Monday 15 January 2024

Inventions and Reinventions 12

What we really need to bring back is 1950s style Espresso Cafés full of Mods and Beatniks.  (@JSmithy64)

Printed menus.
Discount cards.
Large clocks in shops and cafés, and on public buildings. 

Air conditioning for all public buildings, houses and flats.

Long socks for men, to avoid "ankle gap".

Likewise, does the trade in mattress toppers and office chair arm extensions tell manufacturers anything? Anything?

Flocks of sheep in London parks – they keep the grass down, aerate the lawn and fertilise it. Also for cemeteries. Keep your own flock and hire them out. McMansions can have llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. Or deer and goats. 

Shabby gentility. Are we all shabby genteel now? Standards have slid a bit – we no longer dust so often, and fail to decorate our houses and flats with cut flowers every day.

Vases of flowers. You need enough land for a flower garden. The arrangements were not only decorative, but also scented your living space.

Awnings over windows (keeps rooms cool) and shop fronts (protects goods from the sun). 

A temperance movement. Stress health, rather than morals. 

Dance halls with a soft drinks bar. Ballroom dancing lessons to be followed by dance sessions with a live band. Might be an alternative to Tindr.

Daylight the rivers of Manhattan.

Department DQ. During the war it was responsible for black propaganda and disseminating rumours, according to Ben Macintyre. But did it ever close?


I can't believe there isn't a chain of coffeeshops with crèche and hot-desking spaces for people with babies yet. (@kardyology)

I need an inverse Costco. Instead of bulk, only sample-size products.

Hymn books with printed tunes (and transliterations). Those who can read music can lead the others. And the others might work out how to read music. Pick a key most people can reach – not too high, not too low.

A website logging predictions, and their accuracy. Count up the times the Second Coming has been predicted, and hasn’t happened. Collect all the reasons why it didn’t happen this time. 

Martial arts lessons for all schoolgirls.

Graffit wall, with a sign saying PLEASE DO NOT GRAFFITI THIS WALL. Result, the wall is sprayed, but not the neighbouring buildings you want to protect. 

What we need to do to protect the malls of America is make mannequin robot security guards. (@MelissaJeanSays)

Student housing AirBnB so that parents can swap children.


Carpets in pubs.

Lawns worldwide – in places where lawns don’t grow naturally, creating one just wastes water. And the solution is NOT astroturf.

Men pretending to be Santa, and Santa’s grottoes.

More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday 14 January 2024

Reasons to Be Cheerful 2023: 32

2023 has been an Annus Horribilis. Is there anything to be happy about?

Here's a timeline of women's rights regarding money

1612 Last person burned at the stake for heresy in England. (Pic shows a "Salem witch costume".)

1677 Parliament repeals the writ De Heretico Comburendo, which made burning at the stake the punishment for heresy.

1774 Austria became the first European nation to introduce a state education system.

1789 Pennsylvania outlaws slavery.

1824 Repeal of the Test Act abolished the requirement to assent to the 39 Articles for many professions.

1836 First black men become Mormon priests.

1871 Bank Holidays Act designated 4 holidays in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 5 in Scotland.

Our Woman of the Day Susanna Salter born OTD 1860 Ohio, first woman elected mayor in the US. A group of men opposing the involvement of women in politics submitted her name hoping to humiliate all women. The joke was on them. She won with a thumping majority and was an effective mayor. 

1873 Jeannie Senior is the first woman in the UK to be appointed as a civil servant (outside the Post Office). She was appointed as the first female inspector of the education of girls in pauper schools and workhouses.

1880 November: The Isle of Man grants female suffrage in an amendment to the Manx Election Act of 1875.

1888 Brazil abolishes slavery.

Our Woman of the Day Elizabeth Gurney of Norwich. OTD 1800 she married Joseph Fry. As well as raising 11 children, this remarkable woman brought about the 1823 Gaols Act, mandating women-only prisons with women warders to protect women prisoners from rape and sexual exploitation. (@TheAttagirls)

The following give rights to the unborn child, says @TradCatholicMan: Section 47 of the Children’s Act 1989, Infant Life Preservation Act 1929, Congenital Disabilities Act 1976.

1942 The Church of England relaxed its rule that women must wear hats in church. The Catholic Church didn’t follow suit until 1983. 

Laws requiring "active resistance" to rape were repealed in the 1960s and 70s.

50 years ago, Dublin pubs refused to serve women pints of beer unless accompanied by a man. Nell McCafferty led 30 women to a pub where each ordered a brandy and a pint of Guinness. The bartender refused the beer request, so they drank their brandies and walked out. (@Katiadower)

1972 Catholic seminarians cease to be ordained as exorcists, but continue to be ordained as lectors and acolytes (readers and servers).

1978 Hannah Dadds became the London Underground’s first woman Tube driver, after completing a 7-week training course.

1990 On this day in 1990, married women in the UK finally became independent entities for income tax purposes, their income no longer treated as though it belonged to their husbands. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Almost three million women benefitted immediately. (@AnniesArboretum. You read that correctly: 1990.)

2008 The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were formally abolished in England and Wales in 2008 and Scotland in 2021.

2022 Single-sex toilets are made compulsory in the UK. Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said the government wants all new public buildings in England to have separate male and female toilets. 

2022 Singapore will repeal its ban on sex between men, said Lee Hsien Loong, the country’s prime minister. In 2018, India’s highest court also scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex, while Thailand has recently moved closer to legalising same-sex unions. (The Week 2022-08-21)

2022 We are thrilled to announce that the word "woman" will not be removed from our Maternity Protection Act 1994. Ireland's Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2022 has been amended, and the word "woman" has been reinstated. (@TheCountessIE. She points out that “inclusivity” means “excluding half the human race”.)

2022 Florida bans puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and sex reassignment surgery for minors.

2022 Mermaids sued the LGB Alliance for being an inadequate charity. Now Mermaids is under investigation by the Charity Commission.

2023 is the bicentenary of the 1823 Gaols Act that brought in sex-segregation of prisons, and female warders for female prisoners.

2023 UK to ban single-use cutlery and plates. (This means that you get only an ineffective wooden fork to eat whole spinach leaves and boiled eggs. Sales of foldable pocket cutlery should boom.)

