joke

Kurt Vonnegut on writing as practical joke

From David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, & Richard Rhodes’s interview of Kurt Vonnegut in “The Art of Fiction No. 64” (The Paris Review: Spring 1977, No. 69):

If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over.

Why we laugh

From Gene Weingarten’s “The Peekaboo Paradox: The strange secrets of humor, fear and a guy who makes big money making little people laugh” (The Washington Post: 22 January 2006):

Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It’s their first “joke.” They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby’s expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby’s world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.

At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, “Take my wife . . . please!” relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.

After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world — and the central terror to be overcome — is his own powerlessness.

Programmer jokes

Q: How do you tell an introverted computer scientist from an extroverted computer scientist?

A: An extroverted computer scientist looks at your shoes when he talks to you.


Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

very long pause….

Java.


Saying that Java is nice because it works on every OS is like saying that anal sex is nice because it works on every gender.


A physicist, an engineer and a programmer were in a car driving over a steep alpine pass when the brakes failed. The car was getting faster and faster, they were struggling to get round the corners and once or twice only the feeble crash barrier saved them from crashing down the side of the mountain. They were sure they were all going to die, when suddenly they spotted an escape lane. They pulled into the escape lane, and came safely to a halt.

The physicist said “We need to model the friction in the brake pads and the resultant temperature rise, see if we can work out why they failed”.

The engineer said “I think I’ve got a few spanners in the back. I’ll take a look and see if I can work out what’s wrong”.

The programmer said “Why don’t we get going again and see if it’s reproducible?”


To understand what recursion is you must first understand recursion.

David Foster Wallace on Kafka

From David Foster Wallace’s “Laughing With Kafka” (Harper’s Magazine: July 1998, pg. 26):

… the really central Kafka joke – that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

Why we can easily remember jingles but not jokes

From Natalie Angier’s “In One Ear and Out the Other” (The New York Times: 16 March 2009):

In understanding human memory and its tics, Scott A. Small, a neurologist and memory researcher at Columbia, suggests the familiar analogy with computer memory.

We have our version of a buffer, he said, a short-term working memory of limited scope and fast turnover rate. We have our equivalent of a save button: the hippocampus, deep in the forebrain is essential for translating short-term memories into a more permanent form.

Our frontal lobes perform the find function, retrieving saved files to embellish as needed. And though scientists used to believe that short- and long-term memories were stored in different parts of the brain, they have discovered that what really distinguishes the lasting from the transient is how strongly the memory is engraved in the brain, and the thickness and complexity of the connections linking large populations of brain cells. The deeper the memory, the more readily and robustly an ensemble of like-minded neurons will fire.

This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. “It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information,” Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.

And what are the most insidious jingles or sitcom themes but cunning variations on twinkle twinkle ABC?

Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes…

Gottman on relationships

From THE MATHEMATICS OF LOVE: A Talk with John Gottman (Edge: 14 April 2004):

So far, his surmise is that “respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we’ll find that those are universal things”.

Another puzzle I’m working on is just what happens when a baby enters a relationship. Our study shows that the majority (67%) of couples have a precipitous drop in relationship happiness in the first 3 years of their first baby’s life. That’s tragic in terms of the climate of inter-parental hostility and depression that the baby grows up in. That affective climate between parents is the real cradle that holds the baby. And for the majority of families that cradle is unsafe for babies.

So far I believe we’re going to find that respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we’ll find that those are universal things.

Bob Levenson and I were very surprised when, in 1983, we found that we could actually predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, what was going to happen to a relationship over a three-year period just by examining their physiology and behavior during a conflict discussion, and later just from an interview about how the couple viewed their past. 90% accuracy!

That was surprising to us. It seemed that people either started in a mean-spirited way, a critical way, started talking about a disagreement, started talking about a problem as just a symptom of their partner’s inadequate character, which made their partner defensive and escalated the conflict, and people started getting mean and insulting to one another. That predicted the relationship was going to fall apart. 96% of the time the way the conflict discussion started in the first 3 minutes determined how it would go for the rest of the discussion. And four years later it was like no time had passed, their interaction style was almost identical. Also 69% of the time they were talking about the same issues, which we realized then were “perpetual issues” that they would never solve. These were basic personality differences that never went away. She was more extroverted or she was more of an explorer or he was more punctual or frugal.

Some couples were caught by the web of these perpetual issues and made each other miserable, they were “grid locked” like bumper-to-bumper traffic with these issues, while other couples had similar issues but coped with them and had a “dialogue” that even contained laughter and affection. It seemed that relationships last to the extent that you select someone whose annoying personality traits don’t send you into emotional orbit. Once again conventional wisdom was wrong. The big issue wasn’t helping couples resolve their conflicts, but moving them from gridlock to dialogue. And the secret of how to do that turned out to be having each person talk about their dream within the conflict and bringing Viktor Frankl’s existential logotherapy into the marital boxing ring. Once people talked about what they wished for and hoped for in this gridlock conflict and the narrative of why this was so important to them, in 86% of the cases they would move from gridlock to dialogue. Again a new door opened. Not all marital conflicts are the same. You can’t teach people a set of skills and just apply them to every issue. Some issues are deeper, they have more meaning. And then it turned out that the very issues that cause the most pain and alienation can also be the greatest sources of intimacy and connection.

