Yearly Archives: 2005

Lingua Americana

American colloquialisms I plan to add to my vocabulary. (Note these sound uniquely and inadvertantly dopey in a New Zealand accent, enough to make any nearby American laugh so hard their soda comes out their nose. Use responsibly.)

  • The good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise
  • No dog in that fight
  • All y’all
  • North Cackalacky
  • Shut up! (expr. of incredulity)
  • Dude, don’t harsh my mellow (alt. …harsh my buzz)
  • Big whoop
  • Asshat or, even better, Assclown
  • Butter my butt and call me a biscuit!
  • Like a mofo
  • Whatever (W sign with fingers; bonus points for extended version, with accompanying hand signs: …because You aRe A Loser)
  • Hello!
  • My bad
  • Dude, that shit ain’t cool
  • Tastes like ass (v. important to say ass, not arse, as I have learned to my cost.)
  • Get your (noun) on.
  • The Devil’s beating his wife (when it rains while sunny)
  • A long ride on the waaaaahmbulance
  • Git ’er done!

Good Laptop!

In the computer training workshops I run for OIT people are always asking, “Mike, how do I train my computer to stop crashing?” So I thought I’d share some tips.

The first thing to realize is that computers are part of an intricate dominance hierarchy, a pecking order, if you will, with Apples at the top and discount Dell clones near the bottom. Subordinate machines are continually acting up, testing the social order and jockeying for position, while Alpha computers are secure in their status. This is why Macs hardly ever crash.

As a computer owner, your laptop sees you as part of this hierarchy, whether you realize it or not. It will test you, to see who backs down first. If you blink enough times, the computer will eventually assume it is the boss. I’ve seen users cowed into submission by their computers, even frightened of them. You’re the alpha brain! You have far more synapses, even if you can’t add as fast! The key to computer obedience is winning these dominance challenges.

When a computer freezes you should of course immediately slap the desk and say “No!” loudly. Almost everybody seems to know this much. Do not berate the machine, though, or swear at it. Voice recognition is quite poor in computers, and they are extremely literal—you’ll probably only confuse it. (The older technique of squirting it with water has been completely discredited.)

Use a firm but not loud voice. Make steady eye contact with the screen and try not to blink. Give the command once and once only—repeating yourself shows the computer that you won’t follow through on a threat. Never slap the keyboard or strike the screen; this can traumatize it. (Do not back down and restart. If you do, the machine thinks it has won. It will freeze more and more frequently, eventually becoming uncontrollable.)

If you persevere, the computer will back down and display classic submissive behavior (usually, the screen saver). This can take a while; most people do not realize how stubborn a badly-trained computer can be, particularly if it is used to getting its way. Be patient. If it still refuses, “time out” in a dark room usually does the trick.

Computer training is always better in groups. In my workshops all the participants line up, place their laptops on the floor, turn them on, and step back, maintaining eye contact during startup. The first machine ready is picked up, praised and rewarded in front of the others. Computers are very social, and often take their cues from their peers. This is why the well-socialized machines in Duke’s clusters hardly ever crash, while problem laptops are usually the only computer in the house.

Computer training can transform your companion machine. A problem computer is sluggish, lousy with spyware, continually crashes, and uses the Blue Screen of Death to get its way like a child holding its breath. An obedient computer will burn CDs faster, Google more accurately, and pick up less spam. It’s important to catch computers early, while they are still malleable laptops—by the time they’ve grown into desktops most are far too sedentary and set in their ways to be easily trained.

Dominance is the theory behind computer training, but the secret weapon is appropriate rewarding. Contrary to what most people think, praise and physical contact are not powerful incentives for laptops. What they really crave is of course electricity. If a computer refuses to back down in a challenge you should withhold power, even if it whines and complains about a “low battery” (usually an act—they aren’t in any real distress). Plugging it in should only be a reward for good work. Needless to say, indiscriminately recharging your laptop will quickly create a pampered problem computer.