2023 Illinois bans assault weapons.

2023 Shetland’s Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival has women and girls in the procession for the first time. (It’s a Victorian “revival”.)

2023 Scots police disassociate themselves from Stonewall.

2023 Sadiq Khan promises free school meals for all London primary schoolchildren. (There's the inevitable backlash.)

2023 Leicester Cathedral celebrates first all-female clergy team (first for England).

2023 New legislation increasing the legal age of marriage to 18 has come into force in England and Wales. Under the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act, it is now a crime to exploit vulnerable children by arranging for them to marry, or enter a civil partnership, under any circumstances. Campaigners argued that a loophole allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent was being exploited to coerce young people into child marriage. Those found guilty of arranging child marriages face up to seven years in prison. (The Week)

2023 Eli Lily agrees to cap insulin at $35, dropping the price by up to 70%. 

2023 World Athletics votes to exclude transgender athletes (presumably from women’s sports)

2023 Italy criminalises going abroad to acquire a baby born to a “surrogate mother”. 

2023 Drugs and alcohol do not make you more creative, research finds (Guardian, 2023-03-25)

2023-05-03 Essex pub that displayed racist dolls closes after boycott (The golliwogs were taken down, but the pub owners replaced them. They didn’t just dangle them from the rafters – they hanged them from the rafters.)

2023-05-12 Wind is main source of UK electricity for first time (

2023 The NHS bans puberty blockers for children outside of clinical research. 

2023 Oxfam chief leaving after anti-trans 'villain' cartoon resembling JK Rowling (Express)

2023 Japan raises the age of consent (established in 1907) from 13 to 16. 

2023 Alcohol sales are going down, sales of healthy alternatives are going up. (Expert on BBC Breakfast)

2023 Ghana abolishes the death penalty for “ordinary crimes”.

2023 World Swimming bans transgender athletes from women’s events (

2023 In Ireland, trans identified male Barbie Kardashian has been transferred to a male prison. Kardashian, currently serving time for making threats to rape and murder his mother, had recently threatened to rape female prison officers. (

2023 The American Academy of Pediatrics plans to review the evidence for gender-affirming medical care and potentially amend its policies.

2023 EU bans glitter.


1753 Jewish naturalisation bill 1753. After an outcry, repealed December 1753. 

1855 Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines is published.

Women wanted to be a part of polar expeditions from the start, but in many instances, they were purposely excluded. Shackleton... received a letter from three women eager to join his crew. (@JSTOR_Daily)

1929-1973 7,600 people were forcibly sterilised in North Carolina.

As for France: the legal age of consent was only made official in 2021, and it was set at 15. (@thisihowweduet)

2022 Primark is reinstating single-sex changing rooms – but allowing anyone in the women’s who “identifies as a woman”. Booths have curtains that don’t reach the floor. Staff say they’ve been told they “must” allow in men who claim to be women. (Self-ID is not law.)

2023 Dancing in public is outlawed in Iran. 

Universities in Japan have lowered women's exam scores for years to deny them entrance.

2023 Merrythought sell 10,000 golliwogs a year.

Friday 5 January 2024

Received Ideas: Skepticism 38

We should be skeptical about those "facts" and stories that "everybody knows".

We are the inheritors of so much inaccurate information and manipulated history. It conditions all areas of our lives, from personal interaction, to how we engage locally, nationally and globally. I’m constantly checking my assumptions, the sources of information and intent behind it.  
(Historian @DrJaninaRamirez)

On observation of many decades, those who espouse one prejudice endorse or are tacit about many. Same with conspiracies and pseudo-science, and indeed across all three. Go to war on 15-minute cities, you're in the triangle. (@rupertg)

A tutor once told me that we didn't have to be right, we just had to formulate a compelling argument. I immediately knew he was wrong. Scholars have to pursue truth, not chase fashions and concoct arguments out of thin air. (@jj_mcgovern)

Humans have a large store of beliefs that override almost any instruction, and these are generally neither made explicit nor questioned. (G.N.N. Martin)

Non-verbal communication is a booming field – not just for research, but for authors, presenters and businesses making money out of offering advice and training on everything from how to read a celebrity’s body language to the ‘tells’ that will reveal if a courtroom defendant is lying. But there’s a problem with all this, write Miles Patterson, Alan Fridlund and Carlos Crivelli, in a new paper in Perspectives in Psychological Science: the field of non-verbal communication is plagued with persistent misconceptions and incorrect ‘truths’. ‘These “truths” have taken on mythlike status as a kind of received wisdom impervious to evidence, so that they endure as pseudoscience,’ the team writes. And when they are used to guide the reasoning of jurors, employers, law enforcement agencies and romantic partners, not to mention researchers, they have the potential to be very damaging indeed. (The Psychologist)

has been around since 1795. Its inclusion in the dictionary is not a sign of the English language falling to pieces, or proof of the educational system failing, nor is it the work of cursed millennials. It just means a lot of people use it to mean "regardless." 

I studied anthropology for a year. Apparently, some jungle tribes don't have many words for colors because everything around them is green. Everyone has a word for red though, because of blood. I have no idea if this is true, I suspect a lot of anthropology is made up. (@madameask)

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. (Daniel Kahneman)

We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false. (William J. Casey, CIA Director, 1981)

Microchips aren’t in Covid vaccines. The government isn’t coming for your guns. The border isn’t wide open. The elections weren't rigged. Biden isn’t a communist. (@SaltyProfessor)

Nothing is achieved by going to a polling station simply to spoil your ballot. I assume people do it as a kind of protest, hoping it will upset or inconvenience someone. What they think that might achieve I don't know. In reality nobody cares that you drew stupid squiggles or wrote something offensive on your paper. If you don't like any of the candidates offered then don't vote. You might consider standing yourself next time. (Chris Blunt is the voice of reason.)

The courts have ruled time and time again (at least, here in the United States anyway) that when it comes to signatures, it is the intent that matters not what is put on the paper. This is also why documents signed electronically are still legally enforceable. (James Boroznoff responding to the frequently raised question “Now schools don’t teach cursive any more how are people going to sign their name to a legal document?”)