Another surprise: we followed couples for as long as 20 years, and we found that there was another kind of couple that didn’t really show up on the radar; they looked fine, they weren’t mean, they didn’t escalate the conflict — but about 16 to 22 years after the wedding they started divorcing. They were often the pillars of their community. They seemed very calm and in control of their lives, and then suddenly they break up. Everyone is shocked and horrified. But we could look back at our early tapes and see the warning signs we had never seen before. Those people were people who just didn’t have very much positive connection. There wasn’t very much affection — and also especially humor — between them.

…These sorts of emotionally disconnected relationships were another important dimension of failed relationships. We learned through them that the quality of the friendship and intimacy affects the nature of conflict in a very big way.

One of the major things we found is that honoring your partner’s dreams is absolutely critical. A lot of times people have incompatible dreams — or they don’t want to honor their partner’s dreams, or they don’t want to yield power, they don’t want to share power. So that explains a lot of times why they don’t really belong together.

Psycho-physiology is an important part of this research. It’s something that Bob Levenson brought to the search initially, and then I got trained in psycho-physiology as well. And the reason we’re interested in what was happening in the body is that there’s an intimate connection between what’s happening to the autonomic nervous system and what happening in the brain, and how well people can take in information — how well they can just process information — for example, just being able to listen to your partner — that is much harder when your heart rate is above the intrinsic rate of the heart, which is around a hundred to a hundred and five beats a minute for most people with a healthy heart.

At that point we know, from Loren Rowling’s work, that people start secreting adrenalin, and then they get into a state of diffuse physiological arousal (or DPA) , so their heart is beating faster, it’s contracting harder, the arteries start getting constricted, blood is drawn away from the periphery into the trunk, the blood supply shuts down to the gut and the kidney, and all kinds of other things are happening — people are sweating, and things are happening in the brain that create a tunnel vision, one in which they perceive everything as a threat and they react as if they have been put in great danger by this conversation.

Because men are different. Men have a lot of trouble when they reach a state of vigilance, when they think there’s real danger, they have a lot of trouble calming down. and there’s probably an evolutionary history to that. Because it functioned very well for our hominid ancestors, anthropologists think, for men to stay physiologically aroused and vigilant, in cooperative hunting and protecting the tribe, which was a role that males had very early in our evolutionary history. Whereas women had the opposite sort of role, in terms of survival of the species, those women reproduced more effectively who had the milk-let-down reflex, which only happens when oxytocin is secreted in the brain, it only happens when women — as any woman knows who’s been breast-feeding, you have to be able to calm down and relax. But oxytocin is also the hormone of affiliation. So women have developed this sort of social order, caring for one another, helping one another, and affiliating, that also allows them to really calm down and have the milk let-down reflex. And so — it’s one of nature’s jokes. Women can calm down, men can’t; they stay aroused and vigilant.

Physiology becomes really critical in this whole thing. A provocative finding from Alyson Shapiro’s recent dissertation is that if we take a look at how a couple argues when the woman is in the sixth month of pregnancy, we can predict over half the variation in the baby, the three-month-old baby’s vagal tone, which is the ability of the vagus nerve, the major nerve of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for establishing calm and focusing attention. That vagus nerve in the baby is eventually going to be working well if the parents, during pregnancy, are fighting with each other constructively. That takes us into fetal development, a whole new realm of inquiry.

You have to study gay and Lesbian couples who are committed to each other as well as heterosexual couples who are committed to each other, and try and match things as much as you can, like how long they’ve been together, and the quality of their relationship. And we’ve done that, and we find that there are two gender differences that really hold up.

One is that if a man presents an issue, to either a man he’s in love with or a woman he’s in love with, the man is angrier presenting the issue. And we find that when a woman receives an issue, either from a woman she loves or a man she loves, she is much more sad than a man would be receiving that same issue. It’s about anger and sadness. Why? Remember, Bowlby taught us that attachment and loss and grief are part of the same system. So women are finely tuned to attaching and connecting and to sadness and loss and grief, while men are attuned to defend, stay vigilant, attack, to anger. My friend Levenson did an acoustic startle study (that’s where you shoot of a blank pistol behind someone’s head when they least expect it). Men had a bigger heart rate reactivity and took longer to recover, which we would expect, but what even more interesting is that when you asked people what they were feeling, women were scared and men were angry.

