Dumb and Dumber

My college buddy Brad dropped by this weekend. He had asked to see World of Warcraft right before he took off. Unfortunately, my speakers mysteriously stopped working. Everything was connected properly, the speakers were powered on, the light was green… but there was no signal whatsoever on the line out. Whatever was wrong with my speakers, there wasn’t time to fix it, so that was the end of that.

The next day, I conducted a rigorous analysis of the malfunctioning equipment and determined that… the volume was turned all the way off. Good thing I went to Engineering School.

I’ve noticed that my brain is getting less and less trustworthy when it comes to mathematical issues. I thought the decay would stop at, oh, solving simple PDEs, but no. Just today, Mom asked me a straightforward math question for the next edition of her book: “What are the odds of getting seven heads in nine coin flips?” The answer leaped to mind: “(9 choose 7) / (2^9)“. But the scary thing was, I didn’t know why. My brain is cluttered with mathematical machinery that can occasionally lurch to life and spit out answers, but it’s become disconnected from the rest of my thought processes. I might as well have determined the odds through Divine Revelation.

Since this was going into my Mom’s book, I went through an exercise to convince myself that (9 choose 7) really is the right way to count the possible combinations of heads. I then confirmed that by searching on the web. Whew. Which brings us to an even sadder tale: the first search result I got was not the legitimate Drexel University Math Forum site… but an impostor, Bonus.com.

The impostor’s home page is a cheesy blinky flashy games portal, so it’s not obvious at first glance why they would want to errr, mirror the Drexel Math Forums. You would expect to see a blinky banner ad over the borrowed content, but none appears. Actually, if you view source, there is a banner ad at the top… but the link to the image is broken! As Columbo would say, “Dis is a puzzler.”

A little more poking around uncovers the reason for our confusion — we were looking at the wrong page. Unfortunately, the site has been designed to defeat deep links, so I can’t provide a direct link. To get to the page we were supposed to see in all its blinky flashy glory, you need to search the site for “math”, scroll down to the bottom and click on “Ask Dr. Math”. Below that is a mirror of the entire Dr. Math site, framed and lookin’ fabulous.

Drexel’s Terms of Use are reasonably liberal, but Bonus.com still chooses to violate Drexel’s “Credit and copyright notice” and “Links and Framing” policies. Note that Drexel conveniently links to their Terms of Use on each Math Forum page, but Bonus.com has responded by cleverly removing the underlying URL (while leaving the link text itself intact). Just for chuckles, here’s the cache of the unframed mirrored page, courtesy of MSN Search[1]. The banner ad isn’t visible because of the aforementioned broken image link, but if you view source, you can see the detritus left by Bonus.com (and MSN Search) at the top of the page. I wonder what Drexel University thinks about this?

Let’s find out.

1. You can’t help but wonder how Bonus.com fundamentally differs from the MSN Search cache. I think the answer is that the MSN Search cache A) provides the URL to the cached site, and B) makes it clear that the content doesn’t belong to MSN, but came up in the context of a search. If Dr. Math had chosen a design that did not display “Drexel” on every page, we would have no way of knowing that the pages belonged to Drexel U., not Bonus.com.

Commercials We’d Like To See

Ever wonder how carnivorous aliens can devour humans without getting sick, even though they have totally different biochemistries? Well, Steve Eley has the answer:


“Oh, no, thank you. I’m chordate intolerant.”

“So am I. Have you tried Terranex?”

“Terranex? What’s that?”

“It’s the new supplement for Earth invaders with sensitive thoracic cavities like ours. It breaks down those complex protein chains so your body doesn’t have to!”

“I had no idea!”

“For best results, Terranex should be taken every solar cycle. Side effects may include headaches, nausea, or the sudden transformation into a half-human hybrid consumed by inexplicable angst and intent on the destruction of your own race. If irritation persists, please see your geneticist. Now…how about an entertainment lawyer?”

“I’ll take two!” [laughter] “THANKS, TERRANEX!”

