The Before-Effect

Let the peal of a gong be heard in the last half of a minute, a second peal in the preceding 1/4 minute, a third peal in the 1/8 minute before that, etc. ad infinitum. … Of particular interest is the following puzzling case. Let us assume that each peal is so very loud that, upon hearing it, anyone is struck deaf — totally and permanently. At the end of the minute we shall be completely deaf (any one peal being sufficient), but we shall not have heard a single peal! For at most we could have heard only one of the peals (any single peal striking one deaf instantly), and which peal could we have heard? There simply was no first peal.

— Jose Benardete, Infinity: An Essay in Metaphysics, 1964

Pen Slips

  • In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats writes of Cortez discovering the Pacific Ocean. Balboa did.
  • In Ivanhoe, Malvoisin’s first name changes from Philip to Richard.
  • In War and Peace, Vera is 17 in 1805 and 24 in 1809.
  • In Eugene O’Neill’s Where the Cross Is Made, the stage directions call for a one-armed man to sit at a table “resting his elbows, his chin in his hands.”
  • In the Aeneid, Chorinaeus and Numa die and then reappear with no explanation.

In Little Dorrit, Chapter 33, Tattycoram appears with “an iron box some two feet square” in her arms. Writes Ebenezer Brewer in his Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, “She must have been a pretty strong girl, with very long arms.”

In a Word

n. the endurance of suffering

adj. capable of being endured

n. patient endurance of hardship

Pie in the Sky,_1896.jpg

In an editorial on Dec. 10, 1903, the New York Times advised inventor Samuel Langley to stop experimenting with flying machines. “We hope that Professor Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time, and the money involved, in further airship experiments. Life is short, and he is capable of services to humanity incomparably greater than can be expected to result from trying to fly. … For students and investigators of the Langley type there are more useful employments.”

One week later, the Wright brothers made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk.

One such error is understandable, but 17 years later the Times made essentially the same mistake.


A famous councilor of Zurich … relates that Guillaume de Saluces, who was Bishop of Lausanne from 1221 to 1229, ordered the eels of Lake Leman to confine themselves to a certain part, from which they were not to go out. …

The summonses against offending animals were served by an officer of the criminal court, who read these citations at the places frequented by them. Though judgment was given by default on the non-appearance of the animals summoned, yet it was considered necessary that some of them should be present when the citation was delivered; thus, in the case of the leeches tried at Lausanne, a number of them were brought into court to hear the document read, which admonished them to leave the district in three days.

— William Jones, “Legal Prosecutions of Animals,” The Popular Science Monthly, September 1880


On Feb. 12, 1908, mechanic George Schuster joined five other motorists in Times Square to undertake an insanely ambitious race to Paris — by driving west to Alaska, across the Bering Strait, and then all the way through Siberia and Europe, a total of 20,000 miles.

“The drivers would surely have to make their own roads in many districts, and for many days most of the driving would be done on the low gear,” consultant Joe Tracy told the New York Times, which co-sponsored the contest. Tracy recommended that each team carry a windlass and block and tackle “to pull the car up steep grades and prevent it from dashing over cliffs in going down the mountains.”

One team got stuck in Hudson Valley snow, a second got lost in Iowa, a third was caught loading its car onto a train, and a fourth dropped out in Russia. Schuster finally arrived in Paris on July 30 to take first place, 170 days after leaving New York.

The prize was $1,000, but appallingly Schuster didn’t collect it until 60 years after the race, when he was 95 years old and nearly blind. After realizing its oversight the Times presented the payment at a 1968 dinner in Buffalo, acknowledging “what is probably the slowest payoff in racing history.”

In Memoriam

Speaking of unfortunate names …

From Cedar Grove Cemetery, Patchogue, N.Y.

“People always grow up like their names,” wrote George Orwell. “It took me nearly thirty years to work off the effects of being called Eric.”

(Thanks, Neil.)

Reaper Madness

Suppose we find some coherent way to formulate the view that a person’s death is a misfortune for him because it deprives him of goods. Then we face another Epicurean question: when is it a misfortune for him? It seems wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him while he is still alive — for at such times he is not yet dead and death has not yet deprived him of anything. It seems equally wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him after he is dead — for at such times he does not exist. How can he suffer misfortunes then?

— Fred Feldman, “Some Puzzles About the Evil of Death,” The Philosophical Review, April 1991

Signature Style

In the 1940s, newspaper columnist E.V. Durling founded the My-Name-Is-A-Poem Club. Members included:

  • Hugh Blue, president
  • Jesse Lesse, Boston
  • Merry Berry, Chicago
  • Max Wax, Chicago
  • Hollie Jolley, San Bernardino, Calif.
  • Della Stella Serritella, Chicago
  • Jane Cane, Wheaton, Ill.
  • Newton Hooton, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Kenny Tenny and his daughter Penny, San Francisco
  • Dick Vick and his son Dick Jr., San Diego
  • Trudy Moody, Newburgh, N.Y.

Durling said his favorites were Nancy Clancy and Truly Dooley.

Here are a few more odd personal names, these from Elsdon Coles Smith’s Treasury of Name Lore (1967), “all names of real persons”:

  • Original Bug
  • Ephraim Very Ott
  • Gladys Whysoglad
  • Park A. Carr
  • Fairy Duck
  • Vito d’Incognito
  • North Western
  • Napoleon N. Waterloo
  • Tressanela Noosepickle
  • Osbel Irizarry
  • Athelstan Spilhaus
  • Weikko Tinklepaugh
  • Twilladeen Hubkapiller

According to Smith, Canadian broadcaster Clyde Gilmour founded the Society for the Verification and Enjoyment of Fascinating Names of Actual Persons (SVEFNAP) while working for the Toronto Telegraph. Gilmour died in 1997, though, I think, and I can’t find any record that the society survived. If you know otherwise, please let me know.

Good Boy

Rita A. Della Vecchia’s 1988 invention pets your dog while you’re at the office:

One of the primary elements of this relationship of man with domestic pets seems to be the scratching, stroking and petting of a pet that can be accomplished by its human symbiont by reason of his greater dexterity. … The instant invention provides a mechanical device to simulate this activity for pets without requiring human attention, with the thought that, by reason of the learned behavior of such animals, the animal will associate this activity, as to its source of origin, with its human symbiont.

Thanks to other inventors, you can offer the same treatment to your baby and even to yourself.