The social utility of hacker humor

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on an ancient project of mine, C-INTERCAL, that’s an implementation of the longest-running joke in the history of computer languages. It’s an implementation, begun in 1990, of a language conceived in 1972 as a parody of programming languages of the 1960s. Now it’s nearly 40 years later, and yet some skilled hackers are still investing their time into fixing bugs, shipping releases, and even (gasp!) documenting the thing.

That’s a lot of effort to plow into a joke, and some people don’t get why. But there are parallels elsewhere: consider, for example, the venerable custom of issuing spoof Internet standards, published through the same channels as the real RFCs, on every April 1st. Behaviors like INTERCAL or the spoof RFCs don’t usually persist as long as these have without some powerful reason behind them.

I got a clue about this in the early 1990s when I was working on the Jargon File, another artifact with aspects of a joke that many hackers take very seriously indeed. I had been invited to a sort of cultural-studies conference run by the Getty Foundation at which a bunch of anthropologists and folklorists were trying to get their heads around hacker culture as a culture, using me more or less as a star informant.

I was talking with one, and asked what her sorts of questions cultural anthropologists normally ask about cultures they’re doing fieldwork on. She thought for a moment and said: “What’s the ritual calendar? What are the high holy days of mandatory observance?” It took me a bit of thought to understand why this is an important question, but it certainly is one. The high holy days of a culture encode the myths and values it most celebrates.

I figuratively scratched my head and said “Uh, I dunno…I don’t think of any *HOLY SHIT*….yes, actually, I can. April Fool’s Day!” And then I explained about the Joke RFCs and April Fool USENET parodies. And we gazed upon each other with a feeling of discovery, for it was clear to both of us that we had grasped something important.

There are lots of things that can help define a culture. Shared artifacts. Shared myths – and by “myth” I don’t necessarily mean a falsehood, it can be real history interpreted in a value-laden or normative way. Shared taboos. Shared attitudes. And shared jokes. One of the things that can help define a culture is “we are a people who laugh at the same things”.

INTERCAL, and the joke RFCs, and the in-jokes in the Jargon File, all have an important gatekeeping function for the hacker culture. Hackers get why these things are funny, the same way they get why a feature request from Donald Knuth is like unto a commandment from $DEITY ($DEITY is yet another venerable hacker joke – it expands as “insert choice of god here”). These artifacts are like the famous quip about jazz that if you need to have it explained to you you’ll never get it – a defining mystery that selects not merely for technical competence for but a certain posture of mind. And induces it, too…

The people who write and maintain these jokes are expressing and reifying hacker values. This is especially important for us, because our avenues of cultural transmission are in some ways quite restricted. We don’t have a material culture; we use and borrow the tangible artifacts of the culture(s) around us, but we don’t really have any of our own other than ephemera like T-shirts and mugs and a few toys from ThinkGeek. Nor do we have generational transmission in the normal sense; almost nobody gets to learn hacker folklore at a parent’s knee (although I know one exceptional family that comes close to this).

Here is, as it were, the punch line: April Fool’s Day is the hackers’ only annual day of fixed observance in part because shared jokes are more central to our identity than they are in most cultures. Which takes us back to INTERCAL; the programmer (or would-be programmer) who stumbles across it, reads, and begins to laugh, is becoming one of us. Is, in fact, making himself one of us. He is acquiring, by transmission through its jokes, the hacker posture of mind. Much the same could be said, for example, of the infamous RFC 1149 (A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers).

The joke gets funnier, and the cultural transmission mechanism more effective, as the material around it more exactly reflects the serious values of the culture. Thus, INTERCAL has to be an actual working compiler for a Turing-complete language, and its maintainers have evolved it from a scratchy one-off into a near-spotless example of good practice – clean, well-documented code using up-to-date tools and version control and with a regression-test suite. In fact you can look back through the INTERCAL code, as I recently did, and see in it a potted history of how key practices in software tools, version control, documentation, testing and software distribution have evolved in the the last twenty years. From shar archives to tarballs; from no version control to centralized version control to distributed; from flat-text documentation to groff to texinfo to asciidoc; the assimilation of the Web; and, recently, an increasing focus on development by test.

