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My Number

Is Death miles away from this house,
reaching for a widow in Cincinnati
or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker
in British Columbia?

Is he too busy making arrangements,
tampering with air brakes,
scattering cancer cells like seeds,
loosening the wooden beams of roller coasters

to bother with my hidden cottage
that visitors find so hard to find?

Or is he stepping from a black car
parked at the dark end of the lane,
shaking open the familiar cloak,
its hood raised like the head of a crow
and removing the scythe from the trunk?

Did you have any trouble with the directions?
I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this.
Billy Collins
From Sailing Around the Room, Random House, 2002

The second art that I acquired in Pentonville [prison] was so-called "Marseilles chess." It was invented by an elderly Frenchman, with a red scarf around his neck, who taught it to me during exercise hours. In this game, each player in turn makes two moves instead of one—the only restriction being that the first of the two moves should not be a check to the King. To the chess-addict is this a nerve-racking experience which shatters his outlook and upsets all his values. Hitler and the Gestapo have faded into the past, but the memory of Marseilles chess in Pentonville still makes me shudder.
Arthur Koestler
Introduction to The Scum of the Earth (1954)
[John Horton] Conway paused for a moment, and his bushy eyebrows furrowed. "Yes, I must really have a tremendous memory. As you know, I crossed the Atlantic in, 1985 or 1986, and became a [Mathematics] professor at Princeton. Several years later, when what's-his-name ... Harold Shapiro became President of the university, he invited some of the faculty to a dinner party each week. There were about eight or ten guests, and Shapiro asked each of us to say a few words about ourselves. I didn't like that one bit. It reminded me of the recitations of poetry we had to do in elementary school. So I recited a little poem about elves and goblins that I learned when I was, oh, about six years old. I hadn't thought about since then, and I was able to recall it at an instant. Well, I wasn't invited to a dinner party again. But I don't worry about that; I guess it looks as if I have an irresponsible attitude. However, to do good work in math, you have to be somewhat irresponsible. I only started doing real mathematics after I found the Conway group. I got a much-needed ego boost - obviously I don't need one anymore. Anyhow, after I made my name, I could do what I like, even if it was totally trivial. When I want to play backgammon instead of doing math, I play backgammon. If the people at Princeton don't feel that they're getting their money's worth out of me, that's their problem. They bought me.
From Charles Seife, Mathemagician, (Impressions of Conway), The Sciences (May/June 1994), 12-15.
Available at


In the Altha Diner on the Florida Panhandle
a stocky white-haired woman
with a plastic nameplate "Mildred"
gently turns my burger, and I fall into grief.
I remember the long, hot drives to North Carolina
to visit Aunt Alma, who put up quarts of peaches,
and my grandmother Gladys with her pieced quilts.
Many names are almost gone: Gerturde, Myrtle,
Agnes, Bernice, Hortense, Edna, Doris, and Hilda.
They were wide women, cotton-clothed, early rising.
You had to move your mouth to say their names,
and they meant strength, speak, battle, and victory.
When did women stop being Saxons and Goths?
What frog Fate turned them in to Alison, Melissa,
Valerie, Natalie, Adienne, and Lucinda,
diminished them to Wendy, Cindy, Suzy, and Vicky?
I look at these young women
and hope they are headed for the presidency,
but I fear America has other plans in mind,
that they be no longer at war
but subdued instead in amorphous corporate work,
somebody's assistant, something in a bank,
single parent with word-processing skills.
They must have been made French
so they could be cheap foreign labor.
Well, all I can say is,
Good luck to you
Kimberly, Darlene, Cheryl, Heather and May.
Good luck April, Melane, Becky, and Kelly.
I hope it goes well for you.
But for a moment let us mourn.
Now is the time to say good-bye
to Florence, Muriel, Ethel, and Thelma.
Good-bye Minnie, Ada, Bertha, and Edith.

Hunt Hawkins, The Domestic Life

Q: What is the correct response when someone calls you on the telephone and asks for you by name?

—From “Mind Your Manners”

A: Not only is there no “correct” response when this disagreeable thing happens, but there is no real response possible—in the true sense of the word. Anything you say is makeshift. Hundreds of “responses” have been tried by millions of phone users; every one has proved either evasive or ridiculous or rude.

