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

Quick Thinking

‘It wasn’t so very late, only a quarter of twelve.’

‘How dare you sit there and and tell me that lie? I was awake when you came in, and looked at my watch, it was three o’clock.’

‘Well, arn’t three a quarter of twelve?’

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


What Robert Benchley learned in his first year at Harvard:

  1. Charlemagne either died or was born or did something with the Holy Roman Empire in 800.
  2. By placing one paper bag inside another paper bag you can carry home a milk shake in it.
  3. There is a double l in the middle of parallel.
  4. Powder rubbed on the chin will take the place of a shave if the room isn’t very light.
  5. French nouns ending in “aison” are feminine.
  6. Almost everything you need to know about a subject is in the encyclopedia.
  7. A tasty sandwich can be made by spreading peanut butter on raisin bread.
  8. A floating body displaces its own weight in the liquid in which it floats.
  9. A sock with a hole in the toe can be worn inside out with comparative comfort.
  10. The chances are against filling an inside straight.
  11. There is a law in economics called The Law of Diminishing Returns, which means that after a certain margin is reached returns begin to diminish. This may not be correctly stated, but there is a law by that name.
  12. You begin tuning a mandolin with A and tune the other strings from that.

“My courses were all selected with a very definite aim in view, with a serious purpose in mind,” he wrote. “No classes before eleven in the morning or after two-thirty in the afternoon, and nothing on Saturday at all. On that rock was my education built.”


A traveler in the Southern mountains saw an old man sitting at a cabin door and asked: ‘Have you lived here all your life?’

‘Not yet,’ was the reply.

– Ralph Louis Woods, Modern Handbook of Humor, 1967

Santa Suit

Oregon attorney general Dave Frohnmayer released this opinion letter on Dec. 23, 1982:

Mr. S.T. Nicholas
1225 N. Pole
Gnome, Alaska 90001

Dear Mr. Nicholas:

This letter is to inform you of our decision in the complaint of improper business practices brought against you by Mr. I.M. Grinch.

In his complaint, Mr. Grinch has requested that the Oregon Department of Justice immediately seek a temporary restraining order prohibiting you from any business-related activities because of the following alleged violations of state and federal antitrust laws:

  1. That by conspiring with parents you cause confusion or misunderstanding as to the source, sponsorship, and approval of your goods and services (ORS 646.608);
  2. That by consulting with parents on gifts for children you have furnished them with privileged customer information;
  3. That by inciting parents to whisper among themselves and hide presents during the month of December, and by compiling a list and checking it twice, you engage in conspiratorial practices (ORS 646.725);
  4. That by discriminating against naughty persons you have accorded special service to some customers in violation of ORS 646.080, which states that customers must be treated on proportionally equal terms;
  5. That by linking the receipt of your gifts to persons’ good behavior you violated Oregon law, which prohibits making product sales conditional upon other behavior;
  6. That by giving away presents you have violated federal minimum price regulations;
  7. That by claiming to deliver presents all over the world in only one night you are promising delivery of goods while knowing you are not able to fulfill that promise (ORS 646.607 and 646.608);
  8. That you have conspired with Saint Nick, Santa Claus, Père Noel, and others to engage in an illegal restraint of trade by allocating markets and customers and by fixing prices (ORS 646.725); and
  9. That you have received kickbacks from your reindeer.

Finally, Mr. Grinch has accused you of having violated ORS 646.730, which states:

Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons to monopolize, any part of trade or commerce, shall be in violation of ORS 136.617, 646.705 or 646.805, and 646.990.

We find that you have participated in monopoly, but only in the delivery of the game to children, a non-citable practice.

We conclude that the allegations are unfounded and see no reason to convene a special grand jury. We have, however, filed a counterclaim on your behalf against I.M. Grinch under state antitrust laws for contriving a shortage of good will. His action may also constitute the crime of malicious rottenness.

Further, I have instructed our Consumer Protection Section to pay close attention to enforcement of chimney cleaning regulations for the remainder of 1982.

Merry Christmas,

Dave Frohnmayer
Attorney General