There are messages on several levels here: one of the most important is that hackers are expected to be such dedicated craftsmen that they work to contemporary high standards even when the project is an intrinsically ridiculous museum piece. In a similar spirit, the best joke RFCs are such immaculately deadpan parodies of standards language that if you’re not careful you can read several paragraphs in before you realize you are up to your eyeballs in satire.

This is odder than it may appear at first. It is not just that hackers use technical humor to maintain an ironic distance from the machinery of software production they are so intimate with. It’s that this ironic distance, this affectionate parody, is one of the core observances of hacker culture – actually definitional of it. We have a term for this borrowed from SF fandom; “ha ha only serious”, and I can’t think of any real parallel to it elsewhere; even circus clowns don’t celebrate their art by making satires of it.

A non-hacker might well ask “Why do I care?” Which is a good question; it’s all very well that hackers have invented a cute little subculture around themselves, and may be academically interesting that acculturation by ha-ha-only-serious is important there. But does the existence of this culture and these mechanisms mean anything to anyone else but anthropologists? Is there any broader social utility here?

Yes, there is. The jokes and the culture they figure forth matters because every once in a while something erupts out of them that is a game changer on a civilization-wide level. Two of the big ones were the Internet and open-source software. These two movements were intimately intertwined with hacker culture, both produced by it and productive of it. The origins of our tribe go back a bit further than either technology, but we have since re-invented ourselves as the people who make that stuff work.

And I don’t mean “make it work” in a narrow technical sense, either. As long as there are people who laugh at INTERCAL and RFC1149 and the Unix koans of Master Foo, and recognize themselves in the Jargon File, those same people will care passionately that computing technology is an instrument of liberation rather than control. They won’t be able to help themselves, because they will have absorbed inextricably with the jokes some values that are no joke at all. High standards of craftsmanship; a subversive sense of humor; a belief in the power of creative choice and voluntary cooperation; a spirit of individualism and playfulness; and not least, a skepticism about the pretensions of credentialism, bureaucracy and authority that is both healthy and bone-deep.

These are not trivial qualities in people who who have their hands on the controls of what may be the most critical layer of shared infrastructure in today’s computer-dependent civilization. Someday, the spirit of hacker humor might head off any number of grim futures. In fact, I think it not unlikely that it already has.

96 thoughts on “The social utility of hacker humor

  1. A non-hacker might well ask “Why do I care?”

    Indeed. When I explained RFC 1149 to my wife, her only response was “Why would they do that?” Sadly, she still does not get it, nor does she grok why it’s funny, no matter how many times I have explained it to her.

    That’s why I think you may have to be a hacker to “get” hacker humor. (My own response, as I recall, was “That’s AWESOME!”)

  2. The explanation to my wife was about the time a group of hackers actually *implemented* RFC 1149.

    Isn’t it a core principle of the Internet Working Group that you haven’t really created a new protocol until you have two independent working implementations of the code talking to each other?

    If a spec without an implementation is written in a forest, does a feminist fish have a bicycle?

  3. One nice thing about hacker jokes is indeed that they describe things that could be put to use. INTERCAL is one particular example. I’ve personally used RFC1924 as way of constructing IPv6 addresses on my LAN with short messages embedded into the address itself.

  4. High standards of craftsmanship; a subversive sense of humor; a belief in the power of creative choice and voluntary cooperation; a spirit of individualism and playfulness; and not least, a skepticism about the pretensions of credentialism, bureaucracy and authority that is both healthy and bone-deep.

    These are not trivial qualities in people who who have their hands on the controls of what may be the most critical layer of shared infrastructure in today’s computer-dependent civilization. Someday, the spirit of hacker humor might head off any number of grim futures. In fact, I think it not unlikely that it already has.

    Or, shorter: “The future masters of technology will have to be lighthearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb.”

  5. > If a spec without an implementation is written in a forest, does a feminist fish have a bicycle?
    Obviously not. It doesn’t need it.

  6. >> If a spec without an implementation is written in a forest, does a feminist fish have a bicycle?
    > Obviously not. It doesn’t need it.

