RANTS & COOL REFLECTIONS
12/29/2000
2/8/2008

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For the General Reader
uThe Witness of Two Stones. Making our mark on our environment.
uThe Myth of Leisure Time [essay]. Why hasnt technology given us more free time?
uSafeguarding Kids Use of the Internet [essay]. Its never going to work.
  
For the Mensa Press
uThe Aesthetic Aristocracy [Bulletin editorial]. Majority rule is no way to judge art.
uIts All Entertainment [Bulletin editorial]. How do we choose what we spend our time on?
u“Daddy, How High Is Up?” [Bulletin editorial]. Asking questions is fun for grownups too.
uLast Words. [Final Bulletin editorial]. Advice on taking care of Mensa.
uBoundaries [Intelligencer editorial]. Differences among Ms are not barriers.
uThanks Given [Intelligencer editorial]. Appreciating Ms of many types.
uThe Case of the Counterfeit Sizzle [Intelligencer editorial]. Quantity is the wrong goal.
uThe Origin of Densa [Interloc article]. A Boston M creates an enduring parody of Mensa.
Interested in topics pertaining to Mensa? Please see also Dick Amyx’s Mensa pages.
  

 

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For the General Reader

The Witness of Two Stones
Copyright © 2004 Meredy Amyx.
 

From cabin 10 of Fern River Resort in Felton, California, I can hear the soft, rushing sound of the river. The cabin porch and a graveled area in front of it, about 15 feet to cliff’s edge, look down over a relatively broad, shallow stretch of the San Lorenzo River, eminently wadable here, where a slight but perceptible drop in level adds contour and sound to the flow of the water. The river is small, barely more than a creek, and the rainy season is past.

 

    Directly across the river is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Through gaps in the shrubs and trees, we can see occasional hikers passing along the River Walk trail. We followed that trail last time we were at the park. It was most unremarkable from the park side, without much of a river view. Much better from here.

    The descent to the river from the cabin is an easy flight of steps of packed earth shaped by wooden retainers and crowded on both sides by creeping plants and ground cover. A vine of blue bell-like flowers resembling small morning glory blooms hugs the hillside. The drop is no more than 30 feet, but it is enough to create a sense of imaginable separation from civilization to wilderness. The sounds of Highway 9 are muffled here. Beside the river, if I don’t look back and up at the row of guest cottages on the cliff, I am in a landscape that is probably different in no significant way from what my hominid ancestors saw when they came here and stood at this small sandy clearing with its narrow beach of water-rounded rocks.

    To my untrained eye, many of the rocks look like granite. I see the familiar black-speckled gray rocks like the granite of Yosemite. But there are many variations on this theme in amber, brown, pink, blue-gray, and white. The yellow-amber ones in particular are flecked with quantities of silvery material that I label pyrite without any actual knowledge of whether pyrite is found in this form or not.

    In addition to the granitelike rocks, I see stones of other character and all colors: small, black, and smooth; purple with white striations; brown with tiny yellow flecks, resembling bird eggs; gray shale and orange shale, some of it recently broken, layers separated but all still lying together like a book with a broken spine; pure white quartz; ordinary generic gray gravel; and a small number of agate-looking flat rocks with layers of green and pink and umber and lavender and cream. When wet, these stones will show a bright paintbox of colors. I see from the shape and texture of this small beach and the line of vegetation that in rainy seasons most of these rocks will be under water.

    When my hominid ancestors stood here, the beach might have been wet. The river might have been fuller. The rains of winter might have been falling. The colors of these rocks might have been as deep and varied as the wildflowers and the blossoming trees. Perhaps some of the rocks even stood out as more attractive than the rest—clear, or bright, or sparkling. Perhaps someone picked up a pretty rock to carry it away, at that moment discovering in himself some aesthetic discernment.

    The four-year-old hominid knew just what to do with a rocky beach by a river. He picked up a rock and threw it in the water.

    Behind him on the beach, his father picked up one hefty stone and set it upon another. Just two stones, one firmly placed atop another, and a message is born, a symbol is created. It says, “Man here.” It says, “I was here, I did this.” Perhaps soon it will also say “Mine” and “Keep away” and maybe even “Sacred place: God, notice me here.” But for now it is only the assertion of presence of a being that is not a bear or a deer, a fox or rabbit or wolf or any other kind of mammal, and certainly not a bird or reptile or amphibian or insect. Perhaps a manlike creature is not the only thing that could construct the first rudimentary cairn, but it is the only thing that would.

    I know this by my belief in the endurance of the essential traits of living beings and in the felt commonality with my ancestors.

    While hominid pater is constructing a monument to his humanity above the high-water mark, hominid mater has her four-year-old by his mop of hair down at the water’s edge and is burnishing his hide with a small, thick branch of a fallen tree that has enough bark clinging to it to make a good scrubber.

    His older sister has already begun to gather other branches, and soon the family will construct a small lean-to shelter here, on the strip of sand just above the rocky beach, protected by the cliff, where they will sleep peacefully to the soft, rushing sound of the water.

    If the family of hominids turn and look above them, they won’t see the steps. They won’t see cabin 10 on the cliff, and they won’t see me beside them, watching with affectionate interest as if they were my own family. But because they are there, I am there.

    I pick up a large stone and place it upon another stone.

    Man here.

 

5 May 2001
Fern River Resort
Felton, California

 

[This article was published in the July 2004 issue of Intelligencer, the newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, edited by David Kirby.]

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The Myth of Leisure Time
Copyright © 2001 Meredy Amyx.

