Absentee Ballots


Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Maj. John Cartwright, June 5, 1824

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.

— G.K. Chesterton


Image: Wikimedia Commons

“[John] von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!” — Richard Feynman

He expands on this in Christopher Sykes’ No Ordinary Genius (1994):

“I got the idea of ‘active irresponsibility’ in Los Alamos. We often went on walks, and one day I was with the great mathematician von Neumann and a few other people. I think Bethe and von Neumann were discussing some social problem that Bethe was very worried about. Von Neumann said, ‘I don’t feel any responsibility for all these social problems. Why should I? I’m born into the world, I didn’t make it.’ Something like that. Well, I’ve read von Neumann’s autobiography and it seems to me that he felt perpetually responsible, but at that moment this was a new idea to me, and I caught onto it. Around you all the time there are people telling you what your responsibilities are, and I thought it was kind of brave to be actively irresponsible. ‘Active’ because, like democracy, it takes eternal vigilance to maintain it — in a university you have to perpetually watch out, and be careful that you don’t do anything to help anybody!”

Hans Bethe:

“Feynman somehow was proud of being irresponsible. He concentrated on his science, and on enjoying life. There are some of us — including myself — who felt after the end of the Second World War that we had a great responsibility to explain atomic weapons, and to try and make the government do sensible things about atomic weapons. … Feynman didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I think quite rightly. I think it would be quite wrong if all scientists worked on discharging their responsibility. You need some number of them, but it should only be a small fraction of the total number of scientists. Among the leading scientists, there should be some who do not feel responsible, and who only do what science is supposed to accomplish.”

Marvin Minsky:

“I must say I have a little of this sense of social irresponsibility, and Feynman was a great inspiration to me — I have done a good deal of it since. There are several reasons for a scientist to be irresponsible, and one of them I take very seriously: people say, ‘Are you sure you should be working on this? Can’t it be used for bad?’ Well, I have a strong feeling that good and bad are things to be thought about by people who understand better than I do the interactions among people, and the causes of suffering. The worst thing I can imagine is for somebody to ask me to decide whether a certain innovation is good or bad.”

Young American

Thomas Jefferson received the following letter on July 31, 1806:

To his Excelency Thomas Jefferson Esq.


It is A Boy of 15 years Old Address to You the following lines. I feel A Strong regard for my Country’s welfair.

I think if I had A been Presendent at the time them opposen Set of People (I allude to the Brittish) appeared before Newyork I Should A been for rasing all the Naval force in the United States and opposed thire proceeding’s. My Father is an Englishman Born. Ever Sence I had an knowledge of Nation affaires I dispised them tirents as there are. I often read of the American War. I fear they Never will Come hear Again. I think if they Should I take up armes boy as I am in my Country’s Defence. If every one was as true to thier Country as me I think the Contest last war would not of been of so long Duration. Conquer or Die is my Wash Word.

A True American though a Youth

Huza to the Constetuon
Huza to the Repubeck
Huza Fredom Independence
Huza to all America.
PS. Sir Excuse the spelling.



After observing security measures at a number of organizations, University of California psychologist Robert Sommer reflected that a person’s status seems to be tied to his keyring:

key status formula

S is a person’s status within the organization, D is the number of doors he must open to perform his job, and K is the number of keys he carries. A janitor who can open 20 doors but must carry 20 keys has a status of 1; he’s outranked by a secretary who can open only two doors but can do it with a single key. A staff scientist who can open six doors or cupboards using two keys has status 3, and the lab director might open 15 doors with three keys, giving him a status score of 5.

They’re all outranked by the president of the company, who never has to carry keys at all, since there’s always someone around to open doors for him. “With a K of zero and a high D,” Sommer concluded wryly, “his status rank in the company reaches infinity.”

(“Keys, Kings and Kompanies,” from The Worm Runner’s Digest 3:1 [March 1961], 52-54)

A Tall Tail


As skywatchers prepared for the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, their excitement turned to trepidation when astronomer Camille Flammarion warned that cyanogen gas in the comet’s tail could poison the atmosphere. The New York Times reported growing alarm among astronomers and warned, “Prof. Flammarion is of the opinion that the cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” The Washington Post quoted astronomer Henri Deslandres that the comet might cause torrential rains; his colleague D.J. McAdam warned that “Disease and death have frequently been ascribed to the admixture of cometary gases with the air.”

As the fateful date approached, an ad appeared in a South African newspaper: “Gentleman having secured several cylinders of oxygen and having bricked up a capacious room wishes to meet others who would share the expense for Wednesday night. Numbers strictly limited.” In Texas, salesmen went door to door selling “comet pills” and leather inhalers. In Germany, anxious residents began wearing comet hats and carrying comet umbrellas.

On the evening of May 18, as Earth passed into the comet’s tail, hundreds marched in a candlelight parade in San Juan, and prayer vigils were held in St. Petersburg churches and on the hilltops around Mexico City. In Lexington, Ky., excited citizens held all-night services, “praying and singing to prepare … [to] meet their doom.”

Nothing happened. Well, nearly nothing: In Towaco, N.J., two men had offered to pay $10 for the best description of the event as viewed from Walkman Mountain. When the town’s weary residents returned from their vigil, they found their chicken coops empty.

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.