Letter to the Times, April 27, 1910:
Motor-cars are bad enough, but they do not come into one’s house or garden. With aeroplanes total strangers may drop in, through the roof, for a little chat at any time. I fear the law cannot protect one against such intrusion. If aviation becomes popular I shall have spikes, with long strong prongs, fixed on the chimneys of my house, and the word ‘Danger’ painted in large red letters on a flat part of the roof. If any flying machines come down in my garden I shall send for the police to remove the occupants, whom I shall sue afterwards for any damage to my trees or shrubs.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
“A gentleman never looks out of the window.” — Oscar Wilde
“Gentlemen do not take soup at luncheon.” — Lord Curzon
“Gentlemen are never busy — insects and city people are busy.” — Beau Brummel
“A gentleman never encircles the lady’s waist in the waltz until the dance begins, and drops his arm as soon as it ends. He studies to hold the lady lightly and firmly without embracing her.” — The Manners That Win, 1880
“A gentleman never sits in the house with his hat on in the presence of ladies for a single moment. Indeed, so strong is the force of habit, that a gentleman will quite unconsciously remove his hat on entering a parlor, or drawing-room, even if there is no one present but himself. People who sit in the house with their hats on are to be suspected of having spent the most of their time in barrooms, and similar places. A gentleman never sits with his hat on in the theater. Gentlemen do not generally sit even in an eating-room with their hats on, if there is any convenient place to put them.” — Arthur Martine, Martine’s Perfect Letter Writer and American Manual of Etiquette, 1866
This “geographical love enigma” appeared on a German postcard in the early 20th century. Travel north to south through each successive country (green, red, purple, yellow), naming the geographical features you encounter in each, and you’ll produce the fourth song in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder:
Wenn ich in deine Augen seh,
So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh;
Doch wenn ich küsse deinen Mund,
So werd ich ganz und gar gesund.
Wenn ich mich lehn an deine Brust,
Kommt’s über mich wie Himmelslust;
Doch wenn du sprichst: “Ich liebe dich!”
So muss ich weinen bitterlich.
When I look into your eyes,
Then vanish all my sorrow and pain!
Ah, but when I kiss your mouth,
Then I will be wholly and completely healthy.
When I lean on your breast,
I am overcome with heavenly delight,
Ah, but when you say, “I love you!”
Then I must weep bitterly.
The French greet one another with kisses on the cheek, but the number of kisses varies with the département. In 2007 Gilles Debunne set up a website, Combien de bises?, on which his countrymen could record their local customs; to date, after more than 87,000 votes, the results range from 1 kiss in Finistère to 4 in Loire Atlantique.
“It’s a lot more subtle than I ever imagined,” Debunne told the Times. “Sometimes the number of kisses changes depending on whether you’re seeing friends or family or what generation you belong to.”
Some states permit less-than-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases. If a person is convicted of a crime in such a state by a jury that splits, say, nine to three, then has the defendant’s guilt been proved beyond a reasonable doubt? Does the mere existence of outvoted jurors (or their doubts) establish a reasonable doubt that should overturn the majority’s vote to convict? In Johnson v. Louisiana, 406 U.S. 356 (1972), the Supreme Court faced this question and held that it does not; even a split jury can convict a person beyond a reasonable doubt. But in Johnson, the Supreme Court was itself split as much as it could be, five to four. Is there a reasonable doubt as to what constitutes reasonable doubt?
– Peter Suber, The Paradox of Self-Amendment, 1990
With Jose Gonzalez’ “punishment wheel,” patented in 1989, a misbehaving child can randomly choose the punishment he’ll receive. “From the child’s point of view, it appears that an inanimate object is choosing and imposing the punishment, instead of his parents. Direct parent-child conflict is thereby eliminated.”
