Worth a Try

Publicity hound Jim Moran brought a sealed case of playing cards to a meeting of magicians. One randomly chosen audience member opened the case, a second chose a deck, a third opened the deck, a fourth cut it, and a fifth chose a card.

Moran said, “It’s the six of diamonds.”

It wasn’t. “But if it had been the six of diamonds,” Moran said later, “those bastards would still be talking about it.”


An Irishman was crouching on the border of a copse with an old, rusty, broken fire-lock in his hands, and his eyes intently and slyly fixed on a particular spot. A neighbor, happening to pass there, asked him what he was about.

‘Hush!’ said Pat, ‘a rabbit is coming out there presently, and I’ll pepper it, I tell you.’

‘What! pepper it with that thing! Why, you fool, your old gun hasn’t even got a cock.’

‘Hist, darling! the rabbit don’t know that.’

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, The Book of Blunders, 1871

Ill Fame

A lady who was flattered to have a rose named after her changed her mind when she saw the description of the rose in a gardener’s catalogue. Against her name it said: ‘shy in a bed but very vigorous against a wall.’

— Leslie Dunkling, The Guinness Book of Names, 1993


Why are old bachelors bad grammarians?

Because when asked to conjugate, they invariably decline.

— James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

Senior Citizen

Paul Erdös claimed to be two and a half billion years old.

“When I was a child, the Earth was said to be two billion years old,” he said. “Now scientists say it’s four and a half billion. So that makes me two and a half billion.”

A Penny Saved

Recipe to keep a person warm the whole winter with a single Billet of Wood. — Take a billet of wood the ordinary size, run up into the garret with it as quick as you can, throw it out of the garret window; run down after it (not out of the garret window mind) as fast as possible; repeat this till you are warm, and as often as occasion may require. It will never fail to have the desired effect whilst you are able to use it. — Probatum est.

Oracle and Public Advertiser, Nov. 24, 1796


There was a young man from Darjeeling
Who got on a bus bound for Ealing;
It said at the door:
“Don’t spit on the floor,”
So he carefully spat on the ceiling.

— Anonymous

Fast Food

Dr. Franklin, when a child, found the long graces of his father before and after meals very disagreeable. One day, after the winter’s provisions had been salted, ‘I think, father,’ says Benjamin, ‘if you said grace over the whole task — once for all — it would be a vast saving of time.”

The Washington Almanack, 1792

Watch Works

A scholar, a bald man, and a barber, travelling together, agreed each to watch four hours at night, in turn, for the sake of security. The barber’s lot came first, who shaved the scholar’s head when asleep, then awaked him when his turn came. The scholar scratching his head, and feeling it bald, exclaimed, ‘You wretch of a barber, you have waked the bald man instead of me!’

The Town and Country Alamanac, 1799

Thought Experiment

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans’ bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, ‘Leftie,’ and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, ‘Leftie’ will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of ‘Leftie’s’ act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by ‘Leftie’ are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and ‘Leftie’ are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available; however, the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

What should the brain do?

— Michael F. Patton Jr., “Tissues in the Profession: Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, January 1988