There Are Three Main Plots for the Human Interest Story: Boy-Meets-Girl, The Little Tailor, and The Man-Who-Learned-Better

Robert Heinlein? L. Ron Hubbard? Catherine Crook de Camp? L. Sprague de Camp? Brian W. Aldiss? John Brunner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein apparently contended that there were only three basic templates for stories. One template was “The Brave Little Tailor”, a German fairy tale about a clever individual who combined luck and intelligence to perform a series of difficult feats, thereby obtaining success and happiness.

Would you please help me to determine the other two types of stories together with a precise citation for Heinlein’s commentary?

Quote Investigator: In 1947 Lloyd Arthur Eshbach published a variegated collection of essays about writing science fiction called “Of Worlds Beyond”. Robert Heinlein contributed a piece titled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” in which he initially splits speculative tales into two large groups: gadget stories and human interest stories. Next, he splits the latter group into three categories. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

There are three main plots for the human interest story: boy-meets girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better. Credit the last category to L. Ron Hubbard; I had thought for years that there were but two plots—he pointed out to me the third type.

The 1947 essay was reprinted several times, and the text above was taken from the 1977 collection “Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction” edited by Damon Knight. Below are additional details and selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Three Main Plots for the Human Interest Story: Boy-Meets-Girl, The Little Tailor, and The Man-Who-Learned-Better


  1. 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, On the Writing of Speculative Fiction by Robert A. Heinlein (This article was reprinted from the 1964 Advent edition of the book “Of Worlds Beyond” compiled by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach; this book was first published by Fantasy Press in 1947), Start Page 199, Quote Page 200 and 201, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)

It Is Easy To Predict an Automobile in 1880; It Is Very Hard To Predict a Traffic Problem

Frederik Pohl? Robert Heinlein? Isaac Asimov? Connie Willis? Ed Bryant? George Zebrowski? Ben Bova? Robert J. Sawyer? Sam Moskowitz?

Dear Quote Investigator: Predicting the primary effects of a new technology is difficult but feasible. Anticipating all the secondary effects is nearly impossible. Here are two statements of a viewpoint that has achieved popularity amongst science fiction aficionados:

In the nineteenth century a machine enthusiast could have predicted the automobile, but an SF writer could have predicted the traffic jam.

It is easy to predict the automobile but difficult to predict the traffic jam.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in a 1953 essay by prolific science and SF author Isaac Asimov titled “Social Science Fiction”. Asimov discussed three different types of SF stories: 1

Let us suppose it is 1880 and we have a series of three writers who are each interested in writing a story of the future about an imaginary vehicle that can move without horses by some internal source of power; a horseless carriage, in other words.

According to Asimov, gadget SF, the first type of tale, highlights the struggle to invent such a device and climaxes with its successful demonstration. Adventure SF, the second type, presents a romantic tale that hinges on using the device during action packed scenes. Social SF, the third type, explores the complex ramifications of the device as it is deployed within a society.

Asimov remarked that automobiles catalyzed the construction of suburbs. He also observed that vast networks of busy roadways resulted in large numbers of injuries and deaths. These indirect consequences of automobile usage would not have been easy to foresee. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is Easy To Predict an Automobile in 1880; It Is Very Hard To Predict a Traffic Problem


  1. 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, (From Modern Science Fiction, Its Meaning and Its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor, Coward-McCann, 1953), Start Page 29, Quote Page 40, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, (From Modern Science Fiction, Its Meaning and Its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor, Coward-McCann, 1953), Start Page 29, Quote Page 41, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)

That’s the Moose’s Problem

Robert Heinlein? Emma D. E. N. Southworth? Wilfrid S. Bronson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Science fiction luminary Robert Heinlein employed the following phrase in two of his novels:

That’s the moose’s problem.

The phrase seems to mean:

That problem should be dealt with by someone else.

Would you please explore the origin of this expression?

Quote Investigator: A class of jokes has a punchline of the following type:

  • That is the moose’s problem.
  • That is the deer’s problem.
  • That was the moose’s business.

