Auric and I played all that Satie had written for the piano; one of us would play with him what he composed for four hands. Once, after we had played Morceau en forme de poire, I asked our hero, whom we called mon bon Maître, why he gave such a title, Pieces in the shape of a pear, to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes: ‘You do know that I visit Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed, he remarked, “Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had a great influence on our writing. … Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form.” All I did,’ added Satie, ‘was to write Morceau en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, “Why such a title?” Why? simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless.’
— Vladimir Golschmann, “Golschmann Remembers Erik Satie,” High Fidelity/Musical America, August 1972
Let us begin by saying we have nothing but the deepest aversion
Against casting an aspersion
On the beautiful works of Ogden Nash.
In fact we might say we go for his stuff like a vegetarian goes for his succotash.
But the thing that swerves us
From downright admiration is the length of his lines which sometimes look more like paragraphs than lines — frankly it unnerves us.
In fact we have it from unreliable sources
That several people have narrowly missed death by asphyxiation while attempting to read aloud one of these book-length sentences in one breath, all of which forces
Us to request that Mr. Nash please stick to a line that can be written entirely on one page, for when we see one of these endless lines looming up over the edge of the next stanza, we have been known to turn the page and start something else; while on the other hand, when Mr. Nash sticks to a briefer line with definite rhythm,
— An unnamed college humor magazine, quoted in Richard Koppe et al., A Treasury of College Humor, 1950
Ernest Hemingway published this “blank verse” in his high school literary magazine in 1916:
Get it? David Morice followed up with this “punctuation poem” in Word Ways in February 2012:
% , & —
+ . ? /
+ $ [ \
It’s a limerick:
Percent comma ampersand dash
Plus period question mark slash
Quotation mark colon
Plus dollar sign bracket backslash
John asked Clara
A walk with him
And pick flowers.
But Clara’s brother
They picked flowers.
— North Carolina Boll Weevil, 1922
“How old are you?”
“I’m five. How old are you?”
“I’m either four or five. I don’t know which.”
“Do women bother you?”
— Anonymous, Colorado Flatiron, 1959
— Frederick W. Umminger Jr., Yale Record, 1959
I pass on to Eclipses. When the Moon (see above) gets between the Earth (see below) and the Sun (do what you like), the resulting phenomenon is called an Eclipse of the Sun. When the Sun gets between the Earth and the Moon there will be the devil to pay. It will be called the Eclipse of the Earth and is likely to be total.
— H.F. Ellis, So This Is Science!, 1932
At a dinner party, René Descartes’ wife posts him next to the shrimp table and tells him not to let the guests eat until an hour after midnight. When a guest reaches for a shrimp, Descartes stops him and says, “I think they’re for 1 a.m.”
René Descartes is sitting in a bar. The bartender asks him if he’d like another drink. He says, “I think not” — and vanishes.
“I think, therefore Descartes is.” — Saul Steinberg
There was a young student called Fred
Who was questioned on Descartes and said:
“It’s perfect clear
That I’m not really here,
For I haven’t a thought in my head.”
— V.R. Ormerod
In 1988 German artist Rosemarie Trockel offered a 210 x 160-centimeter linen panel on which the words cogito ergo sum had been knitted — by machine.
As telegraph lines began to appear along London’s railroads, they came to fascinate commuters. One wrote to the Illustrated London News to suggest that cornet lessons might now be given on the moving train.
“The medium of tuition will be the wires of the electric telegraph. On these, being five, notes will be fastened by non-conducting materials, and the pupils will play them as they travel. The andante movements will be placed close to the stations, where progress is slow, and the tunes will be so arranged as to finish at all the stoppages. These will be constantly changed, to extend the benefit to all classes: for instance, galoppes will be chosen for the express trains; sets of quadrilles for the stopping ones; and marches, or dirges, for the luggage trains. At the same time, the passengers, generally, will be diverted with agreeable harmony.”
Another commuter responded: “The great objection is, that the notes once passed could never be taken up again, and especially the high ones; for, before the pupil could get his lips to the necessary embouchure, he would be a mile beyond the bar. A non-musical friend, given to senseless ribaldry, suggests that fugues should be chosen for the music; because, as he says, those compositions never appear to have beginning, end, middle, or anything else, and may be commenced or left of anywhere with equal effect.”
