Supposedly True thingies


Excellent enhancement to an old theme

A magazine held a competition, inviting its readers to submit new scientific theories on ANY subject. Below is the winner:

Subject: Perpetual Motion

When a cat is dropped, it always lands on its feet, and when toast is dropped, it always lands buttered side down. Therefore, if a slice of toast is strapped to a cat's back, buttered side up, and the animal is then dropped, the two opposing forces will cause it to hover, spinning inches above the ground. If enough toast laden felines were used, they could form the basis of a high-speed monorail system.

......... and then this mail got this reply from one of the readers:

I've been thinking about this cat/toast business for a while. In the buttered toast case, it's the butter that causes it to land buttered side down it doesn't have to be toast, the theory works equally well with Jacob's crackers. So to save money you just miss out the toast and butter the cats. Also, should there be an imbalance between the effects of cat and butter, there are other substances that have a stronger affinity for carpet.

Probability of carpet impact is determined by the following simple formula: p = s * t(t)/t(c)

where p is the probability of carpet impact

s is the "stain" value of the toast covering substance an indicator of the effectiveness of the toast topping in permanently staining the carpet. Chicken Tikka Masala, for example, has a very high s value, while the s value of water is zero.

t(c) and t(t) indicate the tone of the carpet and topping the value of p being strongly related to the relationship between the colour of the carpet and topping, as even chicken tikka masala won't cause a permanent and obvious stain if the carpet is the same colour.

So it is obvious that the probability of carpet impact is maximized if you use chicken tikka masala and a white carpet in fact this combination gives a p value of one, which is the same as the probability of a cat landing on its feet.

Therefore a cat with chicken tikka masala on its back will be certain to hover in mid air, while there could be problems with buttered toast as the toast may fall off the cat, causing a terrible monorail crash resulting in nauseating images of members of the royal family visiting accident victims in hospital, and politicians saying it wouldn't have happened if their party was in power as there would have been more investment in cattoast glue research. Therefore it is in the interests, not only of public safety but also public sanity, if the buttered-toaston-cats idea is scrapped, to be replaced by a monorail powered by cats smeared with chicken tikka masala floating above a rail made from white shag pile carpet.


The case of the 500 mile email

For the techies amongst you ...

This was posted to debian-user.

Here's a problem that *sounded* impossible... I almost regret posting the story to a wide audience, because it makes a great tale over drinks at a conference. :-) The story is slightly altered in order to protect the guilty, elide over irrelevant and boring details, and generally make the whole thing more entertaining.

I was working in a job running the campus email system some years ago when I got a call from the chairman of the statistics department.

"We're having a problem sending email out of the department."

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"We can't send mail more than 500 miles," the chairman explained.

I choked on my latte. "Come again?"

"We can't send mail farther than 500 miles from here," he repeated. "A little bit more, actually. Call it 520 miles. But no farther."

"Um... Email really doesn't work that way, generally," I said, trying to keep panic out of my voice. One doesn't display panic when speaking to a department chairman, even of a relatively impoverished department like statistics. "What makes you think you can't send mail more than 500 miles?"

"It's not what I *think*," the chairman replied testily. "You see, when we first noticed this happening, a few days ago--"

"You waited a few DAYS?" I interrupted, a tremor tinging my voice. "And you couldn't send email this whole time?"

"We could send email. Just not more than--"

"--500 miles, yes," I finished for him, "I got that. But why didn't you call earlier?"

"Well, we hadn't collected enough data to be sure of what was going on until just now." Right. This is the chairman of *statistics*. "Anyway, I asked one of the geostatisticians to look into it--"

"Geostatisticians..."

"--yes, and she's produced a map showing the radius within which we can send email to be slightly more than 500 miles. There are a number of destinations within that radius that we can't reach, either, or reach sporadically, but we can never email farther than this radius."

"I see," I said, and put my head in my hands. "When did this start? A few days ago, you said, but did anything change in your systems at that time?"

"Well, the consultant came in and patched our server and rebooted it. But I called him, and he said he didn't touch the mail system."

