Sunday, September 26, 2004

For Dummies

Who first said something or someone was too stupid for words? It's an unfortunate phrase, since as English speakers we have a lot of words at our disposal to say how stupid something might be. Whether it was coined out of a (misplaced) surplus of diplomacy or a deficit of creativity, it is hardly as cutting a comment as it might once have been. That is because we are entering The Age of Aquarius for Dummies!

I did not see The Age of Aquarius for Dummies in Barnes and Noble. I did see Chihuahuas for Dummies, and Hockey for Dummies, and RF Engineering for Dummies. If I spent a little more time browsing in Barnes and Noble and a little less time staring at the shelves in the math library or the shelves in my office, I might start to automatically associate yellow covers with the phrase For Dummies; but I have too many Springer math books with bright yellow covers, and a title like Perturbation Theory of Linear Operators for Dummies seems unlikely to yield much profit. I also flipped through an essay in The Philosophy of the Simpsons about Lisa Simpson and American Anti-Intellectualism (it was after the chapter on Homer and Aristotle).

The For Dummies series doesn't particularly bother me -- no more than the woman with the worn pump sneakers making asthmatic-pug-dog noises who dawdled up the hill in front of me this morning. It's more like mushrooms growing after a rain storm, paper mushrooms with virulent yellow covers which are fascinating to observe and perhaps, with some expert guidance to help avoid unfortunate side effects like hallucination and death, good to eat.

I passed the Dummies books by on general principle, but I did buy something from Barnes and Noble this weekend. Actually, I bought two somethings. First, I got the next book in O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin series, which I will probably put info my fiction reading queue immediately after Count Zero. Second, I bought Joel on Software, a collection of essays much like those on the web site, which is amusing for many of the same reasons most things written by Eric S. Raymond are amusing. The essays are insightful, and possibly relevant to me as a software worker... but who am I kidding? I got it because of lines about carpenters who are only allowed to use nails and they stamp them into the wood with tap-dancing shoes because nobody told them about hammers. The book is funny.

Of course, this may be the same sort of humor that led to Dave, Patxi, and I gasping with laughter over our idea of putting a T-Rex skeleton on a shake table fitting it with sensors, hiring undergrads to wrap wet towels around the joints, and trying to use this to build an experimentally verified single degree-of-freedom model for a running dinosaur. We thought it was hilarious; Winnie and Esther were mildly amused, and most of that amusement probably came from watching us laugh. But while ridiculous jokes, bad puns, and poetry about branch predictors may not be the best way to win friends and influence people, they're still a lot of fun for me and thee (assuming thou hast as quirky a sense of humor as I have).

On an unrelated note: Winnie and I walked to the Pacific East Mall in El Cerrito on Saturday in order to have some pho and look at Chinese language books (I found a book with color pictures of espresso drinks which was pretty, if incomprehensible). There I learned a valuable life lesson: soda drink with preserved plums should properly be translated as carbonated brine with brown lumps. Exploration is good, but perhaps next time we'll stick to lemonade or Thai iced tea.