    No, the fish will be quite comfortably lodged in an ear canal.

  7. I just looked at the Intercal manual for the first time…

    Eric, you’re a sick bastard ;^). My head hurts. I gotta go do some manual labor to get that out of my head.
    I should have heeded your warning.

  8. A couple of other jokes in a similar vein:

    * International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
    * The cults of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn (praise be upon Her hooves).

    Probably there are many others.

  9. Mike Swanson:
    > I’ve personally used RFC1924 as way of constructing IPv6 addresses on my LAN
    > with short messages embedded into the address itself.”

    You, sir, are awesome. I wasn’t even aware of RFC1924. As I am now rolling out IPv6 in various places, I will have to implement this.

  10. Eric, is your anecdote about the cultural-studies conference causally related to this bit from http://www.paulgraham.com/gba.html?

    It is greatly to America’s advantage that it is a congenial atmosphere for the right sort of unruliness—that it is a home not just for the smart, but for smart-alecks. And hackers are invariably smart-alecks. If we had a national holiday, it would be April 1st. It says a great deal about our work that we use the same word for a brilliant or a horribly cheesy solution. When we cook one up we’re not always 100% sure which kind it is. But as long as it has the right sort of wrongness, that’s a promising sign. It’s odd that people think of programming as precise and methodical. Computers are precise and methodical. Hacking is something you do with a gleeful laugh.

  11. “Thus, INTERCAL has to be an actual working compiler for a Turing-complete language, and its maintainers have evolved it from a scratchy one-off into a near-spotless example of good practice – clean, well-documented code using up-to-date tools and version control and with a regression-test suite. ”

    Which just goes to show you how sad some Open-Source projects are, if a joke programming language’s devel environment is better built than theirs is.

  12. “Why does hacker humor always remind me of Monty Python?”

    Clarification: it would be trivial to say that the essence of humor is always a bifurcation of reality in a baffling way and the more intelligent you are, the higher is the level you want this bifurcation to happen, therefore, humor for highly intelligent people has to be something that would keep most folks wondering it was meant seriously or not. I consider this true but rather trivial. What OTHER reasons can we find for explaining the similarity between hacker humor and Monty Python?

  13. >Eric, is your anecdote about the cultural-studies conference causally related to this bit from http://www.paulgraham.com/gba.html?

    I don’t know. I don’t remember telling Paul this story, and I don’t remember publishing it before. But he’s a hacker, of course he knows about April 1st and AFJs.

  14. >When I explained [the real-world implementation of] RFC 1149 to my wife, her only response was “Why would they do that?”

    Interestingly enough, my wife actually sort of got it. She didn’t have the “That’s awesome!” reaction that a hacker would, but she understood why a hacker would react that way. The interesting question, because they’re both non-hackers, is what the relevant difference between my wife and your wife is.

    Plausible candidate traits:

    * My wife has spent more time around hackers than yours, being probably a decade or so older.

    * My wife is an SF fan and a gamer. (But then, yours might be too. And this just regresses the question to what it is about SF fans and/or gamers that equips them to get it.)

    * Could there be a significant IQ difference? (No, I’m not going to publish my wife’s IQ.)

  15. What OTHER reasons can we find for explaining the similarity between hacker humor and Monty Python?

    @Shenpen: Well, the fact is that many (most?) hackers love Monty Python. A hacker (Guido van Rossum) did, in fact, name an entire programming language after it. Obviously hacker humor is at least partly influenced by Monty Python. Python humor doubly so.

  16. >Well, the fact is that many (most?) hackers love Monty Python.

    I have some interesting news about that. Some years ago, I was startled to learn from Guido that he isn’t particularly a Monty Python fan. He didn’t really explain why he named Python ‘Python’, just said something elliptical that indicated the reference seemed funny at the time he needed a name.

    I was startled because, in truth, I don’t much like Monty Python myself. They’ve done individual bits that are hilarious, but taken as a whole they are a bit too nasty and nihilistic for me. I could be said to be a fan of selected bits of their work, but not of them nor of the entire oeuvre.

