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Thursday, March 24, 2011

61. MY READING LIFE 8 On Smartarses

How many wives DID Henry VIII have?
How certain can we be about what we know?

Few could equal the quiz king Barry Jones in terms of general knowledge. When Bob and Dolly Dyer were radio royalty, back in the 1950s, with their hugely popular quiz program Pick- a-Box, Barry Jones was the unchallenged champion. His appetite for detailed information seemed unquenchable; no matter what the topic Barry not only had all the answers, he could explain - sometimes at astonishing length - the background, the details, the nuances.

Dickens’ famous teacher, Thomas Gradgrind [has there ever been a better name than that for a pedantic pedagogue?] saw his students a row upon row of little pitchers into which he would pour knowledge. ‘Facts, facts, facts’ was his catch-cry. And Barry Jones had them, in abundance.
It seemed that Barry Jones knew almost everything. But he was never a ”know –all”. Know-alls pretend that they know it all – they lack humility; they force their “knowledge” on you; indeed, they rub your nose in your ignorance. What impressed you about Barry Jones was the absence of hubris.

I detect a similar quality in the American writer Bill Bryson. What impressed me about his Short History of Almost Everything was not just the breadth of his research and the clarity of his account; it was the sense that here was mind that was simply enthralled by what it was discovering about the world. It was the sense of curiosity about and deep interest in whatever topic or idea or scientist of finding that he was currently exploring. Like a little awe-struck kid saying, ‘Hey – look at THIS!’

Bryson is also terrific at finding the fascinating detail, the telling fact, the clarifying analogy.

Know-alls, smart arses, clever dicks – as I’ve suggested – are not like this at all. It is Bryson’s style is to say, ‘Look at THIS’; the smartarse’s script is , ‘Look at ME. Look at what I know.’
There’s a comedy sketch embedded in my memory that featured English comedian Kenneth Williams as a man full of facts. He sits on a park bench and tries engages the Straight man in conversation.

‘Did you know there are more than 80 mkiles of tubing in your body?’
‘No, I didn’t know that,’ says the Straight Man.
‘Oh yes – 80 miles .. It’s hard to credit, isn’t it. But it’s true. If you laid out all the tubing in your body in a line, it would be 80 miles long.’
And so he goes on, telling the increasingly uncomfortable Straight man more and more “fascinating” facts. The Straight Man tries to leave, but the Williams character is insistent.
‘Did you know …’
Eventually, in his efforts to keep the Straight man’s attention, Williams tells the story of how, during the war, he was to be England’s secret weapon. They were going to parachute him in, behind enemy lines, where he would bore the Germans to death….
The story is ‘the end’ for the Straight Man, and he walks off, Saying, ‘Well – I’m not surprised! You are the most boring person I’ve ever met!’ and leaving Williams by himself, calling after him …
‘It was a joke … It’s not true … it’s only a joke …’
I always recall the deep sadness in William’s voice as The Straight Man walked away, and the plaintiveness of this lonely human being, desperate for somebody’s attention, anybody’s…
“It’s not true … it’s only a joke … only a joke.’

There’s a sizable lexicon for that unpopular condition of being a smartarse – that is, a conceited person, somebody who makes an annoying show of knowing something or of being cleverer than others.

The lexicon: Know-it-all, smartarse, clever Dick, smarty, big head, know all, smarty pants, clever clogs, smart Alec, clever drawers, wise-acre, wise guy, big noter, smarty boots, clever shins.

The Danes word for it is bezzerwizzer; they’ve even invented a variation of the game Trivial Pursuit especially for bezzerwizzers (or smartarses).

So, as you can see, it doesn’t pay to be too sure of your own cleverness; it’s not cool to be a person who is regarded as being arrogant or ostentatiously clever. As the old saying goes: ‘Nobody likes a smartarse’; so make sure you don’t get ‘too big for your boots’. I felt more than a tinge of national pride when I discovered that the word smartarse had its origins in Australia, in the late 19th or early 20th century. Proud but not surprised. We’ve never had much time for bulldust – or for bullshit artists!


Q. What do you call a man with no arms and no legs who can swim 100 metres?
A. Clever Dick.]

All of this arose out of a purchase I made just this week, of a book entitled The Book of General Ignorance, by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, published by Faber & Faber, and selling for a just under $20. The blurb suggests that this is a book designed for the smartarse market. It reads, in part: ‘Carry it everywhere to impress your friends, frustrate your enemies and win every argument.’

Its subtitle is perhaps a little grandiose: ‘Everything you think you know is wrong’. And the book sets out to prove this contention. It is (again quoting the blurb) a ‘ comprehensive catalogue of all the misconceptions, mistakes and misunderstandings in “common knowledge”. But grandiose or not, it's a great read!

Test yourself on the following. What is the first answer that comes into your head?

1. Henry VIII had SIX wives
2. What is the tallest mountain in the world?
3. What is the biggest thing a blue whale can swallow: a large mushroom, a small car, a grapefruit, a sailor?
4. For how long can a chicken live without its head?
5. How many galaxies are visible to the naked eye?
6. What man-made artifact can be seen from the moon?
7. Who introduced tobacco and potatoes to England?
8. Who invented champagne?
9. Where and when was the guillotine invented?
10. Which of the following are Chinese inventions: glass, rickshaws, chop suey, fortune cookies?

