We often fail to notice that words we use quite casually are actually difficult if not impossible to define. A famous example pointed out by the philosopher Whitehead is the word “game”. He noted that for any characteristic that was proposed as an essential characteristic of games one could always find games that did not possess that characteristic. Another possible example is the word “dance”. Yet another is the word “”poem” Consider the following piece of my writing, which I call “Reverie”

Who was that lady I saw you with last night

I went to the pictures with my friend John

and we saw at once upon a time after time waits for

no man is an island in a sea of troubles

always come in threes are the times that try men’s souls.

That was no maybe: that was my life

Now this little piece of writing obeys few if any of the rules that might appear in an attempted definition of poetry. It has, for instance, no rhyme-scheme or evident rhythmic structure. Indeed, it is probably different in its form from any poem you have ever encountered.  Yet it is, I submit, without making any claims as to its quality, undoubtedly a poem. ————————————————————————–

I promised to give you my preferred solution to the lateral thinking problem about the cancelled concert, So here it is. The concert had to be cancelled because the pianist—the conductor’s son—had broken his arm.
I hope all the misdirection over the batons was not too annoying. In my defense, I would plead that there were plenty of genuine “clues”. After all who is more likely to be a musical prodigy than the son of a great conductor? And, in any case, why did he take the boy to the rehearsal?

The Cancelled Concert

The following is a lateral thinking problem; it has no logically inevitable solution. There may be, however, solutions that, when you encounter them, seem obviously better than others. I shall give you MY preferred solution in a later post:-

Maestro Serge Slovotnik, the celebrated conductor, was rehearsing the orchestra for an important concert of Mozart piano works, to be held in a fortnight. He had brought his twelve-year-old son Ivan to the concert hall. During a rest break in the rehearsal, the boy managed to fall off the proscenium. It soon became evident, from his agonized behaviour, that he had seriously damaged his right arm.

The conductor immediately ended the rehearsal, called a taxi, and took his son to the nearest hospital with an emergency department, where it was soon determined that he had a badly broken arm. After his arm had been appropriately treated, the conductor took Ivan home, and his ever-helpful housekeeper, who was very fond of the boy, made it clear she was going to cosset him very thoroughly.

At this point the conductor realized that he did not have his case of batons, all of which were very important to him, to the point where he could not easily envisage performing without using one of them. Some of them were also very valuable. Indeed, one had been owned by Tchaikovsky. He knew he had not left the case at the concert hall, and now realized that hadn’t had it at the hospital, so he thought he must have left it in the taxi. He spent much of the rest of the day tracking down the taxi and its driver. The man swore that the case was not left in his taxi, which left Slovotnik with no idea how to achieve a speedy recovery of it.

His final act for the day was to ring the concert Hall’s booking company, and tell them that, regrettably, the concert would have to be cancelled.


On a lighter note, I hope you will be entertained by the following news item.

Newsfeed: Tuesday:-

The two-year hunt for the last two members of the international terrorist group known as “The Chainsaw Gang” ended yesterday. Giorgi Sloshinoff and his companion Marsha “the mouse” Mafeking were arrested at the house in Glebe, Sydney, where they had been living for the past year. They had been pretending to be Dutch immigrants.

After the arrests, security-team leader Major Bruce Bruce modestly disclaimed credit for unmasking them. “They made a lot of little mistakes,” he said, “which made quite a few people suspicious about their origins.” He indicated the attractive little cottage with the miniature windmill in its garden, and the wooden clogs outside its front door. “That looks authentic enough,” he said, “but the neighbors complained about loud balalaika music late at night, and Mafeking persistently addressed the aboriginal postman as ‘Boy’.” ” And how Dutch,” he asked, pointing at the Russian Blue cat wearing the astrakhan cap, “is that moggie in the window?”

Serious Fun

In an earlier post I suggested that some forms of verse are more suited to fun than to serious poetry, and illustrated this point primarily in terms of the limerick. In fact, there are many of these forms, which may have complex rhyme schemes, rhythms, syllabic counts, rules involving repeated lines, themes or words, and so on. The limerick is one such form, as are the clerihew, and numerous so-called French Forms, such as the rondeau, the rondel, the villanelle, the triolet and the ballade. All of these verse forms have in common the fact that most versifiers saw them as too restrictive to use for serious poetry, but used them for poetic play and competition.

Oddly, there are some equally restrictive forms that have been used for serious poetry. Thus, no-one would suggest that Shakespeare’s sonnets were not serious poetry; neither would many doubt the poetic depth of the haiku of Kobayashi Issa.

I have long felt that verse-forms that have, in recent history, been confined to frivolous use are being underused, and have been trying very hard to write verses that actually say something, using forms that are usually only used to impart jokes (often lewd). What they say is often not very profound, but some make important philosophical points,and I have even used them in lectures.

I was inspired by a limerick written by W. S. Gilbert, in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “Ruddigore” (1887):-

If you wish in this world to advance,
Your merits you’re bound to enhance.
You must stir it and stump it,
And blow your own trumpet,
Or, trust me, you haven’t a chance.

