Archive for March, 2010

Faith No More

Kurt Gödel composed an ontological proof of God’s existence:

Axiom 1. A property is positive if and only if its negation is negative.

Axiom 2. A property is positive if it necessarily contains a positive property.

Theorem 1. A positive property is logically consistent (that is,
possibly it has an existence).

Definition. Something is God-like if and only if it possesses all positive properties.

Axiom 3. Being God-like is a positive property.

Axiom 4. Being a positive property is logical and hence necessary.

Definition. A property P is the essence of x if and only if x has the property P and P is necessarily minimal.

Theorem 2. If x is God-like, then being God-like is the essence of x.

Definition. x necessarily exists if it has an essential property.

Axiom 5. Being necessarily existent is God-like.

Theorem 3. Necessarily there is some x such that x is God-like.

“I am convinced of the afterlife, independent of theology,” he once wrote. “If the world is rationally constructed, there must be an afterlife.”


“I play John Wayne in every part, regardless of the character, and I’ve been doing okay, haven’t I?” — John Wayne


One bitterly cold day [Henry J.] Byron was walking along the Strand when Lionel Brough, the comedian, met him, and said, ‘Why, Byron, you never wear an overcoat.’ ‘No,’ answered the farceur, ‘no, Brough, I never was.’

— John De Morgan, In Lighter Vein, 1907

Hidden in Sight

This puzzling verse, from a contributor named “Maude,” appeared in the Weekly Wisconsin of Sept. 29, 1888:

Perhaps the solvers are inclined to hiss,
Curling their nose up at a con like this.
Like some much abler posers I would try
A rare, uncommon puzzle to supply.
A curious acrostic here you see
Rough hewn and inartistic tho’ it be;
Still it is well to have it understood,
I could not make it plainer, if I would.

(In the second line, “con” means “contribution.”)

What are the concealed words?

Click for Answer

Unfinished Bath

God started tiling Tasmania, but he ran out of grout.

Either that or erosion has exaggerated some natural fractures, producing this remarkable tessellation at Eaglehawk Neck.

One or the other.

Hintikka’s Paradox

(1) If a thing can’t be done without something wrong being done, then the thing itself is wrong.

(2) If X is impossible and Y is wrong, then I can’t do both X and Y, and I can’t do X but not Y.

But if Y is wrong and doing X-but-not-Y is impossible, then by (1) it’s wrong to do X.

Hence if it’s impossible to do a thing, then it’s wrong to do it.


Yet worse was the condition of the editor who, having in a touching obituary notice of a soldier described the deceased as a ‘battle-scarred veteran,’ was driven frantic to find in the morning that the types had made him write of a ‘battle-scared veteran.’ The next day he published the following apology for the blunder: ‘The editor was deeply grieved to find that through an unfortunate typographical error he was made to describe the late gallant Major H. as a “battle-scared veteran.” He tenders his sincerest apologies for the mistake to the friends and relatives of the deceased; but to every reader of this journal acquainted with the feats of the major, it must have been apparent that what the editor wrote was bottle-scarred veteran.’

— “Some Humors of the Composing-Room,” Macmillan’s Magazine, December 1897

Blue Verse

Risqué limericks by W.H. Auden:

There was a young poet whose sex
Was aroused by aesthetic effects;
Marvell’s The Garden
Gave him a hard-on
And he came during Oedipus Rex.

Said the Queen to the King: “I don’t frown on
The fact that you choose to go down on
My page on the stairs
But you’ll give the boy airs
If you will do the job with your crown on.”

The Bishop-Elect of Hong Kong
Has a cock which is ten inches long;
He thinks the spectators
Are admiring his gaiters
When he goes to the Gents–he is wrong.

“Poetry is nobody’s business except the poet’s,” wrote Philip Larkin, “and everybody else can fuck off.”

The Human Bullseye

Hughie Jennings was a baseball magnet. In five seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Jennings was hit by pitches 202 times, sometimes thrice in a single game. In 1896 alone he was hit 51 times, a record that has stood for a century.

Getting hit can be a deliberate tactic, but Jennings did it regardless of the game situation. The Sporting Life wrote, “He seemed unable to convey the sense of danger from his brain to his limbs.” He wore crude pads under his uniform, but the repeated blows — 287 in his major-league career — left him black and blue; after one game he collapsed and remained unconscious for three days.

