CRAIG CONLEY (Prof. Oddfellow) is recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” He has been called a “language fanatic” by Page Six gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a “cult hero” by Publisher’s Weekly, and “a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure” by Clint Marsh. An eccentric scholar, Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time. He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan. His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size. Conley’s website is
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A Turkish Delight of musings on languages, deflations of metaphysics, vauntings of arcana, and great visual humor.
Puzzles and Games

March 22, 2015 (permalink)

Futility Closet published an old riddle (dating back to the late 1700s) that has remained unsolved to this day.  We suggest that the answer might be hiding in plain sight.  Here's the riddle:

In the morn when I rise, / I open my eyes, / Tho’ I ne’er sleep a wink all night;
If I wake e’er so soon, / I still lie till noon, / And pay no regard to the light.

I have loss, I have gain, / I have pleasure, and pain; / And am punished with many a stripe;
To diminish my woe, / I burn friend and foe, / And my evenings I end with a pipe.

I travel abroad. / And ne’er miss my road, / Unless I am met by a stranger;
If you come in my way, / Which you very well may, / You will always be subject to danger.

I am chaste, I am young, / I am lusty, and strong, / And my habits oft change in a day;
To court I ne’er go, / Am no lady nor beau, / Yet as frail and fantastic as they.

I live a short time, / I die in my prime, / Lamented by all who possess me;
If I add any more, / To what’s said before / I’m afraid you will easily guess me.

Here's our answer, in black text on a black background.  Highlight to view:  

March 8, 2015 (permalink)

"Yes, an entire picture comes forth as you connect the dots." —Daveta Brown, Are You Ready for the Frontline?

Our illustration appears in Domestic Animals by Richard Lamb Allen, 1858.

February 28, 2015 (permalink)

"Jamie, we are both playing a false game," from The Flower of Gala Water and Other Stories by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr, 1895.

January 28, 2015 (permalink)

In the game Grand Theft Auto V, members of a Scientology-like cult called Epsilon pray to the god Kifflom. We can offer an internet exclusive in answering "What does Kifflom mean?" The sounds of Kifflom, spoken backwards, intone the word malefic (from the Latin meaning ill-doing).  Note that the "kiff" at the beginning of Kifflom is the "fic" of malefic, backwards.  The "lom" at the end of the Kifflom is the the "mal" at the beginning of malefic.  

There is actually a long history of such word reversals.  Consider, for example, the reversals of:

Tien (heaven in Chinese) into Neit (Egyptian goddess)

Mitra (Persian Venus) into Artim (the Greek Artimis)

Rama (love in Sanscrit) into Amor (love in Latin)

Dipuc (love in Sanscrit) into Cupid (Latin)

Chlom (crown in Coptic) into Moloch (king in Hebrew)

Sar (chief in Persian) into Ras (chief in Arabic and Hebrew)

Additionally, Melos refers to "the fearful sword of fire" that descends from "the gate of light," a coded reference to Christ in Abyssinian liturgical texts.  King Solomon, who figured highly in Ethiopian mythology, is said to have considered Melos to be a magic word.[1]  Note that Melos is a form of the name Solomon.  Solomon spelled backwards is Nomolos, which shortens to Molos and hence Melos.  (Another common variation is Nemlos.[2])

[1] Phillip Tovey, Inculturation of Christian Worship (2004)

[2] Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (1975)

January 18, 2015 (permalink)

An unknown game, from The History of Herodotus: A New English Version edited by George Rawlinson, 1862.

Jonathan Caws-Elwitt quips, "Looks like 'scissors cuts paper' to me!  I see that the judge's ruling on that play was overturned."

November 7, 2014 (permalink)

The longest tournament chess game took 20 hours and 15 minutes, but we know that one game of chess can actually last a lifetime, as we see in A Boyar of the Terrible by Frederick J. Whishaw, 1896.  The caption reads, "He suddenly died while playing at chess."

October 29, 2014 (permalink)

"It's such a comfort to play an ace, isn't it." —Ermentine Poole Long

Our illustration appears in Uncle Chesterton's Heir by Joséphine Blanche Colomb, 1884.

September 16, 2014 (permalink)

Gary Barwin reports:

Aaron Tucker has created this amazing site, Chessbard which translates chess games into poetry. You can play classic games, play a game against a chessbot, or modify games. The site then 'translates' the game into poems: both a White poem and a Black poem. Aaron has also written an essay about the project and its development.

I was delighted to be able to contribute to the site. I created some poems (by modifying a classic game) and wrote a discussion about what I did and about chess in general. Read it here.

Really fascinating.

And while you're thinking about chess, definitely check out the very lovely, Calvino-Chess Dictionary by Craig Conley. You can buy the book or read it online. I'd recommend the book!

August 1, 2014 (permalink)

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov calls chess "a human activity which brings together the human brain and the competitive spirit."  But we humbly beg to differ and cite The History of Egypt from the Earliest Times till the Conquest by the Arabs A.D. 640 by Samuel Sharpe, 1859.

July 12, 2014 (permalink)

David Levin has said that "The real contest is how we play against ourselves.  There's always that other side of each of us, pulling us down."

The caption of our illustration reads, "He was annihilated every game."  It's from A Ramble Round the Globe by Baron Dewar, 1894.

June 30, 2014 (permalink)

Here's a Bingo game for a visit to your local art museum, courtesy of our esteemed satellite. 

