The Innocents Abroad

I’ve started reading Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (yes, the Iliad and Shakespeare will have to wait) and so far I love it! It’s from 1869 and it was Twain’s best selling work during his own lifetime.

Finding and posting some quotes from the book is very easy, limiting them to a small number of relevant quotes is not. Below a few quotes from the first 12 chapters or so. I’ve chosen not to italize the quotes as I know some readers (Ulla) prefer that I don’t. Here goes:

“We celebrated a lady’s birthday anniversary, with toasts, speeches, a poem and so forth. We also had a mock trial. No ship ever went to sea that hadn’t a mock trial on board. The purser was accused of stealing an overcoat from state-room No. 10. A judge was appointed; also clerks, a crier of the court, constables, sheriffs; counsel for the State and for the defendant; witnesses were subpaenaed, and a jury empaneled after much challenging. The witnesses were stupid, and unreliable and contradictory, as witnesses always are. The counsel were eloquent, argumentative and vindictively abusive of each other, as was characteristic and proper. The case was at last submitted, and duly finished by the judge with an absurd decision and a ridiculous sentence.”

When it comes to witnesses, the counsels and the sentences, 140 years later, well…

Here’s how Twain describes the local population of Fayal, one of the Azores islands:

“The group on the pier was a rusty one — men and women, and boys and girls, all ragged, and barefoot, uncombed and unclean, and by instinct, education, and profession, beggars. They trooped after us, and never more, while we tarred in Fayal, did we get rid of them. We walked up the middle of the principal street, and these vermin surrounded us on all sides, and glared upon us; and every moment excited couples shot ahead of the procession to get a good look back, just as village boys do when they accompany the elephant on his advertising trip from street to street.”

“The community is eminently Portuguese — that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy. There is a civil governor, appointed by the King of Portugal; and also a military governor, who can assume supreme control and suspend the civil government at his pleasure. […] there is one assistant superintendent to feed the mill and a general superintendent to stand by and keep him from going to sleep.”

“There is not a wheelbarrow in the land […] There is not a modern plow in the islands, or a threshing-machine. All attempts to introduce them have failed. The good Catholic Portuguese crossed himself and prayed God to shield him from all blasphemous desire to know more than his father did before him. […] The people lie, and cheat the stranger, and are desperately ignorant, and have hardly any reverence for their dead. The latter trait shows how little better they are than the donkeys they eat and sleep with.”

Imagine someone writing something even remotely similar today about any group of people whatsoever.

After having reached Spain:

“At short intervals, along the Spanish shore, were quaint-looking old stone towers — Moorish, we thought — but learned better afterwards. In former times the Morocco rascals used to coast along the Spanish Main in their boats till a safe opportunity seemed to present itself, and then dart in and capture a Spanish village, and carry off all the pretty women they could find. It was a pleasant business, and was very popular. The Spaniards built these watchtowers on the hills to enable them to keep a sharper lookout on the Moroccan speculators.”

“Speaking of our pilgrims reminds me that we have one or two people among us who are sometimes an annoyance. However I do not count the Oracle on that list. I will explain that the Oracle is an innocent old ass who eats for four and looks wiser than the whole Academy of France would have any right to look, and never uses a one-syllable word when he can think of a longer one, and never by any possible chance knows the meaning of any long word he uses, or ever gets it in the right place: yet he will serenely venture an opinion on the most abstruse subject and back it up complacently with quotations from authors who never existed, and finally when cornered will slide to the other side of the question, say he has been there all the time, and come back at you with your own spoken arguments, only with the big words all tangled, and play them in your very teeth as original with himself.”

Nowadays I guess we just call the old ‘Oracles’ ‘old frauds’. But they are still around, maybe those people just live forever?