Many participants in my workshops have gone on to apply these techniques to other companion machines, and you can too. Next time your car develops an annoying rattle, don’t back down—it’s testing you. Keep driving, and don’t give it gas until it behaves. Remember, you’re the boss.

(Duke Chronicle, April 6, 2005)

That ’70s Show

Dude, that was such an awesome show. I used to watch it all the time when I was a kid. Yeah, the one where those hillbilly brothers raced their cool car on back roads, just ahead of the law. They always escaped. I wanted to be just like those Clinton boys.

Are you sure? I could have sworn that was their name. Yeah, that’s right. Billy Clinton, he was the eldest. David Hasselhoff played him. There was George Clinton, played by Mr T. He was younger then, and didn’t have the mohawk—he was a really cool dude. George had dark hair so he wore a white hat, but Billy was blond and wore a black one. That’s how you could remember which was Billy: B, B, B. And there was the younger brother—everyone forgets his name. He didn’t drive.

I mostly watched it for cousin Daisy, though. Man, she was so hot. She always wore boots, and a cowboy hat and these denim cutoffs, and a bodice, and wristbands and a lasso. She could deflect bullets with those wristbands. Lindsay Wagner played her, I think. Wait, didn’t she go on strike one season? The second Daisy wasn’t as good. Then it turned out the real Daisy had been kidnapped by alien robots and the brothers had to rescue her in starfighters. Wait a minute, I must be getting confused. That was Dr Who.

Usually the Clinton boys drove the General Kitt, this black Pontiac Firebird with an American flag on the hood. The horn would play Yankee Doodle. The General Kitt could talk too, but only to Billy. That was so funny, when he told the others that the General talked to him, and they just rolled their eyes.

Roger! That was the other brother. Dirk Benedict played him. He didn’t drive, because he was once in a terrible accident, and only came out of it barely alive. But they rebuilt him, and made him better than he was before. He had bionic vision that could see Enos coming a mile away (there were always two cops chasing the boys, Enos and Andy). But mostly he was just the mechanic; he could fix anything with a Swiss Army knife.

Anyway, the bad guy was Colonel Louis Hogg—“Boss” Hogg, they called him. He was this little short guy in a white suit, played by Danny DeVito with a white goatee. He was so evil. And his right-hand man was Rosco P. Coltrane, who was actually George Clinton’s cousin. Not many people know that. Everyone’s related out in the boonies, aren’t they? Rosco wasn’t all that bad, and sometimes he and George would jam. He was played by the guy from Magnum P.I., I forget his name.

Oh, and Uncle Jesse (George Peppard, with a white beard). He was the mastermind, who always had a plan to outwit Boss Hogg. At the end of the show, he’d always say “Ah love it when a plan comes togetha!” and drink some moonshine or play his banjo. He was really good on the banjo; once they had John Denver as a special guest star, and he and Uncle Jesse played this duet called Feudin’ Banjos (although John Denver actually played guitar, not banjo). Of course I’m sure.

My favorite episode was when Uncle Jesse had brewed up a whole mess of ’shine, and needed the boys to take it across the state line. Enos and Andy had made a fake radar gun out of a megaphone and a hairdryer, so they could “prove” the Clinton boys had been speeding. But Rosco bragged about it in front of the General Kitt, who told Billy, who led them on a wild goose chase and then called their bluff, while Daisy smuggled the ’shine in her invisible plane. But they all met up afterwards at the Hogg Farm to party: Boss Hogg handed out big buckets of fried chicken, Rosco played the sax, and everybody got funky.

Yeah, I’ll always remember that show. Why can’t they make stuff like that today?

(Duke Chronicle, March 23, 2005)

Why Grad School is Like Communism

Welcome, comrade! Congratulations on defecting to graduate school, an endless march from darkness into light toward a bountiful utopia, guided by scientific principles and strict adherence to the Five-Year Plan. Rumors that this utopia does not exist are the work of capitalist reptiles and class enemies. Heed them not! No doubt you would like some advice on how to succeed in our worker’s paradise. First, remember that everyone else is smarter and more diligent than you. Nevertheless, if you just work twice as hard as your comrades and meet all your production targets, you too will become renowned as a Good Worker, and will be happy. Probably.

