Mitchell & Webb: The Confident Forger

Another great Mitchell & Webb sketch:

I really love the confidence that this forger has. It reminds me of what Chesterton remarked on Orthodoxy:

Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has `Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.”

By the way, here’s Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, for comparison:

I think that the ten pund note was closer to the original.

Trading Cards

I was recently reminded of the existence of trading cards, which of course calls to mind the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy asks whether Beethoven ever had his picture on a bubble gum card. This prompted me to look into the history of trading cards a little (i.e. on Wikipedia).

Trading cards as we know them today seem to have begun with cigarette manufacturers including trade cards in the packages of cigarettes. Trade cards were the business counterpart to calling cards—things you would give someone with your name and some information about you, including how to contact you, which you might leave if you called on someone and they weren’t home, or else as a means of introduction. Tradesmen would have cards for themselves in their professional capacity, and these might include instructions on how to find them (in the days before standardized addressing schemes). Businesses would also have similar cards for similar reasons, and cigarette companies started including theirs in the packages of cigarettes both to help protect the cigarettes (by stiffening the package) and also to help advertise their brand.

In 1875, the American tobacco company Allen & Ginter began to print pictures of more interesting things on the cards. According to Wikipedia these pictures were of, “actresses, baseball players, Native American chiefs, boxers, national flags, or wild animals.” In the UK, John Player & Sons introduced a series of cigarette cards called, “Castles and Abbeys.” People began to collect these cards and trade them to build up their collections, and the phenomenon quickly spread, with candy makers taking it up before long.

At approximately the same time, baseball cards were getting printed as trade cards. In the late 1800s baseball teams and players were posing for photographs, and these became available to things like sporting goods stores who used them as trade cards (interesting picture on one side, information about the store on the other). It would not be too long before these sorts of trade cards began to be included in cigarette packs and confectionery, and have information about the player rather than about a business on the obverse side.

If we distinguish trading cards from the broader set of collectible cards by whether or not there’s anything one can do with the cards such as play a game that the cards were designed for—the latter category including standard playing cards with 52 cards in 4 suits, Pokémon, Magic the Gathering, etc—trading cards had mostly disappeared from popular consciousness by the time I was a kid in the 1980s. I remember a brief fad for Garbage Pail Kids, but they were a joke and lasted about as long as one would expect a joke to last. (I don’t know if anyone collected them for even two years.)

I had a very minor baseball card collection, for about a year, almost entirely because I’d heard about how much money old baseball cards were worth and figured I might as well try in case they’d be worth anything in thirty years. That’s not much of a reason to pay money for things and then store them, though, which is why I quickly gave it up. I had never heard of anyone else collecting baseball cards even for that reason, and certainly not with any interest in the things for themselves.

Thinking about this made me wonder why anyone ever collected trading cards. The best that I can come up with is that it mostly makes sense as a pre-television and pre-color-magazine phenomenon.

Magazines began being printed in color in the late 1930s, so I expect that they were (approximately) all printed in color by the late 1940s. This would provide a common source of pictures that people could cut out and look at any time they wanted. Television only turned to color in the 1960s, but even black-and-white television provided many opportunities to see celebrities and sports stars for free. Prior to these things, though, how would a kid know what his favorite baseball players looked like? There were pictures in newspapers, of course, but that was a bit more haphazard and only turned to color in the late 1970s and I’m not sure when the quality of the photographs actually became decent.

To put it very simply, in the era when color photographs were not common, it makes sense that color photographs printed on cards might have been valuable. I don’t mean in the monetary sense that rare cards from people’s youths eventually were bought for large amounts of money, but rather in the simpler sense that people would actually want the things and spend some effort to collect them or trade them.

Of course, like most things that built up cultural inertia they would have continued to be made and collected for a while after they really made sense. If I’m right that trading cards stopped making sense in the late 1940s, then it seems possible that people might still be collecting them (in earnest) and talking about them into the 1960s, for Lucy to ask, in 1965, how can you say that someone is great who’s never had his picture on a bubblegum card?

Of course, this question of Lucy’s was written by adults, and moreover written as a joke. If it was an instance of adults thinking that kids still did what they themselves did when they were kids—it would not have been the first.

The Fate of Pompeii

I just discovered this amazing Mitchell & Webb sketch:

It’s really funny (you need to stick with it to the halfway point to figure out what the joke is about).

It also brings up the very interesting question of why it is that people do useless things as a kind of symbolic sacrifice. It’s a curious instinct; probably born out of simple desperation, though I think that, at the same time, it’s often the case that it’s done because it’s preferable to real sacrifices.

