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“It takes only one drink to get me drunk…..the trouble is, I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or the fourteenth”*…

All of the wine vessels described in Obsopoeus’s poem

High school health classes, it turns out, have been around since the 16th century. That’s when a school rector in Bavaria, writing under the name Vincent Obsopoeus, published a poetic guide to responsible drinking, geared toward young men who—then as now—didn’t appear to know their limits. “Can it really be true?” asks “Drunkenness” herself in the book’s lyrical preface, written by a friend. “Should I really believe this book can teach people how to rationally lose control?”

Obsopoeus (pronounced “OB-so-PAY-us”) published this treatise, in Latin, in 1536. In April 2020, Princeton University Press published a new English translation by Michael Fontaine, a professor of classics at Cornell University. Entitled How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, Fontaine’s translation speaks not only to the text’s historical moment, but to our very own, as alcohol sales have soared on account of the COVID-19 quarantine.

Nonetheless, says Fontaine, it’s important to read Obsopoeus with his time and place in mind. Though the popular imagination often pictures ancient Greece and Rome as decadent playgrounds of drunken excess, binge-drinking wasn’t actually culturally normative in those societies. For one thing, drinkers in those days tended to mix water with their wine. Moreover, their wine was less alcoholic than ours to begin with, as a lack of fungicides meant a shorter time for grapes on the vine.

Instead, Fontaine writes in his introduction, “binge and bro culture—so familiar to Americans—started not in classical Greece or Rome but in Germany five hundred years ago.” The reasons, in his analysis, have to do with the end of the Crusades. Young men were still being educated and trained to become knights, but that path was becoming increasingly obsolete, and men began seeking other outlets for their aggression. It was in that context, he writes, that “hardcore drinking” emerged as “a mark of he-man prowess …” It didn’t help that vineyards accounted for four times as much German land as they do now. Even doctors and hospital patients were allowed to drink nearly two gallons of wine per day…

From a school master concerned about the rise of binge-drinking bros; read on for: “Tips for Responsible Drinking, From 16th-Century Germany.”

* George Burns


As we listen for history’s rhymes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Harper & Brothers published Herman Melville‘s novel, Moby Dick; it had appeared in the U.K. about a month earlier as The Whale. Based on Melville’s experience aboard a whaler and dedicated to Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, the book received mixed reviews and sold poorly. It is now, of course, considered a classic– the peak of the American Renaissance.

Alcohol loomed large in life on the Pequod (and in the prior lives of some of his fellow sailors that Ishmael recounts)– perhaps nowhere more dramatically that in Chapter 36, in which Ahab fills a pewter chalice with booze “hot as Satan’s hoof” and orders his harpooneers Queequeg, Tashtego, and Dagoo to detach the barbs of their harpoons and hold them upside down so the sockets can be filled with more “fiery waters.” The three men raise their harpoon goblets and drink as Ahab chants, “Death to Moby-Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby-Dick to his death!”

The title page of first American edition


“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s deep affection and respect for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here), so will understand his inability to pass up this appreciation:

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation…

Read on for Ted Gioia‘s (@tedgioia) appreciation of Gardner’s autobiogrphical works: “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we add it up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. H. C. (Henry) Whitehead; he was born on this date in 1904. A mathematician (and nephew of Alfred North Whitehead), he was a topographer, one of the founders of homotopy theory, an approach to mapping of topological spaces.

Born in Chennai and educated at Oxford and Princeton, he joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and by 1945 was one of some fifteen mathematicians working in the “Newmanry,” a section headed by Max Newman that was responsible for breaking a German teleprinter cipher using machine methods– which included the use of Colossus machines, early digital electronic computers.

He spent the rest of his career at Oxford (where he was Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics at Magdalen College). He served as president of the London Mathematical Society, which created two prizes in his memory: the annually-awarded Whitehead Prize and the biennially-awarded Senior Whitehead Prize.


“The heart and soul of the company is creativity”*…

Creativity doesn’t have a deep history. The Oxford English Dictionary records just a single usage of the word in the 17th century, and it’s religious: ‘In Creation, we have God and his Creativity.’ Then, scarcely anything until the 1920s – quasi-religious invocations by the philosopher A N Whitehead. So creativity, considered as a power belonging to an individual – divine or mortal – doesn’t go back forever. Neither does the adjective ‘creative’ – being inventive, imaginative, having original ideas – though this word appears much more frequently than the noun in the early modern period. God is the Creator and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the creative power, like the rarely used ‘creativity’, was understood as divine. The notion of a secular creative ability in the imaginative arts scarcely appears until the Romantic Era, as when the poet William Wordsworth addressed the painter and critic Benjamin Haydon: ‘Creative Art … Demands the service of a mind and heart.’

This all changes in the mid-20th century, and especially after the end of the Second World War, when a secularised notion of creativity explodes into prominence. The Google Ngram chart bends sharply upwards from the 1950s and continues its ascent to the present day. But as late as 1970, practically oriented writers, accepting that creativity was valuable and in need of encouragement, nevertheless reflected on the newness of the concept, noting its absence from some standard dictionaries even a few decades before.

Before the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, the history of creativity might seem to lack its object – the word was not much in circulation. The point needn’t be pedantic. You might say that what we came to mean by the capacity of creativity was then robustly picked out by other notions, say genius, or originality, or productivity, or even intelligence or whatever capacity it was believed enabled people to think thoughts considered new and valuable. And in the postwar period, a number of commentators did wonder about the supposed difference between emergent creativity and such other long-recognised mental capacities. The creativity of the mid-20th century was entangled in these pre-existing notions, but the circumstances of its definition and application were new…

Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative? (Hint: the Manhattan Project and the Cold War played important roles.): “The rise and rise of creativity.”

(Image above: source)

* Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company


As we lionize the latest, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition


“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”*…

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?…

Some psychologists are increasingly confident that they can now measure– and nurture– wisdom, superseding the “speculations” of philosophy and religion: “The Science of Wisdom.”

* Oliver Wendell Holmes


As we savor sagacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honors since “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”


Written by LW

October 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”*…




Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance…

Tobias Carroll gets the lowdown from Cecelia Watson on how she learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon: “My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.”

* Abraham Lincoln


As we pause to connect, we might spare a thought for Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he died on this date in 1984.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’shighest honor, the Grand Master Award.


SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©



Written by LW

September 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

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