    Possibly Guido and I are exceptions. But possibly not. Hacker humor frequently has a surrealist edge to it, especially the “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” kind of surrealism that involves symbol/object antinomies. But hacker humor isn’t nasty.

  17. @esr: Without going into specifics, I doubt your wife is significantly different in age or IQ from mine (she’s older than me, and has a bit higher IQ than me), though she’s not quite as much of an SF fan (she likes some SF, and has read some SF books, but isn’t a real hardcore SF fan) After much explanation, she did sort of understand it, and could see why I would think it’s funny, but obviously she didn’t totally grok it herself. She did know that “grok” comes from Stranger in a Strange Land, though.

  18. >Without going into specifics, I doubt your wife is significantly different in age or IQ from mine

    Accepting this report only makes the question more interesting. I dunno…what’s her Myers-Briggs type? Maybe one has to be XNTX, as most hackers are.

  19. esr> Myers-Briggs type? Maybe one has to be XNTX, as most hackers are

    Interesting, I just tested and apparently I am ENFP, 44/88/25/22%. I don’t know if any others share my experience in that the degree to which I find hacker jokes funny (vs. thinking they are a waste of precious time) is the degree to which I am delirious and disconnected from the outside world due to programming too long. I view programming and the nerd culture as abnormal, but yet I am drawn to the creativity and theoretical power (to eliminate control). Am I an outlier or any others here share my attributes?

  20. Jocelyn:
    > Am I an outlier or any others here share my attributes?

    I usually test INTJ or INTP, and I think you should get off our internets. ; D

  21. I’m ENTP, but that compresses 4 Bell Curves into 4 bits. My I/E score is right on the border, for example. We really need Myers-Briggs to give us four numbers, not four bits.

    Yours,
    Tom

  22. For comparison, over on the Steve Jackson Games newsgroups, somebody made a comment that spelling was the core skill for copy editors. I commented back that if that were so, spell checking would be a much more viable substitute for copy editing than it is, and that the core skill for copy editors was parsing. One of the other regulars posted a bit later that he had read this to his wife, a professional copy editor and NOT a gamer at all, when she was in a glum mood, and that she had laughed and laughed.

    There is an entire genre of copy editor humor, largely based on reading sentences exactly as they are written—and if you don’t get why those sentences are funny, you probably won’t ever be a good copy editor. Consider, for example, the sign I once saw on a storefront:

    Scissors “Sharpened” Here

  23. “… a skepticism about the pretensions of credentialism, bureaucracy and authority that is both healthy and bone-deep.”

    I wish this could be substantiated, but I fear it is not so. If the SlashDot crowd could in any way be taken as representative of today’s mainstream hacker culture, then there is no bigger den of government and institution worshippers to be found anywhere. Similarly for most anywhere hackers converse about such things.

    Please tell me I’m wrong.

  24. @Tom, that test Jocelyn linked to does give four percentages. I got this:
    >Your Type is
    >INTP
    >Introverted Intuitive Thinking Perceiving
    >Strength of the preferences %
    >78 38 88 67

    Which basically confirms the other Internet Meyers-Briggs tests I’ve taken (although I’ll be taking a “real” one soon as part of a college class.)

    Just to round out the data point here, I thought that the Jargon File, INTERCAL manual, Master Foo, RFC1149, etc., were all hilarious, no explanation needed. But I think the joke in RFC1924 went over my head– I chuckled a little bit but the most I got was “so the joke is that he’s proposing a terrible idea on purpose?”

  25. >Please tell me I’m wrong.

    You’re wrong. Or, at least, I’ve never considered Slashdot representative of hacker culture. The founders, maybe, and about 1% of the crowd that hangs there. The rest…wannabes, at best. Nerds attracted by the smell of hack.

  26. >There is an entire genre of copy editor humor, largely based on reading sentences exactly as they are written—and if you don’t get why those sentences are funny, you probably won’t ever be a good copy editor.

    It’s obvious. Copy editors have to be able to see the generative structure behind a sentence, and the rules used to report that generative structure as an actual utterance, in order to fix it. When a copy editor “reads as written” to peers, he’s not just presenting a string of tokens, but the implied breakage on one or both of those sublevels. The incongruity, set against a correct utterance, can be funny – but if you’re not both exceptionally good at parsing English and consciously introspecting the parse you’ll never see it.