Let us say your name is Brinckerhoff. The phone rings and you answer it, and a voice says, “I would like to speak to Mr. Brinckerhoff, please.” You are in an impossible situation. You can say, “This is I,” and be put down for a purist or a poseur. Or you can say, “This is me,” and be taken for a tough. Or, rather desperately, you can reply, “This is he,” or “This is Brinckerhoff,” or “This is Mr. Brinckerhoff,” referring to yourself grandiloquently in the third person, in the manner of dictators and kings. Believe us, when a man starts referring to himself in the third person, the end of the good life is not far off. To the listener you sound either downright silly or deliberately vainglorious. Your “response” has a slightly moldy, undemocratic sound, as when, in the presense of a servant, you refer to your wife as “Mrs. Brinckerhoff” instead of as “Esther.”

Now, suppose you go off on an entirely different tack when the phone rings and someone asks for you by name. Suppose you say, with forced cheeriness, “Speaking!” What a pitiful attempt! The word has hardly rolled off your tongue when it becomes meaningless, for you are no longer speaking but are listening—listening, and hoping against hope that it isn't somebody you can't stand. Or let's take a few other conventional “responses” and see how miserably they fail:

Voice: “I would like to speak to Mr. Brinckerhoff, please.”
Response: “You are.” This is too rude, too familiar.

Voice: “I would like to speak to Mr. Brinckerhoff, please.”
Response: “Why?” This is evasive, prying.

Voice: “I would like to speak to Mr. Brinckerhoff, please.”
Response: “Go ahead!” Peremptory, unfriendly.

No, there is no “correct” response in this situation. There is no response that is anything but discouraging. It is the most disturbing phase of one's telephonic life. Unquestionably it was not foreseen by Mr. Bell when he was so blithely tinkering with his little magnets and diaphragms. If only a voice could have whispered, “I would like to speak to Mr. Alexander Graham Bell, please,” how much that might have saved the world! Bell would have laid down his tools with a tired sigh, a man who knew when he was licked.

From The Second Tree from the Corner, by E B White


John Updike

O.K., you are sitting in an airplane and
the person in the seat next to you is a sweaty, swarthy gentleman of Middle Eastern origin
whose carry-on luggage consists of a bulky black briefcase he stashes,
in compliance with airline regulations,
underneath the seat ahead.
He keeps looking at his watch and closing his eyes in prayer,
resting his profusely dank forehead against the seatback ahead of him,
just above the black briefcase,
which if you listen through the droning of the engines seems to be ticking, ticking
softly, softer than your heartbeat in your ears.

Who wants to have all their careful packing—the travellers’ checks, the folded underwear—
end as floating sea-wrack five miles below,
drifting in a rainbow scum of jet fuel,
and their docile hopes of a plastic-wrapped meal
dashed in a concussion whiter than the sun?

I say to my companion, "Smooth flight so far."
"So far."
"That’s quite a briefcase you’ve got there."
He shrugs and says, "It contains my life’s work."
"And what is it, exactly, that you do?"
"You could say I am a lobbyist."
He does not want to talk.
He wants to keep praying.
His hands, with their silky beige backs and their nails cut close like a technician’s,
tremble and jump in handling the plastic glass of Sprite when it comes with its exploding bubbles.

Ah, but one gets swept up
in the airport throng, all those workaday faces,
faintly pampered and spoiled in the boomer style,
and those elders dressed like children for flying
in hi-tech sneakers and polychrome catsuits,
and those gum-chewing attendants taking tickets
while keeping up a running flirtation with a uniformed bystander, a stoic blond pilot --
all so normal, who could resist
this vault into the impossible?

Your sweat has slowly dried. Your praying neighbor
has fallen asleep, emitting an odor of cardamom.
His briefcase seems to have deflated.
Perhaps not this time, then.

But the possibility of impossibility will keep drawing us back
to this scrape against the numbed sky,
to this sleek sheathed tangle of color-coded wires, these million rivets, the wing
like a frozen lake at your elbow.

From the Partisan Review, in Vol LXVII, No. 2.

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenceless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window. They needed his protection; he gave it them.

But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only to be reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q, Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q—R— Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the rams horn which made the handle of the urn, and proceeded. Then R... He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Qualities that would have saved a ship's company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water—endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then—what is R? A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying—he was a failure—that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more, R—

Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor, whose temper neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it, came to his help again. R—

The lizard's eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed amongst its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and perserving, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six in all, from start to finish; on the other hand the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash—the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R. Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain-top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before the morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of whithered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R.

He stood stock still, by the urn with the geranium flowing over it. How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, `One perhaps.' One in a generation. Is he to be blamed if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, till he has no more left to give?

