Serendipity: African Laughter

A Laughing Epidemic Swept Tanzania in 1961

Between 1962 and 1964, there was a laughter epidemic in Tanzania that started in one girls’ school and spread like wildfire around the country. The following is from the How Stuff Works website.

At a small girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), three students started to giggle. Starting and stopping abruptly, their fits would last anywhere from a minute or two to several hours. This “laughter” proved contagious — soon other girls were doing the same thing. No one could concentrate on their schoolwork, and restraining the laughing students proved ineffective. Six weeks later, more than half of the school’s middle and high schoolers had caught the laughing bug.

School officials shut the place down. But when they reopened it two months later, the laughing plague immediately restarted and the school was once again shuttered. The laughing epidemic spread to other schools and lasted somewhere between six and 18 months.

So what caused this? “The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humor. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms,” said linguist Christian F. Hempelmann, who researched the incident. He noted that the students also had fits of pain, fainting, crying and rashes.

He blamed excessive stress for the uncontrollable giggles. The boarding school where the laughter began was a very strict one. Plus the country had just gained its independence, and people were anxious about the future. With all of the terrorism in the world today, experts say another laughing epidemic wouldn’t be surprising.

Check out this video regarding the incident:

 

The Centinela Adobe

One of Los Angeles’s Original 19th Century Adobes

Just north of the Los Angeles Airport, adjacent to the southbound lanes of the San Diego Freeway (the I-405), is one of the 43 surviving adobes around Los Angeles. Sitting somewhat incongruously on a suburban street full of ticky-tack postwar single-family homes, the adobe is run by the Historical Society of Centinela Valley. The Centinela Adobe is the original structure of a huge Mexican land grant comprising some 25,000 acres of the Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela, including parts of the communities of Inglewood and Westchester.

Built in 1834, the adobe is generally open only on Sunday afternoons. Martine and I were there at opening time and had a great tour of the premises by one of the volunteers who was both knowledgeable and forthcoming on the many historical exhibits.

Looking at the above photograph, it looks as if the structure is a wood frame house. A kitchen extension built later is indeed built with wood, but the main part of the structure is built with mud bricks (such as the ones shown in the picture below), covered with stucco, and painted over with white paint. Originally, the roof consisted of tar taken from the La Brea Tar Pits. It lasted about a hundred years, until the 1930 Long Beach earthquake forced the Historical Society to install a modern roof.

Adobe Mud Bricks of Which the Main Building Is Constructed

In September, there will be a big Mexican-style fiesta at the adobe which I plan to attend. Next weekend, there will be a barbecue, but as a diabetic, I tend to eschew the usually heavily sugared barbecue sauces.

People tend to think that California is a state without a history. In fact, Los Angeles goes back to the year 1781 and has flown the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Parts of the state were also under Russian control in the 1850s—but very briefly. I plan on visiting more of the adobes and ranchos that were the base that the second largest city in the United States was built.

So You Want To Be a Princess

Maybe It’s Not Such a Good Idea

I could not think of this last weekend’s Royal Wedding without thinking of Princess Diana. Although I do believe that she was not cut out for the Royal Family. To be a real princess, especially when married to someone like Prince Charles, one would have to be willing to forego most of one’s dreams and be impervious to all slights, of which there are many.

The image I have of that doomed wedding is of Princess Di, four months pregnant with Prince William, throwing herself down a flight of stairs to bring about a miscarriage. The source? Princess Di herself: It appears in her book Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words (1992). I sometimes wonder what Prince William thinks of his near escape.

Little girls everywhere dream of being Walt Disney princesses. That’s all well and good, if we lived in a cartoon universe. But if we do, it is one created by S. Clay Wilson, the underground cartoonist, and not Walt Disney.

S. Clay Wilson Cartoon Featuring the Checkered Demon


Apparently, Princess Di wanted the whole princess package. What she got was a somewhat ghastly domestic tragedy, partly of her making, partly of Princes Charles’s making, and partly of the Queen’s making.
 

The Federal Republic of Central America

One Real Coin of the Federal Republic of Central America

Between 1823 and 1840, what we know of the countries of Central America was a single country, with the following two exceptions:

  • British Honduras (now Belize) has never officially been recognized by Guatemala.
  • Panama did not exist as a separate country, but was a part of the Republic of Colombia.

In 1839, a young American by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to be a special ambassador to the unified Federal Republic of Central America. The only problem was that, by the time Stephens and his artist companion Frederick Catherwood landed in Central America, the Federal Republic was in the process of splitting apart.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

Stephens’s main interest was to visit the Mayan ruins scattered around Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—but going as a plenipotentiary of the United States was a big plus, especially since the countries of Central America were coming apart like a cheap suit.