Curiously, the beatings continued off the field. At Cornell, where he earned a law degree, Jennings dove into a swimming pool one night only to discover it was empty. And in a 1911 auto accident he broke three limbs and suffered a concussion.

All this damage took its toll. At the end of the 1925 season Jennings had a nervous breakdown, and three years later he was dead. But he seemed philosophical about his bruises. “Life is full of trials,” he said, “which is a good thing for lawyers.”

Oaks and Acorns

Each of these pairs of numbers contains the 10 digits:

57321 60984
35172 60984
58413 96702
59403 76182

Square any one of them and it will grow into its own 10-digit pandigital number.

In a Word

n. one who acknowledges no superior

“In America everybody is of the opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards.” — Bertrand Russell

A Capture En Passant

He does look evil, doesn’t he?

Hawley Harvey Crippen had fled for America by the time Scotland Yard discovered his wife’s torso under the brick floor of his London house.

But they sent out a warning, and the captain of the SS Montrose thought he recognized the fugitive aboard his ship. He asked his wireless telegraphist to send a message to the British authorities: “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”

Chief Inspector Walter Dew overtook the Montrose in a faster liner and boarded her in the St. Lawrence River disguised as a pilot. When introduced to Crippen, he said (resoundingly, one hopes), “Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.”

Crippen hesitated, then said, “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”

Crippen’s mistress was acquitted, but he was hanged in 1910, the first criminal in history captured by the aid of wireless.


In the Dark

“A universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it.” — Cambridge cosmologist John Barrow

Head Nor Tail

The antiquarian has always been the object of hoaxes. At a convention of the tribe in Banbury, on one occasion, a worn and ancient looking block of stone was sent in with the information that it had been the corner stone of an old building recently torn down. The finders prayed the learned body to interpret the inscription upon it, which read:


It took the venerable society several days to discover that the sentiment was ‘Ride a cock horse’ inverted.

— William S. Bridgman, “Famous Hoaxes,” Munsey’s Magazine, August 1903


One day while teaching a class at Yale, Shizuo Kakutani wrote a lemma on the blackboard and remarked that the proof was obvious. A student timidly raised his hand and said that it wasn’t obvious to him. Kakutani stared at the lemma for some moments and realized that he couldn’t prove it himself. He apologized and said he would report back at the next class meeting.

After class he went straight to his office and worked for some time further on the proof. Still unsuccessful, he skipped lunch, went to the library, and tracked down the original paper. It stated the lemma clearly but left the proof as an “exercise for the reader.”

The author was Shizuo Kakutani.


The only problem
with haiku is that you just
get started and then

— Roger McGough

“Alleged Ancient Ruins in the United States”

In 1860, the Times of Fort Smith, Ark., published a long account of a discovery said to have been made 90 miles northeast of Fort Stanton, N.M. This condensed version appeared in the Eclectic Magazine that November:

The plain upon which lie the massive relics of gorgeous temples and magnificent halls, slopes gradually towards the river Pecos, and is very fertile, crossed by a gurgling stream of purest water that not only sustains a rich vegetation, but perhaps furnishes with this necessary element the thousands who once inhabited this present wilderness. The city was probably built by a warlike race, as it is quadrangular and arranged with skill to afford the highest protection against an exterior foe, many of the buildings on the outer line being pierced with loopholes, as though calculated for the use of weapons. Several of the buildings are of vast size, and built of massive blocks of a dark granite rock which could only have been wrought to their present condition by a vast amount of labor. There are the ruins of three noble edifices, each presenting a front of three hundred feet, made of ponderous blocks of stone, and the dilapidated walls are even now thirty-five feet high. There are no partitions in the area of the middle (supposed) temple, so that the room must have been vast; and there are also carvings in bass relief and fresco work. Appearances justify the conclusion that these silent ruins could once boast of halls as gorgeously decorated by the artist’s hand as those of Thebes and Palmyra. The buildings are all loopholed on each side, much resembling that found in the old feudal castles of Europe, designed for the use of archers. The blocks of which these edifices are composed, are cemented together by a species of mortar of a bituminous character, which has such tenacity that vast masses of wall have fallen down without the blocks being detached by the shock.

