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October 31st, 2018 (Permalink)

A Halloween Puzzle in Transylvania

One moonless night in Transylvania―it was All Hallow's Eve, as a matter of fact―Count Dracula, Lawrence Talbot, and Professor Van Helsing were fleeing from a torch-bearing mob of angry villagers. The three came to the banks of the Danube river, which marks the boundary of Transylvania with the rest of Romania. If only they could cross the river, they would be safe from the murderous mob. Luckily, upon the bank they spied a rowboat, but it was only big enough to carry two people, vampires, or other monsters. Clearly, for all three to get to safety would require multiple crossings.

However, there were two problems:

  1. Despite the fact that they were fleeing the mob together, Dracula the vampire and Van Helsing were old enemies. If ever they were alone together on a bank of the river, or in the boat, either Dracula would bite Van Helsing or the famous vampire hunter would drive a stake through the Count's heart. However, as long as Talbot was present, he could prevent a fight.
  2. It's a well-known fact, at least in Transylvania, that vampires and werewolves are deadly enemies. So, if Dracula was ever alone with Talbot―who was a werewolf better known as "The Wolfman"―on a riverbank or in the boat, one of them would be destroyed. However, Van Helsing's presence prevented such an unfortunate outcome.

In contrast, Van Helsing and Talbot were old friends, and this was a night when the moon was not full, so that they could be alone together without either being harmed. Moreover, any two of the three companions could switch places from the boat to the riverbank or back without a deadly fight ensuing.

So, it looks bad for these three. If the mob catches up to them, they will surely all be destroyed. Of course, Van Helsing and Talbot could cross the river to safety leaving Dracula to be destroyed by the angry mob. However, is it possible for all three of them to escape to safety on the other side of the river? If so, how?


October 24th, 2018 (Permalink)

Recommended Readings

Here are some recent articles that may be of interest to readers of The Fallacy Files, together with a few short quotes and comments:

October 15th, 2018 (Permalink)

Unspeakable Acts

Some acts of Congress have boring, unmemorable names, such as the Smoot-Hawley Act1, the Taft-Hartley Act2, and the McCain-Feingold Act3. They are often named for a pair of legislators, one from the Senate and one from the House of Representatives. However, the cutting edge of congressional act naming is to give an act a brand name to sell it to the public, especially via an acronym. Such names fit Steven Poole's definition of "unspeak":

…[A] name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite.4

Here are some examples from the last few decades:

Most acts of Congress nowadays are so long that nobody reads all of them10―and I mean nobody, not even members of Congress. Certainly, most citizens do not have the time, energy, or inclination to wade through thousands of pages of bureaucratese. As a result, all that we usually know about legislation is what politicians tell us is in it, and the name they give the bill. Are we being sold bills of goods?


  1. Editors, "Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
  2. Brian Duignan, "Taft–Hartley Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
  3. Clifford A. Jones, "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9/4/2018.
  4. Steven Poole, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How that Message Becomes Reality (2006), p. 3.
  5. Brian Duignan, "USA PATRIOT Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/13/2018.
  6. "USA Freedom Act: What’s in, what’s out", The Washington Post, 6/2/2015.
  7. Brian Duignan & Jeannette L. Nolen, "No Child Left Behind", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/14/2018.
  8. See: "An Act Entitled The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.".
  9. Ami Lynch, "Violence Against Women Act", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 10/16/2018.
  10. For instance, the PDF of the Obamacare bill itself is over 900 pages long; see note 8, above. Also, there were an additional 11,000 pages of regulations; see: Jayne O'Donnell & Fola Akinnibi, "How many pages of regulations are in the Affordable Care Act?", USA Today, 10/23/2013.

October 2nd, 2018 (Permalink)

New Book: The Sherlock Effect

There is no question that Conan Doyle was a great writer of fiction. Indeed, he was so good that he made the methods of Sherlock Holmes plausible not only to a general readership but also to a wide variety of forensic doctors, academicians, and scientists. People seem to have forgotten that Sherlock Holmes is make-believe. It is both sad and terrifying to note that professionals from the Victorian Era to the present day apply fictional methods to true-life happenings.1

I'm on record in a previous "New Book" entry as skeptical about Sherlock Holmes being treated as a model of logical reasoning2. I mentioned that I like the stories, and I've read every one of the originals written by Doyle more than once3. However, anyone trying to imitate Holmes would soon find themselves frequently mistaken. Holmes is never wrong only because the stories don't take place in the real world, but in a fantasy world created and controlled by Doyle.