Available punishments, provided on decals, include NO TV, TIME OUT, GROUNDED, 2ND CHANCE, NO DESSERT, DONATE A TOY, PARENT’S CHOICE, K.P., NO ALLOWANCE, NO SPORTS, NO PHONE, NO FRIENDS, KID’S CHOICE, SWATS [a spanking], NO VISITING, NO TREAT, and HOUSE CHORES. But “the punishments need not be those shown in Fig. 4, but could be any set of punishments, expressed in any language, deemed suitable for the disciplinary style of particular parents and degree of maturity of their child.”
Letter to the Times, Oct. 18, 1968:
This afternoon I caught the 15:05 train from the recently modernized Euston Station.
According to the new electronic departure indicator, its destination was Rugby; according to the ticket collector and a notice on the platform it was Coventry; according to the destination blind on the train it was Wolverhampton. I got off at Watford to hear the station announcer declare it was Wolverhampton and walked home to look it up in my copy of the timetable and discover it was Birmingham.
Perhaps now that their modernization scheme is complete British Rail’s executives will have enough time to decide where their trains are going to?
Related: NATIONAL RAIL TIMETABLES is an anagram of ALL TRAINS AIM TO BE LATE IN.
Ben Franklin’s “rules for making oneself a disagreeable companion,” 1750:
- If possible engross the whole Discourse; and when other Matter fails, talk much of your-self, your Education, your Knowledge, your Circumstances, your Successes in Business, your Victories in Disputes, your own wise Sayings and Observations on particular Occasions, &c. &c. &c.;
- If when you are out of Breath, one of the Company should seize the Opportunity of saying something; watch his Words, and, if possible, find somewhat either in his Sentiment or Expression, immediately to contradict and raise a Dispute upon. Rather than fail, criticise even his Grammar.
- If another should be saying an indisputably good Thing; either give no Attention to it; or interrupt him; or draw away the Attention of others; or, if you can guess what he would be at, be quick and say it before him; or, if he gets it said, and you perceive the Company pleas’d with it, own it to be a good Thing, and withal remark that it had been said by Bacon, Locke, Bayle, or some other eminent Writer; thus you deprive him of the Reputation he might have gain’d by it, and gain some yourself, as you hereby show your great Reading and Memory.
- When modest Men have been thus treated by you a few times, they will chuse ever after to be silent in your Company; then you may shine on without Fear of a Rival; rallying them at the same time for their Dullness, which will be to you a new Fund of Wit.
“Thus you will be sure to please yourself,” he concluded. “The polite Man aims at pleasing others, but you shall go beyond him even in that. A Man can be present only in one Company, but may at the same time be absent in twenty. He can please only where he is, you where-ever you are not.”
Benjamin West undertook this painting of the Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution. The British delegation refused to pose, so he had to abandon it.
As its colonies and dominions won independence, Britain faced a curious legal problem: How can a sovereign release a subject from subjection? If it passes a law, then implicitly the law might someday be repealed, “revoking” the new state’s freedom. And if Parliament promises never to do this, then it’s denying the power of the British people to change their own laws. The 1931 Statute of Westminster solemnized Britain’s intent never again to legislate for the colonies, but in 1935 Parliament ruled that the statute could in principle be repealed. “This was a world-class cartoon of the child with flypaper on its fingers trying to shake it off,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment. “England was learning that it is paradoxical to command another to be free or even to offer another their freedom as a gift.”
In the Philippine Independence Act of 1934, the United States promised that, when a suitable Philippine constitution was ratified, “the United States shall by proclamation withdraw and surrender all right of possession, supervision, jurisdiction, control, or sovereignty then existing and exercised by the United States in and over the territory and people of the Philippine Islands …” But, like Westminster, this is only a statute, and unless Congress can bind itself irrevocably, it might be repealed at any time. Suber writes, “If after a certain time repeal would have no effect on the independence of the former dependent, which is almost certainly the case, then legal formalism cannot explain the source of the independence.”