When I was a little girl in the decade of the fifties, I heard a lot of excited rhetoric about the coming wonders of technology.  Labor-saving devices were heralded in nearly every area of our lives:  we’d have machines to do the drudge work, and our time and energy would be freed for better things.  I used to watch my mother feed clothes by hand through the wringer of the old washing machine, teaching me skills I would never use.  I remember getting our first automatic washer, a major event in our household of seriously modest income.  Later there was an electric dryer, toono more sheets frozen stiff on the clothesline.  From the electric mixers in the kitchens right on up to the automating of product assembly in huge factories, we saw the age of machines approaching its imaginable climax, with ourselves as the beneficiaries—and the benefits summed up in one word:  leisure.
     We pictured ourselves lolling about in hammocks with a book or reclining at our ease in front of that new phenomenon, the television; or playing on the snow slopes, the softball fields, the lakes and rivers.  What a sweet word, leisure!  The privilege of the wealthy classes, the freedom of time, would come to all—to the very ones whose jobs were being made easier by the machines.  For of course the rich didn’t need more leisure or relief from work—it was already being done for them.  Whom could it mean but the rest of us?  It sounded like heaven in all its liberated glory, but with enough earthly spice thrown in to make it interesting.
     Over the years, as mechanized efficiency became a commonplace and as the number of household appliances and small workplace devices that were considered necessities grew, we continued to work just as hard, and yet continued to believe in the promise of leisure.  Fears that machines would put people out of work were silenced by reassurances that jobs wouldn’t be eliminated, just changed, and that people would have to learn new skills, but there would still be plenty of work for all.  In the affluent postwar years, this sounded believable.
    Then came the machine of machines, the computer.  O wonder of wonders, this sending of the gods would save us not only the exertion of our bodies but the exercise of our minds.  Thinking machines would run themselves and run the other machines and run us too.  Now we were virtually on our way to an endless vacation on the tropical beaches, with all the practical needs of our life, our society, and our world taken care of by machines of such subtlety and complexity that even we their creators stood in awe of them; for they did, as our tools have done from the first moment we took rock in hand, not only what we could not do for ourselves but what we could not even imagine doing for ourselves.
    And if we ever sensed a fundamental gap in logic between the prospect of leisure and the promise of work for all, we did not articulate it in any useful way.  Instead, it was more to be heard in vague grumbles of the workers:

w I feel like I’m working harder now than I did twenty years ago.  Where’s all that free time they promised me?
w I used to put in a forty-hour week, and now it’s fifty.
w I sit in front of a computer all day, and I have carpal tunnel syndrome.  Maybe I’d have been better off to plow fields or build barns, working in the fresh air and keeping my body fit and going home at dusk, knowing when my workday is over.
w My mother was a housewife, and my father supported us; but we couldn’t afford to live without my spouse’s income even if we wanted to.
w I slave away for fifty weeks a year just to buy myself two week’s vacation, and then I spend it calling in and checking my e-mail and worrying about the office.  I won’t be entitled to three weeks’ until I’ve been here ten years, and the way things are going, I’ll probably be laid off before then anyway.

    Laid off . . . unemployed.  Not working.  Hmmm.  Have we overlooked something here?  The laid-off and the fired and the left-behind disappear from our workplaces, but they are no longer invisible on our city streets, in our parks and parking lots, in our neighborhoods.  Not only have our consciousnesses been raised and our homeless become less inclined to hide in shame, less willing to shoulder all the blame for their condition, but there really are more of them.  Here we are, clinging to our high-paying but often arbitrary and soulless jobs, and there they are, having fallen from grace, surviving we know not how, with nothing but a pink slip between us and them—a pink slip that could come any day because there is no corporate loyalty any more and we have to fight every day to secure our employment for one more pay period.
    And so we fight—with longer hours, with harder work, with more energy and more competitive skill and with leaner and meaner ideas, emulating our employers’ thinking, trimming away the nonessential and the beautiful, looking for the advantage, gaining and keeping our edge, competing with our coworkers in much the same way that our corporate entities compete with their counterparts in the marketplace.  They are looking for profits, and we are just looking for paychecks.
    For which of us, under these conditions, dares choose to work less, to earn less, to play more?  Some do opt for a lifestyle of fewer working hours and find a way to keep themselves and meet their obligations on a smaller income, which may depend on subsidy by other resources, such as a partner employed full time, and may depend on sacrifice of other wants and needs, including the sacrifice of saving as a hedge against our own future prospects as a disposable worker.  But for many or most, that choice is not an option.  Even if we would willingly take a reduction in pay to regain a few hours of our lives, we have to view ourselves from the point of view of a company’s profitability.  Which employee is going to earn the company a greater return on investment, the one who is paid for thirty hours and works thirty hours or the one who is paid for forty hours and works fifty?  In a world of supply and demand, the competition for the supply of jobs requires us to work harder, not softer, in order to stay in the game.
    Salaried workers and wage workers and licensed professionals who charge by the hour are paid for their time and not for what they accomplish in that time.  If the job I used to do in five days a week can now be done in a day and a half, is someone going to give those three and a half days of leisure to me—and still pay me for forty hours?  I think not.  For one thing, those machines cost money and have to be paid for somehow.  Getting my work done faster simply means that I am going to have to do more of it in order to earn my forty hours’ pay.  No benefit out of this accrues to me.  Instead, I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and my cubicle neighbor eyes me with suspicion if I become too vocal in contributing productivity ideas in the workplace:  maybe the next pink slip will be his, courtesy of me.
    So where is all the leisure that the machines have given us?  Was it vapor? a myth? a lie?  With companies competing not just for market share but for the attentions of investors who, thanks to the machines, can change their minds and their holdings faster than ever before, with a few keystrokes, and who are more numerous, because there are so many small investors like you and me spending part of our forty-hour incomes trying to increase our financial strength so we can withstand the gaps in our employment caused by our employers’ streamlining to make themselves better prospects for investors, what has happened to our promised leisure?  Who has it?
    Who indeed?  The answer is so obvious that it hurts.  We see them on our city streets, in our parks and parking lots, in our neighborhoods.  The people who have nothing but leisure.  We have gained immense quantities of free time from our labor-saving devices, and we have consolidated it in the hands of a few—the wealthy, at one end of the spectrum, who have always had that privilege and always will; and the unemployed, at the other, who have found not that there are plenty of jobs for all but that there is plenty of work for all who have work, which does not amount to the same thing.
    While we spend our ample means on the things that we think may help us wring more enjoyment from the little discretionary time we have, which often means that we are buying machines of some kind, we see all around us those who are rich in what we lack—the luxury of time—and who, for want of a little means of the sort we have in plenty, must spend a large share of that time in something we rarely concern ourselves with:  the sheer business of survival, the scant portion of food and clothing and shelter necessary to live another day.
    If we are honest, we see ironies here that trouble us.  Do we also see a problem that can be solved, or do we only see a picture of the way it is, with nothing to be done?
    Ah, perhaps I could work on the question myself, and think of a way to restore the balance in my own life—if only I had the leisure to do it.