    I don’t know whether I would ever be a good copy editor, and it would be an inefficient use of my time to find out, but I see writing this way too – you have to in order to be a really capable writer. I’d get those jokes.

  27. >I wish this could be substantiated, but I fear it is not so. If the SlashDot crowd could in any way be taken as representative of today’s mainstream hacker culture, then there is no bigger den of government and institution worshippers to be found anywhere. Similarly for most anywhere hackers converse about such things.

    My experience with Slashdot (never really posted, just read some comments) is rather disappointing. Seems like it’s more or less a venue for derisively mocking other people, and getting high mods if the mob agrees. In particular, the mod system tends to be used fairly commonly as a political-agreement contest (I’ve seen perfectly well-reasoned and polite posts with libertarian bents, for example, modded Troll, and single-sentence, near-contentless, snarky comments modded +5 Insightful, apparently just because of the political viewpoints involved).

  28. Copy editors are borderline insane, IMHO. Most see that border by looking over their shoulder cooing encouraging noises to sanity, which is cowering and balky, afraid to follow.

  29. Copy editors are borderline insane, IMHO.

    Having worked for a copy editor, I’d have to agree…wait, you were just talking about the Slashdot copy editors, weren’t you? ;)

    Seriously. Slashdot sucks these days. Not at all as good as it was in the early days.

  30. Why do hackers write this kind of humor? For the same reasons they do write software. First because they enjoy the process, second to scratch their own itch, third because it gets them the respect of their peers.

    There is a deeper thing here too that Eric touched on. Consider one of my favorite jokes:

    A data packet walks into a bar. The barman says: “You look terrible!”. Packet says, “Yeah, your right, I have a parity error.” “Ah,” says the barman, “I though you looked a bit off.”

    Why do I think that is funny? I think primarily because it is exclusionary. Very few people get it. And if you get it, you are probably a member of my tribe. So the joke serves to build walls and cohesiveness to my tribe, which is a very important aspect of human culture. It is especially interesting that the basic form is a form stolen from a broader culture, a fact that almost makes it more exclusionary. “You bunch of N00bs get the basic form but don’t understand the real meaning.”

    You see it on slashdot every year on April First. All the yuck, yuck yucking as the “in the know” LOL at the idiots who actually believe the stories.

    BTW, I think ESR is right about Monty Python. 90% of it is trash — oh, wait isn’t that a law or something. Monty Python is another one of those tribal things. People often think it is hilarious because their circle demands that they do.

  31. I don’t think I’d agree with “borderline insane,” unless you simply mean “mildly OCD.” A streak of OCD is an asset in my profession. But my OCD is largely egosyntonic. After all, my profession gives it a harmless and indeed useful outlet.

  32. Bill, I’ve dealt with many of the same copy editors you have.

    It’s rather telling that most of them are recluses who can with effort tolerate people in small groups. :)

  33. Max E.,

    > Tom, that test Jocelyn linked to does give four percentages.

    Clarity has deserted me.

    So did the one I took ages ago. But then we shorten it down to four bits instead of four percentages and end up telling each other false stories. I’m not an introvert. I’m not an extrovert. I’m in the middle. To say I’m an ENTP or an INTP is silly. I’m a -NTP. It would be like saying I’m tall if my height is only slightly above average. Actually I was 6′ 1″. Now I’m 6 foot even. My cousin who is 6′ 4″ is tall. I’m a little above average.

    Yours,
    Tom

  34. >To say I’m an ENTP or an INTP is silly. I’m a -NTP. It would be like saying I’m tall if my height is only slightly above average.

    I think the test Jocelyn linked to either doesn’t capture or doesn’t describe weak expression of traits well. It got my ENT (strongly expressed N and T, moderately expressed E) right, but rated me a weak J (11%). All previous variants of the MBTI I’ve taken have rated me a weak P, and I agree with that.

