Back in the 1980's Xerox had a rich email culture. . .but that's a story for another time. Collected here are items (unfairly biased in favor of my own submissions, because those are what I kept) sent to what began as "whimsy^.pa" in the old Grapevine distribution list naming scheme, beginning with an explanation of the list itself.

It's Not That Easy Being Whimsical

(Periodic posting by Dan Swinehart, moderator of whimsy^.pa, this one from November of 1989)

[This epistle, usually distributed about once a year, was last dispatched in April. However, there is evidence that it did not reach all of the membership. Seemed like time for another reminder. The moderator]

My dear light-hearted colleagues,

Once upon a time there was an eminent member of our community who liked a bit of good cheer with his morning mail, but who found the amount of traffic generated by the existing humor-oriented distribution lists excessive. Particularly offensive were the responses of the "that reminds me of . . ." and the "should we really be talking about this . . ." and the "that's funny, but the real problem is nuclear war, so let's hash that out right here, shall we" and the "please remove me from your list" variety. Like, you know, one hijacking is kind of interesting, but the 40 or so duplicate capers that follow are at best tedious.

Anyway, this is America, so he decided to create his own list and administer it in a sufficiently heavy-handed and tyrranical manner that the resulting contributions would be as light as air, devoid of insult and infantilism, in the best of taste, and as distinct from each other as snowflakes are supposed to be. The result (fanfare): Whimsy­, a list with RULEs.

Things were bad enough when these RULEs were enforced only by convention and social pressure. More recently, the relentless advance of technology has permitted the list's current owner to enforce them rigorously, through a process euphemistically known as "list moderation." Moderation permits the interception and evaluation of all contributions before they are forwarded to the membership. Instantly the list manager became a censor as well, and truly began enjoying himself.

Many good folks have joined the Whimsy list since the RULEs for its use were last promulgated. Here, then, to instruct the uninitiated and to remind veterans, are the current guidelines and operating philosophies for this list. If you read no other, please read Rule #5, which is a gentle attempt to correct recent common operator errors.


1. Contributions must be original. Contributions that are obviously responses to earlier ones will disappear without a trace into whimsical oblivion. Attempts at discussion, list administration, etc., will of course suffer a similar fate.

2. Contributions should be short, witty, and preferably of general interest. The basic notion is for contributors to amuse us with brief touches of humor, preferably ironical, wry, topical, or all of the above. Bon mots gathered from the daily newspapers, from high-class eastern magazines, from television shows (as long as they're on PBS), that sort of thing, are particularly valued. Bumper stickers might be OK, once in a LONG while, but please remember Rule #1. The best contributions are those that will fit entirely into a small mail-reading window. In the moderator's humble opinion, when people send in their own original witty compositions they aren't usually very whimsical. Long lists of parody definitions, especially those that require considerable technical savvy to grasp, are also frowned on.

3. Caprice is a behavior closely associated with whimsy. In recent years, armed with the cudgel of list moderation, capricious behavior on the part of the list's moderator has been on the rise. Contributions that fail to meet his arbitrary and unreasonable standards for good taste, brevity, irrelevance, or whimsicality in general, have been quietly suppressed. Actually, it would be preferable if you didn't think of it as censorship, but rather as sound editorial judgement, although you may of course think what you please. The "editor" also reserves the right to meter traffic, forward contributions out of order, correct glaring grammatical or punctuation mistakes, truncate endless message headers, etc., etc., etc.

4. Users of the Grapevine mail system may join Whimsy by adding themselves to the list Whimsy-GV­.x. Users of the XNS mail system (through Viewpoint, XDE, etc.) should add themselves to Whimsy-NS:All Areas:Xerox. Whimsy membership is open to all domestic Xerox employees, and to members of other Corporate Internet organizations by request to the owner/moderator/editor/censor.

5. Send contributions either to Whimsy­.X or Whimsy:All Areas:Xerox, whichever form makes sense to you. A message sent to Whimsy-GV­.x or Whimsy-NS:All Areas:Xerox will reach only half the list membership (a bad thing). In addition, such behavior is an egregious violation of Whimsy etiquette and might be considered grounds for immediate and capriciously-administered banishment.

yr obdt svt,
who claims the right to enforce this nonsense by virtue of direct descent from Lord Peter,
Dan Swinehart

A very French tale

(Extract from Jane Kramer's "Letter from Europe" appearing in the May 20, 1985, issue of The New Yorker)