Nothing matters more in graduate school than being a Good Worker. Good Workers gain the respect of their superiors, and are rewarded with research grants and meetings in California. They are also kept away from the unwashed masses of undergraduates—the proles. Although the proles provide us with our livelihood, their plebeian tastes can grate. Indeed, most of them have a poor grasp of Correct Doctrine, and some harbor capitalist sympathies. Pity them, even if they seem to be happier than you.

The great task ahead, comrade, will be adherence to the Five-Year Plan. All must be sacrificed to the success of the Glorious Five-Year Plan! (In practice, of course, the Five-Year Plan ends up being the Six-And-A-Half-Year Plan. Or the Eight-Year Plan. Did they not mention this when you defected? Oh. Well, don’t tell the other workers; it would only demoralize them.)

Being a Good Worker and meeting production targets may sound like a wearying existence. But sloth is for capitalists; it has no place in our paradise, where we happily work all the time. Thus, shirkers who indulge in effete music, intoxicating substances, or frivolous hobbies are rightfully viewed with suspicion by the Central Committee; they may be committing the thoughtcrime of Not Taking It Seriously. Why would a Good Worker waste valuable work time dining at a fancy restaurant (assuming, for the sake of argument, they could afford to)? The only acceptable food for a Good Worker is leftover noodles, eaten at one’s computer. Sometimes there is even free pizza. Who could possibly want more?

Indeed, such healthy austerity demonstrates the moral purity of graduate school. Not for us the new cars, nice clothes, adequate dental care, and living wages that are the decadent trappings of the reactionary lackeys in the professional schools. Lickspittle lawyers! Running-dog doctors! We mock the inanities of the class traitors! Remember, Good Workers selflessly help each other meet production targets, unlike these cutthroat capitalists. Their gaudy luxury is tempting, yes, yes, but adhering to the Five-Year Plan will allow us one day to equal or even exceed their standard of living! Then we shall dance on their graves. Although our dancing will be somewhat rusty.

(Note how weaklings and malcontents who defect to the capitalist lackeys are Never Spoken Of, and their names expunged from the records. Be strong!)

Ultimately, comrade, your happiness in graduate school depends on the favor of the Central Committee, also known as the Gang of Five. The Committee is your friend. Trust the Committee. Because one day you will undoubtedly be dragged before it and interrogated on your grasp of Correct Doctrine. In Room 101, you will gabble forth your knowledge of the Approved Writings for hours, undertaking frank and forthright self-criticism until you break down, hoping desperately that the Committee will find you innocent and say “Congratulations, comrade! You are a Good Worker!” Never fear; they usually do.

If you progress according to schedule in the Five-Year Plan, you may even be invited to join the Party one day. Membership has many benefits, such as fine wines and caviar; your just rewards for service to the collectivist ideal. Party members fondly remember the days when they too were Good Workers; remember to nod respectfully when they reminisce. Strangely, attaining Party membership seems to get harder every year…but not for a Good Worker like you, I’m sure!

Anyway, enough chit-chat! Why aren’t you working? Onward! Forward!

(Duke Chronicle, March 2, 2005)

Spotting Fake Critters

aanimals.jpg Astonishing Animals
Tim Flannery; illustrated by Peter Schouten
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004
ISBN: 0871138751

Why do biologists find the aliens of science fiction laughable? Because we know a little about how bizarre and inventive evolution is, and it’s a lot more imaginative than most screenwriters. The aliens on Star Trek were duller than what you could find in your own back garden. Tim Flannery, a biologist and museum director who writes regularly for the New York Review, and wildlife artist Peter Schouten collaborated on A Gap In Nature (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001), know that truth is stranger than fiction, and aim to prove it by showcasing 90-odd amazing animals.