This brings me to the current New Book by Thomas W. Young, a forensic physician, subtitled: "How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective". Clearly, this new book differs from the previous one, Mastermind, in being critical of the effect of Holmes' example.

I'm also skeptical of the notion that forensic scientists have been so influenced by a fictional character4. However, assuming that Holmes has indeed had such an influence, I'm less skeptical that it would be at least partly negative, though "disastrous" is a strong word.

In a review of the book in Psychology Today, Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, writes:

Young begins with Holmes' explanation to Watson of "reasoning backwards." It works like this: Holmes learns about or observes a result…and then uses intuition to describe the steps required for the incident to have occurred. "The reader is tricked into thinking that backwards reasoning is brilliant," says Young, but it doesn't actually work. Here's why: "For any result, any set of clues, there may be numerous possible 'trains of events' that could explain the result." … So, any given "result" might have numerous possible routes, and one cannot be certain with intuition alone which one to pick.5

Intuition alone doesn't work because it's only part of the first half of the scientific method: forming an hypothesis to explain a set of evidence. There's nothing wrong with using intuition or imagination to form hypotheses; in fact, it's an essential step. What's missing is the next step in which the hypothesis, or intuition, is tested. In Doyle's fictional world, Holmes' intuitions always turn out to be correct; but in the real world, it's often necessary to go through many hypotheses before hitting upon the correct explanation.

Hopefully, this book not only critiques Holmes' methods, as portrayed in Doyle's stories, but also provides better methods. As a logician and fan of Doyle's Holmes stories, I'm looking forward to reading it.


  1. Thomas W. Young, The Sherlock Effect: How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective (2018), Chapter 2: "Sherlock and His Successors".
  2. See: New Book: Mastermind, 2/14/2013. I never reviewed this book, though I have read it. I was not favorably impressed.
  3. There are also so many Holmes pastiches of varying quality that I've only read a small fraction of them. However, one that I can recommend for those who like Holmes, and are also interested in logic and probability theory, is Colin Bruce's Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales Of Logic, Math, And Probability (2008).
  4. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist who reviewed the book for Psychology Today, is also skeptical of this so-called "Sherlock Effect". See the next note.
  5. Katherine Ramsland, "Sherlock's Curse", Psychology Today, 5/30/2018. Young's response is here: "A CRC Press author reviews and critiques The Sherlock Effect in Psychology Today", CRC Press, 5/31/2018.

Solution to a Halloween Puzzle in Transylvania: There is more than one way for the party to safely cross the river. Here is one such voyage:

  1. Talbot and Van Helsing get into the rowboat, leaving Dracula alone on the Transylvanian shore.
  2. Talbot and Van Helsing row across the river, and the Wolfman climbs out on the far bank.
  3. Van Helsing paddles the boat back to the Transylvanian side.
  4. Dracula and Van Helsing switch positions, so that Dracula is alone in the boat and Van Helsing is on the shore, then the Count rows to the other side.
  5. Dracula and Talbot switch places, so that Dracula is now on the far shore and Talbot is in the boat, which he rows back to Transylvania.
  6. Van Helsing climbs into the boat and he and Talbot paddle across the river.
  7. Van Helsing and Talbot join Dracula on the shore, safely out of Transylvania.

The following table shows the successive stages of the voyage. "D" represents Dracula, "V" Van Helsing, and "W" the Wolfman.

2 D VW
3 D V W
4 V D W
5 V W D
6 VW D

An alternative solution differs from this one in that Van Helsing leaves the boat at step 2 instead of Talbot. Then, corresponding changes are made in the remaining steps.

This puzzle is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters to actual monsters is purely coincidental. Vampires and werewolves are not real. Transylvania, however, is an actual place.

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