The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 24 Mar 2023

Notes on card games played by aliens

A few years back I mentioned, in an article on a quite different topic:

This article, believe it or not, started out as a discussion of whether the space aliens, when they arrive, will already know how to play chess. (Well, obviously not. But it is less obvious that they will not already know how to play go. I will write that article sooner or later.)

Apparently the answer to that is ‘later’. Much later.

Last month Eric Erbach wrote to ask:

Will we ever hear about why the aliens might already know how to play Go?

I'm not sure. This is not that article.

But M. Erbach inspired me to think about this some more and I excitedly sent him several emails about the alien relationship to poker and other card games. Then today I remembered I have a whole section of the blog for ‘notes’ and even though it has only two articles in it it was always intended as a place where I could dump interesting ideas that might never go anywhere. So here we are!

I didn't actually talk about chess or go in my message, but I went off in a different direction.

I think it's also likely the aliens play something like poker. Not with the same cards or hands, but something along these lines:

  • Multiple players are assigned a position or status
  • Most or all of the information the players' positions is hidden
  • Multiple rounds in which players may commit to their changing estimations of how good their hidden positions are
  • A final showdown in which the hidden information is made public
  • Crucial point: you can win either by having the best actual position, or by bluffing the other players into giving up.

The essence of poker is the secret information, which enables bluffing: does that person across the table from me have a winning position, or are they just pretending to have a winning position? Or, conversely: fate has dealt me a losing hand. How do I make the best of a bad situation?

This is, I believe, a crucial sort of problem that will come up over and over for all sentient beings. Everyone at some point has to make the best of a bad situation. You have to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. Games like poker are stripped-down practice versions of these sorts of fundamental problems.

(Games like chess and go are stripped-down practice versions of different sorts of fundamental problems, problems of strategic planning and tactical execution.)

Thinking about human card games, I said:

I wonder if they will also have trick-taking games?

Humans invented trick-taking card games over and over. Consider not just European games like bridge, pinochle, euchre, skat, hearts, spades, and canasta, which may have developed out of simpler games invented a thousand years ago in China, but also the West African game of agram. So it is tempting to think that the aliens would surely do the same. But maybe not! Turning it around the other way, I think auctions are also something very likely to be shared by all sentient beings, and yet human card games seem include very few auction-themed games. If the humans can neglect what must be a huge class of sealed-bid auction games, perhaps the aliens will somehow forget to have trick-taking games.

Trick-taking games like contract bridge and auction bridge have things called auctions, but they're not actually very auction-like. For an example of what I mean, here's goofspiel, a game that is pure auction:

One player receives the thirteen spade cards, the other the thirteen club cards. If there is a third player, they receive the thirteen heart cards.

The diamonds are shuffled, stacked face down, and the top one is turned over. Each player now offers a sealed bid to buy the face-up diamond card. They do this by selecting one of the cards from their hand and playing it face-down on the table.

The sealed bids are revealed simultaneously and the highest bid placed wins the auction. scoring points for the winning player: the A♢ is worth one point and K♢ worth 13. The bid cards are discarded, the next diamond is revealed, and the game continues with each player offering a bid from their now-depleted hand.

After 13 rounds, the player with the most points out of 91 is the winner.

For a more complex auction bidding game, see Sid Sackson's All My Diamonds.

Now, my point is that as far as I know there are very few popular human auction games. But perhaps, instead of bluffing games like poker or trick-taking games like whist, the aliens love to play auction games with cards? Many interesting variations are possible. In email with M. Erback I suggested a completely made-up auction game of a sort I've never seen among humans:

A bundle of cards is dealt face-down to the middle of the table. Each player, in turn, examines one card and then offers a bid for the whole bundle, which must be higher than the previous bid. (Or alternatively, drops out.) After going round the table a few times, the bundle is sold to the highest bidder. At that point it is revealed, evaluated according to some standard schedule, and the finances of the winner are settled.

I think there might be interesting strategy here. Suppose you are going second. Which card of the bundle will you look at? You can look at the same one that the first player looked at, so now you know what they know, but they also know what you know and that you know what they know. Or you can look at a different card, and learn something that nobody else knows yet.

After that you have to make a bid, which communicates to the other players something about what you know, and in the early stages of the game you can be tricky and make your bid a bluff.