Stumbled across this in Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, January 1897:
Concatenated Order of Hoo Hoo. This is the name of a Western organization. It was organized by the ‘supreme nine.’ The Snark of the Universe is William Eddy Barns, of St. Louis, Mo. The other officers are designated Senior Hoo Hoo, Junior Hoo Hoo, Bojum, Scrivenoter, Bundersnatch, Custocatian, Arcanoper, Gurdon. There are 24 Vicegerent Snarks for as many States and Territories. This Order was founded in 1891 by nine traveling lumbermen, detained at Kansas City on account of a railroad wreck, and has extended over the Union. Its declared object is the promotion of the ‘health, happiness, and long life of its members.’ The membership is limited to 9,999. The symbol of the Order is a black cat with its back and tail up, chosen because of its traditional nine lives. Brethren are known as kittens. Hoo Hoo day is the ninth day of the ninth month of the year. The annual meeting begins the ninth minute after nine o’clock p.m. on that day. The initiation fee is $9.99, and the annual dues are 99 cents. There is a ritual, and aid is extended to distressed members and their families.
I find, to my great joy, that it still exists. In the intervening 120 years the order has inducted more than 100,000 members and expanded into Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and South Africa. The international office is located one block from the site of the group’s founding.
Lewis Carroll demonstrates a problem with deciding an election by plurality of votes:
Four candidates are ranked by each of 11 electors, and each elector votes for his first choice. “Here A is considered best by three of the electors, and second by all the rest. It seems clear that he ought to be elected; and yet, by the above method, B would be the clear winner — a candidate who is considered worst by seven of the electors!”
“It is a matter for the deepest regret that Dodgson never completed the book he planned to write on this subject,” writes Michael Dummett. “Such was the lucidity of his exposition and mastery of this topic that it seems possible that, had he published it, the political history of Britain would have been significantly different.”
Deluged with mail after his discovery of the double helix, Francis Crick began sending a printed card in response to invitations:
He modeled it on a similar one made by Edmund Wilson:
In 1976 freelance writer Betty Eppes managed to talk to J.D. Salinger for 20 minutes. “He said he didn’t believe in giving autographs. It was a meaningless gesture. He told me never to sign my name for anyone else. It was all right for actors and actresses to sign their names, because all they had to give were their faces and names. But it was different with writers. They had their work to give. Therefore, it was cheap to give autographs. He said, Don’t you ever do it! No self-respecting writer should ever do it.”
See Pen Fatigue.
Motto heartening, inspiring,
Framed above my pretty desk,
Never Shelley, Keats, or Byring
Penned a phrase so picturesque!
But in me no inspiration
Rides my low and prosy brow –
All I think of is vacation
When I see that lucubration:
When I see another sentence
Framed upon a brother’s wall,
Resolution and repentance
Do not flood o’er me at all
As I read that nugatory
Counsel written years ago,
Only when one comes to borry
Do I heed that ancient story:
Mottoes flat and mottoes silly,
Proverbs void of point or wit,
“KEEP A-PLUGGIN’ WHEN IT’S HILLY!”
“LIFE’S A TIGER: CONQUER IT!”
Office mottoes make me weary
And of all the bromide bunch
There is only one I seri-
Ously like, and that’s the cheery:
– Franklin Pierce Adams, Tobogganning on Parnassus, 1913
An old philosophical friend of mine was grown, from experience, very cautious in this particular, and carefully avoided any intimacy with [captious, overcritical] people. He had, like other philosophers, a thermometer to show him the heat of the weather, and a barometer to mark when it was likely to prove good or bad; but there being no instrument invented to discover, at first sight, this unpleasing disposition in a person, he, for that purpose, made use of his legs; one of which was remarkably handsome, the other, by some accident, crooked and deformed. If a stranger, at first interview, regarded his ugly leg more than his handsome one, he doubted him — if he spoke of it, and took no notice of the handsome leg, that was sufficient to determine my philosopher to have no farther acquaintance with him. Every body has not this two-legged instrument; but every one, with a little attention, may observe signs of that carping, fault-finding disposition, and take the same resolution of avoiding the acquaintance of those infected with it. I therefore advise those critical, querulous, discontented, unhappy people — if they wish to be respected and beloved by others, and happy in themselves, they should leave off looking at the ugly leg.