I get really tired of ridiculously rich and famous women claiming <insert accessible routine> is the secret to their youthful appearance. EVERYONE in Hollywood has had plastic surgery and has access to the best skin care and aestheticians. It's disingenuous to claim otherwise. (@squirrely_gig)

More here, and links to the rest.
It's all in my book What You Know that Ain't So.

Received Ideas about History 37

Women gave birth at ten, men went off to war at five, and the average Englishman died before he was born. (The Reduced Shakespeare Company)

It’s not safe to drink tap water abroad. (Still lingers.)

Gladiatorial contests always ended with the death of one of the participants. (Weren’t gladiators slaves and valuable properties?)

Flaming torches were used for lighting indoors. (See historical films.)

Famous characters from the past were modern liberals before their time. (Just another form of hagiography, points out @MrGodfrey11. We used to make them out to be saints, and whitewash realities such as Thomas Jefferson’s affair with a slave who was his deceased wife’s sister.)

French cooking is really Italian, imported by Catherine de Medici when she married Henri II. 

Feminism began in the 1800s/1900s. (Tell that to Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797.)

Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen-sixty-three... (Philip Larkin)

The Maya disappeared after the collapse of their civilisation. (They’re still around.)

Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. (The woman with the jar of precious ointment, who anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair and is assumed to be a prostitute, is confused with Mary, sister of Martha, who was one of Jesus’ disciples. In art, the repentant Magdalene, dressed only in her long hair, was yet another excuse for artists to paint naked women. Has anyone made a list?)

Medieval people were Christian fundamentalists. (Fundamentalism is a recent, 200 years ago, invention. Medieval people were Catholics. Catholic dogma was worked out by the Early Fathers of the Church, and if you couldn’t read or didn’t understand Latin, you had no access to the Bible.)

Arab settlers in Spain taught Europeans how to wash.

The Victorians didn’t have feelings. (@FullAsMuchHeart. They didn't have a sense of humour, either. Sorry, Thackeray and Dickens.)

Ordinary people in the Middle Ages just wore a rough tunic with a frayed hem. They wore well-made comfortable clothes which fitted them properly. 
(@duchessmathilda. They liked bright colours too.)

The nursery rhyme “one, two, buckle my shoe” started in plague times because people wore “special shoes” during plagues. (@michelleheeter. She may be thinking of Ring o'Roses.)

Easter is named after Ishtar? It doesn't even sound similar in any language other than English or German. This myth was created by a Calvinist fanatic who was accusing the Catholic Church of being pagan. (@Apocaloptimist5)

People of every ethnicity have always been free in the UK(@BradfemlyWalsh. The Romans and Anglo-Saxons owned slaves. The Normans outlawed slavery but set up serfdom.) 

The Scarlet Letter is a good depiction of the Puritans? It's a description of what 1850s Hawthorne thought about the 1650s Puritans. (@ToFertileChurch)

The defenders of the Alamo were brave heroes? They were fighting to keep slavery legal in Texas after Mexico outlawed it. (@schweetbird)

Iceland is Green but Greenland is Ice, and the Vikings named them that way to throw off invaders.  Iceland has a ton of glaciers (ice) and when Greenland was originally settled, it was green with pastures. Then the Little Ice Age occurred… (@CarpinelliGeosc)

Divorce rates are higher in recent decades because "back in the day, people worked on their marriages and didn't just give up". Like no, women were seriously oppressed then and had few options compared to today. (@SkeelMagnolia)

People used to say "ye" rather than "the" in English (e.g. ye olde pub). It was written that way because the printing equipment imported from the continent didn't have the letter "thorn" for printing "þe". (@TechnocratGames)

In the olden days, peasants ate bland pottage. Spices were expensive – and were only used by the rich to disguise the flavour of rotten meat. (Medieval peasants flavoured their pottage – and meat and fish – with sharp-tasting herbs like sage, thyme, dill, rosemary, savoury, sorrel, chervil, parsley, onions. Also crab apples, bilberries, juniper berries, sea buckthorn, damsons.)

More in my book What You Know that Ain't So.

More here, and links to the rest.

More Received Ideas 36

Shakespeare is hard to understand because he wrote in Old English.

The canonical books of the Christian Bible were chosen at the Council of Nicaea.
Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion.

Documents signed in purple ink are not legally binding.

Feminists don't need protecting.
The official foot was based on the length of the reigning King’s foot.

There were no Jews in Palestine before 1948. Jews are white, and hence settler colonialist oppressors. Atheists cannot be Jews.

The Titanic never sank, the “remains” are of another ship, or mocked up by NASA.
Before Gutenberg, there were only 30,000 books in the whole of Europe. (Die Zeit, paraphrase)

If you think people don’t like you it means you don’t like yourself. 
Do small grave slabs give rise to tales of people being buried upright?

Your NI contributions then aren’t paying for your pension now.
 (OK, OK, but I’ve paid money in and now I’m getting some out, aren’t I?)

Black people can’t be racist because “we are not the majority, we don’t have power”, says Kelisa Wing (@kelisa). 

There's “a real disconnect between the generations,” says Laura Kuenssberg (.She’s too young to remember the “generation gap” of the 60s.)

Schindler’s List was partly filmed at the Woodberry Down estate in Manor House, North London. (Debunked by @HistoryOfStokey.)

If we achieve net zero CO2 emissions, all the trees will die because they breathe CO2. (There is CO2 in the atmosphere, and what do they think the trees did before we came along?)

Sharks can smell a single drop of blood from a mile away – and locate the source. (You’d need more, closer blood, say sharksperts.)

A titled lady was travelling alone in a first-class carriage in a corridor-less train. At the next station a large lady climbed in – it was the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. “The most extraordinary people travel first class these days,” remarked Sayers, to the air. “Yes, and they get in at every station!” riposted the duchess.

Dorothy Sayers wrote Five Red Herrings (unengaging timetable mystery full of Scottish dialect) for a bet.

Agatha Christie – or was it Ed McBain? – revealed that she wrote an entire book without deciding who the murderer was. She then decided, worked out how they did it, and tied up the loose ends in the last chapter. (Some mystery writers allegedly write a whole book as if X was the murderer, and then at the last moment switch to Y.)