June 27, 2014 (permalink)

"Watching the skittle players," from In the Ardennes by Katharine Sarah Macquoid, 1881.

Interestingly, we sent this image to a games aficionado, but he wasn't convinced that the pig was truly spectating skittles players.  He felt that the pig's expression was inscrutable, and the so-called skittle players are out-of-frame.  Yet the caption tells us what we're seeing; "case closed" as far as we're concerned.  To paraphrase René Magritte, this is not a pig, anyway.  If we can't roll with it, we'll never knock down any pins.

May 5, 2014 (permalink)

"The Heart of the Mystery": an illustration from a 1902 issue of The Reader magazine.

March 15, 2014 (permalink)

The caption reads: "They ... were soon deep in the game."  (From The Quiver, 1883.)

October 14, 2013 (permalink)

The problem with this puzzle we encountered is that the blank dominoes aren't missing values at all.  Zero is a real number which quantifies a count or an amount of null size.

July 2, 2013 (permalink)

This curious set of cards appears in Puck magazine, 1878.  The symbols (left to right, top to bottom):
  1. Maiden (a love interest)
  2. Gaslight (burned until exceedingly late at night)
  3. Darkness (i.e. the gaslight after being put out) and dreaming
  4. Heart (naive love; woefulness)
  5. Hand sign (a "terrible oath," i.e. a reckless promise)
  6. Hand sign (a second "terrible oath")
  7. Dust (the foot of someone off to parts unknown)
  8. Blank (absence, emptiness)
  9. Clock ("the early and proper hour")
The deck also includes a Gentleman card, but it wasn't printed.  The explanation: "We don't give his portrait, 'cause he had red hair and it might hurt the paper."

June 26, 2013 (permalink)

"The key is to remember that there are really more people in the room than you can see."

Who is speaking: a psychic or a trial lawyer?

Answer: Daniel Small, Preparing Witnesses: A Practical Guide for Lawyers and their Clients (2004), p. 47 (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)

January 23, 2013 (permalink)

Jollification expert Bernie DeKoven highlights our oddest work yet — a book that transforms other books in surprising ways.  As we confabulated with Bernie:

The Dictionary Game (see also Fictionary) turns a serious reference book into a gaming generator; the dictionary is playfully transformed from a tool for decoding puzzling words into a puzzle-making machine, where whimsically fake definitions take the stage.  But could any book, spontaneously pulled off the shelf, be transformed into a playfulness machine?  Could one’s entire home library be a gaming center?  That’s the lofty goal of a new publication that offers, among other oddities, cut-out paper spectacles for seeing more than is readily apparent in any book.

Please note that our Machinarium Verbosus is a book for the few—the very few.  If it’s important to one’s psychological well-being that the machinations of the Universe be neat and tidy and wholly comprehensible by the human mind, then absolutely do not proceed with this book’s experiments.  Let this constitute a very serious warning: do not take these experiments lightly, as any one of them may induce an existential crisis.

December 1, 2012 (permalink)

This puzzle encodes a familiar expression. Can you decode it?

Hint: The expression originated in the armed forces.

Answer: "All present and accounted for." The circle represents "all." The wrapped gift is a "present." And the fingers are "a-counting four." (The answer is in black text on the black background. Highlight it to view.)

From Prof. Oddfellow's sketchbook.

October 8, 2012 (permalink)

(The following is our Guest Blog post for

The classic hand game of Rock-Paper-Scissors has a shadow side — quite literally. It’s played partially in the dark. Each move casts shadows on the wall. And the rules are reversed to whimsical results.


  • a blank wall – a canvas for shadow-casting
  • a lamp easily turned off and on (the sole illumination in the room)
  • two handy players
  • one scorekeeper/storyteller (scorekeeping is optional, a player may act as scorekeeper, especially if the lamp has a foot-operated switch)
  • spectators (occupancy not to exceed fire marshall’s restrictions, of course) (also optional)

When the scorekeeper initiates darkness, each player opaquely forms one of three hand gestures in front of the lamp. At the count of three, the scorekeeper lets there be light, and the gesticulative shadows are writ large on the wall.

The so-called Rock is actually a Paperweight.

The so-called Paper is actually a Paper Doll (a butterfly, a bunny, a goat, or any other hand shadow figure the player desires)

The so-called Scissors are still cutting blades, but let’s call them Snippers just to be different.

Traditional Game
Shadow Game
Paper covers the Rock
Paperweight sensibly covers the Paper Doll and the Paperweight wins.
Scissors cut the Paper
Paper Doll is born of the Snippers and the Paper Doll wins.
Rock crushes the Scissors
Paperweight *sharpens* the Snippers and the Snippers win.

As a mnemonic, Snippers *need* to be sharp in order to fulfill their destiny, Paper Dolls *need* to be snipped in order to take shape and fulfill their destiny, and Paperweights *need* to rest upon Paper Dolls because everyone requires downtime to flatten out, relax, and recharge so as to fulfill their destinies.

There are three possible ties. In the traditional game, these are simply ignored. In the Shadow Game, these are celebrated as follows:

Both players throw
Both players act out
Shadow boxing
Running with scissors
Paper Doll
The scorekeeper becomes a storyteller when two Paper Dolls grace the wall and interact as a shadow-puppetshow ensues

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