But the brilliant twist, mentioned almost in passing by the authors, is this: one of the animals is imaginary. And not just imaginary in an obvious way, like the dull chimeras of Greek mythology. Imaginary in a cunning biological way, a perfectly plausible beast that happens through an oversight of evolution not to exist. So reading the book becomes simultaneously an exercise in skeptical puzzle-solving. As a zoologist myself, surely it wouldn’t be hard to spot the fake? Guess again. In the first pass through the book, everything looked perfectly plausible, or equally implausible. It was time to get serious.

Flannery’s an authority on the mammals of New Guinea, so he’s in the best position to invent, say, a undescribed tree-kangaroo that only inhabits a remote and imaginary valley. How about the black dorsopsis, which, we’re told, never lays the full length of its tail on the ground (only the tip), for fear of leeches? Yeah, right. Very funny, Flannery. But oops, it really does exist. Back to the drawing board.

One way to invent an animal would be to come up with a minor twist on something that already exists. Easy, but it seems like cheating. He shows four species of bizarre pipefish; would he have the gall to slip in a fifth that’s a slightly different color or shape? Nope, all the pipefish are real.

Another cheat would be to invent an analogue of a real species, but transplant it to a different continent, a cheap trick evolution pulls all the time. (Dougal Dixon relies on this in his alternative-evolution book The New Dinosaurs, and that’s what made it so disappointing.) How about the sail-tailed lizard, which looks something like the marine iguana of the Galapagos, but transplanted to Indonesia? No, that one exists.

Biologists have no real advantage here, because the world is too rich. Biological training is too specialized for someone to know lots about mammals, amphibians, birds, and fishes. At best it’s pick any three. And that’s leaving aside the invertebrates, which Flannery largely does. The whole book could have been restricted to ants alone, and would be no less amazing—are you listening, E. O. Wilson?

(Hey, Google can’t find the pygmy chameleon (Brooksia minima)! No, it’s just a typo. Brooksia is a type of plant; the chameleon is Brookesia. Damn.)

In fact, a biologist would probably find it harder to pick out imaginary animals. We know too much about how weird the world is. Something that would make a lay person boggle and say “you’re kidding, right?” is all too plausible. Sometimes science is accused of reducing the sense of wonder–actually, it shows us the world is more amazing than our limited imaginations.

(The Sulawesi naked bat would be my pick, except I happen to know it exists. “Often crawling with a large species of earwig which lives nowhere else.” True, but reality’s even stranger. It’s a flightless parasitic earwig; in fact, there are two species of them.)

The even-more-feverishly brilliant trick? Flannery might be lying. All these animals might be real. If it’s a lie, it’s a fiendishly clever one. After a while the parade of natural wonders in the book might make even the most wide-eyed and naive reader a little jaded. But adding a puzzle forces us to critically examine every entry, looking for telltale implausibilities. Having to pick just one is the killer. If we knew a handful of animals were imaginary, we could write off all the most implausible; but deciding we’re found the fake, then turning the page to see something even more far-fetched, and knowing one of the two must exist, is a little mind-blowing.

(Found it! Finally! Perfectly plausible, and in fact more plausible than the creature it’s an analogue of, with a killingly odd little factoid—like the leech-avoiding tail—added to fool us. It’s the…)

Playground Classics

lorelang.jpg The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
Iona and Peter Opie
New York Review Books, 2000 (orig. 1959)
0940322692

A remarkable study of the oral folklore of kids, some of which has been passed on for centuries, solely by word of mouth and strictly child-to-child. I recognized some of the English traditions from my own childhood in New Zealand; since this sort of stuff was never written down until the Opies got started, they were probably bought over by children emigrating from England a hundred years before. Some of the Opies’ highlights follow.


The sausage is a cunning bird
With feathers long and wavy.
It swims about the frying pan
And makes its nest in gravy.


¿Cuándo la gallina cruza la carretera?
Waarom steekt een kip de weg over?


The boy stood on the burning deck
A-melting with the heat.
His big blue eyes were full of tears;
His shoes were full of feet.


A cry of jubilation: “By gog jolly custard!”
Whilst inflicting torture: “Mummy’s little cissy!”
By one being tortured: “’Ere, nark it!”