He adds, “It would be better, sir, for you to confine yourself to practical improvements than ingenious but futile schemes. … After my entertainments given in the country, I am usually asked to supper by certain of the leading inhabitants, in gratitude for the amusement I have afforded them; and, from drinking healths, I rise next morning with a dizziness. And then, on my return to town, are the wires of the electric telegraph most dreadful. They go up and down, down and up, for miles and miles, until at last, seeing nothing else, I begin to think that they are stationary, and it is the carriage which is undulating; and this has such an effect, that I am as indisposed upon arriving at the terminus as if I had just crossed the Channel. A little care on the part of the directors can remedy this. Why cannot the wires be turned upright, like those of a piano?”
When Einstein was traveling to lecture in Spain,
He questioned a conductor again and again:
“It may be a while,”
He asked with a smile,
“But when does Madrid reach this train?”
A letter from “J. A. McM.,” West Lynn, Mass., to Mark Twain, April 17, 1907:
Apropos of your very entertaining little book on ‘English as she is Taught’ — the following true story fits in well — A teacher asked her class of boys to tell the difference between herself and a clock. A bright little urchin in the rear row raised his hand and said — ‘You have a face and the clock has a face, and you have got hands and the clock has got hands, and — and (reflecting) the clock has got a pendooleum and you aint.’
On the envelope Twain wrote, “Preserve this. Frame it. It is the second time in 40 years that a stranger has done me a courtesy & charged me nothing for it.”
Robert Benchley’s favorite joke, according to Harpo Marx in Harpo Speaks!, 1961:
A man gets on the train with his little boy, and gives the conductor only one ticket. ‘How old’s your kid?’ the conductor says, and the father says he’s four years old. ‘He looks at least twelve to me,’ says the conductor, and the father says, ‘Can I help it if he worries?’
An Englishman buys a horse and hires porters to take the horse up to his apartment on the fourth floor. The porters exert themselves and sweat. Finally they succeed in getting the horse to his apartment.
He asks them to put the horse in the bathtub.
After they finish the job, one of the porters asks him, “Why do you need a horse in the bathtub?”
The Englishman says, “Well, tomorrow evening I’m having a party at home. One of the guests will go into the bathroom, see the horse, come to me and say, ‘You know you have a horse in your bathtub.’ And I’ll tell him, ‘So what?'”
— Sion Rubi, Intelligent Jokes, 2004
In 1972 Canadian scientists R.W. Sheldon and S.R. Kerr set out to reason out the number of monsters that occupy Loch Ness. Because the creatures are reportedly large and rarely seen, it follows that their numbers must be small. (“It has been suggested from time to time that as the monsters are never caught it must therefore follow that they do not exist. This is both irresponsible and illogical.”)
By estimating the fish stock available in the loch, they determined that the total mass of monsters is between 3,135 and 15,675 kg. Taking the minimum monster size as 100 kg (“anything smaller is not suitably monstrous”), they estimate that the loch contains between 1 and 156 monsters. The high end of this range seems unlikely; and since monsters have been reported for centuries they’re probably breeding, which would require a population of at least 10.
Given the available quantity of fish and assuming a stable population, monsters weighing 100 kg would have to die at a rate of at least 3 per year. Larger animals would die less frequently, and this seems likely since dead monsters are never found (and since the juveniles that must replace them are never seen). So it seems the lake probably contains a small number of large monsters, perhaps 10-20 monsters weighing up to 1,500 kg each and measuring about 8 meters, “a size that agrees well with observational data.”
“We would like to thank Kate Kranck for drawing our attention to this problem, because until she mentioned it we were unaware that monsters were a problem.”
(“The Population Density of Monsters in Loch Ness,” Limnology and Oceanography 17:5, 796–798)
Facilities suggested by Lewis Carroll for a school of mathematics at Oxford, 1868:
- A very large room for calculating Greatest Common Measure. To this a small one might be attached for Least Common Multiple: this, however, might be dispensed with.
- A piece of open ground for keeping Roots and practising their extraction: it would be advisable to keep Square Roots by themselves, as their corners are apt to damage others.
- A room for reducing Fractions to their Lowest Terms. This should be provided with a cellar for keeping the Lowest Terms when found, which might also be available to the general body of Undergraduates, for the purpose of “keeping Terms.”
