Hunting an Elephant

E. Linacre


MATHEMATICIANS hunt elephants by going to Africa, throwing out everything that is not an elephant, and catching one of whatever is left.

EXPERIENCED MATHEMATICIANS will attempt to prove the existence of at least one unique elephant before proceeding to step 1 as a subordinate exercise.

PROFESSORS OF MATHEMATICS will prove the existence of at least one unique elephant and then leave the detection and capture of an actual elephant as an exercise for their graduate students.

COMPUTER SCIENTISTS hunt elephants by exercising Algorithm A:

  1. Go to Africa.
  2. Start at the Cape of Good Hope.
  3. Work northward in an orderly manner, traversing the continent alternately east and west.
  4. During each traverse pass:

a. Catch each animal seen.

b. Compare each animal caught to a known elephant.

c. Stop when a match is detected.


EXPERIENCED COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS modify Algorithm A by placing a known elephant in Cairo to ensure that the algorithm will terminate.

DATABASE ADMINISTRATORS do not need to go out and capture elephants when they can retrieve them simply with an ad hoc query:

select * from african_critters, where

critter_type = 'terrestrial' and size = 'large' and colour = 'grey' and trunk = 'yes' and odour is not null;


ENGINEERS hunt elephants by going to Africa, catching grey animals at random, and stopping when any one of them weighs within plus or minus 15 percent of any previously observed elephant.

SYSTEMS INTEGRATION ENGINEERS are not so concerned with hunting elephants as with creating a seamless interface between the elephants and their environment.

ECONOMISTS don't hunt elephants, but they believe that if elephants are paid enough, they will hunt themselves.

STATISTICIANS hunt the first animal they see N times and, if their size significantly exceeds a threshold, call it an elephant.

CONSULTANTS don't hunt elephants, and many have never hunted anything at all, but they can be hired by the hour to advise those people who do.

OPERATIONS RESEARCH CONSULTANTS can also measure the correlation of hatsize and bullet colour to the efficiency of elephant-hunting strategies, if someone else will only identify the elephants.

POLITICIANS don't hunt elephants, but they will share the elephants you catch with the people who voted for them.

LAWYERS don't hunt elephants, but they do follow the herds around arguing about who owns the droppings.

SOFTWARE LAWYERS will claim that they own an entire herd based on the look and feel of one dropping.

VICE PRESIDENTS OF ENGINEERING, RESEARCH, AND DEVELOPMENT try hard to hunt elephants, but their staffs are designed to prevent it. When the vice president does get to hunt elephants, the staff will try to ensure that all possible elephants are completely pre-hunted before the vice president sees them. If the vice president does see a non-pre-hunted elephant, (in other words, a live one) the staff will:

  1. Compliment the vice president's keen eyesight
  2. Enlarge itself to prevent any recurrence

SENIOR MANAGERS set broad elephant-hunting policy based on the assumption that elephants are just like field mice, but with deeper voices.

QUALITY ASSURANCE INSPECTORS ignore the elephants and look for mistakes the other hunters made when they were packing the jeep.

SALES PEOPLE don't hunt elephants but spend their time selling elephants they haven't caught, for delivery two days before the season opens.

SOFTWARE SALES PEOPLE ship the first thing they catch and write up an invoice for an elephant.

HARDWARE SALES PEOPLE catch rabbits, paint them grey, and sell them as desktop elephants.

CLIMATOLOGISTS set up a network of elephant observers and collect daily records of sightings for 30 years. The data are then analysed to determine areas and times of high elephant density, also trends and correlations with many other factors, all displayed on pretty charts. By the time this is done and they are ready to send out the hunters, the elephants have become extinct.

METEOROLOGISTS can now simulate tomorrow's movement of any elephant larger than 100 kilometres, given today's satellite observations of the elephant positions. Current research aims to enable prediction of elephants as small as a few kilometers, using novel high-tech data and enormous computers, though these gadgets are beyond the means of many elephant hunters and are unsuitable for safari. So hunters ignore the forecasts and go hunting anyway.