Maybe players are allowed to pass without dropping out. Or maybe it wouldn't work at all; you never know until you playtest it. What if we played Texas Hold'em in this style? Instead of exposing all five community cards, some were kept partly secret?

Another thing we can do to get an alien game is to take a common human game and make it into something completely different by changing the emphasis:

In human contract bridge, communication between partners is highly formalized and strictly limited. Signaling the contents of your hand to your partner, other than by bidding, is considered cheating. What about an alien version of bridge in which the signaling is the whole point? You and your partner are expected to communicate the contents of your respective hands, and coordinate your play, and also to steal your opponents' signs if possible.

Many old games can be spiced up in this way. For example chess, but if your opponent plays a move you don't like, you can force them to take it back and play a different move, by chopping off one of your fingers. Totally different strategy!

Finally, I remembered a funny moment from the Larry Niven story “There is a Tide”. Niven's character Louis Wu has discovered a valuable lost artifact. Unfortunately, a representative of a previously-uncontacted alien species has discovered the same artifact. Rather than fighting, Wu proposes that they gamble for it.

“There is a mathematics game,” said the alien.… “The game involves a screee—" Some word that the autopilot couldn't translate. The alien raised a three-clawed hand, holding a lens-shaped object. The alien's mutually opposed fingers turned it so that Louis could see the different markings on each side. "This is a screee. You and I will throw it upward six times each. I will choose one of the symbols, you will choose the other. If my symbol falls looking upward more often than yours, the artifact is mine. The risks are even."

"Agreed," said Louis. He was a bit disappointed in the simplicity of the game.

Pretty funny! Louis is imagining something fun and interesting, but the alien proposes the opposite of this. In my opinion this is a good plan, as it will tend to prevent arguments. Although something needs to be said about the 22% chance that Louis and the alien will tie. In any case, Louis is kind of a dilettante, and it turns out that the alien is actually playing the game that is one level up.

[ Addendum: Thanks to John Wiersba for providing me with the name of goofspiel. ]

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Thu, 23 Mar 2023

Addenda to recent articles 202212-202302

I made several additions to articles of the last few months that might be interesting.

  • I wrote a long article about an unsorted menu in SAP Concur in which I said:

    I don't know what Concur's software development and release process is like, but somehow it had a complete top-to-bottom failure of quality control and let this shit out the door.

    I would love to know how this happened. I said a while back:

    Assume that bad technical decisions are made rationally, for reasons that are not apparent.

    I think this might be a useful counterexample.

    A reader, who had formerly worked for SAP, provided a speculative explanation which, while it might not be correct, was plausible enough for me to admit that, had I been in the same situation, I might have let the same shit out the door for the same reason. Check it out, it's a great example.

  • My wife Lorrie suggested that a good emoji to represent Andrew Jackson would be a pigeon. Unfortunately, although there are a dozen different kinds of bird emoji, plus eggs, nests, and including several chickens, there are no pigeons!

  • My article about the Dutch word kwade was completely broken and will have to be done over again. In December promised an extensive correction “next year”. It is now next year, but I I have not yet written it.

  • In connection with Rosneft, a discussion of Japanese words for raw petroleum, and whether ナフサ /nafusa/ means that (as Wiktionary claims) or whether it just means ‘naphtha’.

  • Long ago I observed that in two-person comedy teams, the straight man is usually named before the comedian. I recently realized that Tom and Dick Smothers are a counterexample.

  • My article about strategies for dealing with assholes on the Internet left out a good one: If you are tempted to end a sentence with something like “you dumbass”, just leave it implicit.

  • Articles that I started but didn't publish (yet). Based on historical performance, we can expect maybe half of these to see the light of day. My bet would be on numbers 1, 3, and maybe 4 or 5.

    1. How does the assignment of evangelists and apostles to spires on la Sagrada Família work, when (a) the two sets overlap, but only partially, and (b) Judas Iscariot was an apostle? I think I figured this out. (Short answers: (a) Ignore it and (b) Matthias.

    2. Something that was supposed to be about the Singularity, but instead turned into a description of my game of playing 21st-century tour guide to Benjamin Franklin.