Swearing Up A Storm(bringer)

“I do have a cause, though. It’s obscenity. I’m for it.” – Tom Lehrer

I’ve been flipping through some of the fantasy novels from my youth, the big medieval fantasy paperweight novels — you know, those books. One interesting characteristic they share is that there is very little swearing. Oh, there’s indirect swearing. “Lord Kelvin muttered a vile oath” or “Kazragh the Bold cursed in impotent rage” or some such. But throughout the entire 5,000 page series, there’s not a “fuck” or “shit” to be found. Why is that? It’s not like this is protecting the delicate ears of our children. Explicit sex scenes? Check. Impalings? Check. Desanguinations, decapitations, massacres? Check, check, check. Foul language? Weirdly excised.

Science fiction does much better on this account. Yes, certain novels have experimented with silly made-up “futuristic” swear words[1], but for the most part, science fiction has its act together. And of course, there are many fine counter-examples of medieval fantasy authors that use foul language and use it well, such as Glen Cook and Steven Brust. Still, a huge chunk of medieval fantasy simply has no swearing at all. Unfortunately, this has infected my writing style. I’ll start writing, “[Character X] cursed…” and then I’ll stop. Wait, wouldn’t it be better to write down what Character X actually said? Is there a good reason to be indirect here? Usually not.

Real medieval people (like real Old West people) no doubt swore a lot, maybe even more than we do. Now clearly, medieval fantasy characters should not think and act like 21st-century North Americans — for starters, they’re probably speaking a completely alien language. It’s just that in the author’s “translation” to Modern English, they ought to sound natural to us. Leaving out all the swear words is just as big a mistake as using stilted “high medieval” dialogue.

Anyway, the upshot is that I’m still confused about why medieval fantasy usually has explicit sex, always has very explicit violence, but tends to elide the coarse language. What is it about medieval fantasy that makes it different from other genres, such as science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, or even non-medieval fantasy?

1. You could always argue that the language has evolved, and words such as “frelling” are incredibly shocking to people in the 25th century or whatnot. However, I submit that the only reason you should inject new words into the language is to evoke a particular feeling in your 21st century reader, not your imaginary 25th century characters. And in this 21st century reader, “frelling” evokes the feeling that your tough-as-nails space mercenary is a wussie who wouldn’t survive a five minute stroll in downtown Los Altos.

Off to Yahoo!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but in my defense, it’s been a busy month. Things have been hectic at work. There were taxes to pay. Weddings to attend. My wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. Actually, if I were to murder anything, it would be the pigeons roosting in the eaves right over the stairs. I’ve poked at them with an extensible pole, but they keep coming back. I bought a plastic owl to scare them, but after about two days, the pigeons caught on. Wily, those pigeons. Noted animal control expert Tom Lehrer has some thoughts on the matter that certainly deserve further analysis.

The one piece of major news for the month is… drumroll… I’m changing jobs. I’ll be starting at Yahoo! in just a little under two weeks. I’ll be working for the Infrastructure group, helping to document internal software APIs and tools. Admittedly, this probably doesn’t sound as interesting to you as it does to me, but let’s face it: the life of a technical writer isn’t exactly about the glamour, baby. Oh, sure, the kids keep coming to me with stars in their eyes… and I keep having to break it to them that despite what they’ve seen on TV, technical writing isn’t all gold chains and supermodels and champagne and “Tech Pubs Emergencies!” that send you winging off to Amsterdam at a moment’s notice. The truth is that it’s hard work, kiddo, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

At Chordiant I was fortunate to have consistently excellent colleagues in both Tech Pubs and Engineering. And let’s face it, good relationships with your colleagues are make-or-break for a writer. Engineering is a little different in this respect — the proverbial “lone genius” engineer can, in certain situations,[1] be marginally effective. Not so for tech writers. If all your Subject Matter Experts dislike you, nothing else matters. You’re screwed. So as I leave my comfy, well-established tech writing department, I can’t help feeling a smidge of trepidation mixed in with all the excitement and happy thoughts. The group we’re building is pretty new, and so we’d better be strong right out of the gate. Let’s hope my new colleagues don’t find out that I’ve been out-clevered by the pigeons.

One last note: as some of you might know, Yahoo! has a number of prominent bloggers. So far it hasn’t been my style to write much about work, and so I probably won’t turn into a “Yahoo! blogger” as such. It’s possible, but unlikely. The one thing I can promise is that I will attempt to post more frequently. Whether it’s storymapping, markup shenanigans, or delicious mojito recipes, I’m your man.

1. And for certain values of “genius”.