From To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

If you're in the middle of writing a Ph.D. thesis or some other painful document, you may find these thoughts of Thomas Carlyle inspirational:

Writing is a dreadful Labor, yet not so dreadful as Idleness.

The stupidity I labor under is extreme. All dislocated, prostrated, obfuscated; cannot even speak, much less write. What a dogged piece of toil lies before me, before I get afoot again! Set doggedly to it then.

The whole thing I want to write seems lying in my mind; but I cannot get my eye on it. The Machine is lazy, languid; the motive principle cannot conquer the Inertia.

...this is a problem which some centuries may be taken up in solving.

Ought any writing to be transacted with such intense difficulty? Does not the True always flow lightly from the lips and pen? I am not clear in this matter; which is a deeply practical one with me...

Time flies; while thou balancest a sentence, thou are nearer the final Period.

This however, I must say for myself: It is seldom or never the Phraseology, but always the Insight, that fails me, and retards me.

Thomas Carlyle, Selections from Carlyle's Journal, 1825-1832. Edited by G.B. Tennyson, Cambridge University Press, 1969.

X was once a great king Xerxes
Linxy Lurxy
Great king Xerxes!

Edward Lear

How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard? It resembles a wig.

He has ears, two eyes, and ten fingers,
Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
Long ago he was one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.

He has many friends, laymen and clerical;
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.

He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotions,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

He reads but cannot speak Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger-beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

Edward Lear

I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

Emerson. Self-Reliance

No sooner had we made our bow to Mr. Cambridge, in his library, than Johnson ran eagerly to one side of the room intent on pouring over the backs of the books. Sir Joshua observed aside, 'he runs to the books, as I do to the pictures, but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.' Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from reverie and answered, 'Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.' Sir Joshua observed to me the extraordinary promptitude with which Johnson flew upon an argument. 'Yes,' said I, he has no formal preparation, no flourishing with his sword; he is through your body in a moment.'

Boswell's Life of Johnson

"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 21, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having short-changed himself, a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his lapels in his hands, and a husky, conspiratorial voice said, "Rule Thirteen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

...Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, the bold, and his book is clear, brief, bold. Boldness is perhaps its chief distinguishing mark. On page 24, explaining one of his parallels, he says, "the left-hand version gives the impression that the writer is undecided or timid; he seems unable or afraid to choose one definite form of expression and stick to it." And his Rule 12 is "Make definite assertions." That was Will all over. He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I remember a day in his class when he leaned far forward in his characteristic pose—the pose of a man about to impart a secret—and croaked, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!" This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?

EB White

On the evening of the first day out from Goliad we heard the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front. The prairie grass was tall and we could not see the beasts, but the sound indicated that they were near. To my ear it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal. The part of Ohio that I hailed from was not thickly settled, but wolves had been driven out long before I left. Benjamin was from Indiana, still less populated, where yet the wolf roamed over the prairies. He understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them. He kept on toward the noise, unmoved. I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back and join our sick companion. I have no doubt that if Benjamin had proposed returning to Goliad, I would not only have "seconded the motion" but have suggested that it was very hard-hearted in us to leave Augur sick there in the first place; but Benjamin did not propose turning back. When he did speak it was to ask: "Grant, how many wolves do you think there are in that pack?" Knowing where he was from, and suspecting that he thought I would overestimate the answer, I determined to show my acquaintance with the animal but putting the estimate below what possibly could be correct, and answered: "Oh, about twenty," very indifferently. He smiled and rode on. In a minute or two we close upon them, and before they saw us. There were just two of them. Seated upon their haunches, with their mouths close together, they had made all the noise we had been hearing for the past ten minutes. I have often thought of this incident since when I have heard the noise of a few disappointed politicians who had deserted their associates. There are always more of them before they are counted.

Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, 1885

Grammarian, painter, augur, rhetorician
Geometer, quack, conjurer, magician,
All arts his own the hungry Greekling counts.

Juvenal, Satires, iii, 76-77, in D. Junius Juvenalis
, tr. P. Austen Nuttal, new ed. (London: Nichols, 1836), p. 41.

