As an exercise at the end of his 1887 book The Game of Logic, Lewis Carroll presents pairs of premises for which conclusions are to be found:

  • No bald person needs a hair-brush; No lizards have hair.
  • Some oysters are silent; No silent creatures are amusing.
  • All wise men walk on their feet; All unwise men walk on their hands.
  • No bridges are made of sugar; Some bridges are picturesque.
  • No frogs write books; Some people use ink in writing books.
  • Some dreams are terrible; No lambs are terrible.
  • All wasps are unfriendly; All puppies are friendly.
  • All ducks waddle; Nothing that waddles is graceful.
  • Bores are terrible; You are a bore.
  • Some mountains are insurmountable; All stiles can be surmounted.
  • No Frenchmen like plum-pudding; All Englishmen like plum-pudding.
  • No idlers win fame; Some painters are not idle.
  • No lobsters are unreasonable; No reasonable creatures expect impossibilities.
  • No fossils can be crossed in love; Any oyster may be crossed in love.
  • No country, that has been explored, is infested by dragons; Unexplored countries are fascinating.
  • A prudent man shuns hyaenas; No banker is imprudent.
  • No misers are unselfish; None but misers save egg-shells.
  • All pale people are phlegmatic; No one, who is not pale, looks poetical.
  • All jokes are meant to amuse; No Act of Parliament is a joke.
  • No quadrupeds can whistle; Some cats are quadrupeds.
  • Gold is heavy; Nothing but gold will silence him.
  • No emperors are dentists; All dentists are dreaded by children.
  • Caterpillars are not eloquent; Jones is eloquent.
  • Some bald people wear wigs; All your children have hair.
  • Weasels sometimes sleep; All animals sometimes sleep.
  • Everybody has seen a pig; Nobody admires a pig.

He gives no solutions, so you’re on your own.

Imitation Game


Hemingway said, “The step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal.” Yet the International Imitation Hemingway Competition attracted more than 24,000 entries in its first 10 years, as well as celebrity judges including Ray Bradbury, George Plimpton, and Joseph Wambaugh. The annual contest started when owners Jerry Magnin and Larry Mindel sought a way to promote their tavern, Harry’s Bar & American Grill in Century City, Calif. From there the competition passed from sponsor to sponsor until United Airlines adopted it for its in-flight magazine, Hemispheres. The final winner, in 2005, was “Da Moveable Code,” by Illinois cardiologist Gary Davis:

Paris could be very fine in the winter when it was clear and cold and they were young and in love but that winter of 1924 they quarreled badly and she left for good. Paris, the city of light, turned dark and sodden with sadness. But it was still a damn fine place and he hated to leave it so he sat in the cafés all day and drank wine and thought about writing clean short words on bright white paper.

He preferred Café des Amateurs, on the Place St-Michel. The waiters in their long aprons respected him and he did good work there, defeating them all in the arm wrestling and the drinking and the dominoes and the boxing. They told him timeless stories of love and cruelty and death. That was good, because his Michigan stories had dried up, his jockeys and boxers had worn out, and sometimes he worried his oeuvre might be over.

One afternoon in late autumn two gypsies came into the café, a ragged old man and his daughter. She carried a crystal ball between her arms. They went table to table telling fortunes. Soon they came to him. Dark eyes stared at his palm, then into the ball. Two fair arms well cradled it in her lap.

‘Guapa, I am not one for whom the ball tells –‘ he started, but she put a finger to his lips. She studied his face. Her dark eyes were like deep forest pools where trout the color of pebbles hang motionless in the cool flowing eddies, waiting for the good larvae, the tasty larvae. Sun-burned, confident, loving eyes the color of the sea. He wrote that down.

‘Inglés, my ball shows what you must write.’

‘Americain.’ It was like saying hello to a statue. He wrote that down, too.

‘Picture this,’ she started, ‘First I see a corpse in the Louvre, by the Mona Lisa. A gruesome ritual murder. The police suspect you, an obscure professor. You flee, through the Tuilleries, then across the river.’