3/4/2001xt
 

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Safeguarding Kids Use of the Internet
Copyright © 2001 Meredy Amyx.
I have not seen or heard one truly useful piece of advice about protecting kids and their use of the Internet.
     In general, we truly respect one anothers privacy in our household, and we do not spy on our kids, open their postal mail, eavesdrop, or watch over their shoulders as they use the Internet.  We also do not believe in censorship, although we do think some reading matter requires a certain level of maturity.  But we do believe in responsible parenting, protecting our kids and ensuring their safety and well-being, teaching them standards of decency, avoiding exposure to experiences they are not ready for, and maintaining as much openness and honesty of communication as the parent-child relationship affords (understanding that they cant, wont, and shouldnt tell us everything about their lives, any more than we tell them everything about ours).  But the Internet stymies our otherwise fairly clearly held views and practices in this matter.
     The filter programs, like NetNanny, are useless.  Not only do the word-based ones filter out countless nonthreatening and potentially valuable sites but they fail to trap for many truly objectionable ones because they rely on keywords that area easily circumvented.  What's more, those that operate on lists of specified sites can't keep up with the daily addition of new ones, nor can we spend all our time seeking out exactly the places we don't want to go and don't want our kids to go, in order to add them to the list.
     Our older boy, at 15, installed a keystroke capture program that he found free online.  It gave him passwords not only to the filter program but to Internet dial-up access itself (as well as the contents of everyones outgoing e-mail).  He didnt do it to spy on us or circumvent us but to try to see how often his younger brother was logging on, because he thought his brother was skipping school to play on the computer during the day (he was).  Even so, our password protection, and NetNanny, instantly became worthless.
     The younger one, then 12, with his typically more direct approach, simply went to the directory and deleted the filter software, what he could find of it (enough to cripple it), and went on about his business.
     Despite lifelong training, neither of them has any concept of what we mean by privacy.  It doesn't bother them to sign up for junk mail, fill out forms with personal information, be targeted by bulk advertisers, send credit information over the Web, or post their personal journals online for friends, family, and strangers to read.  Paradoxically, they are going behind our backs to tell all!
     To me, this unself-conscious revelation of personal information to strangers is one consequence of growing up with television and viewing the (fictional) lives of other strangers as a voyeur through the invisible fourth wall of television.  They think nothing of exposing their own lives in the same way, with name, address, phone number, and links to all their friends:  exhibitionism as a social art form.  They just dont want their parents to see it.
     On the Internet, anyone can have an audience.  We have a network of millions who all want to be in the spotlight, the center of attentioncorporations as much as individuals (who really wants to go visit margarine manufacturers online and learn all about them?)and they all say, “Look at me, me, me.”  (Hallmark has been telling us for generations that each and every one of us is “special” and “deserves” everything, and a multitude of advertisers and educators have taken up the cryit does sell productand now we have a generation of kids who believe it.)  So we have a theatre of one seat, in front of the computer, and a thousand thousand separate stages.  There is no way to control that, not if the person (child or adult) is reasonably intelligent, resourceful, and determined.
     The people who think this can be managed are seriously deluded, and they worry me as much as anyone else because they contribute to a false sense of security.
     I dont know what to do.  I just understand that so far neither direct nor indirect methods of trying to influence my kids activity online has done anything to deter their use of the Internet exactly as they please.  I have said more than once that it would not bother me to take the whole system and all its boxes and wires and dump it on the curb on trash day; but my husband is just as hooked on it as they are, and I am whistling in the wind.
2000
 


 

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For the Mensa Press

 

The Aesthetic Aristocracy
Editorial, Mensa Bulletin, November 1979
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx.

    
Humanitys highest creative and intellectual achievements can be divided into two categories: those of the arts and those of the sciences. The more profoundly one explores either realm, the closer the two become to one another, until ultimately they merge in what can only be termed philosophy.
     Yet the common attitude of the public differentiates drastically between the two realms. Art is perceived as entertainment or frill; science is seen as central to human progress. Art creates an imaginary world; science deals with the real. Art is accessible to Everyman; science is the exclusive province of the specialist.
     The common attitude of the public would be of no particular interest, were it not for the discouraging fact that in the area of the arts, though not of the sciences, it is public tasteor lack of itthat decrees what is available to all.
     “There is no democracy in taste,” wrote Walt Sheldon in “Mensalogue” (June, 1979, page 6). “Good taste rests in the cultivated sensibilities of those few . . . who concern themselves with it.”
     Precisely because good taste is an attribute of the fewan aesthetic aristocracy, if you willit is mediocre or poor taste that dominates virtually every area of our lives. The concept of democracy is bred into us. Embracing the ideal of equality, even if in truth we do not always live up to it, we permit the wisdom of our political principles to encroach upon the domain of the arts, where rule belongs rightfully to the aristocracy. The value of a human being, his unalienable right to equality with others before the law, does not imply equality in any personal trait, whether it be beauty, physical prowess, intelligence, dexterity, humor, or any other. Just as it is reasonable to select athletes and warriors on the basis of strength and endurance, so it is logical to defer to those best qualified to judge artistic merit. Yet, absurdly, we set science free of the very restraints with which we shackle our artists.
     Our bondage to public taste is represented in virtually every area of our lives, reinforced by our system of commercial enterprise. The power of numbers decides what brands we find on our supermarket shelves, what styles of clothing are available for purchase, and even what sexual practices are liable to censure and persecution. The arts, by their very nature meant for public display, are subject to the same laws of supply and demand. The media are in the business of “audience delivery” to advertisers, and advertisers profit depends on rendering a product or service appealing to the largest possible consumership and then reaching that consumership with their message. Thus Intellectual Digest ceases publication and The Paper Chase is canceled by CBS, while confession, skin, and fan magazines thrive and the Fred Silverman school of television programming pervades the commercial networks. The majority rules, voting at the box office, the cashiers register, and the Nielsen ratings. As H. L. Mencken is said to have put it, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.”
     One is tempted to wonder what might have become of the artistic giants of the past, those immortals in whom all of Western culture takes pride, had their survival been controlled by the will of the majority. Largely independent of public approval, many an artist owed his career to a wealthy and cultivated patron. Among many such beneficiaries of royal, aristocratic, or even ecclesiastical favor were Rubens, Goya, and Raphael, painters; Handel, Wagner, Scarlatti, Liszt, and three Bachs, all musicians and composers; and Spenser, Voltaire, and Goethe, writers and poets. Protegés of the Medici family of Florence, renowned for its patronage of the arts, included Botticelli and Michelangelo. No doubt some genius whom the world might have revered is lost in obscurity through failure to please the royal fancy. What might the loss have been had the sole arbiter been the taste of the masses, expressing their choice in the coin of the realm?
     In our culture, it is the scientist who enjoys the support and protection of the public-endorsed powers that be, while in the arts popular taste favors the likes of Woolworth prints of clowns on black velvet and “beautiful music”or rock stations on radio. Technology is autonomous, its word absolute. While scientists themselves may constantly question what is known or accepted and strive to illuminate the unknown, before the public the scientist is God, dealing in mysteries beyond the comprehension of the common man. The citizen abjectly acknowledges the authority of science and does not presume to question the word of the initiate. “The experts agree” and “the computer says” are the ultimate credentials, and only heretics dare to point out that the experts do not agree, and may not even be experts, and that a computer can, with very little trouble, be made to say anything someone wants it to say.
     How is it that, of the two classes of highest human endeavor, one should enjoy supreme respect, while the other may expect apathy at best? The mystique of the computer inspires terror and humble obedience in the heart of the average person, but everyone is an art critic. The man who believes that if he can hold a brush he can paint would not dream of inventing his own microprocessor and installing it in his automobile. The woman who imagines that because she has a voice she can sing would never think of purchasing the proper chemicals and creating her own aspirin. Even in the present mood of public skepticism toward scientific authorities, whether promoting nuclear power or promoting better living through chemistry, we continue to authorize the expenditure of millions of dollars for “scientific research” and let the arts go begging. Somehow we find it easy to recognize our technological ignorance, yet an inability to perceive the aesthetic elements of form and design, rhythm and harmony, focus and balance, or cadence and flow can be dismissed with “I don't know art, but I know what I like.”
     In science, expertise is everything, and one does not dabble in medicine or quantum physics. It is unthinkable that we should employ a sort of technological Nielsen system and control advances in science according to public judgment. It is agreed that the experts must have the authority to govern their own domain. Yet no such elite corps is permitted to reign in the world of artand even the true scientist, closest kin of the true artist, may fail to recognize this inequity. There is reason to suspect that members of the scientific community share in the common public view of both the sciences and the arts.
     In a personal letter, Lee Jolliffe made this observation:


It seems that engineers and chemists and astronomers take too many liberties with art. They seem to have some notion that art is something they can produce on a Saturday afternoon when they're bored with building Heathkits in the basement. And editors . . . are deluged with the “poetry” they produce. Imagine the outcry if an artist should scribble up a theorem or a new linear equation and dare to mail it to the editor of a science magazine!
   
     The arts, by their very presence before the public, fall victim to a perversion of the democratic ideal. Being accessible, they are devalued. People are led to the delusion that given paper and ink they can write, just as surely as, if they assemble the right ingredients and follow the recipe, they can cook. Nearly everyone can sing a little, dance a few steps, draw a simple picture, write a letter, or compose a short rhyme. From childhood most of us are encouraged to use the readily available materials of graphic arts and to study at least one musical instrument. Perhaps we tend to see the arts as extensions of the minor artistic experiences in which we ourselves have participated.
     Few of us were taught to analyze what we see and to distinguish the adequate from the inferior and the superior from the merely adequate. Our mentors, who for the most part may have been no better qualified to do so than we, failed to show us reason to regard Kilmer’s “Trees” with any more or less appreciation than we might bestow upon Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” We know that a mechanical device succeeds if it works. Criteria for artistic success, on the other hand, are nebulous, and taste, elusive as it is to define, is even more difficultif not impossibleto teach. It may be that taste, like a gift for scientific understanding or a talent for artistic expression, springs from a source that is innate and intuitive and can only be cultivated where it already exists.
     “Good taste rests in the cultivated sensibilities of those few . . . who concern themselves with it.” And those few know who they are: they are the aesthetic aristocracy.
     Will there come a day when the aristocracy rebels, throwing off the oppression of the democratic majority? Will that aristocracy recognize before it is too late that the public cannot identify and will not support the best in art, and that it is only for themselvesthe aesthetic aristocratsthat the best is worth preserving? If this is to happen, people of genuine taste and discrimination must dare to risk social ostracism and democratic anathema. They must come out of the closet, embrace elitism fearlessly, and admit their snobbery without apology. Those who lack the private wealth to patronize the artists of their choice might join forces as a sort of latter-day Medici family to impose their standards upon the public.
     The most effective route of all might be to employ that fine institution of the democratic tradition, the vocal minority. The aesthetic aristocracy could declare itself to be the least represented, most underprivileged minority of all. It could demand equal time, engage in battles with broadcasters and publishers, and lobby politicians. Disavowing any interest in strength through numbers, it would have to admit only those possessed of the finest aesthetic discernment. It would scrupulously exclude from its ranks any pretender who cannot distinguish artistry from craftsmanship, no matter how superior, and any misguided soul who equates good taste with morality. Its goal must be supremacy, its ally the scientist, and its champion the philosopher. And the Bastille yet to be stormed is mediocrity.
 

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It’s All Entertainment
Editorial, Mensa Bulletin, December 1977 [Excerpt]
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx .

