Hi, {name}:

I’m in Lisbon right now, sitting with N. in the living room of the apartment of our friends who retired here last year. They’re still asleep, on a more Western Europe schedule where dinner’s around 9pm and the workday starts when it starts. The last time we saw them, we saw them off. They were heading to a new adventure in their lives, and we said the things you say when people you love move away from you: We’ll totally come visit!

Last night, the joy on having made good on those plans hit me. And now I’m looking at their furniture in new contexts; a lamp that was in the corner by their San Francisco patio door is now in the living room by the doorway to the apartment’s sleeping quarters. A touch of the known refashioned in what’s new: this beautiful city. 

We've needed this trip like we need a hug after a significant loss. We landed just yesterday. Everything we’ve planned lies ahead of us, just over there. This morning, I’m hoping everything you're planning feels just as close.



1. Abbott Elementary (Hulu)
I'm late to the party on this mid-season ABC sitcom, but it's great. Show creator Quinta Brunson plays Janine, a 2nd-grade teacher at this Philly public school whose role, ensemble-wise, is as the eager ingenue teacher ready to change lives. She's got a Teach For America gay white male colleague who plays a similar role, and then the more senior teachers with smh energy bring the conflict and better jokes. Watching it, the first show it reminded me of was Parks & Rec: a documentary-style civic workplace comedy. But I really think it's more Ted Lasso for people who care about teaching, in that Abbott Elementary's best episodes present problems the ensemble has to work together to solve. Ep. 5, 'Student Transfer', gives Janine a terror of a student named Courtney who convinces the class to recite the Pledge with her name in every line, and writes swear words on the whiteboard in permanent marker. What's to be done about Courtney? What's to be done about the new TikTok trend 'desking' that's taken over the school? There's nothing Roland Barthes has to say that helps me think about Abbott Elementary, but I'm hooked. Janelle James, as the checked-out principal, steals just about every scene. 

2. Single Quote Marks
They're better, I've decided. Let me try you on the benefits before I argue about the problems of the double quotation mark, that ". Single quote marks (1) can be typed without needing the shift key, (2) tuck more neatly alongside letters to evince a more porous border between quoted and not-quoted material, and (3) are eleganter. (That single line. The Picasso of punctuation.) And the double-quotation mark presents a far less rational progression in the task of quoting—why start with two and then go to one for the nested quote? Quotation is not unlike apposition, so to me it would be just as weird to start asides ((like this one here)) with two parentheses. Here's the main problem with single quote marks: I just wrote, 'Here's the main problem.' A single quote mark looks the same as an apostrophe, confusing the signal of a quotation's end—but like only for a second. The benefits outweigh any deficits. It's the only bit of British usage I like other than spelling it G-R-E-Y, which is clearly the greyer spelling of 'grey'. (Oh and I love 'pyjamas'.) 


Can Computers Be Funny?

Not really. Or at least not yet. About 10 years ago, I started on a book project on standup comedy. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say about it, and in those early years I just vacuumed up any data I could, looking for the story. Was it about how darkness and evil twinned so often and so easily with what was funny? Was it about how and why people decided to become comedians? It was about a lot of things, and I compiled more material than I could ever use (and then the book proposal didn't sell, and then a more urgent and better book came to me), and I've long since set all the standup stuff aside.

Recently, I found a file on my hard drive labeled 'KKtest.doc'. It was 20 pages of jokes:

Knock, Knock
Who is there?
Vericose who?
Vericose knit family. We stick together.
We’re a close knit family. We stick together.

Knock, Knock
Who is there?
Thesis who?
Thesis a stickup!
This is a stickup!

Knock, Knock
Who is there?
Frosting who?
Frosting in the morning brush your teeth.
First thing in the morning brush your teeth.

20 pages of these. Thelma I went out for pizzaDecanter at my temple is almost eighty years old. And always with the unpunned punchline afterward. It took a while to source the document, but I eventually found it as part of Julia Taylor's 1999 master's thesis at the U of Cincinnati: 'Computational Recognition of Humor in a Focused Domain'. This was the test document that showed the algorithm correctly identifying the wordplay in a source text of knock knock jokes.

Like most master's theses in computer science, the reading is dry, so let me spoil the end: yes a computer can recognize wordplay, but no it can't deploy wordplay to tell a successful joke.

Or can it? Very few of the actual knock knock jokes are funny (I did like Zeus house is this anyway?) But it's very hard to read KKtest.doc without laughing. I like to hear in each stanza a new voice stepping in at the final line, some beleaguered aide leaning down and whispering in the ear of a king who can't be bothered to know what's funny. 'That's she'll be comin' round the mountain, sir.'

If there's anything I learned about comedy, it's that comedy resists being learned about. Trying to figure out what's funny and why was like trying to find the source of this traffic when I see no accidents or lane closures. (Not that I really stopped trying.) There always seemed to be a thousand variables operating on one another, and ultimately I wanted to let the mystery of that stay a mystery, and mysteries, I'm afraid, are for novelists. 


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