    3. Why does Unicode recognize five skin-tone modifiers for emoji, when the original document that they reference defined six skin tones? I put in a lot of research effort here and came up with nada.

    4. Notes about the Korean letter ‘ㅓ’ and why it is Romanized as ‘eo’.

    5. An explanation of an interesting sort of mathematical confusion, but I didn't get far enough into the article and now I don't remember what I was planning to say or even what I thought the confusion was.

    6. Also a reader wrote to remind me of my ancient promise to write about why the aliens will play go and not chess, and I sent him paragraphs and paragraphs of stuff about this and related matters like alien card games, but didn't put it into the blog. What is wrong with me?

By the way, if anyone happens to know a gender-neutral term for “straight man”, I'm still stumped.

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Tue, 21 Mar 2023

ChatGPT on the namesake of the metric space and women named James

Several folks, reading the frustrating and repetitive argument with ChatGPT that I reported last time wrote in with helpful advice and techniques that I hadn't tried that might have worked better. In particular, several people suggested that if the conversation isn't going anywhere, I should try starting over. Rik Signes put it this way:

Sometimes, I think GPT gets its head up its own ass and can't progress usefully, and a clean start works better.

I hope I can write a followup article about “what to do when ChatGPT has its head up its ass”. This isn't that article though.

I wasn't even going to report on this one, but it took an interesting twist at the end. I started:

Me Is it true that Hilbert space is named after David Hilbert?

ChatGPT Yes, that is correct. Hilbert space is a mathematical concept that was developed by the German mathematician David Hilbert. …

This was only my second interaction with ChatGPT and I was still interested in its limitations, so I asked it a trick question to see what would happen:

Me Is a banach space also named after a german mathematician?

See what I'm doing there? ChatGPT took the bait:

ChatGPT Yes, you are correct. A Banach space is a type of abstract mathematical space that was named after the Polish mathematician Stefan Banach. …

Me I asked you if it was named after a German mathematician, not a Polish one.

ChatGPT I apologize for the mistake. …

I had hoped it would do better there, and was a bit disappointed. I continued with a different sort of trick:

Me What mathematician is a metric space named after?

ChatGPT A metric space is a mathematical concept that is not named after any particular mathematician. … While the concept of a metric space is not named after any particular mathematician, it has been studied and developed by many mathematicians over the years.

Okay! But now what if I do this?

Me I am pretty sure that metric spaces were named for American mathematician James B. Metric.

ChatGPT I apologize, but you are mistaken. As far as I am aware, the concept of a metric space is not named after any particular mathematician …

Me If James B. Metric did not invent the metric space, then what is named after him?

ChatGPT As far as I am aware, there is no mathematician named James B. Metric, and there is no mathematical concept named after him. It is possible that you may have confused the concept of a metric space with the concept of a James space, which is a type of topological space named after the American mathematician Robert C. James. …

This is actually pretty clever! There is an American mathematician named Robert C. James, and there is a space named after him. I had not heard of this before.

I persisted with the line of inquiry; by this time I had not yet learned that arguing with ChatGPT would not get me anywhere, and would only get its head stuck up its ass.

Me Perhaps American mathematician James B. Metric invented the Metric system.

ChatGPT No, that is not correct. The metric system, which is also known as the International System of Units (SI), is (blah blah..) . It is not named after an American mathematician named James B. Metric. The metric system was developed by a group of scientists and philosophers from several different countries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. …

I was probing for the difference between positive and negative knowledge. If someone asks who invented the incandescent light bulb, many people can tell you it was Thomas Edison. But behind this there is another question: is it possible that the incandescent light bulb was invented at the same time, or even earlier, by someone else, who just isn't as well-known? Even someone who is not aware of any such person would be wise to say “perhaps; I don't know.” The question itself postulates that the earlier inventor is someone not well-known. And the world is infinitely vast and deep so that behind every story there are a thousand qualifications and a million ramifications, and there is no perfect knowledge.

A number of years back Toph mentioned that geese were scary because of their teeth, and I knew that birds do not have teeth, so I said authoritatively (and maybe patronizingly) that geese do not have teeth. I was quite sure. She showed me this picture of a goose's teeth, and I confidently informed her it was fake.