On April 1st, known as Huntigowk Day in Scotland, one sends the unsuspecting on spurious errands; for example, to procure a long stand, or cooking glue, or a bucket of blue steam, or striped paint.


The girls of two villages “used a set of verses, too coarse to quote, in which they imputed gross unchastity to each other.”


In Northern England, one’s baby teeth, when lost, are burned with salt. If they were left unburned, a dog might find and eat them, and dog teeth would grow in their place. Or, one might have to search for them in a pail of blood in Hell. So burn those teeth.

Get Better Grades

As a TA, undergraduates often ask me how a simple letter grade is supposed to summarize their understanding of a whole field of scholarship. Just kidding! They usually ask “How did I get a B? I’ve never had a B before in my life!” Then they cry. This is why TAs keep tissues handy—we learn this in our “training” as teachers.

Your professors and TAs probably tell you things like come to class, ask questions, revise your notes the same day, lay off the crossword during lecture, brush your teeth in a circular motion, blah blah blah. But what do they know? They’re just the Man, trying to keep you down. The important points are all gained in the regrade.

Sometimes there’s an emergency and you need to e-mail your paper late; say, you “kept throwing up and had to go to the emergency room”, or your “grandfather” suddenly dies (it’s always the grandfather, for some reason). Remember, TAs can check the date created, and see whether you’d actually started it before the untimely death. Learn how to set the clock on your computer back a few days.

Request a regrade for everything. Protest that you “covered all the points listed in the answer key” (you don’t even need to have read the answer key to use this one). Quote selectively from your answer and add some helpful explanations to show what you meant all along. Bad words to use in regrade requests (and anywhere else) are “obviously”, “basically”, “of course”, and “We all know…”. TAs mentally translate them as “I’m clueless and bluffing”. Avoid.

But say the worst happens and you grade is still a B. Well, life’s effectively over now, isn’t it? Kiss Harvard Med goodbye. No naches for your parents. How did you even get into Duke, anyway? Repeat these phrases over and over; it will help when you go to the TA and cry. Yes, if you have the acting skill, regrade requests should be made in person. An air of humble, wounded optimism works best. Furrow your brow and nod a lot. Try not to ooze aggrieved privilege. I know this is hard, especially if you have a stock portfolio and your loser TA lives close to the poverty line. But being deferential is not just polite, it’s good practice for dealing with other overly powerful mediocrities in later life, like auto mechanics and police officers.

Between tears, claim your “friend” got a better grade for the same answer. In a course with multiple TAs, consistency in grading is a sore point, and they may bump you up out of guilt. Snarky TAs may point out it’s as likely that your friend got too much credit as you too little. If you have a snarky TA, consider switching sections.

Try claiming, over and over, “I don’t care about the grade—I’m just trying to understand what I did wrong.” It’s a lie, of course, and your TAs know it, and you know they know it, but if you keep saying it they’ll eventually dole out a few points to get rid of you. Success!

Finally, count your blessings. A former student of mine who shall remain nameless once wrote me, “I received a 6 out of 10, a grade I would think justifiable for someone who did not understand the assignment or gave entirely incorrect answers.” My immediate response of course was “why, yes—in Dreamland.” The real world, just to remind you, rewards folk who give “entirely incorrect answers” with a grade of zero. But Duke is more forgiving.

Here’s how it works: you get zero points if you didn’t actually do the assignment. I know, it’s unfair, what with your astronomical tuition, but them’s the breaks. Double-spaced, 1-inch margins, and your name: 1 pt. Two points for getting your TA’s name correct, or your professor’s, or the course number (3 for all three). Four for writing out the question, and 5 for rephrasing it as a statement. Add some random words and phrases from your notes, and there’s your 6 out of 10! So my anonymous student (Hi, Jessica!) was right after all.

See? It’s not so hard, as long as you come to class and revise early. Just kidding! Enjoy that crossword.

(Duke Chronicle, January 15, 2005)