Another Soviet technique was to use hidden cameras to film espionage targets making love, and to use the film for blackmail...President Sukarno of Indonesia had an affair with a KGB plant, but when Soviet agents came and showed him incriminating photographs Sukarno did not give a damn. He is said to have nonchalantly pointed at the snapshots, saying, "I would like six of this picture and a dozen of that one..."
From Every Spy a Prince by Raviv and Melman

"One senior Saudi Arabian official was photographed in bed with a hooker who had been given instructions to situate herself and her bedmate in such a way that the camera recorded both his face and the actual penetration. Later, the Mossad confronted him with the evidence of his sexual escapades, spreading the photos on a table and saying, "You might want to cooperate with us." But instead of recoiling in shock and horror, the Saudi was thrilled with the photos. "This is wonderful," he said. I'll take two of those, three of that," adding he wanted to show them to all his friends.
From By Way of Deception by Victor Ostrovosky.

The next morning a plane arrived with a full description of this tremendous event in the human story. Stimson brought me the report. The bomb, or its equivalent, had been detonated at the top of a pylon 100 feet high. Everyone had been cleared away for ten miles round, and the scientists and their staffs crouched behind massive concrete shields and shelters at about that distance. The blast had been terrific. An enormous column of flame and smoke shot up to the fringe of the atmosphere of our poor earth. Devastation inside a one-mile circle was absolute. Here then was a speedy end to the Second World War, and perhaps to much else besides.

Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Vol VI, Triumph and Tragedy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953), p. 552.

In the hopes that this work may in some way contribute to their exploration of space, this is dedicated to the crew members of this country's present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!

Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon

Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., LINE-OF-SIGHT GUIDANCE TECHNIQUES FOR MANNED ORBITAL RENDEZVOUS, Ph.D. thesis, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January 1963), p. vii.
[The Moon] is a stark and strangely different place, but it looked friendly to me and it proved to be friendly.

Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11 post-flight press conference, July 1969).
Human character evermore publishes itself. The most fugitive deed and word, the mere air of doing a thing, the intimated purpose, expresses character. If you act, you show character; if you sit still, if you sleep, you show it. You think, because you have spoken nothing when others spoke, and have given no opinion on the times, on the church, on slavery, on marriage, on socialism, on secret societies, on the college, on parties and persons, that your verdict is still expected with curiosity as a reserved wisdom. Far otherwise; your silence answers very loud. You have no oracle to utter, and your fellow-men have learned that you cannot help them; for, oracles speak. Doth not wisdom cry, and understanding put forth her voice?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spiritual Laws. In Essays and Lectures (The Library of America; 15), edited by Joel Porte, p. 318.

The reason they call it one hundred is because tenty ten is too hard to say.

Cole Plambeck, 26 January 2001 (age 5).

An idea frequently discussed in this kind of context is the teleportation machine of science fiction. It is intended as a means of 'transportation' from, say, one planet to another, but whether it actually would be such, is what the discussion is all about.

Instead of being physically transported by a spaceship in the 'normal' way, the would-be traveller is scanned from head to toe, the accurate location and complete specification of every atom and every electron in his body being recorded in full detail. All this information is then beamed (at the speed of light), by an electromagnetic signal, to the distant planet of intended destination. There, the information is collected and used as the instructions to assemble a precise duplicate of the traveller, together with all his memories, his intentions, his hopes, and his deepest feelings. At least that is what is expected; for every detail of the state of his brain has been faithfully recorded, transmitted, and reconstructed. Assuming that the mechanism has worked, the original copy of the traveller can be 'safely' destroyed. Of course the question is: is this really a method of travelling from one place to another or is it merely the construction of a duplicate, together with the murder of the original? Would you be prepared to use this method of 'travel'—assuming that the method had been shown to be completely reliable, within its terms of reference? If teleportation is not travelling, then what is the difference in principle between it and just walking from one room into another? In the latter case, are not one's atoms of one moment simply providing the information for the locations of the atoms of the next moment? We have seen, after all, that there is no significance in preserving the identity of any particular atom. The question of the identity of any particular atom is not even meaningful. Does not any moving pattern of atoms simply constitute a kind of wave of information propagating from one place to another? Where is the essential difference between the propagation of waves which describes our traveller ambling in a commonplace way from one room to the other and that which takes place in the teleportation device?

Suppose it is true that teleportation does actually 'work', in the sense that the traveller's own 'awareness' is actually reawakened in the copy of himself on the distant planet (assuming that this question has genuine meaning). What would happen if the original copy of the traveller were not destroyed, as the rules of this game demand? Would his 'awareness' be in two places at once? Try to imagine your response to being told the following: 'Oh dear, so the drug we gave you before placing you in the Teleporter has worn off prematurely has it? That is a little unfortunate, but no matter. Anyway you will be pleased to hear that the other you—er, I mean the actual you, that is—has now arrived safely on Venus, so we can, er, dispose of you here—er, I mean of the redundant copy here. It will, of course, be quite painless....