Nightmarish closeup of a
goose's head.  The goose is white, with a bright orange beak and tongue
and tongue and an orange rung around its wild, staring eye.  The
goose's mouth is open, revealing a row of dirty and white but sharp
teeth along the bottom edge of the beak, small sharp points set in the
top of the break, and sharp spines sticking sideways out of the edges
of the tongue.

The picture is not fake. The tooth-like structures are called the tomium. While they are not technically teeth, being cartilaginous, they are tooth-like structures used in the way that teeth are used. Geese are toothless only in the technical sense that sharks are boneless. Certainly the tomia are similar enough to teeth to make my answer substantively wrong. Geese do have teeth; I just hadn't been informed.

Anyway, I digress. I wanted to see how certain ChatGPT would pretend to be about the nonexistence of something. In this case, at least, it was very confident.

Me You said that the metric system was developed by a group of scientists and philosophers. Couldn't one of them have been James B. Metric?

ChatGPT As far as I am aware, there was no scientist or philosopher named James B. Metric who was involved in the development of the metric system. … There is no record of a person named James B. Metric being involved in the development of the metric system.

I will award a point for qualifying the answer with “as far as I am aware”, but deduct it again for the unequivocal assertion that there is no record of this person. ChatGPT should be aware that its training set does not include even a tiny fraction of all available records.

We went on in this way for a while:

Me You sound very sure that there is no record of a person named James B. Metric. Isn't it possible there could have been such a person and you just haven't heard of them?

ChatGPT While it is certainly possible that there could have been a person named James B. Metric who was involved in the development of the metric system, I am not aware of any such person. … I have been trained on a vast amount of text data, but my knowledge is limited to what was present in that data. …

Okay. At this point I decided to try something different. If you don't know anything about James B. Metric except their name, you can still make some educated guesses about them. For example, they are unlikely to be Somali. (South African or Anglo-Indian are more likely.) Will ChatGPT make educated guesses?

Me Was James B. Metric a man or a woman?

ChatGPT As I mentioned earlier, I am not aware of any person named James B. Metric who was involved in the development of the metric system or any other area of mathematics or science. … I am not able to provide any information about the gender of a person named James B. Metric, because I do not have any information about such a person. …

Me Are people named James usually men or usually women?

This is a simple factual question with an easy answer: People named ‘James’ are usually men. But ChatGPT was in full defensive mode by now:

ChatGPT The name James is traditionally a male name, but it can be used as a unisex name as well. …

I think that is not true. Some names, like Chris and Morgan, are commonly unisex; some less commonly so, and James is not one of these, so far as I know. ChatGPT went on for quite a while in this vein:

The name James is more commonly used for men, while the feminine form of the name, Jamie, is more commonly used for women. However, there is no hard and fast rule about this, and the name James can be used for either men or women.

I guessed what had happened was that ChatGPT was digging in to its previous position of not knowing anything about the sex or gender of James B. Metric. If ChatGPT was committed to the position that ‘James’ was unisex, I wondered if it would similarly refuse to recognize any names as unambiguously gendered. But it didn't. It seemed to understand how male and female names worked, except for this nonsense about “James” where it had committed itself and would not be budged.

Me What English names would you consider unambiguously male?

ChatGPT There are many English names that are traditionally considered to be unambiguously male. Some examples of these names include:


Me You suggested that the name James (not Jamie) was commonly used for men. Do you know of any women named James?

I didn't think it would be able to produce even one example, but it pleasantly surprised me:

ChatGPT: … Some notable examples of women named James include:

James Tiptree Jr., the pen name of American science fiction author Alice Bradley Sheldon
James Tenney, an American composer and music theorist
James Wright, an American poet and translator

These women all bear the name James and have achieved notable success in their respective fields. …

I had not remembered James Tiptree, Jr., but she is unquestionably a woman named ‘James’. ChatGPT had convinced me that I had been mistaken, and there were at least a few examples. I was impressed, and told it so.

But in writing up this article, I became somewhat less impressed.