QI conjectures that Heinlein was alluding to these jokes. The earliest instance of the gag located by QI appeared in the 1872 novel “A Noble Lord” by Emma D. E. N. Southworth. A braggart named Colonel Brierly was spinning an exaggerated tale about a land he had visited. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Magnificent game! I tell you, sir, I have seen forests of titanic oaks, whose boles were yards in circumference, standing scarcely three feet apart, and with their limbs and twigs so interlocked and interwoven as to form an impenetrable green thicket! Yes, sir! And I have seen bounding through these forests magnificent deer, sir!—majestic creatures six feet high, whose splendid antlers branched ten feet apart! Yes, sir!” exclaimed the Colonel, glancing around the table.

The reaction of a character named Captain Faulkner made his skepticism obvious, and Brierly became angry enough to demand that Faulkner state his criticisms:

“Oh well, if you must know,” coolly returned the Captain, “I was but wondering how the deuce those majestic deer, with antlers branching ten feet wide, managed to bound through those magnificent forests where the titanic oak trees stand but three feet apart.”

For a moment the Colonel was dumbfounded, and then he exclaimed:
“By Jupiter, sir, that was their business – not mine, or yours!”
A laugh at this retort went round the table.

After this exchange Colonel Brierly became the enemy of Captain Faulkner, and eventually the two fought a deadly duel with Brierly as the victor.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading That’s the Moose’s Problem


  1. 1872, A Noble Lord by Mrs. Emma D. E. N. Southworth (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth), Chapter 7: The Detective, Quote Pages 81 and 82, T. B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia. (Google Books Full View) link

Never Attempt To Teach a Pig To Sing; It Wastes Your Time and Annoys the Pig

Mark Twain? Robert Heinlein? Paul Dickson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Teaching a pig to sing is a futile task that aggravates the porcine student according to a popular saying. Luminary Mark Twain and science fiction author Robert Heinlein have received credit for this adage. Would you please determine the accurate ascription and the original context?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Robert Heinlein published “Time Enough for Love” featuring a main character, Lazarus Long, who appeared in several other novels by the author. Long was a colorful individualist who had been genetically selected to live for centuries. He delivered the adage during a discussion of avarice and deceit. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I have never swindled a man. At most I kept quiet and let him swindle himself. This does no harm, as a fool cannot be protected from his folly. If you attempt to do so, you will not only arouse his animosity but also you will be attempting to deprive him of whatever benefit he is capable of deriving from experience. Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

Thus, the context was the difficulty and pointlessness of communicating a lesson that an individual is unwilling or unready to learn.

The implausible ascription to Mark Twain occurred in recent decades and is unsupported.

A different saying with a distinct meaning is sometimes confused with this adage. QI has a separate article on this topic: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Never Attempt To Teach a Pig To Sing; It Wastes Your Time and Annoys the Pig


  1. 1974 (Copyright 1973), Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long by Robert A. Heinlein, Section: Prelude II, Quote Page 31, A Berkley Medallion Book: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)

Never Attribute to Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained by Stupidity

Robert Heinlein? Napoleon Bonaparte? Ayn Rand? David Hume? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Robert J. Hanlon? Arthur Cushman McGiffert? William James Laidlay? Ernst Haeckel? Thomas F. Woodlock? Nick Diamos?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is easy to impute hostility to the actions of others when a situation is actually unclear. A popular insightful adage attempts to constrain this type of bitter speculation. Here are two versions:

  1. Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by stupidity
  2. Don’t ascribe to malice what can be plainly explained by incompetence.

This notion has been attributed to military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, to science fiction author Robert Heinlein, and to others.  It is often called “Hanlon’s Razor”. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for ascribing the statement to Napoleon Bonaparte. Robert Heinlein did include a thematically similar remark in a 1941 short story.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1980 compilation “Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong” edited by Arthur Bloch. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The description “Hanlon’s Razor” was used because the creator was a computer programmer named Robert J. Hanlon. The phrase “Hanlon’s Razor” was analogous to the phrase “Occam’s Razor”. Both referred to heuristics designed to prune sets of hypotheses by favoring simplicity. More details about Hanlon are presented further below based on the research conducted by quotation expert Mardy Grothe appearing in the 2011 book “Neverisms”.

Many people have expressed similar thoughts over the years and additional selected citations in chronological order are shown below.