Queen Victoria visited, incognito, a soup kitchen run by nuns. She was shown round by the Mother Superior. Queen Victoria became irritated by the way all the nuns “bobbed” at her (dropped little curtseys), and she murmured to the Mother Superior that this wasn’t necessary. “Oh, they are curtseying to ME,” said the head nun.

The use of “spastic” as an insult among young people can be traced to “a Blue Peter episode of the early 80s”. (It was common at my school in the 60s.)

Nobody wants to work any more because they prefer to live on benefits. (Someone has compiled newspaper quotes from 1916 saying exactly the same – in the same words.)

All National Treasures and classic authors were upper class: Darwin, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontës. (Darwin was an English gentleman, Dickens’ father was a clerk who was imprisoned for debt, and CD himself worked in a factory for some time as a child, Austen lived in a modest way on her brother’s charity. The Brontës’ rather was a vicar and they themselves worked as teachers.)

All of “Shakespeare’s” plays were written by a black woman, Amelia Bassano. Shakespeare could barely write his own name.

In the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, “rib” is a mistranslation. (On reddit, a biblical scholar comes along with good evidence that it’s “rib”.)

The original Little Compton Street, with original signs, can be seen through a grille in Charing Cross, lower than the present street level. It was buried when the new road was pushed through. (The signs mark the location in a network of underground service tunnels.)

The Daily Mail in the 30s recommended including onions in family meals to prevent colds: bake, and stuff with mince. Sara Cox says “Garlic is good for you” on Morning Live. Thins the blood, says BBC Good Food. “Eating raw garlic can protect against cough, fever, and cold illnesses” says “Although many people use garlic as a home remedy for the common cold, there is not enough evidence to confirm that it is effective,” says

Delia Smith taught us how to twirl spaghetti in the 70s – or was it Elizabeth David in the 50s? Before that people broke it into short lengths, we're told. I’ve just read a magazine article from the 1930s explaining how to twirl spaghetti. “Cheap and nutritious”, said the writer, “but should not be eaten on toast.” 

In the 19th century ice cream was sold in “penny licks” – a scoop of ice cream in a shallow glass that the customer licked clean. They weren’t washed, but were filled with ice cream for the next buyer. A late 19th century magazine complains that the ice cream itself had been shown to be contaminated with bacteria, and that the glasses were “never washed, but merely rinsed” between customers. Waffle cones came in, and the glasses were banned by the 1920s, but a feeling lingered that ice cream sold in the street was unhealthy. My mother wasn’t allowed it because it was “made of seaweed”. The glasses, rinsed in dirty water, transmitted TB and cholera, but it’s unlikely they were reused after being merely “licked clean”. (Via Atlas Obscura and other sources.)

Per the Times on Emmanuel Macron, the French always think the country is going to the dogs, menaced by communists or the bogeyman du jour. (See FlaubertTIMES, OUR Call them a time of transition, or decay.)

In case the Queen abdicated, the BBC prepared some non-committal music to follow the announcement, and inadvertently used the overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Via @RaphaelHarris9)

Periods hurt because young girls are infantilised by smothering mothers. Periods hurt because women don’t understand how their bodies work. Periods hurt because you haven’t had a baby yet. Periods hurt because women eat too much meat. Women only think periods hurt because... [insert succession of silly reasons here]. Periods can't possibly hurt because there are no nerve endings in the uterus. 

All these and more in my expanded and updated book What You Know that Ain't So.

Received Ideas in Quotes 35

The Emperor is naked, Santa isn’t real, I don't believe in fairies and I hate Big Brother.

I held a door open for a lady. Youngish. “I can manage myself,” she said. “Fair enough.” I said. “Give me a minute,” as I ushered her back through door and closed it. I then walked away. It felt like a small victory. (@benonwine. And many others on this template, though I doubt this version ever happened. Men seem to think a lot about holding doors open for women, while women – as far as I know – never do.)

exhausted the wood supply and chilly Britons had to start using coal.
(Salvage Hunters)

Wasn’t Shakespeare involved with the St James Bible? I think he included his name, via a pun, into a psalm. (@Greebohobbes)

Somewhere Over the Rainbow was written, not about the mythical Land of Oz, but the homeland of the Jews: Israel? The lyrics were written by Yip Harburg, the youngest of four children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His real name was Isidore Hochberg. (@SarinaGliksman)

I believe that at the time Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ was seriously debated in Westminster. (HKWD)

In Lancashire, women spoke differently from men because they pronounced everything to be heard over factory machinery. (Actress on BBC Breakfast)

They say that my language, which is Dutch, will completely disappear and that we will all speak English. (@ursus_art1)

Reincarnation is illegal in China without the government's permission. (@UberFacts)

Either I lack self awareness or this whole “what you dislike in others is what you dislike in yourself” thing just makes no sense. (@sun_girlxo)

The small distinguishing mark you see over a lowercase i and a lowercase j is called a tittle. (@Muttmere1) 

The King James version of The Bible is an edited version, right? Wrong. (RM)

Bibury, and many other places in the Cotswold's gave inspiration to J. R. R. Tolkien for LOTR! (@michaelartoff)

A few years ago they replaced a bridge that crossed a main road near me and on dismantling the old one found it packed with explosives ready to blow in case of invasion. (@workwithnature1. True or false?)

I’m old enough to remember when, in 1978, Jaffa oranges were injected with mercury by terrorists... temporarily, my parents stopped buying Israeli oranges “just in case”. (@back_badger. I remember "tinned tuna is contaminated with mercury". There are still concerns, and some advise adults to eat the canned fish no more than three times a month.)

The Queen’s (or King’s) English refers to the accent of the reigning monarch. (It means the English language.) I've read (though it might be apocryphal) that the phrase originated as referring to the English used by the royal bureaucracy. This sent out missives from London, with its East Midlands form of English, to all corners of the realm. And the local bureaucrats endeavoured to respond using the same variant. Thus London grammar and London vocabulary spread to the elite all over the country, and from then dispersed across society. This was the King's English because it emanated from his administration. (JP)

I'm reminded of something a Quaker friend once told me. He was one of a couple assigned to Quaker House in Belfast, to help with peacemaking there, and I visited in the mid-90s. Early on, he went to an Orange parade to chat to people, and an elderly woman said "They massacred us, you know!". When? He'd not seen anything on the news. "1642", she replied. (JP)

The “my fair lady” in the London Bridge nursery rhyme is said to allude to ... human immurement. (@stephenjameslit. The Fortean Times says that foundation sacrifices tend to have happened long ago and far away.)