“We visited the jail, and found Moorish prisoners making mats and baskets. (This thing of utilizing crime savors of civilization.) Murder is punished with death. A short time ago, three murderers were taken beyond the city walls and shot. Moorish guns are not good, and neither are Moorish marksmen. In this instance, they set up the poor criminals at long range, like so many targets, and practiced on them — kept them hopping about and dodging bullets for half an hour before they managed to drive the centre.”

On marriage in the area:

“The young man takes the girl his father selects for him, marries her, and after that she is unveiled, and he sees her for the first time. If, after due acquaintance, she suits him, he retains her; but if he suspects her purity, he bundles her back to her father; if he finds her diseased, the same; or if, after just and reasonable time is allowed her, she neglects to bear children, back she goes to the home of her childhood.”


“I have caught a glimpse of the faces of several Moorish women, (for they are only human, and will expose their faces for the admiration of a Christian dog when no male Moor is by,) and I am full of veneration for the wisdom that leads them to cover up such atrocious ugliness.”

I love reading this book and I highly recommend it!

December 30, 2009 Posted by | books | Leave a comment

Smoking and mortality

Male and female smokers lose an average of 13.2 and 14.5 years of life, respectively.[72]

Wikipedia. The stat is from a “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” (MMWR) not available online, so I’ve no idea if this is true or not, even if the reference have so far been at least implicitly accepted by the Wikipedia community. I assume, even if it is not made implicit in the text, that this is a US estimate, not an estimate that is relevant on a global level. When it comes to Denmark, one large Danish study (you can read more about it here) found that 30-year-olds who’d never smoked could expect to live 8.5 years longer than heavy smokers.

December 29, 2009 Posted by | data, health | Leave a comment

Not a milestone, but…

…it was a nice win against a strong player – worth sharing. You can watch the game here.

My opponent was FM Kari Tikkanen from Finland, and the game was a blitzgame, 5+0. The game was played yesterday evening. Tikkanen’s fide rating at this moment is 2260, which means that he’s in the world’s top 10.000 and that he’s #52 among active players in Finland.

My move 16.Nc3 was actually losing on account of …Bxe3+, 17.Rxe3…d4, but Tikkanen missed this move and it was my only (/major) mistake in an otherwise very well played game (however, on a slightly related note I see now that I made a small mistake when I posted the game on chesspastebin: 38.f8+ should of course have been 38.f8(Q)+). Incidentally, it is worth noting – given that this was a blitz-game – that neither player ever got into significant time-trouble; both Tikkanen and I had more than 2 minutes (40 % of the time given at the beginning of the game) left on the clock when he resigned. I believe the losing move was 29…b5 – I don’t see any way for black to save the game after 30.a5.

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Chess, personal | Leave a comment

“It has not been conclusively proven impossible…”

xkcd. I especially like the interviews where the researchers combine several of these, ie. something along these lines: ‘There’s still a long way to go, perhaps 10 years, before we’ll have something close to the ideal product available to consumers, so we’re not really looking at market applications right now – we would like to have the prototype completed before we start looking at these things. We do however expect to have a prototype ready within the next two years, probably by the fourth quarter of next year. You can ask us again when that time comes’ (Which translates to something along these lines: ‘If we ever did manage to complete the hovercar, which would be totally awesome, we’d want it for ourselves. However we expect to lose funding long before we’ve completed the prototype we’re currently working on)

December 21, 2009 Posted by | xkcd | Leave a comment

Religiosity vs morality?

With the recession, shoplifting is on the rise, according to booksellers. At BookPeople in Austin, Tex., the rate of theft has increased to approximately one book per hour. I asked Steve Bercu, BookPeople’s owner, what the most frequently stolen title was.

“The Bible,” he said, without pausing.

Apparently the thieves have not yet read the “Thou shalt not steal” part — or maybe they believe that Bibles don’t need to be paid for. “Some people think the word of God should be free,” Bercu said. As it turns out, Bibles are snatched even at the Parable Christian Store in Springfield, Ore., the manager told me, despite the fact that if a person asks for a Bible, they’ll be given a copy without charge.

