Foolishness

Category Archives: Foolishness

We’ll Get Bigger

George Mallory was the famed mountain climber who may have been the first person ever to reach the top of Mount Everest. In the early 1920’s he led a number of attempts to scale the mountain, eventually being killed in the third attempt in 1924. Before that last and fatal attempt he had said “I can’t see myself coming down defeated.”

Mallory was an extraordinary climber, and nothing would force him to give up. His body was found in 1999, well preserved by the snow and ice, 27,000 feet up the mountain, just 2000 feet from the peak. Give up he did not. His body was found face down on a rocky slope, head toward the summit. His arms were extended high over his head. His toes were pointed into the mountain; his fingers dug into the loose rock, refusing to let go even as he drew his last breath. A short length of cotton rope – broken – was looped around his waist.

When those who had set up camp for Mallory further down the mountain returned to England a banquet was held for them. A huge picture of Mt Everest stood behind the banquet table. It is said that the leader of the group stood to be applauded, and with tears streaming down his face, turned and looked at the picture. “I speak to you, Mt Everest, in the name of all brave men living and those yet unborn” he said. “Mt Everest, you defeated us once; you defeated us twice; you defeated us three times. But Mt Everest, we shall someday defeat you, because you can’t get any bigger but we can.”

In 1953 two climbers, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay, reached the top.

 

Source: Information reported in Seattle Times (Jan 16, 2000) and Illustrations Unlimited

The Fall of Rome

The Roman empire was one of the “greatest” to rule the world. For hundreds of years the Romans dominated the Mediterranean, building magnificent cities, roads that remain today and imposing their “peace” upon those they conquered. At the time of Jesus and in the centuries after the power of Rome seemed unassailable.

By the fifth century after Christ the citizens of Rome had enjoyed eight centuries as a superpower. Regaled with tales of victory by their armies in far off places and convinced of their superiority to the barbarian hordes they were convinced their city could never fall. Then in the first decade of the fifth century they awoke to find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, standing at their gates with his army.

What a preposterous man he was thinking Rome would fall to his power! Envoys were sent out to conduct negotiations to have him move away. They began with threats: an attack on Rome would be met by the almighty strength of her innumerable warriors.

Alaric’s reply was simple: “The thicker the grass the more easily scythed.”

The envoys realised Alaric could not be fooled by their empty threats. What then would be the price of his departure. Alaric explained that his soldiers would move through the city taking all the gold, silver and anything else of value that could be moved. They would also take with them every barbarian who had been enslaved.

The envoys became hysterical. “But what would that leave us?” the demanded.

“Your lives” Alaric replied.

And with that Rome’s centuries as an apparently unbeatable superpower came to an end.

 

Source: Story of Rome’s fall found in T. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder, 1995)

 

The Dr Fox Hypothesis

J Scott Armstrong, associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated in a series of tests for both written and spoken communication, that people are impressed by “experts” from within their own field even when what is said is completely unintelligible.

Armstrong calls this the “Dr. Fox hypothesis”, based on an experiment in which an actor posed as Dr Myron Fox and delivered a lecture to a group of science professionals of “double talk”, patching raw material from a Scientific American article into non-sequiters and contradictory statements interspersed with jokes and meaningless references to unrelated topics. An anonymous questionnaire was filled out afterwards in which the professionals reported that they found the lecture clear and stimulating.

Source: Leadership Magazine, Spring 1983 (Armstrong’s results and research originally appeared in Interfaces Vol 10, No 2 and were reported in Psychology Today.)

The Arctic Expedition

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Collins, 1988) Annie Dillard reveals a sad, but poignant story about what happens when we set out unprepared. She tells of a British Arctic expedition which set sail in 1845 to chart the Northwest Passage around the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Neither of the two ships and none of the 138 men aboard returned.

Captain Sir John Franklin prepared as if they were embarking on a pleasure cruise rather than an arduous and gruelling journey through one of earth’s most hostile environments. He packed a 1,200 volume library, a hand-organ, china place settings for officers and men, cut-glass wine goblets and sterling silver flatware, beautifully and intricately designed. Years later, some of these place settings would be found near a clump of frozen, cannibalised bodies.

The voyage was doomed when the ships sailed into frigid waters and became trapped in ice. First ice coated the decks, the spars and the rigging. Then water froze around the rudders and the ships became hopelessly locked in the now-frozen sea. Sailors set out to search for help, but soon succumbed to severe Arctic weather and died of exposure to its harsh winds and sub-freezing temperatures. For some twenty years, remains of the expeditions were found all over the frozen landscape.

The crew did not prepare either for the cold or for the eventuality of the ships becoming ice-locked. On a voyage which was to last two to three years, they packed only their Navy-issue uniforms and the captain carried just a 12-day supply of coal for the auxiliary steam engines. The frozen body of an officer was eventually found, miles from the vessel, wearing his uniform of fine blue cloth, edged with silk braid, a blue greatcoat and a silk neckerchief — clothing which was noble and respectful, but wholly inadequate

Source: Anne Dilliard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.