I never fail to be impressed by people who can give a spontaneous answer to the question, “What is your philosophy of life?” It’s a question that always stumps me. Having had a number of philosophy, theology, and literature courses, having devoted some attention to the arts and humanities, having in fact been sired by a professor of philosophy, and having paid special note to other people’s statements of their philosophies, I can’t help feeling somewhat remiss in being unable to summarize my own. It just seems as though a philosophy of life is something that everyone ought to have, like an education, a driver’s license, or a toothbrush. Maybe one’s own philosophy is as elusive as one’s stylea thing that other people recognize but that is very difficult to identify in oneself.
     Nevertheless, somewhere along the line I did formulate a principle that has been extremely useful to me, both in analyzing my own actions and attitudes and in interpreting those of other people. To put it in its simplest form, I would say of any activity not directly necessary to support life, “It’s all entertainment.”
     Some people who have heard me say this have reacted with instantaneous comprehension, having reached the same conclusion on their own. Some, after thinking it over, have expressed general agreement. And some regard it as much too frivolous an idea to merit serious discussion. Indeed it does sound frivolous, but I must confess with a faint blush that even when I try very hard to be serious, I am aware that being serious is one form of entertainment for me.
     Without wanting to trespass in the province of the psychologist, of whose field I am largely ignorant, I would assert that the principle of entertainment suffices to explain why we do what we do. Forced choices aside, when we exercise our options in directing our energies and spending our attention, our preferences all reflect our own senses of entertainment. We are diverting ourselves, amusing ourselves, passing the time in whatever way pleases us best.
     Recreationsports and hobbies, watching television and engaging in conversationare obvious forms of entertainment. Other forms, though less obvious, partake of the same character. Consider, for example, the person who goes into politics; who campaigns, travels, debates the issues, engineers deals, and does all the other things politicians do. Is he acting under any vital compulsion?no, it’s his form of entertainment. So also is it entertainment for the scholar who probes the dim corners of archaeology and yields up an expanded definition of a single ancient word or idea. The obscene phone caller, the doorbell ringer distributing tracts, the pigeon feeder in the park, the teenage vandal, the kid in the street hawking underground newspapers, the caller on the late-night radio talk show, the sniper picking off cars on the freeway, the scientist tracking down a new species of bug, the housewife on a relentless quest for the whitest white, the devout theologian counting up the instances of the word “the” in the Bible, the writer hacking away in his cluttered den, the impresario who imports foreign circuses, the volunteer reading aloud for the blind, the believer who charts his astrological course daily, the city gent who keeps chickens, and the Mensa officer who spends the wee lamplit hours shuffling pieces of paper all have this in common: they are amusing themselves in a manner of their own choice.
     At some level, in some way, however odd it may seem, you may be very sure that your local newsletter editor finds some kind of entertainment in fussing with copy, messing about with glue, and maybe even folding and stapling and labeling. Equally, there is something about membership lists and programs and correspondence and nonsensical midnight telephone calls that appeals to your local secretary. Sometimes aspects of their jobs are distinctly distasteful, but that's the price tag that goes with the particular form of entertainment. Personally, while I may not find it inspiring to have to proofread endless pages of copy or to return manuscripts I’m unable to use, in general I think it’s dandy that Mensa lets me play with all these pieces of paper. That's one kind of entertainment for me.
     At times we may be puzzled by the behavior of other peopleespecially behavior that we may perceive as negative, hostile, or disruptive. Though we know very well that, being the complex and perverse creatures that we are, we are bound to disagree, nevertheless other people’s actions may occasionally strike us as senseless. We can’t understand what might motivate them, or what possible benefit they see in doing things that might hurt or disturb other or bring censure upon themselves. But we have the answer: for them, such activity represents entertainment in some form. Recognizing this fact may not show us how to deal with the situation, but it does help us to see it in perspective. Without a doubt, working out a solution and restoring peace and order would furnish entertainment for somebody.
     Clearly, this simple formula has unlimited application. It can serve as a guide to understanding our own actions and those of others in their barest forms. It can provide a common denominator for activities and situations that appear otherwise unrelated. And it can help prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously.
     I would hate to think that my whole philosophy of life could really be summed up in this one far-from-profound idea. Surely defining my attitudes about life, reality, and other such things, ought to be a more complicated and demanding task. Undoubtedly the exercise will be entertaining.
 

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“Daddy, How High Is Up?”
Editorial, Mensa Bulletin, January/February 1980
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx.


I must have been too smug and self-confident as a child or too deeply immersed in my own interests. At least, I do not recall having plagued my parents with questions about the physical world. (It is entirely possible that their recollections differ from mine.) I remember having made liberal use of the encyclopedia and the many other books in the house, and I did inquire into the meanings of unfamiliar words and the reasons why people did certain things. But I don’t think I asked much about why devices work or how things occur in nature. Even throughout school, I gave my attention pretty exclusively to the arts and the humanities.
     I married a man who shares my love of literature and music. As it happens, however, Dick’s youthful interests were very unlike mine. He experimented with batteries and electricity and amused himself building model airplanes and constructing radio receivers. Before switching his college major to creative writing, he had nearly completed a degree in electrical engineering. The number of things he understands that are utterly foreign to me, in addition to being quite at home in my field of knowledge, is staggering.
     Thus I find myself belatedly asking the questions I should have asked as a youngsterquestions I classify under the label “Daddy, how high is up?”and taking genuine, wondering delight in the answers.
     Here are some of the questions I have asked Dick over the past three years:

“How does your voice travel over the telephone wires?”
“If electricity generates heat, where does the cold come from that goes into the refrigerator?”
“How does the picture get inside the camera?”
“Why does water wash stuff?”
“How does pushing a button make the doorbell ring?”
“How does the hair dryer dry your hair, if it isn’t hot enough to boil the water?”

(Dick doesn’t know everything, though. Someone else had to answer the one about whether, as my cat gets fatter, her hairs grow farther apart or become denser. And I still want to know why men have nipples.)
     I got up from a nap just the other day having had a strange vision of steel girders, paper clips, and filing cabinets all migrating northward.
     “Honey,” I said, “I have another ‘Daddy, how high is up?’ question for you.”
     Dick laughed. “I’m ready,” he said. “Let’s have it.”
     “Why isn’t all the iron and steel in the world at the North Pole? Or at least, why aren’t all the magnets in the house drawn to the north wall?”
     Now, I know that I could go look these things up someplace, and I also know that with enough thought I could probably reason out the answers to most of them just from the general knowledge I have. But when one of these questions tickles my mind, I don’t want a comprehensive lecture on the properties of electricity or a treatise on the behavior of light. I just want to hear an answer to my specific question and then go away, satisfied, and forget it.
     I know there are other Mensans who feel the same way. The response to Virginia Sturges’s letter in the July/August Bulletin raising similar (though not quite so simpleminded) questions of her own is proof of that, and the Question and Answer SIG, formed as a result, continues to encourage members to share both their curiosity and their bits and pieces of knowledge.
     Some of us go a step further and, instead of merely raising a question, indulge in logical speculation and propose possible answers of their own. Often enough, their suggestions are either incomplete or downright inaccurate attempts to explain something that has already been thoroughly researched and illuminated by someone else. When that is the case, there is always a reader somewhere who can cite the pertinent literature and who self-righteously chides the speculative writer for speaking out of turn and failing to do his homework.
     I say, so what? Almost invariably there is another Mensan whose imagination is sparked by the query or the hypothesis and whose own mind is quick to draw new inferences or reveal the next question. There is no more reason, in my view, why we should stifle our impulse to these harmless mental exercises than there is reason for all other runners to let the record-holder race alone.
     Yes, there are experts who already know the answers. And yes, there are sources where we can look them up if we really wish to embark upon a serious study. But it is as pleasing in Mensa to be free to ask ignorant questions without being thought stupid as it is to know that, as Harper Fowley says, somewhere in Mensa there is somebody who has the answer. It is a form of playchild’s play, if you willand it is every bit as healthy for adults as it is for children to play with the mental equipment at our disposal. We grow in the process, and our awareness grows. And if we ever do arrive at the definitive answer to just how high “up” is, well, let’s hope there’ll be another question.
 