Couldn't we have "sides to our personality" rather than "several different selves who don't communicate"? The law assumes that we have one self. It also doesn't assume that we are an entirely different person after therapy. (LF)

I was in a pub one night when visiting the Eisteddfod this year, and thinking how nice it was that everyone from the old to the toddlers was speaking Welsh, unlike where I live in Monmouthshire. I was enjoying having a bit of trouble with the local dialect when a family came in and took the table next to me. English speaking and, presumably, tourists. The first thing that I overheard was the man saying: "Did you notice that they all switched into Welsh when we came in". (Gareth Morgan)

I do wish all the boomer nostalgia-peddlers would realise that 'times were so much better back then' because they were children. Not because the racist, sexist, homophobic, warmongering world was actually better. (@fliceverett)

The sand and rock used in the construction of the Palm Jumeirah can make a 2m wall that goes round the globe three times. (Sergei Litvinov)

Hunter gatherers only worked four hours a day? (@deepfates. Perhaps they only hunted and gathered for four hours a day, but someone had to prepare and cook the results.)

It is odd to think that not so many years ago olive oil was something you only bought in Boots the Chemist to treat earache or to rub into sore muscles. Indeed, 20 years ago the majority of Britons had never tasted olive oil and found the idea of its widespread use in cooking little short of repugnant, as package holidaymakers returning from the Mediterranean made clear. (Daily Mail Cookbook, 1998. The Fortean Times points out that this is a flattering myth, and it's always "20 years ago".)

Beware when naming children for characters in SF books. Anne McCaffrey said that a fan came up to her and told her she named her daughter Killashandra after the main character in her Crystal Singer books. What the fan didn’t know was that Killashandra was a brand of Irish butter! Annie had to keep a very straight face. (BJF. The butter is made in Killeshandra, Northern Ireland, but it's called Lakeland.)

I once worked for an antiquarian bookseller, from whom I learned it was not uncommon in the 18th century for readers to use strips of bacon rind as bookmarks. He acquired a book whose owner had marked their place with a fried egg. Over the decades it had oxidised and eaten its way through the pages, leaving a large lacuna edged with sulphuric green. The book achieved pride of place in the shop’s window display for a while. It was long before my time, so I never saw it; but it had become something of a legend in the bookseller’s history. (Julie Speedie, letter to The Fortean Times, paraphrase. Nobody saw the fried egg, she didn't see the book. Presumably there was a hole in the book (mice?) and everybody knows that somebody, somewhere used a fried egg as a bookmark.)

The Legal Walk tour guide regularly brought his cohort of flammably clad tourists to a halt outside my window, and told his enthralled posse that THIS – gesturing theatrically to Middle Temple garden – 'was where the last person in England was hanged'. (@Wigapedia. The last two executions in the UK, in 1964, took place on the same day in prisons in Manchester and Liverpool.)

Sat in the airport with my rucksack and hat on the floor, and the hat tumbled over so it was facing upwards. Someone threw a euro in it. (@MeNigeStew. This seems to happen regularly – including to Sir Ian McKellen when appearing in Waiting for Godot.)

"Innocent until proven guilty" applies to the state and whatever punishments it might mete out; it doesn't mean I'm not allowed to personally think someone did something unless it's been proven in a court of law! That would be an insanely high bar. (@pastasnack_e. She's right. And it gets wheeled out every time a prominent person is accused of sexual offences.)

One of the greatest myths of the modern age is that “You can’t legislate morality.” That’s dead wrong. Every law legislates morality. (@William_E_Wolfe. He's right.)

In Geneva last week a banker told me how they’d suspended experiments with AI after two computers developed a language between themselves which couldn’t be understood by humans. (@dolphinsands)

Multiple pastors tell me essentially the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching, ‘Turn the other cheek’, to have someone come up after and say ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ (

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong. (Michael Gove. He didn't just say “We’ve had enough of experts”.)

There were fewer cars on the roads, and therefore more feet on the pavements, though whether life moved at a slower pace is a moot point. (Michael Redgrave in 1959, talking about 1929.)

I presume it's an urban legend that Queen's University in Belfast had, within living memory, both a Department of Philosophy and, entirely separately, a Department of Catholic Philosophy. (@AodhBC)

I certainly met people at the time who thought we had 'no say' in the EU, including one who said she'd looked into it thoroughly (i.e. read the Mail) but was entirely unaware of the existence of the MPs we elected to the EU parliament. (@nmurray)

Earlier on this morning on the Radio 3 Breakfast programme, today being the birthday of Winston Graham, Petroc Trelawny said that when the original BBC TV Poldark series was broadcast in the 1970s, vicars had to adjust their church service times to fit in with the TV schedule. Now I recall that the same claim was made about the BBC's TV adaptation of the The Forsyte Saga in the 1960s. Is there any evidence for either claim or are we in urban myth territory? (efrog@cix)

Retsina: the Romans plundered the wines of Greece, angering the citizens, who turned to pine resin as a way of extending their store of wine and as a deterrent to their conquerors. The harsh flavour was said to put off the Romans. (RC)

Wordsworth only rhymes in a Lancashire accent. Bits of Keats only rhyme in a Cockney accent. (@MusicEdu4all. Educated men of Keats’ time called him a “Cockney poet” and sneered at his pretensions in name-checking nymphs, Greek gods etc.)

Hung, drawn and quartered: ‘Drawing’ refers to the procession of the condemned from the prison to the execution site, not evisceration. (Dr Una McIlvenna. She adds that sometimes prisoners were dragged behind a horse on a hurdle.)

"Trans women are women!" Until it comes to the draft or inheriting a peerage, then they're blokes again. (@Serena_Partrick. We'll see what happens when Christopher Guest dies – will Ruby inherit the title?)

“Returning crusaders blunted their swords on the door arch” of the Saxon church at Bosham in West Sussex, says @SimonNewton5.

