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)
2. Single Quote Marks
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:
20 pages of these. Thelma I went out for pizza. Decanter 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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