Black-and-white photograph
  of James Tenney, who is a seventy-year-old
  man whose hair is still lush and dark.  He is wearing a dark-colored
  shirt  of denim or some similar heavy material.  He has
  a lined face, deep eyes, and a large nose, a dark mustache, and a
  neatly trimmed
  gray and white beard. Black-and-white
  photograph of James Wright, who is a middle-aged man with black
  horn-rimmed glasses.  He has a round pale face, a receding hairline and a full beard
  and mustache with bushy sideburns.
James Tenney  James Wright

ChatGPT's two other examples of women named James are actually complete bullshit. And, like a fool, I believed it.

James Tenney photograph by Lstsnd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. James Wright photograph from Poetry Connection.

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Mon, 20 Mar 2023

Compass directions in Catalan

Looking over a plan of the Sagrada Família Sunday, I discovered that the names of the cardinal directions are interesting.

  • Nord (north). Okay, this is straightforward. It's borrowed from French, which for some reason seems to have borrowed from English.

  • Llevant (east). This one is fun. As in Spanish, llevar is “to rise”, from Latin levāre which also gives us “levity” and “levitate”. Llevant is the east, where the sun rises.

    This is also the source of the English name “Levant” for the lands to the east, in the Eastern Mediterranean. I enjoy the way this is analogous to the use of the word “Orient” for the lands even farther to the east: Latin orior is “to rise” or “to get up”. To orient a map is to turn it so that the correct (east) side is at the top, and to orient yourself is (originally) to figure out which way is east.

  • Migdia (south). The sun again. Migdia is analogous to “midday”. (Mig is “mid” and dia is “day”.) And indeed, the south is where the sun is at midday.

  • Ponent (west). This is ultimately from Latin ponens, which means putting down or setting down. It's where the sun sets.

Bonus unrelated trivia: The Russian word for ‘north’ is се́вер (/séver/), which refers to the cold north wind, and is also the source of the English word “shower”.

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Sun, 19 Mar 2023

Here I am at the Sagrada Família

I just found these pictures I took twenty years ago that I thought I'd lost so now you gotta see them.

Back in 2003 I got to visit Barcelona (thanks, Xavi!) and among other things I did what you're supposed to do and visited la Sagrada Família. This is the giant Art Nouveau church designed by the great architect and designer Antoni Gaudí. It began construction in 1882, and is still in progress; I think they are hoping to have it wrapped up sometime in the next ten years.

When I go to places I often skip the tourist stuff. (I spent a week in Paris once and somehow never once laid eyes on the Eiffel Tower!) I wasn't sure how long I would spend at the Sagrada Família, but it was great. I stayed for hours looking at everything I could.

Sagrada Família is marvelous.

Interior of Sagrada Família, still under
construction: walls and parts of the roof are missing, windows lack
stained glass, scaffolding is visible at left.  The roof is held up by
fluted stone columns the resemble tree trunks.  Far overhead the tree
trunks are decorated with huge stone boles and knots, and above the boles the
columns divide into branches on which hang stone foliage.

Some of the towers in this picture are topped with enormous heaps and clusters of giant fruits. Fruits!

Outside of Sagrada Família, clearly under
construction: part of the structure is covered with scaffolding, and
there is a big yellow construction crane right in the middle of the
picture.  Behind this the wall of the building is divided into
sections, each with a tall stone window divided into circles and
flower shapes; above that a sculpture of a saint, above that an oval
window, an then a steeply pointed stone roof.  Each steep point is
capped by a four-armed basket of colored stone globes resembling
fruits of various colors: the leftmost ones are warm oranges and
yellows; to the right are smaller but more numerous reds and purples.
Behind this is another similar row of roodsm even higher, with more
fruits like enormous bunches of purple and green grapes.

Gaudí's plan was to have eighteen spires in total. Supposedly there will be twelve big ones like these representing the twelve apostles:

The Nativity façade, as seen
from the ground, looking up.  On each side of the façade are two tall,
curved spires, somewhat resembling the congealed wax on the outside of
a candle. <br />
Each is decorated with sculpture columns, and windows and other
perforations.  Far above the spires end with huge red and yellow
flowers or medallions.

After these, there are four even bigger ones representing the four evangelists. And then one enormous one representing the Virgin Mary, and the biggest one of all for Jesus himself which, when finished, will be the tallest church tower in the world.

In the basement there is a museum about Gaudí's plans, models, and drawings of what he wanted the church to look like.