The neighbor I call Veronique Lavali, who rents a /chambre de bonne/ on the sixth floor and is getting her doctorate in Japanese, had an odd experience at Sartre's grave. One day, she stopped by with a potted geranium, and was just walking off to the Metro when an old man in overalls tapped her on the shoulder. His manners were correct, Veronique says. He asked if she would mind stepping behind one of the big mausoleums across the road and removing her stockings. He needed her stockings, he said, but he would give her a nice new pair in exchange. Veronique says that she looked down at the stockings she had on, which were snagged from boots and had a run starting, and - being a warm-hearted Nicoise anyway, and not prudish, like the Parisians in her class - she obliged him. The old man put her stockings in his pocket, presented Veronique with a little shopping bag from the Prisunic, and hurried off down a path between a row of tombs. A few days later, Veronique was back in the cemetery studying and the same old man appeared; she took off her stockings again and got another new pair. After that, their meetings were, as Veronique puts it, 'established.' The old man was solicitous. He would ask occasionally if the stockings fit, and once he wanted to know if she preferred a change of shade. Veronique says that she used to imagine him alone with her stockings - alone in a shabby room, somewhere on the edge of Montparnasse, with Veronique Lavali's big, round Nicoise legs on his mind and her stockings for company and stimulation. The thought pleased her, in a way. It made her feel sophisticated and tolerant, and she may never really forgive the old man for telling her, at last, that what he used those stockings of hers for was cleaning tombstones. Cleaning tombstones was his job. . . .

Judges Ponder Finalists in Wisconsin License Plate Contest

(From an article in the December 8, 1985 edition of the New York Times)

Milwaukee, Dec. 7 (AP) -- Wisconsin's appeal for suggestions for new license plates generated more than 46,000 responses in less than a week, but the final five designs do not include the most novel proposals: cow-shaped tags and the slogan "Eat Cheese or Die."

Those two ideas were rejected by Gov. Anthony S. Earl's selection committee, which narrowed the field to 20. Governor Earl suggested the cheese slogan, perhaps inspired by the slogan on New Hampshire's plates: "Live Free or Die."

Wisconsin vehicles have been identified since 1979 by yellow license plates with black lettering and the slogan "America's Dairyland." But last spring, State Senator John R. Plewa proposed the contest, saying, "Ugly and boring license plates should not be accepted as a fact of life."

Among the rejected offerings were a design shaped like a milk can and one shaped like a piece of swiss cheese with the slogan "State of Udder Beauty."

Some Art

(A "Talk of the Town" piece in the February 24, 1986 issue of The New Yorker; I felt compelled at the time to mention that I found it amusing despite, rather than because of, my personal taste in art)

Ignoring people--that's a terrible thing to do. Perhaps you haven't heard of Barry Le Va. In his 1969 art work "Velocity Piece (Impact Run)," Mr. Le Va ran back and forth as fast as possible between two walls fifty feet apart, crashing into them, until he collapsed. Mr. Le Va is not one of the conceptual artists taking part in the current show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, "Choices: Making an Art of Everyday Life," but he has had an effect on the other artists, and now that you know about him he has had an effect on you. You may not exactly realize how Mr. Le Va is affecting your life, but that just shows his subtlety. Are you jittery? Mr. Le Va may be the cause.

Michael Osterhout, who /is/ in the show, used to tattoo people, but he wanted to go beyond that, conceptually. "A brand on a cow seemed like a logical choice," he writes in the show's catalogue. "I bought a cow, branded her, and arranged for her to be boarded on a friend's farm. My cow was accidentally hit and killed by a truck. I pulled prints from the steaks and eventually dried them into art objects."

Marina Abramovic and Ulay (his full name) are also taking part. They are the pair who braded their long hair together one day in Bologna, in 1977, and sat back to back for seventeen hours. "Tree," done in Wiesbaden a year later, employed a python that hadn't eaten in two weeks. "The space was warm; we stretched piano wire across the floor, which we made sounds with--vibrations for the snake," Ms. Abramovic recalls in the show's catalogue. "The snake followed me for a long time, coming very near. She put her tongue out and I put my tongue out. . . . The tension was so strong; I felt that at any moment she would jump around my neck to strangle me. . . . After four hours and fifteen minutes, for no visible reason, the snake turned and went away. And that was the end."

One would have expected Tehching Hsieh to be included in the show--he's the man who remained in a cage for a year, and who punched a time clock every hour on the hour for a year, and who tied himself to Linda Montano with a rope for a year. He is there, but in a very quiet way, because his current performance involves not looking at, making, reading about, or talking about art for twelve months. It is in that capacity that he is not there.

