Uneasy Crossing

Three photographers and three cannibals come to a river. The boat can carry only two people at a time. The cannibals will eat any group of photographers that they outnumber (on either side of the river). How can all six people safely cross the river?

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Pet Phrases

For his 2017 book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, statistician and journalist Ben Blatt ran thousands of books through a computer to analyze the particulars of the authors’ use of language. Among many other things, he found that each of these authors uses the indicated phrase in more than half their works:

  • Jane Austen: “with all my heart”
  • Ray Bradbury: “at long last”
  • Tom Clancy: “by a whisker”
  • William Faulkner: “sooner or later”
  • George R.R. Martin: “black as pitch”
  • Herman Melville: “through and through”
  • Salman Rushdie: “the last straw”
  • Tom Wolfe: “sinking feeling”

A few other interesting points:

  • Ernest Hemingway used -ly adverbs only 80 times in 10 novels. By contrast, E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) used 155 instances in three books.
  • Elmore Leonard used 49 exclamation points per 100,000 words. James Joyce used 1,105.
  • Chuck Palahniuk uses the word suddenly twice per 100,000 words. J.R.R. Tolkien used it 78 times.
  • 45 percent of American Harry Potter fan fiction used the word brilliant more often than J.K Rowling.
  • 46 percent of Danielle Steele’s opening sentences mention weather. Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Palahniuk never do this.

“The Correct Way to Speak Bristol”

In 1970 Dirk Robson offered Krek Waiter’s Peak Bristle, a pronouncing dictionary for visitors to England’s West Country:

Armchair: Question meaning “What do they cost?” As in: “Armchair yer eat napples, mister?”

Claps: Fall to pieces.

Door: Female child.

Hard tack: Cardiac failure.

Justice Swell: Expression of right and proper behaviour; as in: “No, we dingo way, we stay dome. Justice swell — trained all week.”

Rifle: Deserving.

Sill Sernt: Government employee.

Sunny’s Cool: Bible class for the young.

Yerp: The Continent.

Examples from the field:

News vendor: “Snow end twit! Miniature rout of yes-dees news, yore rupture rise into daze!”

Patron: “Sway lie fizz, knit?”


Woman at bus stop: “Fortify mince we bin stand near! Chews 2B bad, butts pasta joke now.”

Her companion: “Feud Dunce eye sedden walk tome, weed bin thereby now.”

Robson put out a companion volume, Son of Bristle, the following year, “with a special section on the famous Bristle ‘L.'” I’ll see if I can find that.

09/09/2023 UPDATE: Here’s the Bristol L:

(Thanks, Rob.)

Packing a Box

Suppose a 5 × 9 rectangle is partitioned into a set of 10 rectangles with integer dimensions. How can we prove that some two of these smaller rectangles are congruent?

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Pyrrho’s Pig


Pyrrho the philosopher being one day in a boat in a very great tempest, shewed to those he saw the most affrighted about him, and encouraged them, by the example of a hog that was there, nothing at all concerned at the storm. Shall we then dare to say that this advantage of reason, of which we so much boast, and upon the account of which we think ourselves masters and emperors over the rest of all creation, was given us for a torment? To what end serves the knowledge of things if it renders us more unmanly? if we thereby lose the tranquillity and repose we should enjoy without it? and if it put us into a worse condition than Pyrrho’s hog? Shall we employ the understanding that was conferred upon us for our greatest good to our own ruin; setting ourselves against the design of nature and the universal order of things, which intend that every one should make use of the faculties, members, and means he has to his own best advantage?

— Montaigne, “That the Relish for Good and Evil Depends in Great Measure Upon the Opinion We Have of Them,” 1580

In a Word

adj. pleasant

adj. terrified

adj. causing something to be present in the mind

n. a bad choice of words

Shortly after physicist Anthony French joined the MIT faculty in 1962, he was asked to teach an introductory mechanics course to hundreds of freshmen.

“I wanted to be cautious about giving it a name,” he said. “So I called it, blandly, ‘Physics: A New Introductory Course.’

“I couldn’t imagine how I could have been so stupid. The students read that as ‘PANIC’ … it was known forever afterwards as the PANIC course.”



Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end. The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.

— C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 1970



Items that fell forward during the last moments of the Titanic, listed in Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, 1955:

  • 29 boilers
  • 800 cases of shelled walnuts
  • 15,000 bottles of ale and stout
  • 30 cases of golf clubs and tennis rackets
  • 30,000 fresh eggs
  • 5 grand pianos
  • a 50-phone switchboard
  • 8 dozen tennis balls
  • a jeweled copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
  • 2 reciprocating engines
  • a 1912 Renault Type CB Coupe de Ville

Also tons of coal, a cask of china intended for Tiffany’s, dozens of potted palms, innumerable shuffleboard sticks, “tumbling trellises, ivy pots and wicker chairs in the Café Parisien,” and the ship’s enormous anchor chains, each link of which weighed 175 pounds. “Seen and unseen, the great and the unknown tumbled together in a writhing heap as the bow plunged deeper and the stern rose higher. The strains of ‘Autumn’ were buried in a jumble of falling musicians and instruments. The lights went out, flashed on again, went out for good.”