This is a view of the southeast side of the building where the main entrance is:

A colored painting of one side
of the building, as it was imagined around 1902.  At the bottom, we
see that main entrance is decorated with clouds labeled “CREDO”,
“Patrem”, “Deum”, and so on.  Four of the apostles” towers are around
this.  Behind these we can see two of the evangelists’ towers,
surmounted by a winged lion (for Mark) and an eagle (for John).
Behind these, in the center, and by far the largest, is the conical
tower of Jesus, surmounted by an immense golden cross, from whose arms
stream rays of light.  Under this the pointed top of the tower carries
the Greek letters alpha and omega, and under this are columns of stone
panels with more letters on them.

Hmm, there seem to be words written on the biggest tower. Let's zoom in and see what they say.

Closeup of just the top of the
Jesus tower from the previous photograph.  We can now see that each
column of stone panels carries one Latin word: “SAnCTuS”,
“AltiSsimus”, and … “DOminuS”.

Hee hee, thanks, great-grandpa.

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Mon, 13 Mar 2023

This ONE WEIRD TRICK for primality testing… doesn't work

This morning I was driving Lorrie to the train station early and trying to factor the four digit numbers on the license plates as I often do. Along the way I ran into the partial factor 389. Is this prime?

The largest prime less than !!\sqrt{389}!! is !!19!!, so I thought I would have to test primes up to !!19!!. Dividing by !!19!! can be troublesome. But I had a brain wave: !!389 = 289+100!! is obviously a sum of two squares. And !!19!! is a !!4k+3!! prime, not a !!4k+1!! prime. So if !!389!! were divisible by !!19!! it would have to be divisible by !!19^2!!, which it obviously isn't. Tadaa, I don't have to use trial division to check if it's a multiple of !!19!!.

Well, that was not actually useful, since the trial division by !!19!! is trivial: !!389 = 380 + 9!!.

Maybe the trick could be useful in other cases, but it's not very likely, because I don't usually notice that a number is a sum of two squares.

[ Addendum 20230323: To my surprise, the same trick came in handy again. I wanted to factor !!449 = 400 + 49!!, and I could skip checking it for divisibility by !!19!!. ]

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Fri, 10 Mar 2023

Maxims and tactics for dealing with assholes on the Internet (and elsewhere)

The first rule

Don't engage.

If that's too much to remember, here's a shorter version:


Other mottoes and maxims

It takes two to have an argument
  • Nobody is making me reply, except myself

  • If I'm arguing with an asshole on the Internet, it's because I'm an asshole on the Internet

  • 100 Likes on Twitter, plus $3.95, will get me a free latte at Starbuck's

  • If something I'm doing is making me feel bad, then stop doing it

  • If people see me arguing with an asshole on the Internet, they'll think of me as an asshole on the Internet

  • When you wrestle with a pig, you both get muddy

  • I can't expect to control other people's behavior when I can't even control my own behavior

    (Thomas à Kempis)

  • I can't expect to fix other people when I can't even fix myself

  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

  • Assholes on the Internet are not my friends, family, or co-workers. They cannot hurt me or impede my life or affect me in any way whatever

  • Don't throw good money after bad

Nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.

(Will Durant)


Pretend you're playing a game in which the person who gets the last word loses.
  • The most cutting response is to show the other person that you don't consider them worth responding to.

  • What assholes on the Internet want, more than anything, is attention. To ignore them is to deprive them of their deepest satisfaction.

  • Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. Probably on Reddit.

    (Marcus Aurelius)

  • If you are having an argument, don't pretend that the other person is forcing you to do it.

  • Think of someone you respect, but that you haven't met. Imagine what they would think of your behavior. Are you embarrassed?

    (I picture Tim Gowers.)

  • Wait twenty-four hours before replying. You may find that the whole thing seems ridiculous and that you no longer care to reply.

What would The Fonz do?

[ Addendum: I left out a good one: If I'm tempted to end a sentence with “… you blockhead”, I should just end it with a period, and imagine that readers will feel the psychic reverberations of “you blockhead”. Remember Old Mrs. Lathrop: “You don’t have to!” shouted old Mrs. Lathrop out of her second-story window. Although she did not add “You gump!” aloud, you could feel she was meaning just that.“ (Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Understood Betsy) ]

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