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Gender Issues

In a certain kingdom, boys and girls are born in strictly equal proportions. Determined to increase the proportion of women in the land, the sultan issues a decree: Any woman who bears a son is forbidden to have any further children. He reasons that some families will thus contain multiple daughters but a single son.

A number of years pass, and the sultan is confused to find that the kingdom still contains an equal number of boys and girls. Why?

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In a Word

n. waking up

n. ill humor in the morning; “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”

“An Extraordinary Sleeper at Newcastle”

In the year 1752, during the summer, the following particulars happened at Newcastle, in Staffordshire, related by a lady of discernment and veracity, who went to see the sleeper several times. She was a girl about 19 years of age; she slept 14 weeks, without waking, although several methods were tried to wake her, as bleeding, blistering, &c.; in all which time she took no sustenance, except about nine o’clock every night, she opened her mouth, and then some person that attended her, dipped a feather in wine, and with that wetted the inside of her mouth. Her father often gave her an airing in a horse chair, and sometimes took her several miles, to have the advice of the physicians; but neither the motion of travelling, nor any thing the physicians could do, could awake her; she appeared to be healthy all the time, breathed freely, and her pulse beat very regularly, but rather too slow; she never moved herself all the time, except once, it is thought, she moved one leg. When she awaked, it was very gradually, being two or three days from the time she began to stir and open her eyes, before she was quite awake, and then seemed to be very well, but complained of faintness. I heard, last summer, that she had good health, and had no return of her sleepiness.

Gentleman’s Magazine, 1753, quoted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820

Tied Up

horace de vere cole string trick

Posing as a surveyor, English prankster Horace de Vere Cole asked a passerby to hold one end of a length of string while he made a measurement. He chose the “pompous sort of good citizen of the bowler hat and rolled umbrella sort,” according to his friend David Scott-Moncrieff. Then he walked around a corner and give the other end to “another consequential ass.”

“Both victims held their ends for fully ten minutes, each invisible to the other, while the perpetrator of the joke quietly slipped away and joined me in a pub commanding a full view of the fun,” Scott-Moncrieff wrote later. “It succeeded far better than I had dared to hope, due to his brilliant selection of two absolutely perfect victims. Each blamed the other, and they nearly came to blows.”

On his honeymoon in 1919, Cole deposited neat piles of horse manure on Venice’s Piazza San Marco … which was devoid of horses. More of his pranks.

“Capture of a Whale in the Thames”

A curious old tract in the British Museum, bearing the date of 1658, gives an account of a wonderful capture of a whale in the Thames, not far from Greenwich, in the month of June of that year. The sailors in the river were, of course, anxious to secure the huge monster who had been so rash as to invade our shores; but they found no slight difficulty in despatching it. All sorts of swords, axes, and hatchets, and even guns were brought into the service; but nothing effectual could be done till some one’s ingenuity suggested striking a couple of anchors into the creature’s body. By these it was held fast, and very soon bled to death. Hundreds of people flocked to see the monstrous stranger, and among others went Evelyn, author of the ‘Diary,’ who has left us a curious account of it. It was of no contemptible size, being fifty-eight feet long, twelve feet high, fourteen feet broad, and measured two feet between the eyes.

The World of Wonders, 1883

Math Notes

91 multiplication

Race to the Bottom

In 1979, Time magazine reported that Zachary Zzzra had been nudged out of last place in San Francisco’s telephone directory by Zelda Zzzwramp. He added another Z to his name but was then overtaken by Vladimir Zzzzzzabakov.

So he changed his name to Zzzzzzzzzra.

Zzzzzzzzzra was really Bill Holland, a 59-year-old painting contractor who told potential customers to look him up in the back of the book. The gimmick worked, he said, but his phone bill often exceeded $400. “People making illegal calls from phone booths look up the last name in the book and charge them to me,” he said. “I don’t pay a damn one of them.”

