In the 1970s, Forrest Ackerman sold this story to Vertex for $100:

Cosmic Report Card: Earth

He resold it four times for the same amount, and it’s been translated into three languages.

The “shortest horror story ever written” is usually attributed to Fredric Brown:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.

Ron Smith shortened this further by changing knock to lock.

Breaking Fast

A father exhorting his son to rise early in the morning reminded him of the old adage ‘It’s the early bird that picks up the worm.’ ‘Ah,’ replied the son, ‘but the worm gets up earlier than the bird.’

The Book of Humour: Wit & Wisdom, 1867

“The Most Desperate Naval Battle”

On the twenty-third of December, 1757, the British privateer Terrible, Captain William Death (who had Devil for his lieutenant and Ghost for his surgeon), of twenty-six guns and two hundred men, captured a large French ship, after an obstinate battle, in which he lost his brother and sixteen men killed. A few days after, he fell in with the privateer Vengeance, thirty-six guns and three hundred and sixty men, who recaptured the prize, and, having manned her, both ships bore down on the Terrible, whose main was shot away by the first broadside. After a desperate engagement, in which the French captain and his lieutenant were killed, with two thirds of his crew, the Terrible was boarded, when no more than twenty-six persons were found alive, sixteen of whom had lost an arm or a leg, the remaining ten being badly wounded. The ship, which had been equipped at Execution dock, was so shattered that it could scarcely be kept above water.

— Albert Plympton Southwick, Quizzism; And Its Key, 1884

The Penny Game

Two robots are playing a game. Between them is a pile of coins. Each robot, on its turn, can take either one or two coins from the pile. So long as each elects to take one coin, play continues until the pile is exhausted. If either elects to take two, the remaining coins vanish and the game ends.

One might think that the best plan would be always to take a single coin, but if both players are rational and know it, the first player will immediately take two pennies and end the game.

He reasons thus: If there were only two pennies in the pile, I’d benefit most by taking both of them rather than just one. Now suppose there were three pennies. If I took only one, then I would leave my opponent in the position I just imagined, and being rational he’d take both remaining pennies. Therefore I should take two of the three.

And so on backward, up to any arbitrary number of pennies. Paradoxically, it seems, improvident greed is more rational than constructive cooperation. Adapted from Hollis, Martin and Sugden, Robert (1993) “Rationality in action.” Mind 103:1-35, referenced in R.M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes, 2009.

See Tug of War.

“The Hidden Star”

dudeney - hidden star

From Henry Dudeney:

The ilustration represents a square tablecloth of choice silk patchwork. This was put together by the members of a family as a little birthday present for one of its number. One of the contributors supplied a portion in the form of a perfectly symmetrical star, and this has been worked in exactly as it was received. But the triangular pieces so confuse the eye that it is quite a puzzle to find the hidden star.

Can you discover it, so that, if you wished, by merely picking out the stitches, you could extract it from the other portions of the patchwork?

“An Untaught Highlander”

We don’t know much about Angus McDiarmid, except that he’s been called “the world’s worst author.” His 1815 book Striking and Picturesque Delineations of the Grand, Beautiful, Wonderful, and Interesting Scenery Around Loch-Earn is a bewildering mess of bad grammar and obscure language — apparently he composed it in his native Scottish Gaelic and then salted it with impressive words from an English dictionary, without much regard to their parts of speech:

The foresaid high Grampian mountains abounded with spasmodiac opening, or excavated parts, that if a loud cry made at accommodious distant, they would sounded the same in such miraculous manner, that one apt to conceive that each parts of those spasmodiac rocks imbibed the vociferation which is depressing gradually the sonorofic sound to the expiry thereof.

But the high point is the dedication, which William Shepard Walsh calls “as grovelling and abject as the worst example in the very worst periods of authorial servility”:

To the Right Honorable the Earl of Breadalbane. May it please your lordship, with overpowering sentiments of the most profound humility, I prostrate myself at your noble feet, while I offer, to your Lordship’s high consideration, those very feeble attempts to describe the indescribable and ineffable beauties of your Lordship’s delicious estate of Edinample. With tumid emotions of heart-distending pride, and with fervescent feelings of gratitude, I beg leave to acknowledge the honor I have to serve so noble a master, and the many advantages which I, in common with your Lordship’s other menials, enjoy from the exuberance of your princely liberality. That your Lordship may long shine with refulgent brilliancy in the exalted station to which Providence has raised you, and that your noble family, like a bright constellation, may diffuse a splendor and glory through the high sphere of their attraction, is the fervent prayer of your lordship’s most humble and most devoted servant, Angus McDiarmid.

The whole book is here.

A Ghoul and His Money

In 1771, two heirs, a Mr. Pigot and a Mr. Codrington, made a wager as to whose father would die first. A friend computed the odds based on each father’s age, and when Codrington objected that these were unfair, the Earl of March agreed to stand in his place. They agreed that Pigot would pay March 500 guineas if his own father died before Sir William Codrington, and March would pay Pigot 1,600 guineas if Codrington died first.

Unfortunately, old Pigot was already dead — he had died at 2 a.m. that very morning. On learning this, his son refused to pay the wager, contending that the contract was void, “for there was no possibility of the defendant’s winning, his father being then actually dead, and therefore he ought not to lose.” But March sued him and won.

“It was sneakingly mean and inconsiderate in the old man to die in this underhand way, and thus subject his son, the companion of young noblemen, to the mortification of having bet against a dead certainty,” writes Irving Browne in Humorous Phases of the Law (1876). “But it was what you might expect of old Pigot, for the record does not show that he was of noble blood, and so we infer he was plebeian, and knew no better.”

Such, Such Were the Joys

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

“My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” — Margaret Mead

“My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself.” — George Bernard Shaw