No one has ever found such ruins … but there’s a ship out there too if you want to go looking.


One of Eduard Gufeld’s first chess coaches, A.A. Olshansky, offered him this problem:

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“White to mate in half a move.”

Click for Answer


Aug. 1, 1932, was a strange day for Londoner G.A. Hinkson:

Suddenly torrential rain fell only one hundred yards from where I was standing. The nearest trees in Kensington Gardens were almost hidden behind a milky mist of heavy rain. The rain-drops rebounding off the street created a layer of spray as high as the tops of the wheels of the taxis standing in the street. Where I was sheltering, hardly a drop of rain was falling. … Then the spray on the ground came nearer like a wave and receded. Suddenly it vanished completely.

From Meteorological Magazine, 64:159-60, 1932.


It took Greer Garson 125 takes to say one line in Desire Me (1947).

The line was “No.”

Robert Mitchum said he stopped taking Hollywood seriously after that.

Northern Exposure

Ordered to join a jungle snake cult in his native Togo, Tété-Michel Kpomassie chanced to find a book about Greenland in a local Jesuit library. At the first opportunity he ran away.

Kpomassie’s 1981 autobiography, An African in Greenland, tells of his odyssey through West Africa and Europe seeking a route to the frozen island. He finally arrived in the mid-1960s, a black giant among the Inuit:

As soon as they saw me, all stopped talking. So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight. Then they started to smile again, the women with slightly lowered eyes. When I was standing before them on the wharf, they all raised their heads to look me full in the face. Some children clung to their mothers’ coats, and others began to scream with fright or to weep.

Kpomassie happily spent the next two years driving a dogsled and hunting seal in a kayak. After eight years, he had reached the land of his dreams — a country with no trees and no snakes.

“Apparatus for Obtaining Criminal Confessions”

This one leaves me speechless. Helene Adelaide Shelby was unhappy with the low rate of criminal confessions, so in 1927 she invented a solution. The police put their suspect into the darkened chamber on the left, and he finds himself facing a floodlit human skeleton with glowing red eyes. The skeleton asks questions (via a megaphone in the mouth), and the suspect’s reactions are recorded by a camera and a microphone in the skull.

The effect produces “a state of mind calculated to cause him, if guilty, to make confession.” I’ll bet. What if he’s innocent?

“Epistle Written in a Diving-Bell”

A lady, of the name of Morris, the wife of Major Morris, had lately the courage to descend in the diving-bell, at Plymouth, and was probably the first of her sex who has penetrated into ‘the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean.’ On this occasion, whilst under water, she wrote a note to her father, which concluded with the following lines:

From a belle, my dear father, you’ve oft had a line,
But not from a bell under water;
Just now I can only assure you I’m thine,
Your dutiful, diving, affectionate daughter.

— J. Taylor, Eccentric and Humorous Letters of Eminent Men and Women, 1824

Lenore in Indiana,_1913.jpg

Convinced that the public would accept anything from an established author, James Whitcomb Riley bet his friends that he could prove it. He composed a poem entitled “Leonanie” in the style of Edgar Allan Poe and published it in the Kokomo, Ind., Despatch on Aug. 2, 1877:

Leonanie–angels named her;
And they took the light
Of the laughing stars and framed her
In a smile of white;
And they made her hair of gloomy
Midnight, and her eyes of bloomy
Moonshine, and they brought her to me
In the solemn night.

And so on. An accompanying article explained that the poem had been discovered on the blank flyleaf of an old book, and the conspirators scribbled it into a dictionary in case anyone asked to see it.

After the poem was published, Riley wrote a critique in the Anderson Democrat casting doubt on Poe’s authorship. But to his horror his poem was championed by critics and picked up in newspapers nationwide, and soon a Boston publishing house began asking for the original manuscript. The group finally confessed when a rival paper threatened to expose the hoax.

Riley won his bet, but ironically he went on to become a bestselling poet himself, writing in an Indiana dialect distinctive enough to invite lampoons of its own. Whether any of these has been passed off as real is unknown — but it would be poetic justice.