"Okay, let me take a look, and I'll call you back," I said, scarcely believing that I was playing along. It wasn't April Fool's Day. I tried to remember if someone owed me a practical joke.

I logged into their department's server, and sent a few test mails. This was in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, and a test mail to my own account was delivered without a hitch. Ditto for one sent to Richmond, and Atlanta, and Washington. Another to Princeton (400 miles) worked.

But then I tried to send an email to Memphis (600 miles). It failed. Boston, failed. Detroit, failed. I got out my address book and started trying to narrow this down. New York (420 miles) worked, but Providence (580 miles) failed.

I was beginning to wonder if I had lost my sanity. I tried emailing a friend who lived in North Carolina, but whose ISP was in Seattle. Thankfully, it failed. If the problem had had to do with the geography of the human recipient and not his mail server, I think I would have broken down in tears.

Having established that--unbelievably--the problem as reported was true, and repeatable, I took a look at the sendmail.cf file. It looked fairly normal. In fact, it looked familiar.

I diffed it against the sendmail.cf in my home directory. It hadn't been altered--it was a sendmail.cf I had written. And I was fairly certain I hadn't enabled the "FAIL_MAIL_OVER_500_MILES" option. At a loss, I telnetted into the SMTP port. The server happily responded with a SunOS sendmail banner.

Wait a minute... a SunOS sendmail banner? At the time, Sun was still shipping Sendmail 5 with its operating system, even though Sendmail 8 was fairly mature. Being a good system administrator, I had standardized on Sendmail 8. And also being a good system administrator, I had written a sendmail.cf that used the nice long self-documenting option and variable names available in Sendmail 8 rather than the cryptic punctuation-mark codes that had been used in Sendmail 5.

The pieces fell into place, all at once, and I again choked on the dregs of my now-cold latte. When the consultant had "patched the server," he had apparently upgraded the version of SunOS, and in so doing *downgraded* Sendmail. The upgrade helpfully left the sendmail.cf alone, even though it was now the wrong version.

It so happens that Sendmail 5--at least, the version that Sun shipped, which had some tweaks--could deal with the Sendmail 8 sendmail.cf, as most of the rules had at that point remained unaltered. But the new long configuration options--those it saw as junk, and skipped. And the sendmail binary had no defaults compiled in for most of these, so, finding no suitable settings in the sendmail.cf file, they were set to zero.

One of the settings that was set to zero was the timeout to connect to the remote SMTP server. Some experimentation established that on this particular machine with its typical load, a zero timeout would abort a connect call in slightly over three milliseconds.

An odd feature of our campus network at the time was that it was 100% switched. An outgoing packet wouldn't incur a router delay until hitting the POP and reaching a router on the far side. So time to connect to a lightly-loaded remote host on a nearby network would actually largely be governed by the speed of light distance to the destination rather than by incidental router delays.

Feeling slightly giddy, I typed into my shell:

$ units
1311 units, 63 prefixes

You have: 3 millilightseconds
You want: miles
        * 558.84719
        / 0.0017893979

"500 miles, or a little bit more."

Super Gran

(allegedly) true story reported on the news in the US ...

An elderly Florida lady did her shopping, and upon returning to her car, found four males in the act of leaving with her vehicle.

She dropped her shopping bags and drew her handgun, proceeding to scream at the top of her voice: " I have a gun, and I know how to use it! Get out of the car!" The four men didn't wait for a second invitation.

They got out and ran like mad. The lady, somewhat shaken, then proceeded to load her shopping bags into the back seat of the car and get into the driver's seat. She was so shaken that she could not get her key into the ignition. She tried and tried, and then it dawned on her why.

A few minutes later she found her own car parked four or five spaces farther down. She loaded her bags into the car and then drove to the police station.

The sergeant to whom she told the story doubled over on the floor with laughter. He pointed to the other end of the counter, where four pale men were reporting a car jacking by a mad, elderly woman described as white, less than five feet tall, glasses, curly white hair, and carrying a large handgun. No charges were filed.