Blow Up: Often praised for its ambiguity and mystery, ironically much of this came about because the budget had been eaten up and whole scenes connecting the narrative had to be cut. (RodneyMarshall1.  And “Antonioni had the park’s grass spray painted because it wasn’t green enough”.)

The rhyme Mary, Mary Quite Contrary is said to reference Queen Mary’s lack of an heir, cockle shells being symbols of barrenness, and the “pretty maids all in a row” referencing innocent Protestant martyrs, like Lady Jane Grey, lined up for execution. (Fortean Times)

Decades ago, I read that scientists and mathematicians sometimes get "proofs" that what they have accepted as fact is all fraud and a conspiracy to hide the truth. (@SteveTiger999)

It had been supposed that women would not follow the leadership of a woman. ( on the city’s early 20th century Woman’s Temple, originally a temperance organisation, but later held “conventions, circles, debates” and set up (temperance) hospitals and restaurants. The Temple was the HQ of The Women’s Christian Temperance Union.)

A skiver was so-called because it was the only job you sat down for, so a skiver was thought to have an easy time of it. (RC. “Skiving” means cutting out a shoe sole.)

Son of a “shoe repairer” – he always insisted that's what he was and that a cobbler is an odd job man. Snob is another name but I never heard him say that. (KD) 

The Coronation that Goes Wrong: the most shambolic modern Coronation was Queen Victoria's. Little or no rehearsal took place, the Archbishop forced the Coronation ring onto the Queen's wrong finger, and the aptly named Lord Rolle rolled down the steps when paying homage. (@DrFrancisYoung. Became “Archbishop Fisher tripped and rolled down the steps during the rehearsal”. No flight of steps is visible in the footage of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation.) 

Linda Lewis, singer and famed backing vocalist, dies aged 72. The British songwriter was known for her five-octave vocal range. (Guardian 2023-05-04. "Four octaves" is often quoted. This is beyond the highest note a woman can sing and the lowest note a man can sing.)

Surprising new insights into the minds of this extinct human species suggest they may have been far more cultured than their outdated brutish reputation once suggested. (Rebecca Wragg Sykes,  2023)

Making sure that a line of text would have a final punctuation mark once printed, letterers would use an exclamation rather than a full stop, because the full stop was more likely to lose colour during the inking process. (Florence Hazrat, An Admirable Point)

“Predictions of doom never pan out”, actually statistical error. Countless civilizations that correctly predicted their doom, leaving no trace, were ignored and should have been counted. (@browserdotsys)

Paganism (belief in pre-Christian religions) just didn't exist in England after about 920, and most of our churches post-date that, so it would be impossible for stonemasons and woodcarvers to 'sneak' pagan imagery into churches. (So says @DrFrancisYoung.)

Human evolution is typically depicted with a progressive whitening of the skin. [In Darwin’s] 1871 book The Descent of Man, he described his belief that men are evolutionarily superior to women, Europeans superior to non-Europeans and hierarchical civilizations superior to small egalitarian societies. ... He considered “the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages” to be “not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, in birds,” and compared the appearance of Africans to the New World monkey Pithecia satanas. (

Nothing pisses me off like the assumption that the historical poor were inured to grief, that women did not grieve their babies, or men their wives; every loss rationalised in terms of its effect on household economy. (@SophieMHistory) 

Pin making was a popular home industry in 16th and 17th c London. Hence “pin money”. (Geoffrey Munn. Pin money is cash women earn in order to buy pins.)

Children aren’t children any more. They don’t play like they used to. They grow up too quickly. Parents allow their children to date too young. Their vitality is pent up and all too often released the wrong way. The young people today have it too easy. They are handed everything on a silver platter... (Quote from 1932)

I was in London and was approached by a man who appeared to be down on his luck. He asked for money but I had no cash. He then whipped out a chip and pin machine and told me I could use a card. I will not give money out ever again on the streets. (@LeeAndersonMP_. That down-and-out must be a relation of the beggar who gets picked up in a Mercedes, or the boy with the "homeless and hungry" sign who's "gone home for his tea".)

There’s a story - probably apocryphal - of a lecturer who got into the regular habit of tape recording his lectures when he "had to be somewhere else" or was otherwise too busy. In the lecture theatre, he'd set up the tape player, and set it running, with the promise: "I'll be back later". He'd done this on an all-too-regular basis until, on one occasion, he returned to the lecture theatre and found... No students. Just a row of tape recorders, recording his recorded lecture. (Angela Moonchild)

I loooooooove using semi-colons so much. Unfortunately a teacher in college told me it makes the tone of papers seem arrogant. (@holyqueerit)

In the 1500s male brewers saw an opportunity to reduce their competition in the beer trade, they accused female brewers of being witches, equalling a death sentence. (@CentristRambler)

Welsh male-voice choirs persist because "the mines were protected services during both world wars. The English choirs were destroyed and never recovered." (FM)

A leather-shouldered donkey jacket of the sort Michael Foot was vilified for, now ineffably cool. (Times, March 2023. Channel 4 colour footage of that year’s cenotaph ceremony is labelled “Michael Foot in donkey jacket” while showing Foot in an olive-green duffel coat – without shoulder protectors.)

Despite huge educational drives on this topic, one study found that 42% of participants were unable to correctly explain the reason why tail docked and ear cropped dogs had short ears and tails. Similarly, when measuring their awareness, the study found that the majority of participants believed short tails and erect ears were a consequence of genetics, rather than a surgical procedure the owner or breeder had performed. (The Skeptic March 2023. Rather like the Hollywood actresses who claim "beauty comes from within", or the many cohabiting couples who think living together confers legal and financial benefits and protections. It hasn't since 1753.)

The word “abracadabra” dates back to the 2nd century (101-200 AD) and translates roughly to “I create as I speak.” (Amy Sousa. The date is right, but the word is nonsense.)

I remember learning about how the Greeks and Romans had the secret of perspective, then the world lost it during the 1,000 years of religious focus in art. No wonder they had some trouble re-finding it. (Penelope Haccius)

It is by pronouncing the Ukrainian word for a loaf of bread, palianytsia, that a friend is now distinguished from a foe at the military checkpoints around the country. (Web. In the bible it was "shibboleth".)

