Fair Enough

A prisoner being called on to plead an indictment for larceny was told by the clerk to hold up his right hand. The man immediately held up his left hand. ‘Hold up your right hand,’ said the clerk. ‘Please your Honor,’ said the culprit, still keeping up his left hand, ‘I am left-handed.’

— Franklin Fiske Heard, Oddities of the Law, 1881


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.”

Stump Trouble


The voting paradox shows that conflicting majorities can prevent a clear winner even in a fair election.

Sadly, this can be true even if the candidates specify platforms. Suppose there are two issues, x and y, each of which admits two possible positions, x and x’ and y and y’. Then a candidate can have four possible platforms: xy, xy’, x’y, and x’y’. Now suppose there are three voters, each of whom ranks her preferences in a different order:

Voter 1: xy, xy’, x’y, x’y’
Voter 2: xy’, x’y’, xy, x’y
Voter 3: x’y, x’y’, xy, xy’

If the voters could vote on the individual issues instead of having to choose a platform, Voters 1 and 2 would prefer x to x’, and Voters 1 and 3 would prefer y to y’. These are clear majorities. But in practice platform x’y’ will defeat platform xy, since it’s preferred by a majority (Voters 2 and 3).

“Thus, a platform whose alternatives, when considered separately, are both favored by a majority may be defeated by a platform containing alternatives that only minorities favor,” writes Steven J. Brams in Paradoxes in Politics. Public policy scholar Anthony Downs argues that the fact that a majority platform can be constructed from minority positions may make it rational for politicians to appeal to coalitions of minorities.

Safety First


Patented by Deloris Gray Wood in 1998, the “kissing shield” makes pretty good sense:

It is customary when we kiss to come in contact with another’s lips, and in certain cultures, to follow with a kiss on the skin of each cheek; thus germs can be passed from one person to another. In keeping with one aspect of the invention, if casual contact is necessary and a kiss is appropriate, one can protect oneself from the germs present in saliva or other secretions which might be transmitted from kissing by using a kissing shield.

What sets Wood’s application apart is its comprehensiveness: The shield “can be used especially by a politician who kisses babies” — and one variant has “a pocket sized and shaped to receive the tongue of one of the two persons” to permit French kissing.

“I kissed my first girl and smoked my first cigarette on the same day,” wrote Toscanini. “I haven’t had time for tobacco since.”

Furry Testimony

As the lower animals were anciently amenable to law in Switzerland, so, in peculiar circumstances, they could be received as witnesses. A similar law, it appears, is still, or was to a very late period, recognised in Savoy. If a man’s house was broken into between sunset and sunrise, and the owner of the house killed the intruder, the act was considered a justifiable homicide. But it was considered just possible that a man, who lived all alone by himself, might invite or entice a person, whom he wished to kill, to spend the evening with him, and after murdering his victim, assert that he did it in defence of his person and property, the slain man having been a burglar. So when a person was killed under such circumstances, the solitary householder was not held innocent unless he produced a dog, a cat, or a cock that had been an inmate of the house, and witnessed the death of the person killed. The owner of the house was compelled to make his declaration of innocence on oath before one of these animals, and if it did not contradict him, he was considered guiltless, the law taking for granted the Deity would cause a miraculous manifestation by a dumb animal rather than allow a murderer to escape from justice.

— William Jones, Credulities Past and Present, 1880

Action and Guilt

Let us consider this pair of cases:

In the first, Smith stands to gain a large inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening while the child is taking his bath, Smith sneaks in­to the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so that it will look like an accident.

In the second, Jones also stands to gain if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. Like Smith, Jones sneaks in planning to drown the child in his bath. However, just as he enters the bathroom Jones sees the child slip and hit his head, and fall face down in the water. Jones is delighted; he stands by, ready to push the child’s head back under if it is necessary, but it is not necessary. With only a little thrashing about, the child drowns all by himself, ‘accidentally,’ as Jones watches and does nothing.

Now Smith killed the child, whereas Jones ‘merely’ let the child die. That is the only difference between them. Did either man behave better, from a moral point of view?

— James Rachels, “Active and Passive Euthanasia,” New England Journal of Medicine, January 1975

Decision Time

Imagine five survivors are on a lifeboat. Because of limits of size, the boat can only support four. All weigh approximately the same and would take up approximately the same amount of space. Four of the five are normal adult human beings. The fifth is a dog. One must be thrown overboard or else all will perish. Who should it be?

— Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 1983



“Almost all absurdity of conduct,” wrote Dr. Johnson, “arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.”

When a bout of rheumatic fever in 1867 left the Princess of Wales with a limp, London society ladies began to copy her gait. This grew so popular that it became known as “the Alexandra limp.”

The affectation was widely derided — John Stephen Farmer called it “an erstwhile fit of semi-imbecility” by “a crowd of limping petticoated toadies” — but it was followed almost immediately by the “Grecian bend,” in which ladies began stooping forward from the waist. Albert Jones Bellows described a sighting in Boston:

She waddled a few rods past the store, and then turned round, smiling, or rather smirking, complacently on her ‘crowd of admirers,’ with an expression of face which seemed to say, … ‘All my torture is repaid by the admiration I excite.’ And I wanted to quote the apostrophe of Burns to the louse:–

‘O, wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And e’en devotion!’

Social Studies


Galvanized by the school shootings of the late 1990s, James R. Taylor patented a desk whose top doubles as a bullet-resistant shield:

“Another object is to provide a shield that is configured to function normally in an innocuous mode as an ordinary desk work surface but that can be easily and quickly removed from the desk for use as a personal shield against projectiles including but not limited to bullets, knives, shrapnel, or flying debris that might be encountered in naturally occurring events such as earthquakes, fires, or storms.”

I can’t tell whether any districts adopted it. Hopefully we’ll never find out.