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Last Words
Final editorial, Mensa Bulletin, March 1980 [Excerpt]
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx.

. . . I would like to take a moment before relinquishing my soap-box to emphasize just a few things I think it is extremely important for Mensans to remember:

w
Please don’t create celebrities of your officers and assorted title-holders (including, of course, editors). Most of them don’t want to be treated deferentially, and it isn’t good for them, for the rest of us, or for our concept of equality among members.
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Do guard against Mensa’s characteristic overtolerance of troublemakers. It is critical to distinguish between our many harmless eccentrics and those who actually enjoy causing disruptions or wielding influence. We can and do hurt ourselves by bending over backwards to be longsuffering toward those who deal injuriously with us.
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Remember once in a while to “pay” the volunteers at all levels who keep the organization runningpay them in the only currency they care about: the occasional note or call that simply says, “I like what you did, what you’re doing.”
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Turn the loving warmth of Mensa on full power in welcoming new members. Don’t forget how hard it was for most of us, overwhelmed by imaginary expectations, to face real, live Mensans for the first time. This really matters.
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Inactive members who are content to remain silently on the rolls don’t owe it to anyone (except maybe themselves) to take part in Mensa affairs.
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Reasonable expectations of performance are fair to apply to your volunteer workers; harassment and gratuitous abuse are not.
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Never apologize for being a Mensan, nor be ashamed of loving Mensa for what it is.
 

 

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Boundaries
Editorial in Intelligencer, newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, July 2000
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx.


I was twenty-four years old when I attended my first Mensa meeting.
     I had just received a letter from New York giving me the names of the “local secretary” and the editor of my local group, Boston Mensa. I called up the latter, a chap by the name of Art Weber, and said, in effect, “Here I am. What am I supposed to do now?”
     He replied: “Attend an event. Contribute something to our newsletter, the BOMB. Write a letter to the editor of the Bulletin. Send a letter to Victor Serebriakoff congratulating him on the fifteenth anniversary of Mensa. And any Thursday night, come on down to Cronin’s Restaurant in Harvard Square. We meet informally every week in the back room behind the bar.”

Caution to the Winds

In due course I did all the above and more, from painstakingly crafting a congratulatory letter to Victor in calligraphy using silver ink (and no, he never replied) to starting a Young Mensa group in Boston, eventually becoming editor of the BOMB (Boston and Outskirts Mensa Bulletin, which I renamed Beacon) and later of the national Bulletin. But on that first night at Cronin’s I was an anxious newcomer awaiting my first look at the odd cerebral creatures who actually had a club for themselves so they couldwhat, get together with others like themselves? It was a sure bet that wouldn't be me, but I was too curious to resist the urge to find out. With a real “here goes nothing” abandon, I presented myself for inspection at Cronin’s, in the back room behind the bar. Not knowing Mensa as well as I do now, I thought that was a strange location for a group of serious intellectuals to convene in and discuss esoteric subjects in language that would undoubtedly be much too lofty for me.
     As I adjusted to the shock of the boisterous and high-spirited crowd of beer and Coke drinkers who talked vociferously, argued loudly, laughed a lot, and seemed otherwise to have nothing at all in common, it struck me suddenly that I was the only person present who was under forty.

Nobody Under Forty

I recall a momentary sense of dismay, and then it passed. What, after all, did age matter when it was only one of a dozen or maybe a thousand things I didn’t have in common with these folks? Even the commonalities just described weren’t really true. There were wine drinkers and hard liquor drinkers and water drinkers, and one or two who stared morosely down at their drinks and didn't talk to anybody, and some who drank nothing and sat and read a book. Some came to have fun, and some came spoiling for a fight and by amazing good luck met up with others who could be baited on any subject from World War II weaponry to extraterrestrial intelligence and who went at it with such fervor that other members routinely ordered them to shut up. As a matter of fact, there were only two things I knew of that we did have in common: we had all qualified for Mensa, and we lived close enough to Harvard Square to come down to Cronin’s on a Thursday night and hang out. Before long, I was caught up in a spirited conversation with a man of at least eighty, and I think that is the last time I worried about age differences in Mensa.
     That was more than half my lifetime ago, and now my husband Dick and I are among the senior members ourselves, with two teenage members in our household. What I sensed intuitively then has become a matter of deep conviction about Mensa: one of its great strengths is its arbitrariness. Admission is based upon evidence of a personal trait that no one can seek, select, or control. It does not represent a commonality of interest or occupation or locality or belief or age or any other thing that tends to orient people in a certain way. Its single criterion for membership leaves all other criteria wide open.
     What this means is that it cuts across barriers of every kind. In Mensa we find ourselves thrown together with people whom we would never meet in any other context, or, if we met them, might never associate with by choice and might never attempt to know. In Mensa those very mismatches make for intriguing acquaintances, bizarre pairings, and unique friendships that take us right across those boundaries by which we might otherwise exclude one another—leading to a broadening of our minds, an enrichment of our lives, and sometimes a much-needed stretching of our tolerance and understanding.
     Mensa is a young person’s group. Mensa is an old person’s group. Mensa is anyone’s group as long as the person is a Mensan. No matter what the active crowd looks like, there are many more inactive, including some like yourself, who can be drawn out by the right attraction if only someone will make the effort to plan it. And hence we say (a favorite Mensa cliché), “Mensa is what you make it.”