- A large room, which might be darkened, and fitted up with a magic lantern for the purpose of exhibiting Circulating Decimals in the act of circulation. This might also contain cupboards, fitted with glass-doors, for keeping the various Scales of Notation.
- A narrow strip of ground, railed off and carefully levelled, for investigating the properties of Asymptotes, and testing practically whether Parallel Lines meet or not: for this purpose it should reach, to use the expressive language of Euclid, “ever so far.”
He introduced this topic with an administrator by writing, “Dear Senior Censor,–In a desultory conversation on a point connected with the dinner at our high table, you incidentally remarked to me that lobster-sauce, ‘though a necessary adjunct to turbot, was not entirely wholesome.’ It is entirely unwholesome. I never ask for it without reluctance: I never take a second spoonful without a feeling of apprehension on the subject of possible nightmare. This naturally brings me to the subject of Mathematics …”
The Veterinary Record of April 1, 1972, contained a curious article: “Some Observations on the Diseases of Brunus edwardii.” Veterinarian D.K. Blackmore and his colleagues examined 1,598 specimens of this species, which they said is “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America.”
“Commonly-found syndromes included coagulation and clumping of stuffing, resulting in conditions similar to those described as bumble foot and ventral (rupture in the pig and cow respectively) alopecia, and ocular conditions which varied from mild squint to intermittent nystagmus and luxation of the eyeball. Micropthalmus and macropthalmus were frequently recorded in animals which had received unsuitable ocular prostheses.”
They found that diseases could be either traumatic or emotional. Acute traumatic conditions were characterized by loss of appendages, often the result of disputed ownership, and emotional disturbances seemed to be related to neglect. “Few adults (except perhaps the present authors) have any real affection for the species,” and as children mature, they tend to relegate these animals to an attic or cupboard, “where severe emotional disturbances develop.”
The authors urged their colleagues to take a greater interest in the clinical problems of the species. “It is hoped that this contribution will make the profession aware of its responsibilities, and it is suggested that veterinary students be given appropriate instruction and that postgraduate courses be established without delay.”
A letter from John Phillips of the Yale University School of Medicine to the New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 14, 1991:
When referring to the hand, the names digitus pollicis, indicis, medius, annularis, and minimus specify the five fingers. In situations of clinical relevance the use of such names can preclude anatomical ambiguity. These time-tested terms have honored the fingers, but the toes have been labeled only by number, except of course the great toe, or hallux. Is it not time for the medical community to have the toes no longer stand up and merely be counted? I submit for consideration the following nomenclature to refer to the pedal digits: for the hallux, porcellus fori; for the second toe, p. domi; for the third toe, p. carnivorus; for the fourth toe, p. non voratus; and for the fifth toe, p. plorans domum.
Using porcellus as the diminutive form of porcus, or pig, one can translate the suggested terminology as follows: piglet at market, piglet at home, meat-eating piglet, piglet having not eaten, and piglet crying homeward, respectively.
In 1962 mycologist R.W.G. Dennis reported a new species of fungus he had observed growing in Lancashire and East Africa. He called it Golfballia ambusta:
The unopened fruit body evidently closely resembles certain small, hard but elastic, spheres employed by the Caledonians in certain tribal rites, practised at all seasons of the year in enclosures of partially mown grass set apart for the purpose. The diameter of the volva is approximately 3 cm., its surface smooth or regularly furrowed, becoming much wrinkled after dehiscence, its texture extremely hard and tough. A gelatinous stratum, so characteristic of other phalloids, is wanting. The appearance and texture of the immature gleba is still unknown but at maturity it is extruded as a column, thickly set with short strap-like processes of an elastic consistency, each scarcely 1 cm. long and 1.5 mm. wide, abruptly truncated at the free end. As with other phalloids, there is a strong and distinctive odour, in this instance not unpleasant and identified independently by several observers as reminiscent of old or heated india-rubber. This is probably a reliable and important diagnostic character. Taste not recorded but probably mild; the fruit bodies are unlikely to be toxic but may well prove inedible from their texture. Spores have not been recovered and the means of reproduction therefore remains unknown.
It seems to be very prolific in America as well.
