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February 23, 2008

What's So Funny About That? Part I

By: Bernard Chazelle

I remember a story in the news when I lived in France that got me laughing hysterically.
Because there was absolutely nothing funny about it whatsoever, I knew then that I was just one mean bastard in training.

I can't find the story on the intertubes, but there was this guy with an old beat-up 2CV (that's a car - if you can call it that - see pic below). He attempted to cross a train track but his car stalled. Of course, a freight train was just waiting for this moment to happen and came barreling down the track, crashing into the poor 2CV. No one was hurt.

But that's not the funny part.The train derailed, plunged into a ravine, and emptied trillions of gallons of a dangerous chemical into a river, which then spread all across Southern France, killing fish, vegetation, and the livelihood of thousands. Cleaning up the mess cost hundreds of millions of (today's) dollars.

That's still not the funny part. No, the funny part is that the 2CV owner was a teacher. And teachers in France enjoy one privilege (actually exactly 1): they have their own insurance company and their premiums are absurdly low, like 25 cents a year. It's the fraction "hundreds of millions of dollars"/"0.25 dollars" that got me laughing. (When you're a math type, ratios can be hilarious.)

Recently, the teacher's heir in the Rube Goldberg catastrophe department, a middle rank trader for a big French bank, "lost" 7 billion dollars by trying too hard to become a top rank trader. Sarkozy briefly emerged from the embrace of his supermodel of a wife to say: "His boss is one the highest paid dudes in France, and he doesn't know shit what's going on in his bank. Can we fire that moron?" (That's how they speak in the Elysee palace now.)

That was funny, too. But not as funny as my next post. So stay tuned.


— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at February 23, 2008 09:08 PM

I thought that story was hilarious through and through.

I imagine a Benny Hill soundtrack accompanying a video loop of the train derailing.

Posted by: Sam Mc at February 24, 2008 03:59 AM

I too think ratios are funny, Bernard - especially inverse ratios, every last one of them - but would you clarify for me? Did the teacher's insurance pay for the cleanup?

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at February 24, 2008 08:07 AM

I recall that car. A Citroen of some sort, and to my recollection, somewhat of a deathtrap (or maybe I rode in a cheap knockoff). It felt like flimsy sheetmetal that would form around your body in an impact (your body being the most solid part of the assembly.)

What was the draw of that car in the safety vs. price marketing? I've always considered the French somewhat intellectually hoity-toity, but that car flies in the face of that.

Posted by: at February 24, 2008 09:06 AM

aaron: The teachers' insurance company had only (25 cents)*(# teachers) = not quite enough.
So, as usual in such cases, Lloyd's of London paid for everything.

angryman: This is a later model I posted. The first 2CVs had -- get this -- doors that opened at the front, which means if by chance you opened the door while driving it'd go flying off and decapitate a few people. I loved that car! Though I think I would have loved Jonathan Versen's car even more. They had style in those days.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at February 24, 2008 10:42 AM
I loved that car! Though I think I would have loved Jonathan Versen's car even more. They had style in those days.

Really loved it, or just a distinctly French love towards something because it's French?

I was fairly disgusted by the freedom fries thing back when, but I do recall that the French can be parochial on the way they name things such that the language and appellations shouldn't be bastardized by the foreigners to water down the uniquely French culture. Can you expect us to act differently; we must protect our redneck culture from the Europeans.

I haven't seen the movie "Z" in a few years, but wasn't that three wheeled truck driven by the right wing thugs some variant of this thing? And yes, the fascination with three-wheeledness of vehicles. I think there was another god-awfully ugly Citroen capable of being driven on only three wheels.

The hood of that thing went on forever; the auto designer proudly compensating the penis issues of an entire nation in one tight, jutting package. Demonstrating that it's not the number of wheels, but what you do with the functioning ones.

Posted by: at February 24, 2008 01:39 PM

I actually rode in one of those things once - one of my parents' friends in Chile took me 4 miles down the hill into town. It was like an enclosed riding lawnmower.

Posted by: wareq at February 25, 2008 12:20 PM