Here is a prevalent (though we believe a very erroneous) opinion that if a widow is married without clothing, except a chemise, her second husband will be free from her debts. (Caledonian Mercury, 1794)

Caller on radio saying they have to eat only seasonal, local fruit and veg for health reasons, as it is much more nutritious. This is just plain nuts. Limiting your consumption to a tiny handful of the potential will do the exact opposite. Every piece of evidence we have suggests the wider the range, and the more total fruit and veg you eat the better. Whoever keeps peddling this ‘diets were better in the past’ idea is so damn irresponsible. And frankly ahistoric. Scurvy and rickets, anyone? (James Wong @Botanygeek)

Limping was briefly fashionable in 18th century England. The Prince of Wales's wife, Alexandra of Denmark had a limp and other ladies imitated her. Shopkeepers sold pairs of shoes with one high and one low heel. (@qikipedia. Someone suggests that Alexandra of Denmark didn’t live in the 18th century.)

Today I learned there are actual adults who think the 15min city idea means that they will not be allowed more than 15mins away from their home. Adults, with jobs and responsibilities and everything. (@bartramsgob. The 15min city ATM seems to consist of traffic restrictions, blocked-off roads and bus lanes rather than more corner shops.)

They’re still wiffling on like toddlers about “Remoaners” while flogging the myth that we’re just somehow one Brexit away from the ACTUAL Brexit. (@athertondavid )

The idea of one’s partner fulfilling every romantic and sexual need is unrealistic anyway, right? (Ellen Willis Aronowitz. Popular since the 80s.)

"Free from" food is just a fad? Aside from just being plain rude – there are a number of reasons someone might order a diet or lower-fat version of something, and "trendy" health foods often become such because of actual medical benefits to certain people – it can also lead to amateur comedians slipping customers "unhealthy" substitutes, which is potentially quite dangerous if the order in question is because of allergies or other medical reasons. Diabetics and people with dairy allergies or gluten intolerance frequently report being hospitalized by such "pranks", with the restaurateur/waiter surprised to find out that not only was their customer not kidding, they're now looking at a lawsuit and criminal charges.

Natives of Lincolnshire are known as yellow bellies – from the local eels. Or from yellow-waistcoated waiters in the officer’s mess of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment? (Times)

One claim is that Crêpes Suzette was created from a mistake made by a 14-year-old assistant waiter Henri Charpentier in 1895 at the Maitre at Monte Carlo's Café de Paris. (@wikivictorian. One of several things, such as microwave ovens and Bakelite, that were "invented by mistake".)

As the historian Keith Thomas demonstrates in his superb study of the origins of politeness, The Rules of Civility, good manners are always connected with status display. (James Marriott. That must be where everybody gets the idea.)

Political stability was thought to be tied to belief in traditional religion. (@goethean. And all religious moral codes are aimed at creating a stable society.)

“Back in the 1400s when people were getting married, it was ‘until death do you part’ because people would get married as teenagers and somebody would die in their 20s or early 30s,” wrote relationship coach and author David Wygant in an article for HuffPost. (Independent, 2022. It's "until death us do part".)

Original copies of Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells were made near a VLF transmitter and accidentally contained a secret Morse code transmission, which wasn't discovered until much later. (@ThatEricAlper. And Lucille Ball received coded wartime messages through her fillings.)

William Salesbury saying that the letter K had been dropped from Welsh and replaced with C "because the printers have not so many Ks as Welsh requireth" remains one of my favourite quotes of all time. (@ofnwchyrhenwaed. The stories about “they ran out of Ns so they called it Pago-Pago” goes back a long way.)

The belief that exposure to cold, and particularly damp weather, causes colds dates back at least to Hippocrates and his theory of bodily humors. (Psychologist Carol K. Sigelman)

Guests indicated that they had drunk enough [tea] by turning the cup over or placing a teaspoon in the bowl. Until this was done it was bad manners to refuse more tea when offered. (Lara Maiklem)

The culturally pervasive, optimistic notion that the future will be utopian. (@richard_littler. That's what we're working towards – aren't we?)

More here, and links to the rest. The whole gamut in my book What You Know that Ain't So.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Received Ideas in Conversation 34

Building the Dome on the Florence cathedral (Duomo) was a gamble. They didn’t know how. Architect Brunelleschi brought an egg, broke it at the bottom so it stands erect. That was the plan lol. As you see it is egg shaped. It worked too, for 550 yrs now. (@PatrickBreukers)

That seems like a misread of the egg story. My recollection was that someone asked Brunelleschi how he would do it and didn't believe he could. He challenged them to balance an egg on its end and they couldn't. Then he smashed one end of the egg to force it to stand upright and answer his own challenge. It wasn't the plan: it was a demonstration of his willingness to think outside the box and employ original solutions to novel problems in the manner of Alexander cutting the Gordian knot... Looks like the author that attributed it to Columbus took the idea from a book about Brunelleschi written 15 years earlier. (@marshallpriddy)

May also be a misread. A documentary on the history of the Medici family (patrons of Brunelleschi) said that the egg trick was to show that he had a clear plan (he kept it as a trade secret), but if he showed them, it would give it away. (@FiveSigmaCap)


Bernini's Revenge: In 1665, an 18ft Egyptian obelisk was unearthed from a garden of the Dominican Monastery in Rome. Pope Alexander VII wanted to display it in front of the monastery as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. The Dominicans wanted a design that honoured the Pope, but the Holy Father went with Bernini’s design with the obelisk on the back of an Elephant: a symbol of strength and wisdom. But should they or shouldn't they include a portion of rock underneath the Elephant’s belly? The Dominicans argued that a gap would make the sculpture too fragile. The Pope eventually sided with the support idea, so Bernini tried to conceal it with a blanket hanging over the elephant’s back. The inscription reads: You, whoever you are, who see that the figures of wise Egypt sculpted on the obelisk are being carried by an elephant, the strongest of beasts, understand that it is proof of a strong mind to sustain solid wisdom.” Angered by the tinkering, Bernini set up the elephant facing away from the monastery and moved its tail to the left, so that the priests had to look at the elephant’s rear end when they walked out of the door. (@Architectolder, paraphrase)

Bernini's revenge is a term used to describe the urban legend that famous Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini sought revenge against his rival, Francesco Borromini, by designing a church that blocked Borromini's view of the Roman skyline. (@vacaytube)


The iron railings round London’s private squares and gardens were donated during WWII to make munitions. Children without access to green spaces moved in and played – until the railings were replaced after the War. (True so far.) The metal was actually useless – the whole proceeding was a propaganda exercise. The railings were either dropped directly on the enemy or hidden in quarries, or ended up adorning towns in far-flung locations like Mauritius. Dumped in the North Sea, adds someone. Did they take church bells?, asks another. (They didn't – perhaps because church bells were rung as an alarm.)