From The Emperor's New Mind, by Roger Penrose

They made their way along a passage which tunnelled into the mountain, tortuous and irregular, the roof being in places so low that they were obliged to creep along on all fours. At length they came to a large space from which several more passsages branched off, and after some hesitation by the two Arabs they entered one of them, which was very narrow, long and craggy, and along this they slowly and painfully toiled until they reached a spot where two other apertures led to the interior.

"This is the place," said one of the Arabs to Belzoni, who could not understand how a large sarcophagus could possibly have been taken out through such a small aperture. That he was in a burial chamber he was quite certain, for they were continually walking over skulls and scattered bones. But that the sarcophagus could have entered so narrow a recess seemed quite impossible, for Belzoni himself could not get through. One of the Arabs and the interpreter, however, managed to squeeze through and it was agreed that Belzoni and the other Arab should wait until they returned.

They had gone a good way, for all trace of their light had disappeared, when Belzoni suddenly heard a loud noise and the distant voice of the interpreter crying out in fright: "O mon Dieu! mon Dieu! je suis perdu!" Then complete and utter silence. Not knowing what had happened Belzoni decided to return to seek help from the other Arabs.

Turning to the man with him, he told him to lead the way back, but the Arab, staring at him idiotically, said he did not remember the road to take. Belzoni called repeatedly to the interpreter, but got no answer. The situation was not a pleasant one.

He made his way back to the open space where several passages branched off, but all were so alike that he could not decide which was the right one. He decided upon one, and along this they crawled, their guttering candles burning lower and lower, yet he felt it would be dangerous to put one out to save the other in case the remaining one were, by accident, extinguished. Just when they thought they were nearing the outside they found themselves nearing the outside they found themselves up against a blank wall; they had taken the wrong passage!

There was nothing left for it but to return to the centre of the labyrinth and try again, after having made a mark on the passage from which they had just emerged. Every moment of delay was dangerous, for their swiftly diminishing candles would soon leave them in the dark...

Colin Clair, Giovanni Belzoni: Strong Man Egyptologist. (Belzoni was one of the worst of the antiquities plunderers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries).

It is difficult to discover why the more permanent is the more valuable or meaningful, why permanence or long-lastingness, why duration in itself, should be important. Consider those things people speak of as permanent or eternal. These include (apart from God) numbers, sets, abstract ideas, space-time itself. Would it be better to be one of these things? The question is bizarre: how could a concrete person become an abstract object? Still, would anyone wish they could become the number 14 or the Form of Justice, or the null set? Is anyone pining to lead a setly existence?

Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, Harvard 1981.

I suspect that something essential is omitted from the account of the badness of death by an analysis which treats it as a deprivation of possibilities. My suspicion is supported by the following suggestion of Robert Nozick. We could imagine discovering that people developed from individual spores that had existed indefinitely far in advance of their birth. In this fantasy, birth never occurs naturally more than one hundred years before the permanent end of the spore's existence. But then we discover a way to trigger the premature hatching of these spores, and people are born who have thousands of years of active life before them. Given such a situation, it would be possible to imagine oneself having come into existence thousands of years previously. If we put aside the question whether this would really be the same person, even given the identity of the spore, then the consequence appears to be that a person's birth at a given time could deprive him of many earlier years of possible life. Now while it would be cause for regret that one had been deprived of all those possible years of life by being born too late, the feeling would differ from that which many people have about death. I conclude that something about the future prospect of permanent nothingness is not captured by the analysis in terms of denied possibilities. If so, then Lucretius's argument [(Note by Thane): that because being dead is like being not born and you dont regret when you werent born, you shouldnt think being dead is so bad, either] still awaits an answer....

Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, Cambridge Univ Press, 1979, from a footnote to a chapter entitled "Death."

* * *
Thane comments on the previous two passages:

In 1984 my friend Jim Sanks was in a supermarket in Cambridge, Massachusetts and he recognized Nozick in the line ahead of him. Jim told Nozick he thought he (Nozick) was great, Jim had just read Philosophical Explanations and thought it was really good, etc.

Nozick (who was packing more than the 9 item maximum) looked at Jim like Jim was insane and didnt reply. So in person RN didnt turn out to be so funny. Is there a lesson?

