Swift Swords


Ben Franklin considered dueling a senseless practice, as “whichever is killed the point in dispute remains unsettled”:

To this purpose they have a pleasant little story here. A gentleman in a coffee-house desired another to sit further from him. ‘Why so?’ ‘Because, sir, you stink.’ ‘That is an affront, and you must fight me.’ ‘I will fight you if you insist upon it; but I do not see how that will mend the matter. For if you kill me, I shall stink too; and if I kill you, you will stink, if possible, worse than you do at present.’

(From a letter to Thomas Percival, July 17, 1784.)


The autobiography of the 12th-century Muslim poet Usama ibn Munqidh tells of an incident in which the invading Crusaders appealed for a doctor to treat some of their number who had fallen ill. The Muslims sent a doctor named Thabit, who returned after 10 days with this story:

They took me to see a knight who had an abscess on his leg, and a woman with consumption. I applied a poultice to the leg, and the abscess opened and began to heal. I prescribed a cleansing and refreshing diet for the woman. Then there appeared a Frankish doctor, who said: ‘This man has no idea how to cure these people!’ He turned to the knight and said: ‘Which would you prefer, to live with one leg or die with two?’ When the knight replied that he would prefer living with one leg, he sent for the strong man and a sharp axe. They arrived, and I stood by to watch. The doctor supported the leg on a block of wood, and said to the man: ‘Strike a mighty blow, and cut cleanly!’ … The marrow spurted out of the leg (after the second blow) and the patient died instantaneously. Then the doctor examined the woman and said: ‘She has a devil in her head who is in love with her. Cut her hair off!’ This was done, and she went back to eating her usual Frankish food … which made her illness worse. ‘The devil has got into her brain,’ pronounced the doctor. He took a razor and cut a cross on her head, and removed the brain so that the inside of the skull was laid bare … the woman died instantly. At this juncture I asked whether they had any further need of me, as they had none I came away, having learnt things about medical methods that I never knew before.


In other words, this is the day on which those charming little missives, ycleped Valentines, cross and intercross each other at every street and turning. The weary and all for-spent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own. It is scarcely credible to what an extent this ephemeral courtship is carried on in this loving town, to the great enrichment of porters, and detriment of knockers and bell-wires. In these little visual interpretations, no emblem is so common as the heart,–that little three-cornered exponent of all our hopes and fears,–the bestuck and bleeding heart; it is twisted and tortured into more allegories and affectations than an opera-hat. What authority we have in history or mythology for placing the head-quarters and metropolis of god Cupid in this anatomical seat rather than in any other, is not very clear; but we have got it, and it will serve as well as any other thing. Else we might easily imagine, upon some other system which might have prevailed for any thing which our pathology knows to the contrary, a lover addressing his mistress, in perfect simplicity of feeling, ‘Madam, my liver and fortune are entirely at your disposal;’ or putting a delicate question, ‘Amanda, have you a midriff to bestow?’ But custom has settled these things, and awarded the seat of sentiment to the aforesaid triangle, while its less fortunate neighbours wait at animal and anatomical distance.

— Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia, 1823

A mathematical valentine:


Justice Confused

Suppose that a house is robbed and police find a strand of the burglar’s hair at the scene of the crime. A suspect is in custody, and tests show that the strand matches his hair. A forensic scientist testifies that the chance of a random person producing such a match is 1/2000. Does this mean that there’s a 1999/2000 chance that the suspect is guilty?

No, it doesn’t. In a city of 5 million there will be 1/2000 × 5,000,000 = 2,500 people who produce a match, so on the basis of this evidence alone the probability that the suspect is guilty is only 1/2500.

In a 1987 article, William Thomson and Edward Schumann dubbed this “prosecutor’s fallacy.” Unfortunately, it’s matched by the “defense attorney’s fallacy,” which holds that the hair-match evidence is worthless because it increases the likelihood of the suspect’s guilt by a negligible amount, 1/2500. In fact it drastically narrows the range of possible suspects, from 5 million to 2,500, while failing to exclude the defendant, hardly cause for confidence.

Worryingly, Thompson and Schumann found an experienced prosecutor who insisted that if a defendant and a perpetrator match on a blood type found in 10 percent of the population, then there’s a 10 percent chance that the defendant would have this blood type if he were innocent and hence a 90 percent chance that he’s guilty. “If a prosecutor falls victim to this error,” they write, “it is possible that jurors do as well.”