‘Into the trees?’

‘Murders in churches, arcane symbols and codes, Opus Dei, Swiss bankers, split-second escapes, powerful sects …’

‘Powerful sex?’

She paused. ‘I see a mysterious redhead at your side.’

‘Powerful sex?’

Her eyes found his. ‘I see a major motion picture.’

‘No,’ he shook his head earnestly. ‘Not now. I must master the art of narration in the best and simplest way. Lean hard narrative prose.’

She rolled her eyes, sunburned eyes. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so …’

‘I write terrific stuff here, guapa,’ he said, writing that down. ‘True sentences. Not the words above the urinal.’

‘Don’t call me guapa, Papa.’

‘Drop the Papa, guapa.’

‘Whatever,’ she sighed and turned to the ball again. ‘Try this, loser Americain. An old fisherman loves baseball. He catches a big fish, but sharks eat it.’

He slapped her hard across the ear. It was a good ear, sunburned and confident. And just like that, the old man and the seer disappeared.

To celebrate his win, Davis said he was “toying with the idea of growing a beard and fishing Lake Michigan for marlin.”

A Game Afoot


In “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” Sherlock Holmes flees London, pursued by his archenemy, James Moriarty. Both are headed to Dover, where Holmes hopes to escape to the continent, but there’s one intermediate stop available, at Canterbury. Holmes faces a choice: Should he get off at Canterbury or go on to Dover? If Moriarty finds him at either station he’ll kill him.

In their 1944 Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, mathematician John von Neumann and economist Oskar Morgenstern address this as a problem in game theory. They set up the following payoff matrix showing Moriarty’s calculations:

canterbury game

Von Neumann and Morgenstern conclude that “Moriarty should go to Dover with a probability of 60%, while Sherlock Holmes should stop at the intermediate station with a probability of 60% — the remaining 40% being left in each case for the other alternative.”

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happens in the story — Holmes and Watson get out at Canterbury and watch Moriarty’s train roar past toward Dover, “beating a blast of hot air into our faces.” “There are limits, you see, to our friend’s intelligence,” Holmes tells Watson. “It would have been a coup-de-maître had he deduced what I would deduce and acted accordingly.”

(It’s not quite that simple — in a footnote, von Neumann and Morgenstern point out that Holmes has excusably replaced the 60% probability with certainty in his calculations. In fact, they say, the odds favor Moriarty — “Sherlock Holmes is as good as 48% dead when his train pulls out from Victoria Station.”)



Disguises adopted by Sherlock Holmes:

  • “Captain Basil” (“The Adventure of Black Peter”)
  • “a common loafer” (“The Beryl Coronet”)
  • a rakish young plumber named Escott (“Charles Augustus Milverton”)
  • a venerable Italian priest (“The Final Problem”)
  • an elderly, deformed bibliophile (“The Empty House”)
  • a French ouvrier (“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”)
  • a workman looking for a job, described as “an old sporting man” (“The Mazarin Stone”)
  • an old woman (“The Mazarin Stone”)
  • a “drunken-looking groom” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  • an “amiable and simple-minded” Nonconformist clergyman (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  • a sailor (The Sign of the Four)
  • an asthmatic old master mariner (The Sign of the Four)
  • a doddering opium smoker (“The Man With the Twisted Lip”)
  • Mr. Harris, an accountant (“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”)
  • a registration agent (“The Crooked Man”)
  • a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson (“The Empty House”)
  • an Irish-American spy named Altamont (“His Last Bow”)

In 1895 the Brooklyn Chess Club sent young Harry Nelson Pillsbury to England to compete in the great tournament at Hastings. He took first prize but never matched this early success and died in 1906. “Nobody can understand this sudden flash of greatness,” wrote New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg. “A twenty-two-year-old unknown licked the cream of Europe’s experts, trouncing such formidable masters as Lasker, Tarrasch, Tchigorin, Gunsberg and Mieses.” Schonberg suggested that the mystery is easily solved if the victor at Hastings was not Pillsbury but “the finest analytical mind in Europe, the mind of one who had genius, infinite capacity for concentration, and a brilliant insight into chess. Suppose that it was Sherlock Holmes, the master of disguise, who impersonated Pillsbury at Hastings, letting Pillsbury, on his own after that, sink to his normal level.”