Opportunity for Young People

Mensa activity does, however, present a special opportunity to younger members. As a volunteer-run organization, Mensa needs members to perform every kind of function, from very small and just now-and-then tasks to very major, long-term professional-level management responsibilities. For nearly all of these jobs, there is someone who can train or coach or provide backup support, and there is latitude within the job to make more or less of it, as you choose. A person can try out ideas, spread his or her wings, gain experience, and learn professional skills while helping out in a volunteer capacity for a grateful organization that can't function any other way. Many of us who are now the old-timers became active in our twenties, editing our first newsletters, planning our first events, coordinating our first SIGs, chairing our first business meetings. And now it would be a joy to see more of the younger members taking the reins. I have never seen a Mensa prejudice against a young person's assuming a responsible role, and I for one would gladly work with any young member who would like to learn what I can teach.
     During the planned short tenure of the Amyx family as coeditors pro tem of Intelligencer, we would like to encourage the participation of younger members. We would love to publish their writings and art work. We hope to see them schedule events in the calendar and write up announcements about them as items for the newsletter. And we would especially invite them to find ways of bringing their energy, their vigor, and their twenty-first-century perspective to the formal structure of the organization by volunteering for jobs large or small and thus helping to shape the present and future course of Mensa.

 

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Thanks Given
Editorial in Intelligencer, newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, November 2000
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx.

Metaphorically we often refer to Mensa as a place. We say, “Mensa is a place where. . . .” We use this expression because the language does not yet offer us a good way to talk about a virtual environment and the characteristics we associate with it. When we speak of Mensa as a place, we are saying something about the experiences we have had in Mensa, but that is not a literal “in.” Mensa is wherever Mensans are. Mensa is right where you are sitting, standing, or lying down as you read this. Or, more perfectly, perhaps, because Mensa is defined by its single commonality, Mensa is wherever and however two or more Mensan minds meet.
    Because Mensans are just people, and people are a complicated and often unruly amalgam of traits of which intelligence is only one, Mensa can sometimes be a messy place. How many of us have ever had messes of one sort or another in our lives? All of us, I daresay. And we bring that, all that, every bit of it, into Mensa with us. Here we are, with our foolishness and grandiosity, our temperament and our reflexes, our generosity and kindness and quirkiness and delight and fears and greed and anger and paranoia and gentleness and altruism and mean-spiritedness and humor and every other thing, and our much-vaunted braininess, and how much of it do we actually suppose we leave behind as we enter the metaphorical door of Mensa?
    Thus is Mensa as we find it, exasperating and wonderful and sometimes impossible to live with, just like people.
    Despite the many times over the years when I would have liked to take all of Mensa and stuff it into a paper bag, staple it shut, and drop it off the nearest 4200-foot steel suspension bridge, I am grateful for Mensa and grateful for the people I have known in it: the grand dreamers, the charismatic leaders, and the competent, quiet doers; the unabashed eccentrics, the connoisseurs, the experimenters, and the doggedly conventional; the eloquent speakers and the writers of gloriously rational prose, the nitpickers and the critics, and the nonverbal conceptualizers and imaginers; the tosspots and the teetotalers, the open-armed hosts, the congenial guests, and the perennially shy; the planners, the coordinators, the mavericks, the comedians; the irrepressibly creative, the plodders, and the deep souls; the bylaws-writers and the rule-benders; the brilliant analysts and the off-the-wall flakes; the pompous bombasts, the humanitarians and philosophers, the harmless nuts, and those special people who have a genuine gift for being spectacularly ordinary; the memorable acquaintances and the solid friends. Yes, and even the monumental egos. We owe much to monumental egos in Mensa, from its birth forward. I remember the late chairman Charley Fallon’s telling me, “Ego isn’t a bad reason for doing something, if you accomplish a good result.” Alongside the ample instances of ego-driven behavior, I have also seen some truly admirable examples of humility and modesty that could teach us much about ourselves.
    Everyone I have ever known in Mensa is somewhere on this list of those I deeply appreciate, except the deliberately cruel, destructive, and heedlessly self-serving and those so unaware or uncaring of the effects of their words and deeds that they sow nothing but discord and distress wherever they go. For them, I have a paper bag.
 

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The Case of the Counterfeit Sizzle
Editorial in Intelligencer, newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, September 2000
 

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The Origin of Densa
Copyright © 2005 Meredy Amyx.

 

    In June of 1974, a glossy magazine called Intellectual Digest, popular in certain segments of the population, ceased publication, leaving a hole in puzzledom.
    “One of the outstanding features of Intellectual Digest,” wrote John D. Coons in the June 1974 issue of BOMB, “is its Damnable Puzzle. To fill this gap we have devised our own A-Bomb-inable Puzzle.” What followed was the first in a series of matrix puzzles created by John for the Boston & Outskirts Mensa Bulletin (BOMB), then the newsletter of Boston Mensa. No one, least of all the modest and unassuming John, would have guessed that through that series of puzzles he would father an institution almost as famous as the subject of its parody.
    In June of 1973, John’s puzzles were already a fixture in the BOMB. John specialized in acrostics but also created cryptograms, crypto-quizzes, matrix puzzles, and puzzles of other types. By November, John was receiving a standing credit for puzzles in the masthead.
    Originality was the hallmark of John’s puzzles. One matrix puzzle had a storyline that featured well-known members of Boston Mensa as characters; another made use of local tourist attractions. Acrostic solutions turned puns and even contained political satire that might have raised eyebrows in plain text. A quality of droll humor, a sly, captivating twinkle, characterized John’s puzzles as much as they did the man himself.
    The first A-Bomb-inable Puzzle appeared in June of 1974, my maiden issue as BOMB editor. The title was a deliberate tease because John knew how much I disliked the name of the newsletter. A-Bomb-inable Puzzle I was a five-dimensional matrix puzzle with a storyline that used fictitious characters and a mixture of real and imaginary locales, among them Cronin’s, the longtime site of Boston Mensa’s weekly gatherings. But concocting fresh themes and setups every month using real or realistic elements was becoming a strain. John needed a puzzle theme that he could reuse indefinitely, improvising to fit various genres and storylines. By the following month he had a new idea and called me for an editorial green light. Thus for A-Bomb-inable Puzzle II, published in the August 1974 issue of the BOMB, John introduced his newest brain child. Before political correctness had soured our taste for ethnic and regional jokes, John invented an organization he could treat humorously and draw upon for puzzle content without giving offense to any known entity. The lead-in to A-Bomb-inable Puzzle II reads:

The Boston chapter of Densa, the low IQ society, has a very active ice hockey SIG. The group has organized into four teams representing Charlestown, Revere, Medford, and Brookline.

