First Principles

This prudence of not attempting to give reasons before one is sure of facts, I learnt from one of your sex, who, as Selden tells us, being in company with some gentlemen that were viewing, and considering something which they called a Chinese shoe, and disputing earnestly about the manner of wearing it, and how it could possibly be put on; put in her word, and said modestly, Gentlemen, are you sure it is a shoe? — Should not that be settled first?

— Benjamin Franklin, letter to Mary Stevenson, Sept. 13, 1760

“On Not Being Able to Read My Wife’s Handwriting”

I think of my wife’s penmanship as a race
Of dwarves drowning in a cursive swamp, or
Lost, hands waving, as consonants rush face
To face into unmitigated vowels. On the door
To our refrigerator one early morning note, or
A map of Tasmania with spasmodic X’s
Which might mean kisses or malfunctioning T’s.
Oh, Momma, Momma, why didn’t you warn me:
“Never marry a woman whose handwriting
You cannot read.” Full-blown capital R’s
Turned on their sides. My wife has either
Run off with the plumber (or is it carpenter?)
To inaugurate correspondences from Paris,
Or she wishes me to purchase for supper
Hornet butter, three pounds of javelins, and/or
One large rat to stab behind the arras.
Am I holding her message upside down? Possibly.
Now I shall suffer in suspense all day until night
To discover the full-mouthed truth of her scrawl.

— Louis Phillips

Crowd Control

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CalhounJ.JPG

In July 1968, ethologist John B. Calhoun built a “mouse utopia,” a metal enclosure 9 feet square with unlimited food, water, and nesting material. He introduced four pairs of mice, and within a year they had multiplied to 620. But after that the society began to fall apart — males became aggressive, females began neglecting their young, and the weaker mice were crowded to the center of the pen, where resources were scarce. After 600 days the females stopped reproducing and the males withdrew from them entirely, and by January 1973 the whole colony was dead. Even when the population had returned to its former levels, the mice’s behavior had remained permanently changed.

There were no predators in the mouse universe; the only adversity was confinement itself. Calhoun felt that his experiment held lessons as to the potential dangers of human overpopulation, and he urged his colleagues to study the effects of high population density on human behavior. “Our success in being human has so far derived from our honoring deviance more than tradition,” he said. “Now we must search diligently for those creative deviants from which, alone, will come the conceptualization of an evolutionary designing process. This can assure us an open-ended future toward whose realization we can participate.”

(Thanks, Pål.)

Open and Shut

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.”

The Last Resort

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_VICTORIOUS_MOD_45137612.jpg

In the control room of each of the United Kingdom’s four nuclear submarines is a safe. Inside the safe is another safe, and inside that is a handwritten letter from the prime minister to the submarine’s commander telling him what to do if a nuclear strike has destroyed the British state.

When a new prime minister takes office, his letters are destroyed unopened, so it’s not clear how extensive the instructions are. According to the 2009 BBC Radio 4 report The Human Button, they include these options:

  • Retaliate with nuclear weapons.
  • Do not retaliate with nuclear weapons.
  • Use your own judgment.
  • Place yourself under the command of the United States or Australia, if possible.

“In that letter,” wrote the Daily Mail in 2008, “Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”

(Thanks, Zach.)

In a Word

ambilevous
adj. “left-handed on both sides”; clumsy

Three Riddles

From Henry Dudeney’s 300 Best Word Puzzles:

  1. What is that from which you may take away the whole and yet have some left?
  2. What is it which goes with an automobile, and comes with it; is of no use to it, and yet the automobile cannot move without it?
  3. Take away my first letter and I remain unchanged; take away my second letter and I remain unchanged; take away my third letter and I remain unchanged; take away all my letters and still I remain exactly the same.
Click for Answer

Enfant Terrible

https://www.google.com/patents/US2422254

Anthony Peronti wasn’t messing around when he designed this baby carriage, a sheet-metal torpedo with welded fenders and a tanklike tread:

With the above described construction I have provided a baby carriage which will move easily and quietly over any type of surface and by virtue of the flexibility of the springs, curbstones, door-steps and other minor obstacles can be negotiated without tilting the body of the carriage and with a minimum of jarring or discomfort to the passenger.

He filed the patent in November 1945, so perhaps he’d been inspired by the battlefield.

Kids Today

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times. It is false and wrong and no longer does anyone pay attention to what our beloved old masters wrote about composition. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

I remain faithful to the pure old composition and pure rules. I have often walked out of the church since I could no longer listen to that mountain yodeling. I hope this worthless modern coinage will fall into disuse and that new coins will be forged according to the fine old stamp and standard.

— Samuel Scheidt, to Heinrich Baryphonus, Jan. 26, 1651

Unquote

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Forbidden_fruit.jpg

“Adam was but human — this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” — Mark Twain