– Benjamin Franklin, 1780
“Last night Mr. Creston Clarke played King Lear at the Tabor Grand. All through the five acts of that Shakespearean tragedy he played the King as though under momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace.” — Eugene Field, Denver Tribune, c. 1880
When Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965, CERN director Victor Weisskopf worried that he would be driven out of physics and into administration. He goaded Feynman into signing a wager before witnesses:
Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e. before the THIRTY FIRST DAY OF DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said MR. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’
The two agreed: “For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.”
Feynman, who once called administration an “occupational disease,” collected the $10 in 1976.
Proverbs from around the world:
- A shroud has no pockets. (Scotland)
- No one is a blacksmith at birth. (Namibia)
- The absent always bears the blame. (Netherlands)
- One cannot make soup out of beauty. (Estonia)
- Bad is called good when worse happens. (Norway)
- When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole. (Gambia)
- Under trees it rains twice. (Switzerland)
- Everyone is foolish until they buy land. (Ireland)
- Every head is a world. (Cuba)
- The only victory over love is flight. (France)
- Don’t look where you fell, but where you slipped. (Liberia)
- Many lose when they win, and others win when they lose. (Germany)
And “It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.” (China)
Sinclair Lewis received this letter from a lawyer in a Midwestern city:
Have read a few of your works and would like to ask a few favors. Please send me a list of your stories, your autograph, picture, and a letter describing your life. How many children have you and their names.
Thanking you, I am
Yours very truly,
J.J. Jones, Esq.
My Dear Jim:
There was only one thing about your nice letter that I didn’t like. It was so sort of formal. True, we have never met, and somehow I feel we aren’t likely to, but, isn’t this a democratic country? So let me call you Jim, and you call me Fatty, or any other friendly name.
Now Jim, I haven’t got a photograph of me here, but I’ll go right down to the junction and have one taken. I’m preparing a letter about my life, but it’s been a pretty long one and a bad one, and that will take me several weeks.
But in the meantime, Jim, I’m awfully interested in lawyers. Kindly send me your picture, picture of your home and office, a list of your assets and liabilities, average income per month, list of the books you have read since 1914, if any. Kindly inform me whether you have ever defended a bootlegger and why. Should be glad to have any other interesting personal information for use in a story. How do you get along with your wife? Kindly explain this in detail.
Thanking you in advance, I remain,
Irritating sayings of parents, compiled by students ages 12 and 13 at Toot Hill Comprehensive School, Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, in 1978:
Isn’t it time you thought about bed?
It must be somewhere
You speak to him, Harold, he won’t listen to me.
Who do you think I am?
You’d better ask your father
It’s late enough as it is
Don’t eat with your mouth open
In this day and age
Did anybody ask your opinion
I remember when I was a boy
And after all we do for you
You’re not talking to your school friends now you know
Why don’t you do it the proper way
I’m only trying to tell you
What did I just say
Now, wrap up warm
B.E.D. spells bed
Sit up straight and don’t gobble your food
For the five hundredth time
Don’t let me ever see you do that again.
Have you made your bed?
Can’t you look further than your nose?
No more lip
Have you done your homework?
Because I say so.
Don’t come those fancy ways here
Any more and you’ll be in bed
My, haven’t you grown
Some day I won’t be here, then you’ll see
A chair’s for sitting on
You shouldn’t need telling at your age.
Want, want, want, that’s all you ever say
“I don’t think my parents liked me,” wrote Woody Allen. “They put a live teddy bear in my crib.”
When Benjamin Franklin was 7 years old he was charmed by the sound of a whistle owned by another boy, so he went to a toy shop and volunteered all his money for one. He played it all over the house, annoying his family, until they told him that he had paid four times its price. At that he cried with vexation, and “the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.”
For the rest of his life, Franklin recalled this episode as a warning to reckon the cost of every attainment:
When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, this man gives too much for his whistle.
When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, ‘He pays, indeed,’ said I, ‘too much for his whistle.’
If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, ‘Poor man,’ said I, ‘you pay too much for your whistle.’
When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, ‘Mistaken man,’ said I, ‘you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.’