And that, for historians everywhere, was the first appearance in print of the name and idea of Densa, the low-IQ society: the creative offspring of John Coons, puzzle master of Boston Mensa.
    John continued to create A-Bomb-inable Puzzles over numerous succeeding issues. In the September 1974 issue, the Densans were reported to have a very large house-painting SIG: “It is so large because it takes 101 Densans to do the job: one to hold the brush and 100 to turn the house.” In October the Densa football team, the Dum-Dums, had an outing: “The team is somewhat handicapped in that only one member played college ball. When he won his varsity letter, someone had to read it to him.” A-Bomb-inable Puzzle V, in November, used Densans for their satirical value: one, for instance, was credited with the role of street planner for the city of Boston. The next month, Densans in the matrix puzzle held such occupations as gorilla tamer and merger manager.
    In a later issue (March 1975), the Densans were running for local office. This matrix puzzle, consisting of statements uttered by officers about one another, had a special twist: “It is interesting to note that the local officers are very jealous of one another. In each sentence, if the first person holds an office of higher rank than the speaker, the statement is false. If the first person mentioned has an office of lower rank, the statement is true.”
    A-Bomb-inable Puzzles went on periodic hiatus while John produced “Trivia-crostics,” “Kwyptograms,” and other creations. Sometimes the solutions themselves were puzzles: in the June 1975 issue, the solution to May’s acrostic was delivered in the form of a cryptogram. Even after becoming local secretary in July of 1975 and assuming a new role of formal service to the group, which carried through several terms, John continued to entertain through his puzzles.
    In February of 1976 the Boston Mensa newsletter appeared for the first time under the title Beacon. With the consent of the group, I had taken the step of changing the title of the newsletter and retiring the name BOMB for good. Honoring this transition with tongue in cheek, John produced for me the first Abeaconible Puzzle. The Densans were back, this time being interviewed for their newsletter, DUD, about their part in a TV production for “The Lummox TV Theater.” Densans continued to appear in succeeding issues as characters in Abeaconible Puzzles.
    Many of John’s puzzles were reprinted by other groups. Editors in the then-well-subsidized newsletter exchange program freely reprinted one another’s choice items according to the understanding among editors in the Mensa Press (all Mensa pubs, taken together), and John’s puzzles were among the choicest. Initially a local group phenomenon exclusive to Boston Mensa, Densa had become a silly Mensa institution: everyone had heard of it, and people had already begun to forget its origin. Tales of all kinds have since evolved to give an account of its beginning, some saying its source is lost in Mensa folklore and some actually making claims of authorship. But no one can produce authentic citations of Densa’s beginnings prior to the BOMB of August 1974, because that is when it was given birth by the fertile and whimsical imagination of the late John D. Coons.
    Here is the complete A-Bomb-inable Puzzle II of August 1974, which loosed Densa upon the world.


A-Bomb-inable Puzzle II
by John D. Coons
   
    The Boston chapter of Densa, the low IQ society, has a very active ice hockey SIG. The group has organized into four teams representing Charlestown, Revere, Medford, and Brookline. They recently completed the league season, each team playing each of the other teams once. In no game was a total of more than nine goals scored.
    The members of each team were carefully selected. Members of the Charlestown team always tell the truth. Members of the Revere team never tell the truth. Members of the Medford team make statements that are alternately true and false. The Brookline team contains representatives of all three groups
    The four teams have nicknames of SLUGGERS, CLIPPERS, THUMPERS, and ROUGHNECKS, in no particular order.
    The group recently had its local players’ banquet at the prominent local restaurant, the Chelsea Fryer. Five players were seated at one of the tables. All the teams were not necessarily represented, but there were no more than two players from any one team. The players were named BUTCH, ROCKY, LEFTY, DOPEY, and FLASH. The players were overheard commenting as follows:
BUTCH:1. The Sluggers play for Revere.
2. The Roughnecks scored more goals against the Clippers than they did against the Sluggers.
3. I play for the Sluggers.
4. The Clippers did not win any games.
ROCKY:1. The Clippers scored only three goals all season.
2. The game between the Thumpers and the Roughnecks was a tie.
3. I am not a Thumper.
4. The Clippers beat the Roughnecks.
LEFTY:1. I play for Brookline.
2. Flash plays for Revere.
3. Rocky’s team beat Dopey’s team, 4-0.
4. Rocky plays for Medford.
5. The Clippers scored two goals against the Thumpers.
DOPEY:1. The Roughnecks are not the Brookline team.
2. The Thumpers had two tie games.
3. Lefty plays for Charlestown.
4. The Roughnecks only scored three goals all season.
5. The Thumpers have a better ratio of goals scored versus opponent’s goals than the Clippers.
FLASH:
1. The Clippers are the Revere team.
2. Dopey always tells the truth.
3. Dopey plays for Revere.
4. Lefty does not always tell the truth.
5. The Clippers have a better ratio of goals scored versus opponent’s goals than the Thumpers.

Match each team with its nickname. Determine which team each player plays for and the score of each game during the season.


[Reprinted from BOMB (Boston & Outskirts Mensa Bulletin), August 1974, Meredy Mullen, editor. BOMB is now Beacon; Meredy Mullen is now Meredy Amyx. Mensa newsletters may reprint with credit to Interloc if they include this credit line in the reprint.]

For answers and an explanation of the puzzle, click here [external link].

Copyright © 2005 Meredy Amyx.

John Coons served as Boston Mensa local secretary from 1975 to 1978 and was later elected to the AMC as RVC for Region 1. He died in 1993.

Meredy Amyx edited BOMB/Beacon for three years before becoming editor of the Bulletin. She has been a member of San Francisco Regional Mensa since 1977.


[This article was published in the June-July 2005 issue of Interloc, a publication of American Mensa, Ltd., edited by TJ Lundeen.]


 

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Notes:

Athens project

Dognig