(From The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 1975, and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2007.)

In a Word


n. a person of great and varied learning

n. one who may be depended upon

n. a dispute about or concerning words

v. to speak of with disparagement or contempt

In 1746 Samuel Johnson set out to write a dictionary of the English language. He proposed to finish it in three years.

Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued.

ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies? JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a Welch gentleman who has published a collection of Welch proverbs, who will help me with the Welch. ADAMS. But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see: forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

(From Boswell.) (In the end it took him seven years.)

More Odd Fiction

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang contains no commas. (“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”)

Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence is a single sentence of 120 pages.

Mathias Enard’s Zone is a single sentence of 517 pages.

Michel Thaler’s Le Train de Nulle Part contains no verbs. (“Quelle aubaine! Une place de libre, ou presque, dans ce compartiment. Une escale provisoire, pourquoi pas! Donc, ma nouvelle adresse dans ce train de nulle part: voiture 12, 3ème compartiment dans le sens de la marche. Encore une fois, pourquoi pas?”)

Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon is a “pragmatic lipogram” — all its verbs are conditional, future, subjunctive, etc., so that nothing is actually happening in the present: “I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.”

Adam Adams’ 2008 novel Unhooking a DD-Cup Bra Without Fumbling contains no Es.

My notes say that Iegor Gran’s Les Trois Vies de Lucie can be read straight through, recto pages only, or verso pages only, yielding three different stories, but I haven’t managed to find a copy to check.

Curioser and Curioser


“I’m sure I’m not Ada, for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and — oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!”

So frets Alice outside the garden in Wonderland. Is the math only nonsense? In his book The White Knight, Alexander L. Taylor finds one way to make sense of it: In base 18, 4 times 5 actually is 12. And in base 21, 4 times 6 is 13. Continuing this pattern:

4 times 7 is 14 in base 24
4 times 8 is 15 in base 27
4 times 9 is 16 in base 30
4 times 10 is 17 in base 33
4 times 11 is 18 in base 36
4 times 12 is 19 in base 39

And here it becomes clear why Alice will never get to 20: 4 times 13 doesn’t equal 20 in base 42, as the pattern at first seems to suggest, but rather 1X, where X is whatever symbol is adopted for 10.

Did Lewis Carroll have this in mind when he contrived the story for Alice? Perhaps? In The Magic of Lewis Carroll, John Fisher writes, “It is hard … not to accept Taylor’s theory that Carroll was anxious to make the most of two worlds; the problem as interpreted by Taylor interested him, and although it wouldn’t interest Alice there was no reason why he shouldn’t use it to entertain her on the level of nonsense. It is even more difficult to suppose that he, a mathematical don, inserted the puzzle in the book without realising it.”

In the Winter 1971 edition of Jabberwocky, the quarterly publication of the Lewis Carroll Society, Taylor wrote, “If you find a watch in the Sahara Desert you don’t think it grew there. In this case we know who put it there, so if he didn’t record it that tells us something about his recording habits. It doesn’t tell us that the mathematical puzzle isn’t a mathematical puzzle.”



In Dante’s Inferno, a sign above the gate to hell reads LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH’ENTRATE.

There are many ways to translate this (Robert Ripley claimed to find 100), but a common one is ABANDON YE ALL HOPE WHO ENTER HERE.

By an unlikely coincidence, this yields ABANDON Y.A.H.W.E.H.

(Discovered by Dave Morice.)



I think Jacques Jouet was the first to notice this. In the first few pages of the Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn, as Tintin visits the Vossenplein antique market in Brussels, Snowy the dog keeps scratching himself. Why?

Click for Answer