It is a little like what's going on with James Lee Byars. James Lee Byars is the man who during last fall's hurricane telephoned a number of people to announce that seven gold men would be smelling six museums and the /Times/ building that day. Although the museums were closed, and very few passersby witnessed the performance, it actually did happen. For this show, James Lee Byars' installation is called "The Ghost of James Lee Byars," and it is the black room you walk through at the entrance. His absence from the gallery--and this is true of most Americans and, indeed, people of other lands--is his presence. As a result, he missed all the finger food at the press opening. But art is like that.

Morgan O'Hara was there, however. She had a room all to herself--a room filled with charts and graphs recording how she has spent each moment of her life for the last fifteen years. "In 1970, I just didn't know what I was doing or why," she told us. "I was just raising a child and earning a living--perfectly adequately, but I felt like there was no purpose, no broader purpose. I thought, Maybe if I pay attention to how I spend my time I'll be able to make some sense of things. I wanted to take the tools used by modern management for business and apply them to my life." At first, she merely kept statistics. "But they weren't visual enough for my brain, so I started making the charts, and one day I just looked at them and said, 'Hey, this is conceptual art.' I just laughed and laughed." The charts use shades of red to indicate time spent creating (different shades for drawing, coloring, meditating [written or visual], looking at other people's work, recording dreams, explaining her work, and doing not

Linda Montano, the woman who was tied to Tehching Hsieh for a year, isn't joining him in his art sabbatical. In fact, she's an important part of the show. She is spending a minimum of three hours a day in a colored space (this year orange, last year red), listening to a single pitch for a minimum of seven hours a day, wearing one-color clothes, and speaking, except with her immediate family, in an accent (this year Spanish, last year French). This project will last until December 8, 1991, and, according to the catalogue, "others can collaborate in their own way, wherever they are."

Performance Appraisal Time. . .

(Cartoon by Mark Stivers in Utne Reader, mid-1986)

The scene: in a vast desert, a cowboy faces his horse.

Cowboy: "Well, you've been a pretty good hoss, I guess. Hardworkin'. Not the fastest critter I ever come acrost, but..."

Horse: "No, stupid, not feed*back*. I said I wanted a feed*bag*.


(Found at the end of a submission by Alexander Falk to the info-mac digest, reposted by Stoney Ballard in November 1987)


Most Unpleasant Metaphor of the Week

(Teri Sforza in the Santa Barbara (California) News-Press; reprinted in The New Yorker, January 1988)

"The record business. It eats people up and they disappear," said Dude McLean, a Santa Barbara-born music publisher who has managed to evade the jaws of death.

If the music industry was a sandwich, McLean would be the meat. That all-important link between two slices of bread. Santa Barbara songwriter Lorraine Bregante (whose "Love For What It Is" is the title song of Anita Pointer's new album) would be the bottom slice of bread.

Pointer, of course, would be the top slice of bread.

Grab a napkin and some Pepto Bismol. This is a trek through the bowels of the industry. A look at the process of spawning a hit record. It bears a striking resemblance to the process of digestion, but backward: from the small intestine (songwriter) to stomach (publisher) to mouth (recording artist)--and takes far, far longer.

Another One-Character Error

(Posted to the RISKS DIGEST 6.11 by Boebert@DOCKMASTER.ARPA, January 1988)

The note about the Honeywell H800 that the Air Force dropped off the loading dock brought back this memory ...

At the time of that incident, I was an EDP Officer at Hq Air Training Command. Our H800 shared a computer room with the Military Personnel Center, who had just moved the personnel records of all of the officers in the USAF onto mag tape files on a Burroughs B5000. The biggest job they ran was queries, which were written in a perverted first-order predicate calculus and asked questions like "which officers have specialty codes equal 'xxxx' and grade equal 'Captain'" and so forth. Individual records were pulled by the obvious query "which officers have Service Number equal 'xxxx'..."

The program loaded a batch of queries into the B5000 and then passed the whole tape file against it, printing "hits" on line, giving a distinctive rhythm to the job:


One Sunday I came in to play our favorite computer game (called "Beat the H800 Compiler" or "You Bet Your Project") and noticed that the B5000 next door was going:


so I went over and pulled rank on the airman who was running the job. Examination of the input showed that somebody had tried to select a specific record, but through clerical error had inserted a "not" sign before the "equal." Had I not intervened, this would have produced a truckload of paper containing every officer personnel record in the Air Force, except, of course, the one they were looking for.