Anyway: here we've got what philosophy has been reduced to in the last 40 years: a good chuckle. I've been reading some of the latest philosophy and the most interesting thing is that it all seems to share one characteristic: it's damn entertaining, even funny. Perhaps I am viewing the subject through the opaque lenses of a Knitwear Specialist, and am senstive only to jokes? Maybe. But Bertrand R. was quite the joker in his better passages, No? I wish I wrote this Nozick thing, not because it's interesting or wise but because its a damn good chuckler.

Returning to the Nagel passage above, in my opinion, the passage above reaches hilarity precisely at the third occurrence of the word "spore," more precisely, at the words, "...even given the identity of the spore." Maybe the humor has to do with the juxtapostions of phrases like "permanent nothingness" and "denied possibilities" along side the "spores."

If you're looking for good jokes, like me, then its good to to focus on what seems to be known as "The Problem of Personal Identity," particularly for the brain-exchanging Gedankenexperiments, but also for other reasons.

Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have trafficked with you in your youth; they wander about each in his own direction; there is no one to save you.

Isaiah 47, v 12-15.

Babbitt spoke well—and often—at these orgies of commercial righteousness about the "realtor's function as a seer of the future development of the community, and as a prophetic engineer clearing the pathway for inevitable changes"—which meant that a real-estate broker could make money by guessing which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision.

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1922) p. 38.

On March 23, 1989, an asteroid bigger than an aircraft carrier, traveling at 46,000 miles per hour, passed through Earth's orbit less than 400,000 miles away. Our planet had been at that point only six hours earlier. The asteroid was not detected until after it had passed. Had it struck the Earth, the energy released would have been equivalent to that of 1000 to 2500 megatons of TNT (or 1000-2500 one-megaton hydrogen bombs). In an area of high population density such as the northeast corridor of the U.S., Los Angeles, or Tokyo, millions of people would have died instantly.

The passing of this asteroid, named Apollo Asteroid 1989FC by its discoverers (Henry E. Holt and Norman G. Thomas of the University of Arizona), was not an isolated event. 1989FC is one of a class of objects which periodically cross the orbit of the Earth. The first object of this type was discovered in 1932 by Karl Reinmuth of Heidelberg Observatory. It was in an orbit around the Sun that crossed the Earth's orbit, and was named "Apollo," after the Greek Sun god, because of its close approach to the Sun. (Most asteroids orbit the Sun at much greater distances, generally between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). Subsequent discoveries revealed that a whole class of such objects exists, and that an object the size of the one which just missed Earth in March, 1989, probably comes by undetected once every two or three years.

Web page: Did Earth almost get hit by an Asteroid on March 23, 1989? at http://www.itss.raytheon.com/cafe/qadir/q2879.html

On July 16, 1979, Saddam Hussein, who had been the number two man in Iraqi politics for eleven years, [wanted] to shove aside his superior, the ailing President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakar, and have himself declared President. At the time of his takeover, Saddam was convinced that at least 5 of his closest friends and colleagues in the Iraqi leadership had some reservations about his succession. So, on the eve of his ascension, he had one of them arrested—Muhyi Abd al-Husayn al-Muashhadi, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Baath Party. Al-Mashhadi was then apparently tortured into agreeing to make a confession that he was planning to topple Saddam with some help of some other members of the leadership.

Then, on July 22, with real theatrical flair, Saddam convened an extraordinary meeting of the Iraqi Baath Party Regional Congress in order to hear al-Mashadi's confession—live. As al-Mashadi would tell his story and mention the name of someone else in the leadership involved in the bogus plot, that person would have to stand, and then a guard would drag him from the chamber. Al-Mashadi just “happened” to mention as co-conspirators the four other members of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council—Mohammed Ayish, Mohammed Mahjub, Husayn al-Hamdani, and Ghanim Abd al-Jalil—who Saddam felt were not totally supportive of him. A videotape of the confessions was then distributed to Baath Party branches across Iraq, as well as to army units; a few bootleg copies even made their way to Kuwait and Beirut.

A Lebanese friend of mine saw the video and described it as follows:

"This guy would be reciting his confession and he would come to a person and say, 'And then we went to see Mohammed to ask him to join the conspiracy.' And this Mohammed would have to stand. And you could see this guy crying, his knees shaking, and he could barely stay on his feet. And then this guy would say, 'But he refused to help us,' and then this Mohammed would slump back into his chair, exhausted with relief, and they would move on to the next guy. I had nightmares about this video for months..."

Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem