Mark Twain’s Complaint Letters

The following is a letter written by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to Hartford City Gas Light Co.: Gentlemen, There are but two places in our whole street where lights could be of any value, by any accident, and you have measured and appointed your intervals so ingenious as to leave each of those places in […]

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Not Honest Enough

In 1958, newspaper columnist N. S. Olds related in the Villager [Greenwich Village, New York] his conversation with poet Robert Frost (1876 – 1963) about a diverting incident in Amherst College, where Frost was a lecturer. Frost was a casual lecturer and he disliked formalities. His way of teaching English literature to his students was […]

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Oscar Wilde on Snow

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation between Oscar Wilde and a woman about snow. This is from Oscar Wilde, His Life and Wit, a biography of Wilde written by Hesketh Pearson, and published in 1949: Woman: What terrible weather we’re having. Oscar Wilde: Yes, but if it wasn’t for the snow, how could we believe […]

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Gleanings from the Past #75

Coining New Words Carl Sagan Physicists had to invent words and phrases for concepts far removed from everyday experience. It was their fashion to avoid pure neologisms and instead to evoke, even if feebly, some analogous commonplace. The alternative was to name discoveries and equations after one another. This they did also. But if you […]

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When James Joyce Tried to Work in a Bank

During his youth, Irish author James Joyce was not doing well financially and he had to do several odd jobs. One time, he tried to apply in a bank. He was interviewed by the bank manager and the interview went something like this: Manager: “Do you smoke?” James: “No,” Manager: “Do you drink?” James: “No.” […]

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Real World Probability: A “Birthday Problem” Anecdote

I heard the following story from my topology professor. A renowned statistician was teaching a course in fundamental probability theory to a group of undergraduates. As expected of an introductory course, he briefly tackled several main principles of probability to give the students a bird’s-eye view of the subject. One day, he talked about the […]

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Gleanings from the Past #72

On the Spot When [John] Dryden was a boy at Westminster school, he was put, with others to write a copy of verses on the miracle of the conversion of water into wine. Being a great truant, he had not time to compose his verses; and, when brought up, he had only made one line […]

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Ernest Hemingway’s Blood and Money

In 1918, shortly before the culmination of the First World War, writer Ernest Hemingway was wounded by an Austrian mortar which exploded near him at Fossalta di Piave. He was a Red Cross ambulance driver at the time. Around thirty years later, Hemingway revisited the same spot during his trip to Venice. Initially, he wanted […]

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Pythagoras’ Definition of Philosopher

The following anecdote was attributed to Pythagoras, a sixth century BC Greek philosopher: “I have no trade,” he once declared; “I am a philosopher.” “And what may that be?” he was asked. “This life,” he said, “may be compared to the Olympic games. For in that concourse some seek glory or strive for wreaths; others, peddling goods, […]

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Gleanings from the Past #70

Plural of Égal Gustav Masson, the late genial French Master of Harrow School, once told me that he asked one of his class one day the following question: “What is the plural of égal?” The boy addressed looked mischievously at his tutor — whose good nature every Harrow boy could depend on — and with […]

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