Trojan horsing around with bank statements

(Posted to the RISKS DIGEST 6.26 by Peter Neumann, February 1988)

My Wells Fargo EquityLine statement of 2 Feb 88 had the following message at the bottom:


It took until 11 Feb for Wells Fargo to send out the following letter:

I wish to extend my personal apology for a message printed on your EquityLine statement dated February 2, 1988.

This message was not a legitimate one. It was developed as part of a test program by a staff member, whose sense of humor was somewhat misplaced, and it was inadvertently inserted in that day's statement mailing. The message in no way conveys the opinion of Wells Fargo Bank or its employees. You may be assured that the financial information on the statement was correct, and the confidentiality of your individual account information has been maintained. [...]

[James G. Jones, Executive Vice President, South Bay Service Center]

Son of "Most Unpleasant Metaphor of the Week"

(From Martin Sosnoff's column in the New York Post, as reprinted in The New Yorker, March 1988)

Thank God for the cathartic qualities of financial markets. Sooner or later, if you need an enema, the market is going to hold up the rubber bag for you.

Left Coast Life: Three Vignettes

(From, respectively, the June 6, 1988 issue of The New Yorker; the June 9, 1988 issue of the Rochester, NY, Democrat and Chronicle; and the June 13, 1988 issue of The New Yorker)

Life In California

[From the Los Angeles Times]

Through June 30 the UN Plaza Hotel is offering a special package for $45 for single or double occupancy for deluxe rooms, including a free Big Mac and french fries from McDonald's and a split of California champagne.

Five Bodies In Car Don't Qualify For Car Pool Lane

[The Associated Press]

Santa Ana, Calif. - A man was fined $58 after failing to persuade a judge that the four frozen corpses in his van qualified him to use a car pool lane.

Robert Hanshew, 25, who transports cadavers for a mortuary transportation service, was stopped March 21 on a freeway entrance ramp. Only vehicles with at least two people inside can use the car pool lanes.

Hanshew told an officer that he believed the bodies in his van qualified as passengers, but his reasoning wasn't shared Tuesday by Municipal Judge Richard Stanford Jr., who ruled that passengers must be alive to qualify.

Constabulary Notes From All Over

[From the Oakland (Calif.) Montclarion]

April 20: A citizen reported that a red-haired man in a dark coat in the vicinity of Somerset Road wanted money for nuclear weapons. Police contacted the man and advised him that he needed a permit.

OK, which side *should* I tip up?

Sticker printed for, but replaced before actual use in, labelling developer housings being shipped to new owners of a copier whose manufacturer will remain nameless:



Raised Eyebrows Department

(From /American Heritage/, reprinted as a filler in the October 24, 1988 issue of The New Yorker)

After several years of dogged experimentation, Chester Carlson of New York produced the first xerographic copy at his laboratory in Astoria, Queens, on October 22. The ordinary-looking piece of waxed paper simply read "10-22-38 Astoria," but it represented a technological breakthrough that would at last satisfy the reproductive urges of office workers everywhere.

Reductio ad absurdum*

In response to the new Florida "English only" law, which bars expenditure of public funds for the purpose of extending services in languages other than English, the Dade County Zoo has ceased printing the Latin names of animals on the signs in front of cages.

*No public funds were expended in support of this Subject entry

Faith in conservation of energy

Michael Scott, who became the first president of Apple Computer in 1977 and semiretired in 1981 after Apple went public, graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1965. His class was taught freshman and sophomore physics by the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, which course was the basis of the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics. In pledging $1.5 million to endow the Richard P. Feynman Professorship at Caltech, and stipulating that the selection process for this chair include special consideration of the teaching ability of the recipient, Scott recounted the first class meeting in the Bridge Laboratory lecture hall:

"There were 183 of us freshmen, and a bowling ball hanging from the three-story ceiling to just above the floor. Feynman walked in and, without a word, grabbed the ball and backed against the wall with the ball touching his nose. He let go, and the ball swung slowly 60 feet across the room and back - stopping naturally just short of crushing his face. Then he took the ball again, stepped forward, and said: "I wanted to show you that I believe in what I'm going to teach you over the next two years."

Les somehow manages to tell all the best computer stories

(From the RISKS digest, 1 April 1989 (but not, I think, a joke))

Date: 30 Mar 89 2155 PST
From: Les Earnest
Subject: Hackers dictionary in Japanese?

I received an off-the-wall phone call last night from an editor who is overseeing the translation of the Hackers Dictionary into Japanese. That amusing compilation was put together a decade or so ago by A.I. grad students at Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie-Mellon and recorded the then-current vernacular of their shared cultures. They did it for fun, but it somehow ended up getting published.

