“Did you ever notice that remarkable coincidence? Bernard Shaw is 61 years old. H.G. Wells is 51, G.K. Chesterton is 41, you’re 31 and I’m 21 — all the great authors of the world in arithmetical progression.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald in a 1918 letter to Shane Leslie

What Is It?

Here’s one of the most beautiful riddles in the English language. It’s commonly attributed to Byron, but it was composed in 1814 by Catherine Maria Fanshawe, the daughter of a Surrey squire:

‘Twas whispered in heaven, ’twas muttered in hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth ’twas permitted to rest,
And the depths of the ocean its presence confessed.
‘Twill be found in the sphere when ’tis riven asunder;
‘Tis seen in the lightning, and heard in the thunder.
‘Twas allotted to man from his earliest breath;
It assists at his birth, and attends him in death;
It presides o’er his happiness, honour, and health;
Is the prop of his house, and the end of his wealth.
In the heap of the miser ’tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost in his prodigal heir.
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
It prays with the hermit, with monarchs is crowned.
Without it the soldier and seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home.
In the whispers of conscience ’tis sure to be found;
Nor e’en in the whirlwind of passion is drowned.
‘Twill soften the heart, and though deaf to the ear,
‘Twill make it acutely and constantly hear.
But, in short, let it rest like a beautiful flower;
Oh, breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour.

What is it?

Click for Answer

Scales of Justice

Charles De Gaulle said, “I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

The town of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire has found a practical solution: It weighs its mayors at the start and end of each term.

Any weight gain is deemed to have been made at taxpayers’ expense, and it’s met with jeers and the occasional tomato.

No one knows how the custom began, but it dates at least from the time of Edward I and apparently was once widespread. Wycombe is the only town in England where it survives.

“A Huge Cuttlefish”

On the 26th of April, 1875, a very large Calamary (or Squid) was met with on the northwest of Biffin Island, Connemara [Ireland]. The crew of a curragh (or coracle) observed to seaward a large floating mass surrounded with gulls. They pulled out to it, believing it to be wreck, but to their astonishment found it was an enormous cuttlefish, lying perfectly still, as if basking on the surface of the water. Paddling up with caution, they lopped off one of its arms. The animal immediately set out to sea, rushing through the water at a tremendous pace. The men gave chase, and, after a hard pull in their frail canvas craft, came up with it, five miles out in the open Atlantic, and severed another of the arms and the head. These portions are now in the Dublin Museum. The shorter arms measure each eight feet in length, and fifteen inches round the base; the tentacular arms (or longer arms) are said to have been thirty feet long. The body sank.

(Recounted in The World of Wonders, 1883)

A Little Night Music"

Everyone clamors for musical birth control, but no one does anything about it. No one, that is, until Paul Lyons, who offered this pressure-activated musical condom in 1991. The patent abstract promises it’s amusing, entertaining, unusual, and “capable of producing a surprise effect.”

The music or voice message may be played once (e.g., an overture or melody may be played for about 20 seconds), or it may be repeated continuously for several minutes to coincide with the duration of coitus.

What to play? That’s up to you — Lyons recommends the 1812 Overture, “The Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Happy Birthday to You,” “The Anniversary Waltz,” or “any popular love song.”

A Wide Vocabulary

Doug Nufer’s 2004 novel Never Again is aptly named — in 202 pages he never uses the same word twice. Here’s the first sentence:

When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.

And here’s the last (and the moral):

Worldly bookmaker soulmates rectify unfair circumstance’s recurred tragedies, ever-moving, ever-hedging shifty playabilities since chances say someone will be for ever closing racetracks.

It’s an example of an Oulipo exercise in constrained writing — here’s another.

The Royal Scam

Sir Walter Raleigh once made a wager with Elizabeth that he could weigh the smoke from his tobacco pipe.

When she accepted, he weighed his tobacco, smoked the pipe, and then weighed the ashes that remained.

The queen paid him. “I have seen many a man turn his gold into smoke,” she said, “but you are the first who has turned his smoke into gold.”


“Moreover, the satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can exercise no influence over the Earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist.” — Astronomer Francesco Sizzi, on Galileo’s claim to have seen the moons of Jupiter