In Defense of Gussie Fink-Nottle

For those who may have forgotten, Gussie Fink-Nottle is a character in the Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse. He is the series’s stereotypical nerd: socially inept, a teetotaler, and physically unimpressive. His most memorable trait, however, is his fascination with newts.

Clearly Wodehouse tried to find the least interesting subject he could think of, to allow his character to easily bore all the other characters to tears by going on at length about his pathetic pet subject.

I don’t remember his early life ever being discussed in any detail, but I imagine that, as a weakling, he was never any good at sports and thus never developed an interest in them. Unable to hold his liquor, he never got into the habit of meeting with the chaps over drinks and experiencing the sorts of things that only seem to happen during alcohol-fueled debaucheries. His social ineptitude meant that he never became a lothario. Eventually, he was forced to become interested in that most uninteresting of subjects, newts.

But I would look at it from another angle: there is an infinite number of subjects in the world. What is it about newts that’s so interesting that Gussie would choose to devote his life to them?

Stephen Jay Gould, as I recall, did his graduate research on snails. Carl Sagan was interested in points of light in the sky. Bertrand Russell worked on breaking down existing mathematical proofs into longer chains of simpler steps. In each case, they found something interesting in what might appear to be an unintersting subject.

Likewise, I sometimes wonder what makes people want to go into professions like accounting or proctology. It can’t just be the money, can it? Presumably there’s something there that I don’t see, some hidden bit of beauty that I haven’t seen or had explained to me.

I don’t want to think, “Wow, what a loser, for being interested in something as boring as newts.” Rather, I want to ask, “What is it about newts that’s so interesting?”

XKCD: Beauty

Answering XKCD

The answer the character is looking for is

osascript -e "set volume output volume 100"

Of course, much like the character in the original strip, I first tried ssh-ing in to the laptop where I have this defined as an alias (nope; it’s asleep), ssh-ing in to the other Mac to see if I’d copied the alias to all Macs (that one’s asleep too), looking through backups (nope; laptop backs up to a directly-attached disk (see “it’s asleep”, above), and the other Mac’s backups came up empty), grepping through my home wiki and other notes to see if I had written this down anywhere (bupkis).

I had to wait until I came home and had physical access to the laptop to wake it up and read my .cshrc.