We’re Not Really Related

June 18, 1999

You may recall my Uncle Rupert’s failed attempt to drive to Europe, but you may not know why exactly he set out on such a journey. At the time, there was a little skirmish going on known as World War II, and Uncle Rupert was kept out of military service by his flat feet, his twisted kneecap, and his wooden eye. He decided that if he couldn’t be a participant, he’d be a spectator. However, he had a lot of time to think on his trip, and realized that, if he could drive to Europe, the Germans, the Russians, the French, and other miscellaneous foreigners could just as easily drive over and do whatever it was we were doing to them.

For his and Vita’s protection, he purchased, by mail-order, a Reynolds Air-Powered Repeating Long-Barreled Core-Drilled Rifle (some assembly required). Equipped with Uncle Rupert’s own hair-trigger design, this top-of-the-line firearm sat in the corner of the kitchen gathering dust for about thirty years until the fateful day when, over the house, swooping in dangerously close, Uncle Rupert spotted…a great blue heron. Having seen pictures of this bird in the National Geographics in Doc Emmett’s office (specially abridged to remove objectionable native costumes, or lack thereof) Rupert knew it was beautiful, rare, and endangered. Therefore, he would later explain to the sheriff, he thought it’d be the perfect thing to stuff, mount, and put above the fireplace. He grabbed his rifle, and fired. Now, if you’ve ever used a high-power firearm, you know about a phenomenon known as kick. On hunting trips, Rupert usually held the spotlight while his brother held the gun, so he wasn’t quite prepared for the gun’s power. He managed to take out the heron, three windows, and a pot of japonicas before landing finally on the porch. Unfortunately the heron was in no condition to be stuffed, but if you ever visit Rupert ask him about the gun. He’ll proudly show you the pictures of its handsome display case, currently in the possession of the FBI.

Enjoy this week’s offerings.

A new computer "virus" is spreading throughout the Internet, and it is far more insidious than the recent Chernobyl menace. Named Strunkenwhite after the authors of a classic guide to good writing, it returns e-mail messages that have grammatical or spelling errors. It is deadly accurate in its detection abilities, unlike the dubious spell checkers that come with word processing programs.

The virus is causing something akin to panic throughout corporate America, which has become used to the typos, misspellings, missing words and mangled syntax so acceptable in cyberspace.

The CEO of LoseItAll.com, an Internet startup, said the virus has rendered him helpless. "Each time I tried to send one particular e-mail this morning, I got back this error message: ‘Your dependent clause preceding your independent clause must be set off by commas, but one must not precede the conjunction.’ I threw my laptop across the room."

A top executive at a telecommunications and long-distance company, 10-10-10-10-10-10-123, said: "This morning, the same e-mail kept coming back to me with a pesky notation claiming I needed to use a pronoun’s possessive case before a gerund. With the number of e-mails I crank out each day, who has time for proper grammar? Whoever created this virus should have their programming fingers broken."

A broker at Begg, Barow and Steel said he couldn’t return to the "bad, old" days when he had to send paper memos in proper English. He speculated that the hacker who created Strunkenwhite was a "disgruntled English major who couldn’t make it on a trading floor. When you’re buying and selling on margin, I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I write that ‘i meetinged through the morning, then cinched the deal on the cel phone while bareling down the xway.’"

If Strunkenwhite makes e-mailing impossible, it could mean the end to a communication revolution once hailed as a significant timesaver. A study of 1,254 office workers in Leonia, N.J., found that e-mail increased employees’ productivity by 1.8 hours a day because they took less time to formulate their thoughts. (The same study also found that they lost 2.2 hours of productivity because they were e-mailing so many jokes to their spouses, parents and stockbrokers.)

Strunkenwhite is particularly difficult to detect because it doesn’t come as an e-mail attachment (which requires the recipient to open it before it becomes active). Instead, it is disguised within the text of an e-mail entitled "Congratulations on your pay raise." The message asks the recipient to "click here to find out about how your raise effects your pension." The use of "effects" rather than the grammatically correct "affects" appears to be an inside joke from Strunkenwhite’s mischievous creator.

The virus also has left government e-mail systems in disarray. Officials at the Office of Management and Budget can no longer transmit electronic versions of federal regulations because their highly technical language seems to run afoul of Strunkenwhite’s dictum that "vigorous writing is concise." The White House speechwriting office reported that it had received the same message, along with a caution to avoid phrases such as "the truth is. . ." and "in fact. . . ."

Home computer users also are reporting snafus, although an e-mailer who used the word "snafu" said she had come to regret it. The virus can have an even more devastating impact if it infects an entire network. A cable news operation was forced to shut down its computer system for several hours when it discovered that Strunkenwhite had somehow infiltrated its TelePrompTer software, delaying newscasts and leaving news anchors nearly tongue-tied as they wrestled with proper sentence structure.

There is concern among law enforcement officials that Strunkenwhite is a harbinger of the increasingly sophisticated methods hackers are using to exploit the vulnerability of business’s reliance on computers. "This is one of the most complex and invasive examples of computer code we have ever encountered. We just can’t imagine what kind of devious mind would want to tamper with e-mails to create this burden on communications," said an FBI agent who insisted on speaking via the telephone out of concern that trying to e-mail his comments could leave him tied up for hours.

Meanwhile, bookstores and online booksellers reported a surge in orders for Strunk & White’s "The Elements of Style."

Rejected Hallmark Cards:

So your daughter’s a hooker,
and it spoiled your day..
Look at the bright side,
she’s a really good lay.

My tire was thumping..
I thought it was flat..
when I looked at the tire..
I noticed your cat.. Sorry.

You had your bladder removed
and you’re on the mends..
here’s a bouquet of flowers
and a box of Depends.

You’ve announced that you’re gay,
won’t that be a laugh,
when they find out you’re one
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Happy Vasectomy!
Hope you feel zippy!
‘Cause when I had mine,
I got real snippy.

Heard your wife left you..
How upset you must be..
But don’t fret about it..
She moved in with me.

Your computer is dead..
it was once so great
Don’t you regret installing
Windows 98?

You totaled your car..
and can’t remember why..
could it have been..
that case of Bud Dry?

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