More here, via. MR.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | books, religion | 2 Comments


Exams are getting closer every day, so please bear with me:


If this guy’s last name was Lambert, that answer would probably have earned him something like perhaps a ‘C’ in my book (he didn’t define all quantities – ie. how much beer did it take for Lambert to go from state one to state two? – and he was asked to write the law, not illustrate it graphically. But the illustration is great!). In case you’re curious, here’s Wikipedia’s entry on the Beer-Lambert Law.

December 17, 2009 Posted by | fun, random stuff | Leave a comment

Quote of the day

I would say that prior to Samuelson’s formalization in economics, there were a lot of papers published that lacked clarity and insight. Now that formalization dominates, we also see a lot of papers that lack clarity and insight. If you compare the most insightful mathematical papers with the average non-mathematical papers, math wins. But one can also run the comparison the other way and reach the opposite conclusion.

To say, as Samuelson did, that change will come from the inside the profession is to predict that change will come from those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Arnold Kling.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | economics, science | Leave a comment

The Odyssey

I’ve been reading Homer’s The Odyssey. I have but 50 pages to go now, so/and of course I recommend this book, the second of all works of Western literature (The Iliad is the first). I’ve also bought The Iliad and expect to read this before Christmas too. I’ve posted a few quotes from the book below; because I know that some readers dislike reading long quotes in italics, I’ve decided not to italize the quotes. I have, however, used italics to emphasize parts of the text, instead of using bold as a normally do (this convention is, I believe, standard practice when you don’t italize quotes in full). Hopefully, it should not be a problem separating the quotes from my comments:

i) “As bride for his beloved son, the gallant Megapenthes, he [Menelaus] was bringing Alector’s daughter from Sparta. A slave had borne this son to Menelaus, for the gods had given no other child to Helen after Hermione, that lovely girl with golden Aphrodite’s beauty.” (book IV, 9-14)

a) The sentences just before these describe how Menelaus was sending his daugther off to the son of Achilles to marry him, because he’d promised that long ago (presumably he’d promised Achilles, so neither the bride nor the groom had any say in this) in Troy. Notice that Menelaus arranges the marriages of both his daughter and son, without even asking the daughter (and presumably without asking the son, even if we don’t know for certain about that). b) Did you just notice the name of Helen’s daughter? If you’ve read Harry Potter, you probably did.

ii) “‘Alas!’ I [Odysseus] exclaimed. ‘All-seeing Zeus has indeed proved himself a relentless foe to the House of Atreus from the beginning, working his will through women’s crooked ways. It was for Helen‘s sake that so many of us met our deaths, and it was Clytaemnestra who hatched the plot against her absent lord.’
‘Yes,’ replied Agamemnon. ‘Never be too trustful even of your wife, nor show her all that is in your mind. Reveal a little of your plans to her, but keep the rest to yourself. […] Women, I tell you, are no longer to be trusted.'” (book 11, 435->)

To be fair, Agamemnon’s wife had him killed, and the conversation takes place in Hades, where Odysseus is talking to his undead soul. But on the other hand, to Homer statements like these were apparently what you’d expect to hear from a great greek king (and, you’d not expect anyone in the audience to openly disagree with statements such as these).

iii) “‘Telemachus,’ Menelaus of the war-cry replied, ‘ I will not keep you here long if you wish to get back. I disapprove of any host who is either too kind or not kind enough. There should be moderation in all things, and it is equally offensive to speed a guest who would like to stay and to detain one who is anxious to leave.'” (book 15, 67-73)

Compare with Aristotle: […] “Similarly, there are excess and deficiency and a mean in the case of actions. But it is in the field of actions and feelings that virtue operates; and in them excess and deficiency are failings, whereas the mean is praised and recognized as a success: and these are both marks of virtue. Virtue, then, is a mean condition, inasmuch as it aims at hitting the mean.” (book II, 1106b9-1107a1) and: “This much, then, is clear: in all our conduct it is the mean that is to be commended. But one should incline sometimes towards excess and sometimes towards deficiency, because in this way we shall most easily hit upon the mean, that is, the right course.” (book II, 1109b15-26). Aristotle’s book is written ~500 years later.