If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, ‘Alas!’ say I, ‘he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle.’
When I see a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, ‘What a pity,’ say I, ‘that she should pay so much for a whistle!’
“In short,” he wrote, “I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.”
I must tell you a nice little story which is quite true and will amuse you. The King has taken lately to writing verse. Messieurs de Saint-Aignan and Dangeau are teaching him how to set about it. The other day he wrote a little madrigal, which he himself did not think much of. One morning he said to Maréchale de Gramont, ‘Monsieur le Maréchale, will you kindly read this little madrigal and see whether you have ever seen anything so pointless? Just because it is known that I have recently taken to liking verses, people bring me all kinds.’ Having read it the Marshal said, ‘Sire, your Majesty is an inspired judge of everything, and it is true that this is the silliest and most ridiculous madrigal I have ever read.’ The King burst out laughing and said, ‘Isn’t it true that whoever wrote this is a conceited puppy?’ ‘Sire, he cannot be called anything else.’ ‘That’s excellent,’ said the King. ‘I am delighted that you have spoken so candidly; I wrote it myself.’ ‘Oh, Sire, what treachery! Will your Majesty please give it back to me, I only glanced through it rapidly.’ ‘No, Monsieur le Maréchale, first impressions are always the most natural.’ The King laughed very much at this trick, but everyone thinks it is the most cruel thing one can do to an old courtier. Personally I always like reflecting about things, and I wish the King would think about this example and conclude how far he is from ever learning the truth.
– Madame de Sévigné to Simon Arnauld, Dec. 1, 1664
Instructions on proper comportment on meeting Queen Charlotte, from a letter from Fanny Burney to her sister Esther, Dec. 17, 1785:
In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke — but not cough.
In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have a vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if your nose-membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel — but not sneeze.
In the third place, you must not, upon any account, stir either hand or foot. If, by chance, a black pin runs into your head, you must not take it out. If the pain is very great, you must be sure to bear it without wincing; if it brings the tears into your eyes, you must not wipe them off; if they give you a tingling by running down your cheeks, you must look as if nothing was the matter. If the blood should gush from your head by means of the black pin, you must let it gush; if you are uneasy to think of making such a blurred appearance, you must be uneasy, but you must say nothing about it. If, however, the agony is very great, you may, privately, bite the inside of your cheek, or of your lips, for a little relief; taking care, meanwhile, to do it so cautiously as to make no apparent dent outwardly. And, with that precaution, if you even gnaw a piece out, it will not be minded, only be sure either to swallow it, or commit it to a corner of the inside of your mouth till they are gone — for you must not spit.
“You would never believe — you, who, distant from courts and courtiers, know nothing of their ways — the many things to be studied, for appearing with a proper propriety before crowned heads,” she wrote. “Heads without crowns are quite other sort of rotundas.”
A little light might be shed, with advantage, upon the high-handed methods of the Passport Department at the Foreign Office. On the form provided for the purpose, I described my face as ‘intelligent’. Instead of finding this characterization entered, I have received a passport on which some official utterly unknown to me has taken it upon himself to call my face ‘oval’.
Yours very truly,
– Letter to the Times, February 17, 1915
We are never so virtuous as when we are ill. Has a sick man ever been tempted by greed or lust? He is neither a slave to his passions nor ambitious for office; he cares nothing for wealth and is content with the little he has, knowing that he must leave it. It is then that he remembers the gods and realizes that he is mortal: he feels neither envy, admiration, nor contempt for any man: not even slanderous talk can win his attention or give him food for thought, and his dreams are all of baths and cool springs. These are his sole concern, the object of all his prayers; meanwhile he resolves that if he is lucky enough to recover he will lead a sober and easy life in future, that is, a life of happy innocence.
So here for our guidance is the rule, put shortly, which the philosophers seek to express in endless words and volumes: in health we should continue to be the men we vowed to become when sickness prompted our words.
– Pliny the Younger, letter to Valerius Marcinius
James Thurber described the “Sesumarongi” as “a backward tribe but a tribe that is all around us.”