House next door to mine has been owned by the same family since new in 1900. During WW2 the owner was some sort of govt Minister, knew that the metal was no use but still insisted that his railings were cut down. (@Matt_Twist)

Notable that the iron railings remained in rich areas like West London. (@iloveidpol. They went too, but were replaced after the War to keep out the plebs as before.) 


In the early days of WWII, probationers are gathered around a crate of clothes donated by Americans: Their keen anticipation, therefore, of what was coming to them out of Uncle Sam’s lucky dip, increased a hundredfold the bitterness of their disgust when the contents was revealed to them. I am prepared to believe that the sight, even of so many half-length Hessian boots in pale suede, could have been borne with a minimum of abusive epithets. But the fact that they were all made for the right foot only resulted – not surprisingly – in an outbreak bordering on the maniacal.
(Court Circular by Sewell Stokes)

When I hear about schools eliminating advanced classes to reduce disparities, I’m reminded of my friend who grew up in the USSR whose shoes were the wrong size bc factories were rewarded for making as many shoes as possible and the cheapest way to do that was to make only one size. (@constans)


Mac'n'cheese is an American dish. Mac’n’cheese was invented by Sally Hemmings' brother! Enslaved to Thomas Jefferson, sent to France to be trained as a chef, during the war due to shortages... changes needed to be made to a classic noodle dish and Mac'n'cheese was invented. (@ZealouslyQuoted) 

The earliest recorded mac'n'cheese recipe dates all the way back to 1769 and most likely comes from Northern Europe. In America, we've been enjoying this staple thanks to Thomas Jefferson. After a trip to France, Jefferson just couldn't part with all of the amazing pasta dishes in which he indulged. (

The first modern recipe for macaroni and cheese was included in Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Raffald's recipe is for a Béchamel sauce with cheddar cheese—a Mornay sauce in French cooking—which is mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden. (Wikipedia)

James Hemmings was Jefferson's slave. Was he also, as the half-brother of his legitimate wife, his brother-in-law? You work it out.


You’d be amazed how often people forget/lie about their precise wedding dates when they donate their wedding gowns to museums. I always double check against public records and they’re sometimes off by weeks or even months. (@HottyCouture. Someone else points out that in the 50s a lot of first babies were “premature”. Apparently some people still believe that “first babies come early”.)

My mom said yesterday that people "just didn't do that" about premarital sex in her generation or the one before it. I was like "Have you done some of the math in our family tree, ma'am?" Those who’ve lied about the date of their wedding get into trouble when their golden wedding rolls round and their children start doing the sums. (@katheln2)


Two types of thinking drive human behaviour: 90% of our brain functions on automatic thinking or habit, while only 10% uses reflective thinking to drive our choices. This kind of thinking requires much more effort and is not a dominant driver of human behaviour. ( A lot of our brain controls our autonomic nervous system. It keeps our bodies ticking over.)

Current scientific estimates are that some 95% of brain activity is unconscious, says Emma Young in New Scientist magazine. These include habits and patterns, automatic body function, creativity, emotions, personality, beliefs and values, cognitive biases, and long-term memory. Moreover, up to 40% of behavior. (


Each time I teach our online Shakespeare MA course, I'm amazed at how many people (from all over the world and from different walks of life) begin with the belief that literature has the ability to transcend time and space to speak to certain core themes of human experience. Makes me think about how much of advanced literary studies may involve disavowing students of the beliefs that made them value literature in the first place. (@bjirish. This must be related to the idea that people in different countries and epochs aren't like us in any way.)

As a creative writer, I can say this: creative writers are told all the time to find the universal themes in their work. (@EppichHarris)


Sometimes I read fiction set in Oxford and I think it’s unrealistic but then I remember that a room was built under the Bodleian in 1615 and the one entrance was walled up suddenly and in the dead of night in the 1930s and nobody has been in it since. (@oldenoughtosay)

Great. Now someone is going to open it up and release the curse. Just what we need. (@JR_Nelson)

Well, they’d have to find the entrance first. (@oldenoughtosay)

Please do not unwall that. (@C_is4Catherine)

I have zero intention of doing so. (@oldenoughtosay)

Why has no one been in it since? Inquiring minds just got to know! (@SpunRadish)

Mainly because there’s a solid wall of masonry and concrete blocking the doorway. (@oldenoughtosay)

My college library still had (in the 90s) a warren of subterranean corridors reaching around the neighbouring quad. Some dead-ends had finely-bound C18 books under dust an inch thick. (@the_midwits)


Charles Dickens was walking in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard when fading light led him to misread the gravestone of Ebenezer Scroggie, Meal Man (grain merchant). He read is as Mean Man and thought what a horrible way to be remembered. It inspired his character Ebenezer Scrooge. (@Theweewhitedug)

It is a myth. If Scroggie had been buried there the burial register would have recorded it. It doesn’t and no other burial register does. In fact there is no record of the birth of an Ebenezer Scroggie either. (@andrewgmorton)


“Do you know the origin of that word saunter? In the middle ages people on pilgrimages to the Holy Land were asked by villagers they passed asked where they were going they'd reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' So they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.”
 (John Muir, 1838-1914)

Surely, that's too good an etymology to be true. (@chrisbbehrens)

Probably. But the heart of it is correct. (@wrathofgnon. No explanation forthcoming. See "true in a very real sense" and "this lie tells an important truth".)

More here, and links to the rest. All is revealed in my book What You Know that Ain't So.