iv) “‘Like you’, said the noble Theoclymenus, ‘I have left my country. I killed a man of my own blood, and the plains of Argos are full of his brothers and kinsmen, who form the most powerful family in the land. It was to avoid death and dark fate at their hands that I ran away. It is my destiny to be a wanderer on the face of the earth. Please take me on board – I seek sanctuary with you – don’t let them kill me – I think they are on my track.’
‘I shall certainly not bar you from my good ship, if you wish to sail with us,’ said the thoughtful [sic!] Telemachus. ‘Come along then; and in Ithaca you shall be welcome to such hospitality as we can offer.'” (book 15, 271->)

The ‘thoughtful’ Telemachus not only does not have any reservations about inviting a self-confessed murderer onboard the ship, he actually promises to grant the guy hospitality when they reach Ithaca. The word ‘thoughtful’ sounds downright insane here, but there’s of course an explanation: Epithets such as these (‘thoughtful’, ‘resourceful’, ‘sensible’ ect.) are used and repeated all the time in this story due to the fact that this is oral poetry, and to quote from the introduction by Peter Jones: these epithets describe innate qualities, rather as we should not hesitate to talk of a ‘fast car’ even when it was parked.’ Note that Telemachus is one of the heroes of this story: What does this tell us about the ethics of Ancient Greece?

v) “I [a female slave who’s planning to flee from her owners with the aid of some traders willing to sell her back to her family] will bring away some gold with me – all I can lay my hands on. And there’s something else I would gladly [my emphasis] give you in payment for my passage. I am nurse there in the house to my noble master’s child – a clever little chap, who trots along at my side when we go out. I’m quite ready to bring him on board with me, and he’d fetch you a fortune in any foreign port where you sold him.” (Book 15, 447->)

Slavetrade. Not the only time this subject is mentioned. Even if the woman is a slave herself, she would ‘gladly’ kidnap a child and sell it as a slave to pay for her own freedom. If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s somewhat difficult to emphasize 100 % with people figuring in a story such as this thus maintaining a certain mental distance from the injustices described, and if it was not for the fact that it’s completely normal to ‘adjust’ your moral compass a bit while reading a story such as this – it would make you completely furious. Even the heroes (or is it rather: ‘The heroes in particular…’) are a bunch of scumbags if you start to think about it and apply a modern ethical framework to evaluate their actions.

vi) “Athene now appeared before Odysseus, Laertes’ son, [who’s disguised as a beggar] and urged him to go round collecting scraps from the Suitors and so learn to distinguish the good from the bad, though this did not mean that in the end she was to save a single one from destruction [my emphasis].” (book 17, 360-365)

Notice how the (later) Christian value of forgiveness really shines through here? (/waving my sarcasm sign) I guess nobody was supposed to ask the question: ‘If it didn’t make any difference one way or the other, then what’s the point of distinguishing at all?’ The god(s) work in mysterious ways indeed…

vii) “The great goddess [Athene] then endowed her with immortal gifts to make the Achaeans marvel at her beauty. First she cleansed her fair cheeks with a divine ointment used by Aphrodite when she puts on her lovely crown to join the Graces in their charming dance. Then she made her taller and fuller in appearance, and her skin whiter than newly sawn ivory.” (Book 18, 190-196)

Notice how the ancient beauty ideals diverge from ours. Skin whiter than newly sawn ivory is supposed to make you more beautiful? Seriously? (yes, I know why ‘paleness’ was considered an attractive trait back then signaling high status, there’s no need to lecture me on these things in the comments…)

December 3, 2009 Posted by | books | 5 Comments