  35. I’d consider the various planets (planet ubuntu, planet php, planet python, and so on) as a notable manifestation of the hacker consciousness. They even have their own flame wars (esp. when someone confused the purpose of the planet and complained about people posting not strictly code-related stuff, which used to happen regularly). Perhaps they aren’t unique to hackers (I wouldn’t know, the ones I’ve seen are all code-related), but they do serve as a meeting point for hackers.
    Last time I checked, no mention of them was in the Dictionary, and I wondered why.

    As for hacker holidays, I’d consider the talk like a pirate day, sysadmin day and towel day as observances that hackers or hackish types are much more likely to know about than other people.

  36. >I’d consider the various planets (planet ubuntu, planet php, planet python, and so on) as a notable manifestation of the hacker consciousness.

    Um…what are you talking about?

    >As for hacker holidays, I’d consider the talk like a pirate day, sysadmin day and towel day as observances that hackers or hackish types are much more likely to know about than other people.

    I guess we must live on different planets. I’d never heard of towel day.

  37. Eric, you mean you don’t know of -say- planet.python.org , or that you don’t consider them congregations of hackers like I do? I’ve seen some interesting conversations between blogs develop on those planets, that I wouldn’t necessarily have followed just by reading one of those blogs alone, and it did seem to me that the total was more than the sum of its parts.

    As for towel day, well, I’m sorry our Majesty Saint Eric of Raymond, Supreme Emperor of Hack, Best Representative of the Hacker Type in the Planet, didn’t know. It’s -as you may have googled by now- 25th of May, and it’s a tribute to the late Douglas Adams, writer of some funny books you might have heard of.

    I understand that you have considerably more weigth on the hacker culture than I do (), but seriously, you could have been a bit nicer and it wouldn’t cost you an off-parity bit. Especially when I phrased my sentence like I did. Hackers and hackish types are (I think) more likely than others to have read H2G2 and know of towel day. I might be wrong.

  38. >but seriously, you could have been a bit nicer and it wouldn’t cost you an off-parity bit.

    I apologize. I wasn’t intending to be nasty, I was genuinely puzzled.

    I did guess that Towel Day was probably a tribute to Adams.

  39. Ken, I used to think of myself as an extreme sociophobe. Then I met people who can tolerate far less social interaction than I prefer. Two friends of mine and my girlfriend’s can manage to get together with us for lunch or dinner, once every few weeks, and then flee back to solitude after an hour or so (they each live alone). In contrast, I don’t live alone, and I count face to face roleplaying as an important part of my life, followed usually by dinner and conversation—that kind of multiperson group would be too big for my two reclusive friends.

    But one of them is a journal production manager, and the other a librarian. So there’s more than one occupation that’s congenial to sociophobes. I have the impression that sociophobes can be comfortable as hackers, but that’s not my own subculture and I don’t know it well.

  40. >I have the impression that sociophobes can be comfortable as hackers, but that’s not my own subculture and I don’t know it well.

    Your impression is correct. And used to be more so; back before cheap networking hacking was an intensely solitary activity and attracted harder-core sociophobes than it does now.

  41. I think Jessica is correct that humor is a more ridiculously stupid version of something we all did or watched others do, and thus understood. INTERCAL busts my gut, COME FROM is hilarious for me because I have spent considerable years of my life creating and fixing bugs and thinking about improved language design. COME FROM (vs. goto) is a paradigm for bug proliferation (as if goto wasn’t bad enough already) because the program model is obscured from locality (one must have the *entire* program in their head to visualize any local portion of the program model). Tom Henderson’s dissertation on COME FROM (being not an inverse of goto) is funny too but the joke is deeper and subtle so it didn’t slam me to the floor the way the COME FROM did. Whereas, RFC1149 isn’t as humorous (for me?) because it doesn’t ridicule an already technically stupid phenomena (is it a joke on the RFC draft process or that networks are subjugated to real world variance more than CPUs?).