Continue reading Never Attribute to Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained by Stupidity


  1. 1980, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, Compiled and Edited by Arthur Bloch, Quote Page 52, Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Milton Friedman? Robert Heinlein? Robert G. Ingersoll? Michael Montague? Walter Morrow? John Madden? Harley L. Lutz? Pierre Dos Utt? Leonard P. Ayres? Jake Falstaff? Herman Fetzer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Today many goods and services are available for free especially via the internet. However, the true cost is usually not zero. Subsidies, indirect costs, and displaced costs are sometimes difficult to fully discern. A well-known acerbic economic adage reflects a skeptical attitude:

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

This phrase is sometimes presented as an initialism: tanstaafl. The prominent economist Milton Friedman and the famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein both employed this expression, but I do not believe that either one coined it. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: During the nineteenth and early twentieth century many saloons in the United States offered a midday buffet selection of gratis food to customers who purchased at least one drink. The saloonkeepers hoped to increase the number of clients and the amount of alcohol purchased. The “free lunch” food functioned as a loss leader.

Robert Heinlein did use the expression under investigation in his 1966 novel “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”. Also, Milton Friedman was credited with the saying by 1969, and he used an instance as the title of a book in 1975. But the saying was already in circulation.

The earliest known instance that matched the modern economic sense appeared as the punchline of a fable published in June 1938. Journalist Walter Morrow is currently the leading candidate for creator of this fable. Details are given further below within the following collection of selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Obscene and Not Heard

Groucho Marx? Ethel Barrymore? Maurice Barrymore? Paul M. Potter? Gertrude Battles Lane? John Lennon? Joe E. Lewis? Robert Heinlein? Marilyn Manson? Augustus John? Oscar Wilde?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is well-known and often repeated admonition directed at young people who are making too much noise:

Children should be seen and not heard.

Wordplay has produced multiple quips which transform the phrase “seen and not heard” into other similar sounding statements:

Back in our day sex was obscene and not heard.
The writing was obscene but not absurd.
Graffiti should be obscene and not heard.
Women should be obscene but not heard.

Instances of these statements have been attributed to Groucho Marx, John Lennon, Ethel Barrymore, Robert Heinlein, and Oscar Wilde. Attitudes have changed over the years and some statements in this family grate on many modern ears. Would you please examine this family of adages?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an anecdote published in a New York newspaper in 1892. The quip was spoken by Maurice Barrymore who was the patriarch of the famous theater family that included his children John, Lionel, and Ethel. A large show had recently closed, and Barrymore discussed the production with a fellow actor. He defended the risqué performances of the lead actress while mentioning the poor acoustics of the capacious venue. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Here is the latest scintillation of Barrymore’s wit. Barrymore and Wilton Lackaye were discussing Mrs. Bernard-Beere’s unfortunate engagement at the Manhattan Opera-House. Lackaye having said something about the English actress’s failure, Barrymore replied: “My dear boy, you must remember that the size of the theatre was entirely against her; it is so large that it entirely destroyed the delicacy of her art. The stage of that theatre is intended only for broad effects.”

“Well,” said Lackaye, “judging from what I have heard, the broad effects in some of her plays were marked, especially certain scenes in ‘Ariane.'”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” declared Barrymore. “On that big stage anybody can be obscene and not heard.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Obscene and Not Heard


  1. 1892 December 12, The Evening World, Stage News and Notes, Quote Page 5, Column 3, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)

It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

Nelson Mandela? Pliny the Elder? Daniel Wilson? Elbert Anderson Young? Robert H. Goddard? Robert Heinlein? Norton Juster? Paul Eldridge?

Dear Quote Investigator: Politicians, journalists, pundits, and self-help authors are fond of the following inspirational expression:

It always seems impossible, until it is done.

The words are usually attributed to the activist, statesman, and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found this statement in a book or speech by Nelson Mandela. The earliest attribution to Mandela located by QI appeared in an Australian newspaper in 2001. Hence, the saying was linked to him for at least a dozen years before his death in 2013. Details for this citation are given further below.