(R.W.G. Dennis. A remarkable new genus of phalloid in Lancashire and East Africa, Journ. Kew Guild. 8, 67 (1962): 181-182.)
In 1853, lamenting the recent vogue for “illustrated newspapers,” American satirist John Phoenix (George Derby) offered an “an illustrated publication of unprecedented merit, containing engravings of exceeding costliness and rare beauty of design, got up on an expensive scale which never has been attempted before in this or any other country”:
On May 29, 1933, Harper’s Bazaar editor Art Samuels was awaiting a piece by the notoriously unreliable Robert Benchley when he received six successive telegrams:
AM TAKING CARE OF MY SICK MOTHER.
AM ACTING AS GUIDE FOR HUNTING PARTY.
AM INSPECTING NEW PACKARD ENGINES.
AM JUDGING ORANGE BLOSSOM CARNIVAL.
AM BEING INDUCTED INTO INDIAN TRIBE.
AM WORKING ON PICTURE WITH GRETA GARBO.
All bore the current date, but their origins were listed as Worcester, Massachusetts; Presque Isle, Maine; Detroit, Michigan; Miami Beach, Florida; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Hollywood, California. Samuels wrote back GATHER YOU HAVEN’T DONE THE PIECE.
Benchley avoided another engagement by having his mother send this wire from Massachusetts:
SORRY I CAN’T ATTEND LUNCHEON TODAY BECAUSE I AM IN BOSTON. DON’T KNOW WHY I AM IN BOSTON BUT IT MUST BE IMPORTANT BECAUSE HERE I AM.
I don’t know who came up with this — it’s been bouncing around science journals for 50 years:
hydromicrobiogeochemist: one who studies small underwater flora and their relationship to underlying rock strata by using chemical methods
microhydrobiogeochemist: one who studies flora in very small bodies of water and their relationship to underlying rock strata by using chemical methods
microbiohydrogeochemist: one who studies small flora and their relationship to underlying rock strata by using chemical methods and SCUBA equipment
biohydromicrogeochemist: a very small geochemist who studies the effect of plant life in hydrology
hydrobiomicrogeochemist: a very small geochemist who studies wet plants
biomicrohydrogeochemist: a very small, wet geochemist who likes lettuce
While on assignment aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Enterprise, Life photographer Bob Landry submitted a dubious expense report. The magazine wired him:
JUSTIFY EXPENSE ACCOUNT ITEM: TAXIS.
Landry wired back:
DAMN BIG CARRIER.
A man’s wife disappears and he’s accused of killing her. At the trial, his lawyer tells the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have amazing news. Not only is my client’s wife actually alive, but she’ll walk through that door in ten seconds.”
An expectant silence settles over the courtroom, but nothing happens.
“Think about that,” the lawyer says. “The fact that you were watching the door, expecting to see the missing woman, proves that you have a reasonable doubt as to whether a murder was actually committed.”
He sits down confidently, and the judge sends the jury off to deliberate. They return in ten minutes and declare the man guilty.
“Guilty?” says the lawyer. “How can that be? You were all watching the door!”
“Most of us were watching the door,” says the foreman. “But one of us was watching the defendant, and he wasn’t watching the door.”
One day [Ben Franklin] came, half-frozen from his long ride, to a wayside inn. A great crowd was about the fire, and for some time Franklin stood shivering. Suddenly he turned to the hostler.
‘Hostler,’ said he in a loud voice, ‘have you any oysters?’
‘Well, then,’ commanded Franklin in still louder tones, ‘give my horse a peck!’
‘What!’ exclaimed the hostler, ‘give your horse oysters!’
‘Yes,’ said Franklin, ‘give him a peck.’
The hostler, decidedly astonished, prepared the oysters and started for the stable. Everybody instantly arose from the fire-place and rushed out to see the marvellous horse eat oysters. Franklin took the most comfortable seat before the roaring blaze, and calmly awaited developments. Soon all returned, disappointed and shivering.
‘I gave him the oysters, sir,’ said the hostler, ‘but he wouldn’t eat them.’
‘Oh, well, then,’ answered Franklin nonchalantly, ‘I suppose I shall have to eat them myself. Suppose you try him with a peck of oats.’
— Carl Holliday, The Wit and Humor of Colonial Days, 1912