High court hang-ups

"Why did you steal 40,000 hotel coat hangers, knowing that hotel coat hangers are designed to be useless outside hotel wardrobes?"
Miles Kington
15 October 2002

A most extraordinary trial is going on in the High Court at the moment in which a man named Chrysler is accused of stealing more than 40,000 coat hangers from hotels round the world. He admits his guilt, but in his defence he claims that well, perhaps it would be simpler just to bring you a brief extract from the trial. We join the case at the point where Chrysler has just taken the stand.

Counsel: What is your name?

Chrysler: Chrysler. Arnold Chrysler.

Counsel: Is that your own name?

Chrysler: Whose name do you think it is?

Counsel: I am just asking if it is your name.

Chrysler: And I have just told you it is. Why do you doubt it?

Counsel: It is not unknown for people to give a false name in court.

Chrysler: Which court?

Counsel: This court.

Chrysler: What is the name of this court?

Counsel: This is No 5 Court.

Chrysler: No, that is the number of this court. What is the name of this court?

Counsel: It is quite immaterial what the name of this court is!

Chrysler: Then perhaps it is immaterial if Chrysler is really my name.

Counsel: No, not really, you see because...

Judge: Mr Lovelace?

Counsel: Yes, m'lud?

Judge: I think Mr Chrysler is running rings round you already. I would try a new line of attack if I were you.

Counsel: Thank you, m'lud.

Chrysler: And thank you from ME, m'lud. It's nice to be appreciated.

Judge: Shut up, witness.

Chrysler: Willingly, m'lud. It is a pleasure to be told to shut up by you. For you, I would...

Judge: Shut up, witness. Carry on, Mr Lovelace.

Counsel: Now, Mr Chrysler for let us assume that that is your name you are accused of purloining in excess of 40,000 hotel coat hangers.

Chrysler: I am.

Counsel: Can you explain how this came about?

Chrysler: Yes. I had 40,000 coats which I needed to hang up.

Counsel: Is that true?

Chrysler: No.

Counsel: Then why did you say it?

Chrysler: To attempt to throw you off balance.

Counsel: Off balance?

Chrysler: Certainly. As you know, all barristers seek to undermine the confidence of any hostile witness, or defendant. Therefore it must be equally open to the witness, or defendant, to try to shake the confidence of a hostile barrister.

Counsel: On the contrary, you are not here to indulge in cut and thrust with me. You are only here to answer my questions.

Chrysler: Was that a question?

Counsel: No.

Chrysler: Then I can't answer it.

Judge: Come on, Mr Lovelace! I think you are still being given the run-around here. You can do better than that. At least, for the sake of the English bar, I hope you can.

Counsel: Yes, m'lud. Now, Mr Chrysler, perhaps you will describe what reason you had to steal 40,000 coat hangers?

Chrysler: Is that a question?

Counsel: Yes.

Chrysler: It doesn't sound like one. It sounds like a proposition which doesn't believe in itself. You know "Perhaps I will describe the reason I had to steal 40,000 coat hangers... Perhaps I won't... Perhaps I'll sing a little song instead..."

Judge: In fairness to Mr Lovelace, Mr Chrysler, I should remind you that barristers have an innate reluctance to frame a question as a question. Where you and I would say, "Where were you on Tuesday?", they are more likely to say, "Perhaps you could now inform the court of your precise whereabouts on the day after that Monday?". It isn't, strictly, a question, and it is not graceful English but you must pretend that it is a question and then answer it, otherwise we will be here for ever. Do you understand?

Chrysler: Yes, m'lud.

Judge: Carry on, Mr Lovelace.

Counsel: Mr Chrysler, why did you steal 40,000 hotel coat hangers, knowing as you must have that hotel coat hangers are designed to be useless outside hotel wardrobes?

Chrysler: Because I build and sell wardrobes which are specially designed to take nothing but hotel coat hangers.

Sensation in court. More of this tomorrow, I hope

Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=342639