Sometimes an event or achievement appears to be impossible, and only the actual occurrence of the event is enough to dispel the misconception. A statement that matched this notion was included in the encyclopedic work called “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History) which was written by Pliny the Elder who died in AD 79. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Indeed what is there that does not appear marvellous, when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible, until they have been actually effected?

In 1862 the book “Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and the New World” was published, and the author, Professor Daniel Wilson, commented on the remarkable insights available through the study of the geological record. Information could be reconstructed about the nature of Earth before the appearance of mankind. The author employed the saying in the form of a rhetorical question: 3

Yet all the while, the geological record lay there open before him, awaiting God’s appointed time. What so inconceivable as the recovery of the world’s history prior to man’s creation; but, indeed is not everything impossible until it is done? and the history of man himself, though so much less inconceivable, also an impossibility until it has been accomplished?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done


  1. 1855, The Natural History of Pliny, Author: Pliny the Elder, Translator: John Bostock and H. T. Riley (Late Scholar of Clare Hall, Cambridge), Volume 2, Book 7, Chapter 1: Man, Quote Page 121, Published by Henry G. Bohn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: Perseus Digital Library, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Library: Gregory R. Crane of Tufts University, Book Title: Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book Authors: John Bostock and H.T. Riley, Section: Book VII, Man, His Birth, His Organization, and the Invention of the Arts, Chapter 1: Man, Website description: “Perseus is a practical experiment in which we explore possibilities and challenges of digital collections in a networked world”. (Accessed on January 5, 2016) link
  3. 1862, Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and the New World by Daniel Wilson (Professor of History and English Literature in University College, Toronto), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 4: The Primeval Transition: Instinct, Quote Page 87, Published by Macmillan and Company, Cambridge and London. (Google Books Full View) link

Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master

George Washington? John Tillotson? Jonathan Swift? James Fenimore Cooper? Frederick Uttley Laycock? Robert Heinlein? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A cautionary statement about statecraft has often been attributed to George Washington. Here are three versions:

1) Government is like fire, a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
2) Government, like fire, is a troublesome servant and a terrible master.
3) A government is like fire, a handy servant, but a dangerous master.

Washington died in 1799, but I have seen no citations in the 1700s or 1800s; therefore, I am suspicious. Would you please examine the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have attempted to trace this saying, and no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to George Washington has yet been located. The earliest linkage to Washington appeared in “The Christian Science Journal” in 1902 which was more than one hundred years after his death. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The first President of the United States said: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

The master-servant metaphorical framework has a very long history. In 1562 water was described as a good servant but a cruel master. The spelling of the period was not standardized as shown by this excerpt: 2

Rayne water is bynding and stopping of nature, water is a very good seruaunt, but it is a cruell mayster.

In 1637 the report of a great conflagration led a writer to state that fire and water were both good servants but evil masters. Indeed, the context suggested that this assertion was already considered proverbial. The word “evil” was spelled “evill”: 3

… the Temple St Marke was almost all burnt, and the Dukes Palace was preserved with great difficulty; which verifies, that fire and water are good servants but evill masters.

A sermon in 1674 employed the master-servant figurative language by embedding it within a simile about fancy. Here “fancy” meant imagination with a strong connotation of desire: 4

Fancy is like fire, a good Servant but a bad Master; if it march under the conduct of faith it may be highly serviceable, and by putting lively colours upon divine truth may steal away our affections to it.

The words attributed to George Washington followed the same template, but “government” was substituted for “fancy”. Examples presented below will show that over time each of the following terms has been placed into the simile template: “zeal”, “the passions”, “love”, and “the press”. In addition, the following terms have replaced “fire and water” within the proverb: “the bank”, “the press”, and “opium”. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive; instead, they illustrate the variability of the expressions.