So that’s probably why those two differences have held up. Physiologically people find over and over again in heterosexual relationships — and this hasn’t been studied yet in gay and Lesbian relationships — that men have a lower flash point for increasing heart-rate arousal, and it takes them longer to recover. And not only that, but when men are trying to recover, and calm down, they can’t do it very well because they keep naturally rehearsing thoughts of righteous indignation and feeling like an innocent victim. They maintain their own vigilance and arousal with these thoughts, mostly of getting even, whereas women really can distract themselves and calm down physiologically from being angered or being upset about something. If women could affiliate and secrete oxytocin when they felt afraid, they’s even calm down faster, probably.

But we’ve always done it this way …

From James Bennett’s “Let’s talk about Python 3.0” (The B-List: 5 December 2008):

There’s an old joke, so old that I don’t even know for certain where it originated, that’s often used to explain why big corporations do things the way they do. It involves some monkeys, a cage, a banana and a fire hose.

You build a nice big room-sized cage, and in one end of it you put five monkeys. In the other end you put the banana. Then you stand by with the fire hose. Sooner or later one of the monkeys is going to go after the banana, and when it does you turn on the fire hose and spray the other monkeys with it. Replace the banana if needed, then repeat the process. Monkeys are pretty smart, so they’ll figure this out pretty quickly: “If anybody goes for the banana, the rest of us get the hose.” Soon they’ll attack any member of their group who tries to go to the banana.

Once this happens, you take one monkey out of the cage and bring in a new one. The new monkey will come in, try to make friends, then probably go for the banana. And the other monkeys, knowing what this means, will attack him to stop you from using the hose on them. Eventually the new monkey will get the message, and will even start joining in on the attack if somebody else goes for the banana. Once this happens, take another of the original monkeys out of the cage and bring in another new monkey.

After repeating this a few times, there will come a moment when none of the monkeys in the cage have ever been sprayed by the fire hose; in fact, they’ll never even have seen the hose. But they’ll attack any monkey who goes to get the banana. If the monkeys could speak English, and if you could ask them why they attack anyone who goes for the banana, their answer would almost certainly be: “Well, I don’t really know, but that’s how we’ve always done things around here.”

This is a startlingly good analogy for the way lots of corporations do things: once a particular process is entrenched (and especially after a couple rounds of employee turnover), there’s nobody left who remembers why the company does things this way. There’s nobody who stops to think about whether this is still a good way to do things, or whether it was even a good idea way back at the beginning. The process continues through nothing more than inertia, and anyone who suggests a change is likely to end up viciously attacked by monkeys.

But this is also a really good analogy for the way a lot of software works: a function or a class or a library was written, once upon a time, and maybe at the time it was a good idea. Maybe now it’s not such a good idea, and actually causes more problems than it solves, but hey, that’s the way we’ve always done things around here, and who are you to suggest a change? Should I go get the fire hose?

Better in command of the enemy than a prisoner

From “Fort Henry and Fort Donelson“:

Shortly after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Confederates built two forts just south of the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. … Fort Henry guarded the Tennessee River while Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland. … The key to rolling up the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River was the capture of Fort Henry and Donelson. That job fell to General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Andrew Foote. …

Fort Henry was easy prey for the Union gunboats … When Fort Henry surrendered, Grant turned his attention to Fort Donalson. … Inside Fort Donelson, General John Floyd commanded, with Gideon Pillow and Simon Bolivar Buckner under him. …

Gideon Pillow launched an assault against the Union right (McClernand), demolished 5 brigades in the federal line, forcing them into full retreat and grabbed a road that led to Nashville. Pillow had a number of good choices he could have made: turn left or right to battle the exposed flanks of Grant’s army, or use the road he had captured to evacuate to Nashville. Pillow, generally regarded as the worst general on either side during the Civil War, decided to withdraw back into the fort because his men seemed exhausted.

… That evening, Floyd, Pillow and Buckner considered surrender. Buckner, lowest ranking of the three generals, was the one left to do the task. Buckner and Pillow slipped out by boat and Nathan Bedford Forrest, his cavalry and a few foot soldiers found a partially flooded land route out minutes before it was closed off by Union infantry.

According to General Grant’s memoirs, one of Grant’s first questions to Buckner was: “Where is Pillow? Why didn’t he stay to surrender his command?”

Buckner: “He thought you were too anxious to capture him personally.”

Grant: “Why if I had captured him I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.”

How he liked being tarred & feathered

From Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville (166):

Asked how he enjoyed his office [of President], [Lincoln] told of a tarred and feathered man out West, who, as he was being ridden out of town on a rail, heard one among the crowd call to him, asking how he liked it, high up there on his uncomfortable perch. “If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing,” the man replied, “I’d sooner walk.”

A wonderful postmodern joke

A postmodern joke from Disinfotainment:

How many deconstructionists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Even the framing of this question makes a grid of patriarchal assumptions that reveals a slavish devotion to phallocentric ideas – such as, technical accomplishment has inherent value, knowledge can be attained and quantities of labor can be determined empirically, all of which makes a discourse which further marginalizes the already disenfranchised.