The Hackers' Dictionary contains more than a few puns, jokes, and other things that are hard to translate such as "moby," as in "moby memory", or "fubar" and its regional variants "foo bar" and "foo baz". While a Japanese version of this dictionary might be of some limited value to a person who comes to the U.S. for an extended visit, there are clearly some risks involved in attempting such a translation.

The particular problem that prompted the call was the definition of "logical." Apparently the dictionary gives as an example a statement something like "If Les Earnest left and was replaced by another person, the latter would be known as the logical Les Earnest." This had been written when I was the principal bureaucrat of the Stanford A.I. Lab. and was apparently intended to describe some set of responsibilities that could be transferred from one person to another.

The editor reported that the Japanese translator had been hopelessly confused by this example; he found "earnest" in the dictionary but was unable to figure out what a "Les Earnest" was. The editor had tried to explain it to him but was unable to get the idea across. He finally called me to find out what my official job title had been, so that he could describe the example in more generic terms.

I hope that they manage to work it out, but I am not willing to bet that the Japanese Hackers Dictionary will be fully comprehensible.

Les Earnest

A creditable story

(Posted to RISKS DIGEST 8.48 on March 28, 1989)

Regarding Mike Trout's query:

>But on a more important topic, is there any empirical
>evidence to suggest that credit card fraud could be significantly reduced by
>facial images, either true photographs or digitized images?

Several years ago I was told by the late Charles Read, who at the time was Director of the Inter-Bank Research Organisation, here in the UK, that they had run an experiment on the use of photographs on credit cards, as an aid to reducing fraud. He told me that: "We sent out a dozen people, each with a credit card bearing the same photograph of the same gorilla, and on average they succeeded in passing the card eight times!" (I found the phrase "the same photograph of the same gorilla" particularly memorable, and have often wondered what the results would have been if they had used different gorillas!)

Brian Randell, Computing Laboratory, University of Newcastle upon Tyne


(From the Wall Street Journal of June 2, 1989; posted to the Usenet sci.military list by cup.portal.com)

"Stenciled on the metal box that carries the nuclear warhead for the Lance missile: 'Reusable Container. Do Not Destroy.'"

MBA = Morals Be Absent?

(From Molly Ivins' column in the December, 1989 issue of The Progressive)

"As part of [Harvard Business School dean John] McArthur's effort to weed out people interested only in lucre, the admissions process now includes thirteen questions and nine essays, rather than a standardized test, and takes hours to complete. To make the cut, students must answer a few questions about ethics.

"For example, they are asked to explain, in the application, how they managed an ethical dilemma they have experienced. But according to Laura Gordon Fisher, the school's admissions director, many students say they have never encountered an ethical dilemma.

"'It's amazing how many people admit they've never experienced a moral dilemma,' said Fisher. 'Some applicants want to know if they should fabricate one.'"

The Dedicated Wrong-number Caller

(From the Telecom news group; contributed by John Higdon of San Jose. What I want to know is that if it was a wrong number, why did he answer it in the first place? [Reposted by Dan Swinehart])

There is a particular breed of telephone user that I would greatly like to see exterminated. It is the Dedicated Wrong Number Caller. This pest will call and ask to speak to someone who does not reside at your number (say "Sue"). You say, "I'm sorry there is no 'Sue' at this number." The caller hangs up. Phone rings again. Same caller. You say, "What number are you trying to reach?"

Caller recites your number. You say, "You must have gotten a wrong number since there is no 'Sue' here." Caller hangs up. Phone rings again. Caller says, "May I speak to Sue, it's very important." This time, losing your patience, you invite the caller to not call again. Caller asks how long you have had this number. More than twenty years. Caller hangs up.

Then, apparently in the belief that if the matter is laid to rest for about twenty minutes everything will straighten itself out, the caller tries again, this time with a Pac*Bell operator in tow. Phone is answered and the voice on the other end says, "This is the Pacific Bell operator. Have I reached 723-XXXX?"

"Yes, you have."

"Is there a Sue at this number?"

"No, there isn't and never has been."

"Did you recently get this number?"

"I have had this number since the exchange was created. In other words no one has ever had this number other than myself."

Operator to caller, "I'm sorry, the party you are trying to reach does not seem to be at this number." Disconnect.

Just when you think that it's over, you get a call from Pac*Bell repair asking what sort of trouble you are having on the line. A caller reported the line out of order because he kept getting the wrong party for the number he was dialing!

May 29 1998