If you are like me, and responded with what common sense dictates, or according to what we usually call common knowledge, your answers would have been as follows:

1. Henry VIII had how many wives? Six
2. What is the tallest mountain in the world? Mt Everest
3. What is the biggest thing a blue whale can swallow: a large mushroom, a small car, a grapefruit, a sailor?
A sailor
4. For how long can a chicken live without its head? A few seconds, or a few minutes
5. How many galaxies are visible to the naked eye?

Uncountable there are so many
6. What man-made artifact can be seen from the moon? The Great Wall of China
7. Who introduced tobacco and potatoes to England? Sir Walter Raleigh
8. Who invented champagne? The French
9. Where and when was the guillotine invented? The French at the time of the Revolution – i.e. the 1790s.
10. Which of the following are Chinese inventions: glass, rickshaws, chop suey, fortune cookies?
All of them

If you agreed with my ‘off top of the head’ answers, you – like me – would have scored ZERO – nil – nought – not a sausage!

How come?

Well, for starters: If a marriage is annulled, the slate is wiped clean – the marriage is regarded as never having happened. Two of Henry’s marriages were annulled, so we’re down to four. The Pope refused to recognize his marriage to Ann Boleyn … The score at this stage is: Smartarses 1, the Rest of the World (that’s you and me) zero.

Mt Everest is the tallest mountain measure from sea level; but Mt Mauna Kea is 10.2 kilometres from seabed to summit, and is around 1.3 kilometres taller than Everest. Whales can swallow a grapefruit, but not a human. All you Fundamentalists out there – don’t be dismayed. I know it looks like a whale COULDN’T have swallowed Jonah. But you guys are so good at ignore the findings of Science, you’re sure to come up with some explanation that will prove that it COULD happen. What about: God can perform any miracle he chooses. Yeah, that should do the trick!
When I was a kid I saw – with my own eyes – the spectacle of a beheaded chicken running around the back yard, splashing blood everywhere, before collapsing to the ground. But two years? Can it be true? According to Lloyd and Mitchinson, it IS true! If you don’t believe me, go read pages 9-10!

Now – about galaxies. I’ve always thought that a lot of those blurry lights were either stars or galaxies. Turns out folk in the Southern Hemisphere can see only TWO. But with telescopes … we can see back to almost the beginning of time …

By this stage the Smartarses have established an almost unassailable lead: Five to NIL. I’m beginning to recognize that I have taken a lot of what passes for common knowledge on trust. I must admit, I AM gullible. A friend sent me an email recently, telling me to watch the night sky on Aug. 28. On that date, the planet Mars would be the closest its orbit ever brings it to the earth. Why, at 11.40 pm that night, I would see two objects – the moon and Mars – side by side. Mars would be only slightly the smaller of the two, and would have a pinkish tinge. I told my Year 9 class to watch. Many of them did. The next day, they were not happy campers. Turns out it was a hoax. Not only that, it was a hoax on its second or third cycle through the Internet.

What man-made artifact can be seen from the moon? I know that one: it’s the Great Wall of China – I was almost certain. But no, I was wrong again. From the moon, no man made ‘artifacts’ can be observed. The Great wall CAN be seem from 100 kilometres up – outside our atmosphere, and IN space. But NOT, definitely NOT from the moon!

Tobacco was smoked by English sailors four years before Raleigh was born. Potatoes were introduced from Spain long before Raleigh planted some in his garden. The English, not the French, invented champagne; in addition they beat the French to the invention of the guillotine by about 400 or so years. [As an interesting aside: when was the guillotine last used for an execution in France?

Please choose one of the following: 1799 1826 1854 1911 1977.

The trick is: choose the LEAST likely answer, the one that you think can’t possibly be true. I’ll let that one slosh around in that warm-wet-grey computer/cluster of cells called your brain for a little.]

As to rickshaws, chop suey, fortune cookies and glass … I knew the answer to this, I was sure. China. What could more Chinese than the rickshaw – or the fortune cookie. I’ve eaten Yum Chas – they always have fortune cookies at a Yum Cha! Had to be China. So – all of them were invented in China. That’s my answer.

Once again the Smartarses came out on top. I was right about Chop Suey – it IS a Chinese invention. But the Egyptians beat the Chinese by about a thousand years to the invention of glass. An American missionary named Jonathan Scobie invented the rickshaw; he used it to wheel his invalid wife around the streets of Yokahama in Japan in 1869. And a Japanese- American created the fortune cookie.

It seems that so much that we regard as common knowledge isn’t quite as solidly based as we thought. And at one level, does it matter? Does it matter that our trust in THE FACTS may not be as firmly based as we imagine it to be? Probably not. But there’s no harm in being reminded that we can be wrong. It may cure us of our tendency toward dogmatism. It may make us a little more critical, a little more questioning of what is put before us as ‘truth’ or as ‘facts’.
We are surrounded by ‘misconceptions, mistakes and misunderstandings’. And when I think about it, it DOES matter. I’m grateful to Lloyd and Mitchinson for straightening me out and correcting me. It’s good for my soul to be proven wrong. Or worse – proven to be too uncritical, too ready to accept whatever I am told, whatever passes as ‘common knowledge’. If I’m going to know stuff, we’re all better off if what I know is true – and not just someone’s misconception.
And just to round things off: the answer is 1977. Yes, the last execution in France using Madame la Guillotine took place in 1977. The death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.
Makes you think, doesn’t it.

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