Dead Letters

In a trance in 1926, medium Geraldine Cummins wrote out messages transmitted to her by a disembodied spirit who had died 1900 years earlier. Architect Frederick Bligh Bond transcribed, punctuated, and arranged the messages. When Bond published these in a newspaper, Cummins sued him. This raises an interesting legal question: Who holds the copyright?

In an extempore judgment, Justice J. Eve wrote that, although all parties agreed that “the true originator of all that is found in these documents is some being no longer inhabiting this world,” the medium’s “active cooperation” had helped to translate them into modern language. This might make her a joint author with the disembodied spirit, but “recognizing as I do that I have no jurisdiction extending to the sphere in which he moves,” he found that “authorship rests with this lady.”

Bond had claimed that the writing had no living author, that, in Eve’s words, “the authorship and copyright rest with some one already domiciled on the other side of the inevitable river.” But “That is a matter I must leave for solution by others more competent to decide it than I am. I can only look upon the matter as a terrestrial one, of the earth earthy, and I propose to deal with it on that footing. In my opinion the plaintiff has made out her case, and the copyright rests with her.”

Glorious Union

The high point of the Buckingham Palace switchboard operator’s day is when she puts the Queen through to the Queen Mother. ‘Your Majesty? Her Majesty, Your Majesty.’

— Jerrold M. Packard, The Queen & Her Court: A Guide to the British Monarchy Today, 1981


Early one morning [George III] met a boy in the stables at Windsor and said: ‘Well, boy! What do you do? What do they pay you?’

‘I help in the stable,’ said the boy, ‘but they only give me victuals and clothes.’

‘Be content,’ said George, ‘I have no more.’

— Beckles Willson, George III, 1907

The Monster Study

In 1939, University of Iowa graduate student Mary Tudor began an experiment with local orphans, warning them that they were showing signs of stuttering and lecturing them whenever they repeated a word. The children became acutely self-conscious, and many began to stutter, fulfilling the theory that “the affliction is caused by the diagnosis.”

Sixty years later, when Tudor was 84, she received a letter from one of the orphans. It was addressed to “Mary Tudor Jacobs The Monster.”

“You destroyed my life,” it ran. “I could have been a scientist, archaeologist or even president. Instead I became a pitiful stutterer. The kids made fun of me, my grades fell off, I felt stupid. Clear into my adulthood, I still want to avoid people to this day.”

“I didn’t like what I was doing to those children,” Tudor told the San Jose Mercury News in 2001. “It was a hard, terrible thing. Today, I probably would have challenged it. Back then you did what you were told. It was an assignment. And I did it.”

The Seattle God Committee

In 1962, Seattle’s Swedish Hospital began offering kidney dialysis to outpatients. Because the program could accept only 17 patients, it turned to an “admissions and policy committee” made up of largely of laypeople: a minister, a lawyer, a housewife, a labor leader, a state government official, a banker, and a surgeon.

In order to narrow the field of applicants, the committee considered whether a candidate was employed, had dependent children, was educated, had a history of achievements, and had the potential to help others. In its deliberations it would also evaluate the candidate’s personality, his personal merits, and the strengths and weaknesses of his family. “The preferred candidate was a person who had demonstrated achievement through hard work and success at his job,” wrote sociologists Renée Fox and Judith Swazey, “who went to church, joined groups, and was actively involved in community affairs.”

As word spread, observers raised questions about the ethics of the program. In spring 1963, the Seattle Times presented a picture of nine dialysis patients on its cover, with the heading “Will These People Have to Die?” A committee member protested, “We are picking guinea pigs for experimental purposes, not denying life to others.” But in 1972 Congress established federal support for anyone needing dialysis, partly in response to these concerns, and today the “Seattle experience” is remembered as a formative case in bioethics.

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