Worldly Wisdom
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Proverbs from around the world:

Every fire is the same size when it starts. — Seneca, North America
Youth is intoxication without wine; old age, wine without intoxication. — Peru
We cannot love that which we do not know. — Guinea
Second thoughts are best. — Greek
Do not propose to a girl whose home you have not seen. — Yaunde
Silence never makes mistakes. — India
Adversity makes men, prosperity monsters. — France
The threshold is the tallest mountain. — Slovenia
Punishment is a cripple, but it arrives. — Spain
Not the mouse is the thief, but the hole in the wall. — Aramaic
Praise does a wise man good but a fool harm. — Italy
A man does not seek his luck; luck seeks its man. — Turkey
He is young enough who has health, and he is rich enough who has no debts. — Denmark
God gives the wine but not the bottle. — Germany
Money likes to be counted. — Russia
Experience is a comb which nature gives us when we are bald. — China

A Word for Everything

In the 17th century natural philosopher John Wilkins set out to create a universal language for scholars, to replace Latin, whose sometimes arbitrary features made it difficult to learn. His solution, laid out in the 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character, is a system of symbols that could classify every thing and idea in the world, somewhat like the Linnaean system in biology. There are 40 main genera, each of which supplies the first two letters of a word. Each genus is divided into “differences,” which supply the next letter. And a “species” gives the fourth letter. So, for example, Zi indicates the genus “beasts,” or mammals; Zit specifies the difference “rapacious beasts of the dog kind”; and Zita gives the species “dogs.” The symbols weren’t necessarily meant to be spoken, though Wilkins later assigned phonetic values to the various characters — rather they were meant to provide an unambiguous way of classifying the world so that scholars (and, perhaps, diplomats, travelers, and merchants) could communicate clearly.

Wilkins presented the system to the Royal Society, who were impressed but concluded that it was impractical — its descriptions of similar (and confusable) items might differ by a single letter, and it would be difficult to remember all the distinctions, which seemed to invite trouble. Borges later lampooned it with his (fictional) Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which divides animals into 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids (or Sirens)
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

(Thanks, Alex.)


This is beautifully simple: The strategy game Jeson Mor, from Mongolia, is essentially a chess variant played on a 9×9 board. Each player gets nine knights, arranged as shown, and the winner is the first player who can occupy the central square and then leave that square on a subsequent turn. (Alternatively you can win by capturing all the opponent’s pieces.)

That’s it. It sounds straightforward, but with good play it becomes a delicate dance in which each side tries to prepare an attack of his own while compromising his opponent’s, and because the knights are short-range pieces, it tends to create a complex scrimmage in which an unexpected move will win the day.

You can play it online here; here’s a video of two new players trying it out.

Lightning Strikes

In 1998, the BBC reported that four card players at a whist club in Bucklesham, Suffolk, had each been dealt one suit from a shuffled deck. Hilda Golding found herself holding 13 clubs, Hazel Ruffles held 13 diamonds, and Alison Chivers held 13 hearts (and won, as this was trumps). The dummy hand, face down on the table, held 13 spades.

Though there were 55 people in the village hall at the time, some of whom claimed to have witnessed the event, it’s vastly more likely that this was some misunderstanding or a false report. In 1939 Horace Norton of University College London calculated the odds of such a deal arising naturally to be 1 in 2,235,197,406,895,366,368,301,599,999.

In The Mathematics of Games (2013), John D. Beasley writes, “A typical evening’s bridge comprises perhaps twenty deals, so a once-a-week player must play for over one hundred million years to have an even chance of receiving a thirteen-card suit. If ten million players are active once a week, a hand containing a thirteen-card suit may be expected about once every fifteen years, but it is still extremely unlikely that a genuine deal will produce four such hands.”

(Martin Gardner points out somewhere that anecdotal reports of four perfect hands are strangely more frequent than reports of two perfect hands, which is more likely — though, I guess, less newsworthy.)

(Via Martin Cohen, 101 Philosophy Problems, 2002.)

Love Triangle

Male side-blotched lizards compete for mates using a three-sided strategy that resembles a game of rock-paper-scissors. Orange-throated males, the strongest, don’t form strong pair bonds but establish large territories and fight blue-throated males outright for females. The blue-throated males, middle-sized, are less aggressive and tend to pair strongly with individual females. Yellow-throated males, the smallest, have a coloration that resembles that of females; this allows them to approach females in the territories of orange-throated males — though this won’t work with females that have formed strong pair bonds with blue-throated males.

So, broadly speaking, orange beats blue, blue beats yellow, and yellow beats orange, an equilibrium of sorts in which each variety has an advantage over another but not over the third.


The Treaty of Versailles contained an odd provision: It established a standard pitch to which orchestras could tune. For hundreds of years the agreed pitch might vary widely from one region to the next. When it became clear that the average pitch was rising over time, a French commission settled that the standard pitch for the A above middle C would be 435 hertz, and an 1885 convention of European nations adopted that as an international standard. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ratified that decision.

It would change again with time and technology. In the 20th century American musicians came to prefer 440 hertz, and that came to be adopted as the new standard. Today the standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization: ISO 16 “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

Van Schooten’s Theorem
Image: Wikimedia Commons

A pleasing little theorem by Dutch mathematician Frans van Schooten:

Inscribe equilateral triangle ABC in a circle. Now, from a point P on that circle, the length of the longest of segments PA, PB, PC equals the sum of the lengths of the other two segments (in this example, the length of segment PA equals the sum of the lengths of PB and PC).

The National Razor

Last words at the guillotine, collected by Daniel Gerould in Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore (1992):

  • The Comte de Sillery, who was lame, had trouble climbing the steps. When executioner Charles-Henri Sanson told him to hurry, he said, “Can’t you wait a minute? After all, it is I who am going to die. You have plenty of time.”
  • As he neared the scaffold, someone suggested to astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly that he put on a coat. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you afraid I might catch cold?”
  • A man named Vigié sang the “Marseillaise” at the top of his lungs as he ascended the steps and continued until the blade fell.
  • When an assistant moved to remove his boots, Philippe Égalité suggested, “They’ll be much easier to remove afterward.”
  • The Duc de Châtelet attempted suicide by cutting his veins with a piece of broken glass and had to be carried to the tumbril. When Sanson offered to dress his wounds, he said, “Don’t bother, I will be losing the rest of it just now.”
  • Journalist Jean-Louis Carra told the executioner, “It annoys me to die. I should have liked to see what follows.”
  • General Baron de Biron was executed on the last day of the year. He said, “I will soon arrive in the next world — just in time to wish all my friends there a happy new year!”
  • Chrétien Malesherbes asked leave to finish winding his watch before Sanson began his duties.
  • When the executioner told Giuseppe Fieschi to put on his coat to keep from shivering, he said, “I shall be a lot colder when they bury me.”
  • Georges Danton told the executioner, “Show my head to the people. It’s worth looking at!”

Catching sight of the statue of liberty opposite the scaffold, Madame Roland cried, “Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”