(William C. Thompson and Edward L. Schumann, “Interpretation of Statistical Evidence in Criminal Trials,” Law and Human Behavior, 11:3 [September 1987], 167-187)

Fixing Dates

In 1899, British statistician Moses B. Cotsworth noted that recordkeeping could be greatly simplified if each month contained a uniform number of whole weeks. He proposed an “international fixed calendar” containing 13 months of 28 days each:

international fixed calendar

This makes everything easier. The 26th of every month falls reliably on a Thursday, for example, and statistical comparisons between months are made more accurate, as each month contains four tidy weeks with four weekends. (Unfortunately for the superstitious, every one of the 13 months contains a Friday the 13th.) A new month, called Sol, would be wedged between June and July, and an extra day, “Year Day,” would be added at the end of the year, but it would be independent of any month (as would Leap Day).

In 1922 the League of Nations chose Cotsworth’s plan as the most promising of 130 proposed calendar reforms, but the public, as always, resisted the unfamiliar, and by 1937 the International Fixed Calendar League had closed its doors. It left one curious legacy, though: George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, was so pleased with Cotsworth’s scheme that he adopted it as his company’s official calendar — and it remained so until 1989.

A Penny Saved


Ben Franklin’s “necessary hints to those that would be rich,” written around 1730:

  • The use of money is all the advantage there is in having money.
  • For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds, provided you are a man of known prudence and honesty.
  • He that spends a groat a day idly, spends idly above six pounds a year, which is the price for the use of one hundred pounds.
  • He that wastes idly a groat’s worth of his time per day, one day with another, wastes the privilege of using one hundred pounds each day.
  • He that idly loses five shillings worth of time, loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw five shillings into the sea.
  • He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantages that might be made by turning it in dealing, which, by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount to a considerable sum of money.
  • Again: he that sells upon credit, asks a price for what he sells equivalent to the principal and interest of his money for the time he is to be kept out of it; therefore, he that buys upon credit, pays interest for what he buys, and he that pays ready money, might let that money out to use: so that he that possesses any thing he has bought, pays interest for the use of it.
  • Yet, in buying goods, it is best to pay ready money, because he that sells upon credit expects to lose five per cent by bad debts; therefore he charges, on all he sells upon credit, an advance, that shall make up that deficiency.
  • Those who pay for what they buy upon credit, pay their share of this advance.
  • He that pays ready money, escapes, or may escape, that charge.
  • A penny sav’d is two-pence clear, A pin a day’s a groat a year.


From a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Mather, May 12, 1784:

You mention your being in your seventy-eighth year; I am in my seventy-ninth; we are grown old together. It is now more than sixty years since I left Boston, but I remember well both your father and grandfather, having heard them both in the pulpit and seen them in their houses. The last time I saw your father [Cotton Mather] was in the beginning of 1724, when I visited him after my first trip to Pennsylvania. He received me in his library, and on my taking leave showed me a shorter way out of the house through a narrow passage, which was crossed by a beam overhead. We were still talking as I withdrew, he accompanying me behind, and I turning partly towards him, when he said hastily, ‘Stoop, stoop!’ I did not understand him, till I felt my head hit against the beam. He was a man that never missed any occasion of giving instruction, and upon this he said to me, ‘You are young, and have the world before you; STOOP as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps.’ This advice, thus beat into my head, has frequently been of use to me; and I often think of it, when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high.

B. Franklin.

Looking Up

Planetary economy will be a determining factor in the change of diet which the coming century must inevitably witness. Such a wasteful food as animal flesh cannot survive: and even apart from the moral necessity which will compel mankind, for its own preservation, to abandon the use of alcohol, the direct and indirect wastefulness of alcohol will make it impossible for beverages containing it to be tolerated. Very likely tobacco will follow it.

— T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence, 1905

Good Boy

Image: Wikimedia Commons

An epitaph in the Pine Forest cemetery in Wilmington, N.C., reads:

BORN SEPT. 24, 1894
DIED MAY 18, 1904


Actually, dogs commonly attended services in former times. Indeed, until the 19th century, they could be so numerous that churches employed “dog whippers” to remove unruly dogs during services. The Great Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands, contains a carving of the hondenslager at work (above).

The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus used to attend mass with his dog Pompe. Linnaeus always left after an hour, regardless of whether the sermon was finished. It’s said that when he was sick Pompe would arrive at the service alone, stay for the customary hour, and depart.

“Heaven goes by favor,” wrote Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

Box Scores


“It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation.” — RCA president David Sarnoff, 1939

“Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good can come of it.” — Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott, 1928

“Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.” — Rex Lambert, The Listener, 1936

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — movie producer Darryl Zanuck, 1946

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” — BBC school broadcasting director Mary Somerville, 1948

“How can you put out a meaningful drama or documentary that is adult, incisive, probing, when every fifteen minutes the proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” — Rod Serling, 1974

“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” — Orson Welles, 1956