I have just finished re-reading Volume i of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. The only ruins Stephens and Catherwood were able to visit before presenting their credentials to the government were in Copán, Honduras.  Most of the rest of that volume concerns the efforts of the two to find the government, which Stephens does in El Salvador, quite by accident:

The next day I made a formal call upon Señor Vigil [Vice President of the Republic]. I was in a rather awkward position. When I left Guatimala [sic] in search of a government, I did not expect to meet it on the road. In that state I had heard but one side [that of Guatemalan rebel General Carrera]; I was just beginning to hear the other. If there was any government, I had treed it. Was it the real thing or was it not? In Guatimala they said it was not; here they said it was. It was a knotty question. I was in no great favor in Guatimala, and in endeavouring to play a safe game I ran the risk of being hustled by all parties. In Guatimala they had no right to ask for my credentials, and took offence because I did not present them; here, if I refused, they had the right to consider it an insult.

As I read Stephens, I was reminded of how great some of the 19th century U.S. historians were. Not only Stephens, but also William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico), Francis Parkman (the volumes of France and England in North America), and John Lothrop Motley (The Rise of the Dutch Republic). They are unfortunately not read much today, but I am convinced they are, in their own field, among the lights of 19th century American literature.

 

Serendipity: Basil II and Trump

Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the Bulgar-Slayer

Today, I was reading Michael Psellus’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (aka The Chronographia), written at some point in the 11th Century A.D. We know that the current occupant of the White House has made a practice of erasing every one of his predecessor Barack Obama’s accomplishments. Apparently, this was not the first time this happened. Michael Psellus tells us how the Emperor Basil II decided to erase the work of his long-time advisor, the eunuch Basil Parakoimomenus.

He gave the subject much thought, and it was only after long vacillation that he finally made up his mind. Once the decision was taken, however, he dismissed the parakoimomenus and deposed him at one blow. What made it worse was the fact that this change in the latter’s fortunes was not softened by any sign of respect. In fact, the emperor’s action was incredibly cruel, for he shipped him off into exile.

Nor did this disgrace prove to be the end of Basil’s troubles. Rather was it the prelude to further misfortunes, for the emperor next proceeded to review the events of the reign since he acceded to the throne and the parakoimomenus began to govern the empire. He examined the various measures that had been taken during all that period. Whatever happened to contribute to his own (the emperor’s) welfare, or to the good of the state, was allowed to remain on the statutes. [Trump was not that discriminating.] All those decrees, on the other hand, which referred to the granting of favours or positions of dignity, were now rescinded. The former, the emperor contended, had been approved by himself; of the latter, he knew nothing. In everything he strove to bring about the eunuch’s downfall and disaster. For example, the parakoimomenus had built a magnificent monastery in honour of Basil the Great, a monastery that bore his own name too. It had been constructed on a massive scale, at great cost of labour, and it combined different styles of architecture with beauty. Moreover, the greater part of the material used in its building had been obtained from generous and voluntary contributions. The emperor now wished to raze this edifice to the ground.

 

A Forty-Year Labor of Love

The Eleven Volumes of the Durants’ The Story of Civilization

If you’ve walked into a used bookstore within the last half century, you’ve no doubt seen the volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. Many have bought the complete set, only to use it to weight their bookshelves to keep them from blowing away in the wind. I myself own just seven of the volumes, and by the end of the month, I will have finished reading three of them:

  • The Life of Greece, Volume II (1939)
  • The Reformation, Volume VI (1957)—I am currently two-thirds of the way to completion
  • The Age of Napoleon, Volume XI (1975)

Instead of berating the authors for having produced a coffee-table set that is large enough to crush many coffee tables, I am amazed to find that the volumes I have read are superb introductions to the periods they cover. They cover not only the events, but the leading characters, changes in the culture of the mostly European countries, and the main art and literary trends.

When reading history books, we usually settle on a small slice of a place and time and trust that we will catch up on the general trends. The Durants go particularly deep into the period between 1500 and 1815, which accounts for six of the volumes. I can vouch for the fact that The Life of Greece covers in one volume hundreds of years of Greek history, from Homeric times to the Roman takeover.

Will and Ariel Durant

The Durants provide detailed bibliographies, footnotes, and alphabetic indexes in all the volumes, which make them excellent references for delving into sources and further details.

It is sometimes too easy to pooh-pooh books that have been honored by such organizations as The Book of the Month Club. Fortunately, they weren’t always far off the mark. Certainly not in the case of the Durants. Do not make the mistake of ignoring these splendid books.

 

 

Getting to Hello

When You Answer the Telephone, What Do You Say?

I owe this post to the folks at Futility Closet, one of my favorite websites. Apparently, the word “Hello” has a recent history. Although it was Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, it was Thomas Edison who dictated what we said when we answered the call. In August 1877, he wrote a letter to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone to Pittsburgh: “Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON.”

Edison’s thinking was that a bell was not necessary: The word “Hello” was sufficient to get the other party’s attention. It seems that we got the ringer anyway—as well as the word Hello.

It’s far better than what Alexander Graham Bell was planning to use as a greeting: “Hoy! Hoy!” By the time the caller stopped laughing, the call recipient would have hung up in frustration.

Nowadays, most of the calls I receive begin not with a greeting, but a click as some sort of machinery cranks up the robocall script. Perhaps I should just say, “Hoy! Hoy!” and hang up at once.