Money Down the Drain

Goddamnit. I wasted almost ten minutes today figuring out why s/</&lt;/g wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. Duh.

How I was allowed to graduate college without having sed fundamentals burned into my brain, I will never know.

A Biologist, a Physicist, and and Engineer Walk Into a Bar…

I would have liked to contribute to the bad physics joke contest that I was complaining about the other day… but unfortunately I only know mathematician jokes and engineer jokes. Any physicists that appear in those jokes are incidental. Yes, this is a weird oversight in my education. Frankly, I think I deserve at least a partial tuition refund.

Anyway, in light of recent events, I thought I would share one of my favorite engineer jokes that at least involves a physicist. And hunting!

A biologist, a physicist, and an engineer go duck quail hunting. Suddenly, a single quail gets flushed from the undergrowth.

The biologist, being very familiar with natural quail behavior and quail flight patterns, takes careful aim… BLAM! He just misses, a little to the right.

At almost exactly the same time, the physicist quickly calculates the distance, the velocity of the bullet, the velocity of the quail, corrects for wind and air resistance… BLAM! He just misses, a little to the left.

The engineer starts jumping up and down excitedly. “We got him! We got him!”

But wait! There’s a sequel to this joke!

Miracle of miracles, our hunting party succeeds in downing a duck quail. They return to the campsite, where their philosopher friend has been waiting for them. Triumphant, they show the philosopher the quail.

The philosopher looks up from his book. “Hmmm, well, how do you know it’s a quail?”

The biologist is taken aback. “Well, just look at the morphology,” he says. “It’s got quail feathers, a quail beak, quail wings…”

The physicist doesn’t quite know what to say either. “I guess we could take a DNA sample from the bird and run it to the lab…?”

The engineer just shrugs. “We went hunting for quail. Therefore, it’s a quail.”

Thank you! I’ll be here all the week!

As Canadian as Possible Under the Circumstances

Good news / bad news. The good news was that I scored tickets last week to see a Margaret Atwood interview in the city. The bad news was that the interviewer chose to spend his time asking endless variations on, “What does it mean to you to be a Feminist Writer?” and “What does it mean to you to be a Canadian Writer?” God forbid he might have taken a few precious minutes away from compartmentalizing Atwood to, you know, talk about about her books.

Not that Atwood didn’t try her best to steer the interview back on track. First, she mentioned in passing that when her first novel came out way back in 1969, interviewers liked to pepper her with Caveman Era questions about being a Feminist Writer. (“Do you like men?” “Do men like you?”). We all chuckled at this, but the subtext went right over the interviewer’s head. So Atwood tried talking about movements in general: “It’s a mistake for a writer to be part of an ‘ism’, because eventually you’ll write something that makes the people in the ‘ism’ really upset.” No dice there, either. Finally, Atwood tried a bold gambit: short-circuiting the interviewer. Look, she said, “women deserve equal rights under the law and equal pay for equal work.” End of discussion. The whole evening had the polite tension of a bad date. Someone should have called out, “Dude! She’s just not that into you.”

To be fair, Atwood was a bit more responsive to the “Canadian Writer” line of questioning. One part that I remember — she was talking about how hard it is for Canadians to define their own identity, in large part due to the torrent of media coming from the United States. Apparently, some years ago a Canadian radio show solicited listeners to help complete the phrase, “As Canadian as … “, the equivalent of “As American as apple pie.”[1] The winner of the contest was, “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”

If the interview had any real value, it was as meta-lesson: by putting up with incredibly boorish behavior without losing her temper, Atwood managed to personify the Canadian national character for nearly two hours. Believe me, it’s not just Atwood — it’s a Canadian phenomenon, and I have the data to prove it. See, years ago, I worked for a couple[2] of weeks as a customer service rep, assisting a mostly Canadian customer base on the phone. Unfortunately for the Canadians, I was working for one of the Most Evil Software Corporations Ever, Computer Associates. If you work outside the IT industry, you might not even have heard of this particular evil software conglomerate, so I’ve included a handy ranking of software companies for your reference:

1. Google (by definition)
2. The Omni Group
3. Pixar                    ^
4. Flickr                   |
5. SGI                      |
...                        GOOD 

...                        EVIL 
660. McAfee                 |
661. IBM Global Services    |
662. DoubleClick            v
663. ENCOM
664. Computer Associates
665. Diebold
666. those guys who create zombie networks 
     and rent them to the Russian mafia

Back in the day, Computer Associates had a small-business tax software product with a mostly Canadian customer base. Every tax season, Computer Associates mailed out floppies (yes, really) containing tax updates. This system was working fine until one day, the company got the bright idea to take everyone who had been receiving tax updates and force them into paying for an “upgrade program”. Oh, and they also “forgot” to tell all their customers about the changed policy.[3]

So imagine you’re a Canadian small business owner around tax time. You’re waiting for your tax updates, and they’re not arriving. Finally, fighting a rising sense of panic, you call Computer Associates. After waiting on hold for anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, you reach a cheerful customer service rep who informs you that you need to pay extra protection money if you want to be able to file your taxes on time this year. The difference in reactions was astonishing: nearly every Canadian said something like, “Oh, geez, that’s not so good,” while every USAian reacted by screaming. (Naturally, it was the screamers who got escalated up the chain and who got free updates.)

Where were we? Oh, right, Margaret Atwood. Well, she did the best she could under the circumstances, and I guess that’s that. I really should have gone up to her afterwards and asked her about this fascinating Canadian character trait, this preternatural calm that resists all provocation. I once asked a Canadian physics grad student about it, and he nodded and said that it was probably due to dealing with the Canadian government on the phone. That explanation seems too mundane; my theory is that it’s some sort of Canadian superpower, caused by increased radiation exposure near the polar regions. But really, it’s anyone’s guess.

1. Yes, yes, we all know that apple pie is really German.

2. As in “exactly two“.

3. This brings us to Goer’s Corollary to Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to stupidity that which can be adequately explained by malice, when money is involved.”

Yes, We Do Have Better Things To Do

Today our group had a lunchtime debate on the meaning of the word “couple”. Does it mean “two and only two”, or can it mean “three or four”? The debate spilled over into email, which is never a good sign. One coworker wrote:

The first link Ryan posted also explained the difference between saying “a couple of” vs. referring directly to a couple in the context of two people acting as a couple. “couple of” and “couple” have two different meanings. This is why English sucks.

Which is totally unfair. All languages have words that change meaning when the context changes. Most languages have words that change meaning when the grammar changes slightly. And some languages have words that change meaning with pitch — yikes!

Of course with the bait this obvious, it would have been silly for me to respond with a vigorous defense of the English language. Not to mention that I actually agree with my coworker’s conclusion, if not his reasoning. Fortunately, another coworker came up with an ironclad rebuttal:

Along the same lines you could claim that Perl sucks, which is
obviously wrong.

And Mike wins the thread! Personally, I’m in the camp that believes “a couple” means strictly “two”. Although I suppose it can mean “three” for very small values of three.