Here’s a rather less optimistic one:-

II you hope to grow gracefully old,
You should not be capricious or bold.
To do your own thing
May make your heart sing,
But it’s safer to do as you’re told.

Simple wisdom:-

Though anchorites weep as they pray,
And great sages may voice their dismay
At not knowing what’s up,
Yet the veriest pup
Knows the purpose of living is play.

Here is a different form:-

The joys of having a canine pal are almost endless.
But some puppies tend to render themselves temporarily friendless,
By not seeing distinctions that, to us, seem clear as day,
Such as those between demolition, aggravated assault, and play

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher with whose views I seldom agree, but who writes so beautifully that I cannot resist reading him. One of his views I disagree with very heartily, and I wrote the following verse to get across to my students why. :-

Daniel Dennett thinks mentalistic talk can only generate confusion,
Since consciousness and its supposed causal effects are nothing but illusion.
He argues this whenever there’s an opportunity to be had,
Because seeing people all mixed up makes him feel so very bad.

Here’s another one that deals with a popular postmodern view, which I think it totally demolishes. :-

There are people who claim truth is through,
Hors de combat, kaput, up the flue.
There’s no need to take fright,
Because if they are right,
What they’re saying just cannot be true.

Finally—-you may be relieved to know—–here’s one I didn’t share with my students:-

When, after a life that was nasty, brutish and, no doubt, all too short,
I inevitably find myself arraigned before a higher court,
I intend, though it may seem outrageous insubordination,
To bring counter suit against the Lord for malcreation.

The versatile limerick

Verse is, of course, a medium in which great poets pass on their unique insights into life, the world and the universe. It is also a flexible medium with which to have fun. People of all ages and levels of poetical sophistication have, throughout history, played with rhyme and rhythm for pleasure, as an intellectual challenge, to demonstrate their cleverness, and in competition with others. Quite a lot of verse forms with particular rhythmic patterns and rhyme schemes have been developed for this kind of play.

Perhaps the best-known of these is the limerick, which became popular in the nineteenth century, The form is strongly associated with socially unacceptable humour, though this does not seem to have diminished its popularity. I shall have more to say about the limerick in later posts, but this time I shall illustrate one consequence of its familiarity, which is that one can have fun by playing with the form itself.

For example:
There was a young man of Japan,
Whose poetry never would scan.
When they said this was so,
He replied “Yes, I know,” but I always do my level best to cram as many words into the last line as ever I possibly can.”
(not totally original, but modified by “me”)

Another young bard, of Utrecht,
Has a flair for dramatic effecht
His verses all tend
To come to an end
Quite suddenly.
(not totally original, but modified by “me”)

On a slightly different track:
There was a young poet whose verse
Could not have been possibly less satisfactory.
He failed, time after time,
To find a good matching-word;
He suffered, it seemed, from a hex.

As I said, the limerick will return, together with other verse-forms, such as the clerihew.

Friday the13th

It is always quite entertaining when people who set out to “debunk” common beliefs or superstitions end up with egg on their faces. Strangely, they usually don’t need to be very embarrassed, because such failures tend not to get extensive publicity, or to be long remembered.

An outstanding example was the research conducted in 1993 by a team led by Dr Tom Scanlon, of MidDowns Health Authority, in the U.K. They set out to show that Friday the 13th was no more unlucky than Friday the 6th. They compared traffic information relating to a local motorway and local supermarket shopping statistics for all the Friday the 13ths and 6ths over five years; there were six such pairs. What they found was that people were less likely to use the motorway on the 13ths, but that the risk of accidents, and injuries, was significantly higher if they did. They calculated that the risk of accident was about 52 percent higher on the 13ths, and the risk of hospitalization was about 50 percent higher. Interestingly, there tended to be more shoppers, rather than fewer, so people were not staying home, but we’re probably tending to avoid private transport.

I believe that full moons have also widely been found to be associated with increased activity at hospital emergency departments.

One might reasonably conclude that the world is rather more complicated than the sorts of people who join skeptics societies would like it to be, or can comfortably cope with.

Lucky Thirteen?

Here are some charmingly coincidental mathematical facts:
“TWELVE PLUS ONE” just happens to have 13 letters,
as does “ELEVEN PLUS TWO.”

So, of course, does “SIX GREEN FLIES,” but there’s nothing particularly interesting about that.

Withe regard to my previous post “Sudden Death Problem,” my favourite “solution” is as follows:
The girl asked for a glass of water because she had hiccups. The bartender had been told the condition could be cured by a sudden shock, and wanted to help. Sadly, he thought the gun was unloaded.

Perhaps you can find a “better” explanation.

Lucky 13?

Here are some charmingly coincidental mathematical facts:
“TWELVE PLUS ONE” just happens to have 13 (12+1) letters,
as does “ELEVEN PLUS TWO.”

So, of course, does “SIX GREEN FLIES,” but there’s nothing particularly interesting about that.

Withe regard to my previous post “Sudden Death Problem,” my favourite “solution” is as follows:
The girl asked for a glass of water because she had hiccups. The bartender had been told the condition could be cured by a sudden shock, and wanted to help. Sadly, he thought the gun was unloaded.

Perhaps you can find a “better” explanation.