austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

I pick them up and lick them

It's encouraging that you should want to take this chance to talk about philately. It's not at the most convenient time since we were all set up to discuss etymology, the study of bugs, but we just missed the off-ramp and can't turn around until the express lane merges back with the local just south of the Raritan River. Entomology. Philately is the study of stamps: what they are, where they came from, how long have they been here, what are they doing, who will clean up after them, and how they affect baseball's ``infield fly'' rule.

The original point of stamps was to simplify sending letters. Before the Universal Postal Union of 1863 different nations had different policies, with some countries delivering letters such as ``m'' or ``t'' separately, making the mails harder to follow, to be mean. But international agreements settled on sending a whole mail in a unified bundle as long as it was verified to be mail. The first verification scheme was for senders to wait for the local postmaster to come around, inspect things, and autograph the mails that looked legitimate, for later pickup. This was soon centralized into people bringing their mails to the postmaster, who signed more and more until typically he ran out of time to do anything but sign mails, causing the busiest mail-sending nations to have to start replacing the busiest postmasters every few weeks as the old ones starved to death.

But in the slowest districts postmasters could grow desperate for work, and some poor bored fellow in Saint Helena started sketching elaborate little figures in the corners instead of a simple signature, date, notary stamp, and notice verifying the notary is the notary he presented himself as being. This let loose the cartooning impulses of a thousand people who'd spent their lives around mail, and quickly the Great Powers realized they had to stop it. By creating standardized pictures they were able to quash the creative and mischievous local post office workers and shore up their dwindling supplies of busy postmasters. And the change stopped the growing number of requests for proof the notary who verified the first notary was correctly a notary, the dreaded ``divergent series of notarization'' which haunted mathematicians and official seal manufacturers of the 19th century.

Soon an even greater benefit was realized with the creation of adhesive-backed stamps. With these now anyone receiving mail could now look confidently at it and know that an important piece of it had in the recent past been licked by another person. It's impossible to exaggerate how much this did for the spirit of community. Those trying may wish to start from the question of whether democratic government would long survive without the sharing of licked articles. It must be understood at this time that envelope flaps were not commonly covered with lick-activated adhesives; envelopes were instead sewn shut using a fine thread and a stitching pattern, for proper letters, based on certain kinds of Belgian lace. The finest might hold the envelope closed so well that it could never be opened, creating a sense of distance between writer and recipient as responses to the mail would be vague.

The modern stamp is made by well-trained expert teams using the latest in high-pressure welding techniques. These techniques have no application, but the teams were excited to have learned them and are really showing off. It is impressive but the average 41 cent United States stamp of today has more than 84 separate pieces joined together by well-placed drops of solder.

It is unlikely that anyone will ever clean up after stamps, as they are so useful for a purpose it seems likely to survive through to the end of civilization. As a result, since it will only be ``after'' stamps when civilization is gone and most experts believe things will be generally untidy, they will not be cleaned up after. That should not be taken to suggest that a breed of stamps with an instinct to use the letterbox would not be welcomed.

They do not affect baseball's ``infield fly'' rule.

Trivia: Jim Lovell was the Apollo 8 astronaut who pressed the ``proceed'' button to start the Trans-Lunar Injection rocket burn. Source: A Man On The Moon, Andrew Chaikin.

Currently Reading: The Age of Voltaire, Will and Ariel Durant.


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