G.K. Chesterton on Marriage

I was recently trying to find a quote from G.K. Chesterton on how the point of a wedding is the marriage vow, and the point of the marriage vow is that it’s daring. I wasn’t able to find the original, what I did find was a newspaper called The Holy Name Journal which seems to have been from Michigan. In the August 1921 edition, someone quotes Chesterton’s article almost in full. Since it was only available as a photograph (though, thanks to Google, a text-searchable photograph), I transcribed it for easier quoting:

A writer of the Westminster Gazett recently made the proposal to alter the marriage formula: “As to the vow at the altar, it seems conceivable that under other conditions the form of words ordained by the Prayer Book might be revised.” And the writer adds that may have omitted the words “to obey”, others might omit the words “til death do us part.” The following is Mr. G.K. Chesterton’s rejoined to The New Witness:

It never seems to occur to him that others might omit the wedding. What is the point of the ceremony except that it involves the vow? What is the point of the vow except that it involves vowing something dramatic and final? Why walk all the way to a church in order to say that you will retain a connection as long as you find it convenient? Why stand in front of an altar to announce that you will enjoy somebody’s society as long as you find it enjoyable? The writer talks of the reason for omitting some of the words, without realizing that it is an even better reason for omitting all the words. In fact, the proof that the vow is what I describe, and what Mr. Hocking apparently cannot even manage, a unique thing not to be confounded with a contract, can be found in the very form and terminology of the vow itself. It can be found in the very fact that the vow becomes verbally ridiculous when it is thus verbally amended. The daring dogmatic terms of the promise become ludicrous in face of the timidity and triviality, of the thing promised. To say “I swear to God, in the face of this congregation as I shall answer at the dreadful day of judgment, that Maria and I will be friends until we quarrel” is a thing of which the very diction implies the derision. It is like saying, “In the name of the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, I think I prefer Turkish to Egyptian cigarettes,” or “Crying aloud on the everlasting mercy, I confess I have grave doubts about whether sardines are good for me.” Obviously nobody would ever have invented such a ceremony, or invented any ceremony, to celebrate such a promise. Men would merely have done what they liked, as millions of healthy men have done, without any ceremony at all.

Divorce and re-marriage are simply a heavy and hypocritical masquerade for free love and no marriage; and I have far more respect for the revolutionists who from the first have described their free love as free. But of the marriage service obviously refers to a totally different order of ideas; the rather unfashionable [stuff?] that may be called heroic ideas. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the fatigued fatalist of this school and period to understand these ideas; and I only ask here that they should understand their own ideas. Every one of their own arguments leads direct to promiscuity; and leaves no kind of use or meaning in marriage of any kind. But the idea of the vow is perhaps a little too bold and bracing for them at present, and is too strong for their heads, like sea air.

How One Treats People

I was recently in a conversation discussing how people treat each other, and it came up that the big problem, these days, is that there is substantial disagreement as to what a human being even is. Ideally, the first question that a person should ask after “how should I treat this thing” is “what is it?” A person should treat a human being, a dog, and a cell phone differently because they are different things. So what, then, is a human being.

The Christian answer, from which one kind of answer about how to treat people follows, is that human beings are contingent beings created out of love by God so that he can give us more, and he put us in the same time and space so that we could take part in the act of creating each other (every time one gives food or knowledge or whatever to another, that is added to his being, and so one is becoming part of God’s act of creating him). Hence we should love other human beings, i.e. will their good for their sake.

The atheistic answer to “what is a human being?” is very different. The more accurate but less common answer is, “A joke with no punchline that no one has told.” or “A pointless illusion that no one is seeing.” More common, however, is to go with the creation myth of evolution (as distinct from the scientific theory of evolution, which doesn’t get enough attention): DNA wants to reproduce itself as much as possible and so it created us to do it. All that we call pleasure and happiness are just carrots that our blind and stupid master dangles in front of our faces to try to get us to do its idiot bidding. He were designed badly and will fall apart into nothing after a while. Fortunately for us, our master is blind, and we can sometimes trick him into giving us the carrots when we only pretend to pull his cart. Contraception is probably the best example of this; we can get the pleasure of reproduction without having to pay the price of reproducing.

So how should one treat human beings, if that’s what they are, and what happiness consists of? Being a human being oneself, obviously everyone else will either be a fool (in which case they are easy pickings) or will be trying to trick one into giving them pleasure without paying for it. So look out for the fools and try to trick them, while at the same time do your best to avoid being tricked by the people more clever than you.

And there you have modern dating in a nutshell.