course, contained testimonials of some grateful recipients of this wonder cure.

For ten dollars you would receive a nice bell-shaped, blue-coloured bottle, standing ten inches tall with a four and a half inch diameter. The label affixed to it claimed “This bottle contains Radol, a radium impregnated fluid, prepared according to the formula and under the supervision of Dr. Rupert Wells. St. Louis MO. This fluid is not expected to retain its radio activity beyond 40 days from the date of this label.” To add extra authenticity the label would then detail the name and address of the customer and directions for use which were basically to take a tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed time. This was followed by the name and address of the customer, directions for use e.g. “take one tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed-time.

Radol was only available by mail and for a while, though, Wells was on to a good thing, In 1908 he shipped out some 7,800 bottles at ten dollars a time. But what was in it and was it any good? Wells claimed that the bluish fluorescent glow of the liquid was down to the radium contained it. But tests carried out by Lederle Laboratories showed that it was a mix of quinine sulphate and alcohol, a combination which would also produce a bluish glow. As the exposer of quackery, Samuel Adams, wrote in his The Great American Fraud, “Radol contains exactly as much radium as dishwater and is about as efficacious in cancer or consumption.

Following this revelation Wells was put out of business in 1910 when the US Mail refused to handle his packages.

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

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906)

Science in general and physics in particular, whilst fascinating, has always been a closed book to me. Thank goodness there have been cleverer people than I who have made a significant contribution to the understanding of how the universe works like the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Austrian born Ludwig Boltzmann.

Take entropy or the degree of disorder and uncertainty in a system. I have always thought that tidying up was a bit of a waste of time and now I have the scientific evidence to back up my empirical observation. If I’m prevailed upon to tidy up a pile of clothing, have I contributed to a decrease in disorder and a corresponding reduction in entropy? Not a bit of it. You see, there are side effects to my attempt to restore order to my unruly pile of glad rags. I will be breathing, probably cursing, metabolising and warming my surroundings. When everything is totted up, the total disorder measured by entropy will have increased.

Boltzmann’s contribution to the corpus of scientific knowledge was to apply statistical techniques to understanding the second law of thermodynamics, first articulated by the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824, that stated that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. He was an atomist and believed that these tricky little devils held the key to the understanding of entropy. By blending the laws of mechanics as applied to the motion of atoms with probability theory, he concluded that the second law of thermodynamics was essentially a statistical law. The formula he derived to describe entropy in 1877 was S = k · log W. Clear as mud to me but it became the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Our hero didn’t finish there. Between 1880 and 1883 he continued to develop his statistical approach to explaining the mysteries of the universe and refined a theory to explain friction and diffusion in gases. In the late 1880s, following Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, Boltzmann devised a number of experiments to demonstrate radio waves, lecturing on the subject.

Impressive as this all is, Boltzmann did not find favour with his colleagues. Atomism, which is the bedrock of modern-day physics was under attack at the time and Boltzmann’s theory that entropy was irreversible was counter to prevailing thought at the time. After all, the equations of Newtonian mechanics are reversible over time and the great Poincare had demonstrated that a mechanical system in a given state will always return to the state over time.

One of Boltzmann’s leading critics was Wilhelm Ostwald who paid no heed to atoms, preferring to explain physical science purely in terms of energy conditions. Ostwald put the energist case against Boltzmann succinctly, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.” Scientific discussions at the time were lively affairs, one contemporary describing a debate between Boltzmann and Ostwald as resembling “the battle of the bull with a supple fighter”.

The constant criticism of his theories and the need to defend himself vigorously against all-comers wore Boltzmann down. Whilst on holiday with his wife and daughter at the Bay of Duino near Trieste in 1906, he committed suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, shortly after his death discoveries in atomic physics such as the Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics – reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.

For this, Ludwig, 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

Bender Of The Week (4)

Heard the one about seven priests walking into a pub? They entered the City Arms in Cardiff – it sold a decent pint of Brains SA when I last went there – dressed up in their full clerical gear. As the Church of England has recently voted to let priests dress down and ditch their robes for services, the bar man naturally thought they were a stag party. The City Arms is one of those pubs, thankfully there are a few around, that ban stag parties and so the holy septet were shown the door, all the while protesting their innocence.

The story has a happy ending as the pub’s manager realised the mistake and chased after them. The priests, who were celebrating the elevation of two of their party to the deaconship, were invited back for one on the house, an offer which they gratefully accepted. The assembled topers celebrated this act of charity by breaking out into applause. One of the ranges of beers in the Brains portfolio is called the Rev James and, inevitably, one of the party was a certain Rev James.

The manager’s place in heaven has been secured!

Moral of the story – if you want a free pint in the City Arms, dress as a priest.

Position Of The Week

My latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – now available via Amazon and all good booksellers (there is a distinction) – seeks to answer some of those maddening questions that life throws up. One that escaped my attention was: Which is the most dangerous sexual position for men?

Fortunately, the improbably named International Journal of Impotence Research, a flop if there ever was going to be one, has come up with the answer, reporting the results of some research conducted in Brazil into the circumstances which led to penile fracture in 90 victims. The answer, it appears, is doggy style. Men aged between 20 and 30 are most likely to suffer this injury because of their fitness and firmer erections. Eighteen unfortunates fractured their penises in the UK last year, according to the ever helpful NHS.

For women, if this incident which came to my attention this week is anything to go by, it may be deciding their respective positions in a three-some. Two women were discussing the point when one of them toppled 10 feet from the balcony of a house in the German town of Bad Breisig. She broke bones in her feet and legs. Her friend (or rival) rushed down the stairs to help her, slipped and broke bones in her arms and neck. Both had a stay in hospital whilst the chap, presumably, was left wondering why they were taking so long.

A good book and cup of cocoa seems the safest option.