Tom Lehrer, lost and found

On the subject of libraries, Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson thus: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”

What would Johnson make of the web? I think about this quote whenever I reflect on the fact that, to a fair approximation, all human knowledge is one Google search away. In other words, knowledge is of two kinds: that which we know, and that which we have the good sense to ask Google for. More succinctly, obscurity ain’t what it used to be. Obscurity is not the obscurity of the dusty book lost in the shadowy stacks. Obscurity is the obscurity of your inability to formulate a question in the first place. Once you can do that, there is no question about where to look.


This leads to a surprising conclusion. The more convenient the search, the more valuable the intrinsic knowledge. The distance between forming the question and finding the answer is vanishing. So relatively speaking, packing a lot of information into your head still pays. Take heart… that liberal arts education may pay off yet!

This all came to mind because of Tom Lehrer and my brother-in-law Joe. Joe sent me a link to some YouTube videos of Tom Lehrer performing songs of his that I know far too well. Did I want to see them? Of course I wanted to see them! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to go looking for them before. Joe’s email nudged them “closer” to me, but really they were the same distance from me all along. Everything I want to know is right there, only I don’t yet know that I want to know it yet.

Enough. Now go watch Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

Thanks Joe!

5 thoughts on “Tom Lehrer, lost and found”

  1. Wow. I, too, had never thought to go YouTubing for Tom Lehrer. Absolutely brilliant.

    Another such situation just came up today. I’ve been re-reading some old John Le Carre’ stuff for the nth time, and I thought I had finally just figured out a little plot twist* in one of his books (and, parenthetically, realized I was a complete idiot for not figuring it out the first time, but I digress). In prior decades I would have had to just live the rest of my life unsure of my deduction, but in the Age Of In(ternet)stant Gratification, I was able to type in

    “killed Bill Haydon”

    and get immediate corroboration. Outstanding.

    *for those of you who have read “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”: tee hee, a little plot TWIST

  2. Inspired by your example…

    I was driving to work on Rt 135 today and passed again a sign in front of the VFW hall for a “Meat Shoot” and wondered, again, what the heck a meat shoot is, since that VFW post does clearly not support a shooting range.

    I got in, read your post, and thought, darn it, I don’t have to wonder anymore. After about 5 minutes of searching (unsuccessfully in wikipedia), I found the following information embedded in a comment to a comment to a posting about an upcoming meat shoot somewhere in the heartland of America. I thought I’d share.

    “I’ll take a shot at giving a brief explanation.
    I have shot in a few of these shoots, this is how it works, to the best of my knowledge. If I misunderstand or misrepresent anything , it’s not intentional. Please don’t take this as the final word, but as a guide to the rules as I know them from my participation, relying on my feeble memory.
    There will be a sign up sheet for each shoot.
    There is room for 20 shooters per sign up sheet, each name corresponds with a number from 1 – 20, shooter has his (or her) choice of available numbers.
    One sign up sheet per shoot.
    The shoot begins after all positions on a sign up sheet are sold.
    Each sign up sheet will be numbered and labeled for ham, breakfast tray or money.
    (There will be another shoot in November for turkeys).
    Example: If shoot #10 is for HAM, the sign up sheet will be labeled
    SHOOT #10 HAM
    A shooter may buy as many shots as he / she wants per shoot.
    There are target cards numbered from 1 – 20 for each shoot. Each set of 20 targets is also numbered to match the number of the corresponding sign up sheet.
    The targets are hung out one at a time, and each shooter fires one shot at one target, in numerical order of the sign up sheet.
    The targets are inspected / measured by a judge , who doesn’t see the shooters names or the sign up sheet, just the 20 numbered targets, from one shoot at a time, to keep it anonymous.
    The card with a hole closest to the X in the center is the winner. It doesn’t matter how many pellets hit the card, the one closest to center is the one that counts.
    The targets will look similar to the ones in the picture below. In the example pictured, the targets would be for shoot #1, shooters #14 and #15.
    I hope I didn’t confuse anyone with this explanation.
    If you have any questions that I didn’t answer, I’ll be glad to try to answer them for you. I’ll even make phone calls for clarification if needs be.”

    The poster also included helpful photos of meat shoot targets.

  3. I remember that Meat Shoot sign!

    I can just picture Zippy the Pinhead obsessively repeating “Meat shoot! Meat shoot!”

    I nominate Mary Beth for the honor of writing the inaugural Wikipedia entry on meat shoots. Be sure and tell us when it gets there.

    I do find that I regularly have to say to myself: you know self, if you want to know the name of that old TV show, or the words to that weird song we used to sing in seventh grade, or that street that what’s-her-name lived on the summer you worked in Norfolk… if you want to know, you just have to remember to ask.

    And now, a little meat-shoot music, if you please, maestro.

  4. I’m running into the dark side of this phenomenon right now. I’m trying to find any kind of a test suite for gnu diff and gnu diff3. My attempts to form the correct query are failing. I’ve found hundreds — no, thousands — of pages that talk about test suites for *other* things that happen to use gnu diff as their verification tool, but nothing about a test suite for gnu diff itself.


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