The Deconstructed Self

Someone in whose power I am tells me that I am going to be tortured tomorrow. I am frightened, and look forward to tomorrow in great apprehension. He adds that when the time comes, I shall not remember being told that this was going to happen to me, since shortly before the torture something else will be done to me which will make me forget the announcement. This certainly will not cheer me up, since I know perfectly well that I can forget things, and that there is such a thing as indeed being tortured unexpectedly because I had forgotten or been made to forget a prediction of the torture: that will still be a torture which, so long as I do know about the prediction, I look forward to in fear. He then adds that my forgetting the announcement will be only part of a larger process: when the moment of torture comes, I shall not remember any of the things I am now in a position to remember. This does not cheer me up, either, since I can readily conceive of being involved in an accident, for instance, as a result of which I wake up in a completely amnesiac state and also in great pain; that could certainly happen to me, I should not like it happen to me, nor to know that it was going to happen to me. He know further adds that at the moment of torture I shall not only not remember the things I am now in a position to remember, but will have a different set of impressions of my past, quite different from the memories I now have. I do not think that this would cheer me up, either. For I can at least conceive the possibility, if not the concrete reality, of going completely mad, and thinking perhaps that I am George IV or somebody; and being told that something like that was going to happen to me would have no tendency to reduce the terror of being told authoritatively that I was going to be tortured, but would merely compound the horror. Nor do I see why I should be put into any better frame of mind by the person in charge adding lastly that the impressions of my past with which I shall be equipped on the eve of torture will exactly fit the past of another person now living, and that indeed I shall acquire these impressions by (for instance) information now in his brain being copied into mine. Fear, surely, would still be the proper reaction: and not because one did not know what was going to happen, but because in one vital respect at least one did know what was going to happen — torture, which one can indeed expect to happen to oneself, and to be preceded by certain mental derangements as well. If this is right, the whole question seems now to be totally mysterious.

– Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self, 1973

Odd and Even


Well, it’s our old friend the mysterious pouch. Today the pouch contains a random quantity of marbles, and we’re going to withdraw a handful. But first, consider:

  • If the bag contains an even number of marbles, then we are equally likely to withdraw an even or an odd number. For instance, if it contains 4 marbles, then we are equally likely to withdraw 2 or 4 as 1 or 3.
  • But if the pouch contains an odd number of marbles, then we’re more likely to withdraw an odd number, as there’s one more way of choosing an odd number than an even number. For example, if the pouch contains 5 marbles then we’re more likely to draw 1, 3, or 5 than 2 or 4.

This is troubling. Without even opening the pouch we seem to have decided that, on balance, we’re more likely to withdraw an odd number of marbles than an even. Indeed, this seems to mean that handfuls in general are more commonly odd than even. How can this be?

The Fateful L

Harry B. Partridge points out that most presidents whose names have contained a penultimate L — Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Franklin Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy — have died in office or survived an assassination attempt. He speculates that Gerald Ford survived because he was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., and that Theodore Roosevelt was divinely spared because THEO means God. (James Polk died three months after leaving office.)

Partridge also notes that a name with patronymic prefix (Mc, Fitz, etc.) is invariably fatal. To date there have been only two: William McKinley and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

See Tecumseh’s Curse.


In 1985, 61-year-old Oreste Lodi came up with a novel way to raid his own trust fund: He sued himself. In a suit filed in the Shasta County (Calif.) Superior Court, Lodi named himself as defendant, failed to answer the complaint, then asked that a default judgment be entered against himself.

When a judge threw out the case, he appealed to the Third Appellate District, filing briefs on both sides. Unfortunately, the appeals court called Lodi’s case “a slam-dunk frivolous complaint.”

“This result cannot be unfair to Mr. Lodi,” it noted. “Although it is true that, as plaintiff and appellant, he loses, it is equally true that, as defendant and respondent, he wins! It is hard to imagine a more evenhanded application of justice.”