John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

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Ah, pointless nostalgia

I don't know if this ever happens to anyone else, but sometimes I'll be writing something, and I'll get the idea to use a certain word or phrase. But then after I've written it, I get the feeling that maybe I've used it incorrectly, and I get paranoid. That happened to me last night. I was responding to a post in sunbrae's journal, and I thought to describe something as a Hobson's choice. And as I typed that, I started worrying that I was misrembering what Hobson's choice was. I was pretty sure I knew what it meant, but I wasn't quite sure. So of course, I typed "Hobson's choice" into my search toolbar, and found a useful definition at And yes, it meant what I thought it did.

One particular line in the definition intrigued me: "Another dilemma is presented by MortonsFork." Morton's Fork? Never heard of it. I followed the hyperlink, read the descriptions, and said to myself, "it's Iranian Handball!"

In 1979, when I was in sixth grade, my friend Keith taught us a game of his own invention: Radium Ball. It was a simple game. All you needed was a racquetball, a brick wall, and two players. The first player would throw the ball against the wall. The second player would have to catch the ball either on the fly or on a single bounce. If it bounced more than once, you were out of the game. It was called Radium Ball because the conceit was that the racquetball was really a radioactive isotope, and if it bounced twice it would explode and you would be killed horribly. Kind of silly, but hey, we were eleven, and we thought it was funny.

In November of 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took approximately seventy Americans captive. It was in the wake of that event that Iranian Handball was invented. The game was similar to Radium Ball, in that it involved two players, a racquetball, and a wall. Here's how you played. The first player would throw the ball against the wall. If the second player failed to catch the ball before or on the first bounce, he would be executed for not following the rules of the game. And if he did catch it, he would be executed for being a show-off. It was sophisticated social satire, sixth grade-style.

It was also, I now know, an excellent example of Morton's Fork, which is defined as "a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives, or two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion." Interesting! I'll probably continue calling it Iranian Handball, but it's interesting to learn after all these years that our silly little joke game has a real name.

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