Friday, July 28, 2006


Although the quotes at can frequently be a bit too crude for my taste, or else just rehashes of old jokes which the submitters have (I suppose) tried to infuse with new life by casting them as apparently spontaneous outpourings of wit, I find quote #376790 sublimely funny.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jury questionnaire

I just received a jury questionnaire (yeah, a chance to perform my duty as a citizen!), on which question 11 wonders:

Further -- I am tempted to reply 'yes' to the question

(just because "If I am over 70 years old, then I wish to claim exemption from jury duty" is a true statement); but I suspect that no-one would be particularly amused.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Favourite graffiti

My father likes to 'collect' license plates wherever he goes -- in the sense that he writes down the interesting ones, not that he skulks about with screwdriver in hand. In a similar sense, I like to collect bathroom graffiti. In the men's bathroom of a restaurant near the University of Toronto (I can't remember the name), there was a real wealth of graffiti, but one particularly caught my eye:
It looked so nice out this morning that I decided to leave it out all day.
This makes me laugh, but I'm sure it was not original. The men's bathrooms in Eckhart Hall at the University of Chicago have some that are maybe a little less clever, but indisputably original (at least as far as graffiti goes). In the third-floor bathroom, there is:
An 'eretum on your house
(which I have never figured out; but it appears near other such curses as "May your sword break in battle", so I assume it wishes some unpleasantness on the reader); and in the second-floor bathroom (actually in Ryerson Hall), there is the pleasantly surprising:
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I can hear the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Of course, when one is in Hyde Park in Chicago, it seems impossible to ignore the Medici as a collection of graffiti. Indeed, its walls and tables are covered with such a mass of the stuff that I had always assumed that adding to it was tacitly sanctioned, if not encouraged, a thought which always (perhaps mysteriously) suffused me with a warm and friendly glow of feeling towards the restaurant; but a friend (drawing on personal experience) told me that this is in fact not the case, that the addition of new graffiti is frowned upon, and ever since I fear I cannot help viewing the existing graffiti as an artificial evocateur of some attitude of 'cool', rather than the organic specimen I had originally thought (and hoped) it to be.

The everyday usefulness of mathematics

Metafilter recently had a discussion of mathematics as applied to moving -- the neatest thread I've ever seen there. I am reminded of the story told by Ralph Boas about a mathematician who, watching movers try in vain to manoeuvre a large couch through a narrow doorway, sat down and worked out to his own satisfaction that it could not be done -- only to find, on returning to announce his accomplishment, that the job had been done already in his absence.

Some signs

The first sign I wish to mention is one that I saw during my recent stay in Las Vegas (ugh). During a foolish attempt to move a foot or two, I naturally encountered a slot machine, which bore (roughly) the following warning on its side:
Warning: Nevada state law prohibits use of or loitering near slot machines by people under 21 years of age.

Ignoring the rather welcome fact that, for the first time in a long time, I believe a protestation that a certain restriction is "as required by law" as opposed to "a method of you-screwing permitted by law", I found this rather silly. Unlike the signs below, it says exactly what it means to say, but there's something amusing about the image of sinister 20-year-olds viciously loitering by slot machines. (As Woody Allen said in an essay on criminals, "He loitered for seven years, till he realised it was not the kind of crime that brought in any money.") The reason that there's no picture of this one is that, due undoubtedly to some kind of magical anti-photography coating, two attempted pictures, taken from a short distance, with a steady hand and adequate lighting, both came out so blurred as to be illegible.

This sign was on the door of a store somewhere near the University of Toronto -- I don't remember where exactly: This sign was in front of an elevator in Detroit Metro Airport:

A bumper sticker I'd like to see

"I'm pro-dictatorship, and I don't vote!"

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

An open letter to documenters of Python

I am not much of a programmer, and I have programmed not a line of Python, so I won't comment, except in parentheses, on such things as its relative merits with respect to Perl (in which I have programmed) and its forced indentation (yecch). However, there is a quick lesson in order.

The following object:
is a single quote. The following object:
(two ['] characters) is a double quote. A double quote is sometimes disguised as a single ["] character, or even (by LaTeX programmers) as ``. The following object:
(three ['] characters) is a triple quote. Someone in such a mood would presumably have a right also to call each of the monstrosities '" (['] character + ["] character) and "' (["] character + ['] character) a triple quote. The following object:
(three ["] characters), no matter how much you (or anyone else) want it to be, is not a triple quote. Even if you feel squeamish about calling it one, it is a sextuple quote.

Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A visit to the post office

My wife (who is not a US citizen) will soon be travelling to Sweden (and Rome and Venice and Paris and Frankfurt and Stockholm and London), and I was helping her apply for a Swedish visa. Since, unlike all the other cities mentioned, London doesn't allow travel on a Schengen visa, we applied separately (with a separate wad of dollars) for a UK visa; and, though I am not too happy with the price, it is difficult for me to argue with receiving the passport back, with visa stamp, on 27 May after having mailed it late in the day (a minute or so after 5 PM) on 25 May. This made me feel quite good about visa-getting, but somehow the second application process (that is, the process of compiling the application, not of actually applying -- I can't yet speak of that) didn't go quite as smoothly as the first. Here is a small tale of ups and downs, which we join in medias res.
  • YEAH! The application materials are all gathered.
  • DAMN! I missed a document, which only my wife can provide, and she's out of town.
  • YEAH! My wife faxes the document to me. I missed today's mail, but I'll send it tomorrow.
  • DAMN! I missed yet another document, which only my wife can provide, and she's out of town, and she has only very sporadic e-mail access.
  • YEAH! A series of phone and e-mail messages manages to get in touch with her somehow, and she sends the documents to me.
  • DAMN! It's almost 5 PM, the time at which the post office closes.
  • YEAH! The post office is only half a block away, and I've already got all the other documents together, so all I have to do is print the remaining document, attach everything appropriately, and go.
  • DAMN! The printer's gone offline, and will take 5 minutes to warm up; and the stapler in the copy room has been stolen.
  • YEAH! The copy machine itself has a stapler, and I can staple the other documents while the new one is printing.
  • DAMN! The embedded stapler in the copy machine can't handle middle-of-page stapling (such as, to pick a random example, attaching two passport-sized photos to an application form).
  • YEAH! There's someone still around who has a stapler. I gather the remaining document and staple everything in place.
  • DAMN! I thought I had everything prepared, but I forgot to get the mailing address. While instructing applicants to mail their visa applications to "a mission overseas", is not very forthcoming about to which missions I can, and to which missions I cannot, send such applications. I fire off another series of phone and e-mail messages, but time is short and I can't wait for them to be answered.
  • YEAH! After much digging, I find that the embassy in D.C. and the consulate general in New York accept visa applications, and the other ('honorary') consulates do not. (This is probably obvious, but it took me a while -- a disturbingly long while -- to figure out.) Since I'm pretty sure my wife mentioned New York, I'll just send it there.
  • DAMN! It's now after 5 PM.
  • YEAH! The post office near my house at home has recently instituted new, later hours, and is now open until 7 PM. I just have to catch the 5:22 PM bus, and I'll be there in plenty of time.
  • DAMN! It's also after 5:22 PM.
  • YEAH! I just have to catch the 5:52 PM bus. The bus takes about 25 minutes to get to my house, after which a two-minute walk to the post office will still get me there well before closing.
  • DAMN! The bus is 20 minutes late.
  • YEAH! The bus is only 20 minutes late, and I can still make it to the post office before closing.
  • DAMN! This bus is the wrong one of the two buses which service my area -- it services the south half, and I need to go north. I can't remember if the 6:22 PM bus runs during the summer; if it doesn't, the next bus to come will be the 6:52 PM one.
  • YEAH! The bus will go a significant portion of the way there anyway, and I can just disembark ('debus'?) when it turns the 'wrong' way and then walk the remainder of the way.
  • DAMN! The bus will take 15 minutes to go the portion of the way it goes (assuming it doesn't get later still), and my best-yet time for the walk the remainder of the way is 25 minutes. (For those of you pulling out calculators and/or stopwatches, this'll put my arrival time around 6:52 PM -- more nearly precisely, 6:55 PM, since really the bus was about 23 minutes late.)
  • YEAH! By pushing myself, I shave a few minutes off the walk, and get there with about ten minutes to spare.
I should mention that, if the rest of my life were any indicator, the turn the story would have taken here is that I would have discovered that I'd misremembered the post office's hours, or that for some reason it had closed early that day, or even just that the doors closed before the actual office. Fortunately, though, for me (if unfortunately for the zest and zip of this story), I had checked before leaving that the office was indeed open until 7 PM, and the frown with which the gods of fate usually contemplate me was, apparently, turned on others that day (my apologies to you if you were one of those who suffered the misfortune surely meant for me that day!); for I made it in with nary a hitch.
  • DAMN! "Are you sure", the clerk to whom I present my package asks, "that this is the full and correct address?" The reason for her scepticism is not far to seek, as I have addressed my package (on the recommendation of the last website I consulted -- not an official Swedish site, as the individual consulates are surprisingly shy about disclosing their addresses on their individual pages, preferring instead to direct one to a central directory, which offers no particular indication of whether all correspondence should be sent to the same address (as opposed, for example, to the INS, which addresses even individual forms to different ZIP codes), or, in most cases, even whether a given address is merely the physical, or also the postal, address) to
    Consulate General of Sweden
    New York, NY 10017-2201
    This style of address always unnerves me, but I am by now used enough to it (for one addresses payment similarly to the IRS) that, bolstered by the assurance that information found on the Internet is always correct, I feel confident simply pushing the package to the clerk with these two lines (well, three, as I write in large letters when addressing, and couldn't quite fit 'Sweden') boldly inscribed thereon. Sensing my uncertainty, however, the clerk asks "Don't you have a street address, or something?", to which I meekly reply that I do not, as this is the address I found. She then offers me a bit of wisdom: "New York's a big place, you know!"
  • YEAH! Having grown up in a small town in Maryland, I am particularly sensitive to being thought a small-town hick, and often preen myself over my six-year stay in Chicago, which, I like to fancy, makes me a big-city kind of guy. (Such, or suchlike, illusions nurture us all.) I am not about to be told that New York's a big place as if I had just asked "I have a cousin in New York, do you know him?" -- so: "Well," I replied, "there's only one UN building!" (In fact, the Swedish consulate is not located anywhere near the UN building, but it was enough to quiet her.)
That, then, is the story. The happy ending is a source of sorrow to all of us who were hoping for a dramatic one; but, who knows -- the passport hasn't been returned yet.

P.S. This entry was actually drafted on 19 June, but some instinct to prudence counselled me not to post it until it was clear that the unfortunate outcome foreshadowed in the closing remarks would not actually occur. By waiting until now, just after an unsuccessful FedEx delivery attempt, I can stick to the letter of the post -- the passport is not actually in our hands -- while still being fairly confident that it will be restored to us.