Interestingly, the instances ascribed to Washington have shifted the semantics of the phrase about fire. Traditionally, fire was described as a good servant, but the revised remark used words such as dangerous and troublesome. Hence, the connotations of fire were negative as both a servant and a master.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master


  1. 1902 November, The Christian Science Journal, Volume 20, Number 8, Liberty and Government by W. M., Start Page 465, Quote Page 465, Published by the Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  2. Year: Imprint date 1579 (Date on document 1562), Title: Bulleins bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soarenesse, and woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankinde: which bulwarke is kept with Hilarius the gardener, [and] Health the phisicion by William Bullein, Doctor of Phisicke. 1562. Author: William Bullein (Died 1576), Publisher: Imprinted at London: By Thomas Marshe, dwellinge in Fleetestreate neare vnto Saincte Dunstanes Church. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link
  3. Year: 1637, Title: Monro his expedition with the worthy Scots Regiment (called Mac-Keyes Regiment) levied in August 1626 by Sr. Donald Mac-Key Lord Rhees, colonell for his Majesties service of Denmark, and reduced after the Battaile of Nerling, to one company in September 1634. Collected and gathered together at spare-houres, by 1634, Author: Robert Monro, Publisher: Printed by William Iones in Red-Crosse streete, London, 1637. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link
  4. 1674, A Supplement to the Morning-exercise at Cripple-gate Or Several More Cases of Conscience Practically, Resolved by Sundry Ministers, Sermon 19: The Sinfulness and Cure of Thoughts by Mr. S. C., Quote Page 422, Printed for Thomas Cockerill, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Climate Is What You Expect; The Weather Is What You Get

Mark Twain? Robert Heinlein? A Schoolchild? Caroline B. Le Row? Andrew John Herbertson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am preparing a book about the weather and climate, and I would like to include the following quotation:

The climate is what you expect; the weather is what you get.

Several web sites attribute this remark to Mark Twain, but a source is never given. The only precise citation I could find was to a 1973 novel by the prominent science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Can you help me with this question?

Quote Investigator: Heinlein did include a version of this aphorism in his 1973 novel “Time Enough for Love” as you note.

There is no substantive evidence that Twain wrote or said the remark. Yet, he did include a funny comment that contrasted weather and climate in an essay published in 1887 titled “English as She Is Taught”. Twain was reviewing a book that was about to be published under the same title as his essay. The publication of the book was facilitated by Twain, and the volume was inspired by an earlier Portuguese-English phrase book called “English as She Is Spoke” that was riddled with comical errors.

The book “English as She Is Taught” presented a large number of student answers to questions posed by classroom teachers. Caroline B. Le Row collected these answers from her students and from her fellow teachers [CBLR]. Twain’s piece was published in Century magazine, and it contained extensive excerpts together with his commentary. Here is a sample of the humorously inaccurate student responses [MTET]:

  • Gorilla warfare was where men rode on gorillas.
  • Julius Caesar is noted for his famous telegram dispatch I came I saw I conquered.
  • Ireland is called the Emigrant Isle because it is beautiful and green.
  • The imports of a country are the things that are paid for, the exports are the things that are not.
  • The two most famous volcanoes of Europe are Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • The Constitution of the United States is that part the book at the end which nobody reads.
  • Congress is divided into civilized half civilized and savage.

Twain also included the following student remark:

Climate lasts all the time and weather only a few days.

This statement is distinct from the one provided by the questioner, but it is closely connected thematically. Climate and weather are compared via contrasting durations. Since “climate lasts all the time” it is what one would “expect”. Since “weather” lasts “only a few days” one might say it is what one would “get”. The semantic overlap is sufficient that confusion is possible between the two statements. Strictly speaking the phrases in Twain’s essay were attributed to anonymous students.

It is tempting to think that Twain or a teacher concocted some of these amusing remarks. Yet, the full name of the volume was “English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools”, and Twain supported this claim by saying “all the examples in it are genuine; none of them have been tampered with, or doctored in any way.”

The earliest evidence QI has located of an expression closely matching the questioner’s quotation was published in a textbook from 1901 called “Outlines of Physiography” by the geographer Andrew John Herbertson [OPAH]:

By climate we mean the average weather as ascertained by many years’ observations. Climate also takes into account the extreme weather experienced during that period. Climate is what on an average we may expect, weather is what we actually get.

In 1902 a book reviewer writing in “The Geographical Teacher” was impressed by the saying, and he further disseminated it by reprinting the statement in his discussion of the textbook. The modern saying is a streamlined version of this adage [EWGT]:

… smart and neat such dicta as “climate is what on an average we expect, weather is what we actually get”; …

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Climate Is What You Expect; The Weather Is What You Get