    Imho, Ken’s point is much deeper. Copy editing my own writing gives me OCD. I find that if I write too much english, my mind will become engrossed in repetitively rewriting in my head what I wrote in past, searching for another way it could be mis-interpreted due to the complexity of the vocabulary (definitions aren’t even static), grammar, and permutations of inter-sentence meaning. After excelling for a while with writing, I punted and decided to write “stream of consciousness”, because it was consuming too much energy from the more important activity of finding the more fundamental generative essence (truths). One of my points being that broad IQ tests penalize the maximum division-of-labor and efficiency. I think this may be why I quickly latched on to referential transparency as a potential holy grail, because in theory (if your state machine of function inputs is fully proved) then you are done and your mind can relax and move on to something else safely.

    I bet my F and P are much more “under control” now than in my youth, because I got burned too many times by those who expressed more T. There were a couple of ambiguous questions on that Meyers-Brigg type short-test, which related to the tension between F and T and I consciously moderated them slightly towards F. I actively suppress T in situations where a longer-tail is reasonable, and know this is actually more T (or (W)ise) than those expressed T, because Shannon-Nyquist tells us that science is never absolutely certain (immune to aliasing error) because we can not take infinite samples (and don’t give me some BS about reconstruction and bandlimiting, as I already had and won this debate with experts). The key is the discernment of the likelihood of the longer-tail scenario. If one employs F liberally without T about near-term probabilities, it expresses as (F)oolish.

  42. Thanks– I hadn’t thought about shared styles of humor as bonding, but it’s obviously so.

    I’m not a Monty Python fan either– partly the nastiness, and partly that a lot of it is too chaotic for my taste.

    I’m not a hacker, but I enjoy quite a bit of the less arcane hacker humor. I’m wondering about the overlap between hacker humor and Jewish humor.

    I’m probably INXP. (Moderate I, stong N but not legendarily so, moderate F (if F is placing values on things while T is non-value appreciation of fact), and definitely P.)

    That parity joke is brilliant, and I don’t think it’s funny because it’s exclusionary. It would be funny even if everyone understood it.

  43. Nancy Lebovitz Says:
    > I’m wondering about the overlap between hacker humor and Jewish humor.

    Nancy, I guess from your name that you might be Jewish. I am not, which means that I can’t make Jewish jokes. As you know, I would have to go to dental school before I was allowed to do that.

  44. overlap between hacker humor and Jewish humor.

    I’m not Jewish either, but one of my friends who is calls Microsoft the “Jewish Mother software company” because it thinks it knows what’s best for you. MS software is constantly doing things you never asked it to do, and you just want to scream “Leave my unused Desktop icons alone, Ma!”, “Yes, I want to change the extension on this file!”, and “No, I won’t ask Mrs. Goldstein’s daughter Sarah out on a date, and stop acting like it’s going to kill you!”

  45. >I’m wondering about the overlap between hacker humor and Jewish humor.

    There’s a significant amount, of course; it’s not insignificant that some of the jargon is derived from Yiddishims. I think there are two explanations for this, neither particularly deep or surprising:

    (1) I’ve observed software engineering to have a significantly higher percentage of Jews than other engineering disciplines. Compare for example with ChemEs or civil engineers – next to no Jews there and AFAICT no influence on their jargon (well, unless you count “kluge”, and my best guess is that although that sounds like a Yiddishism it’s actually from gentile German).

    (2) Some of the convergence between Jewish and hacker humor probably comes back to IQ bell-curve means. That is, to the extent hacker humor is just a specialization of the kinds of things bright people in general think are funny, Ashkenazic Jewish humor will tend to overlap that because of the roughly one-sigma advantage that population has in average IQ.

    Further note about the percentage-of-Jews thing: local history and conditions matter a lot. I gather that in Russiia it is quite common for engineers outside CS as well as inside to be Jewish. Or at least was before a megaboatload of them emigrated to Israel…

  46. I’m ethnically Jewish.

    And I misspoke myself– hacker humor seems quite similar to Jewish humor to me at the wisecrack level, but I’m not an expert on different sorts of humor. I don’t know of Jewish satire as elaborate as hacker satire, though there is fake gematria which comes to morally unedifying conclusions.

  47. >And I misspoke myself– hacker humor seems quite similar to Jewish humor to me at the wisecrack level

    Reality check: I am a hacker, and I’m not Jewish, and I fully concur. The similarity is indeed strong.

    As for hacker satires being more elaborate, the hypothesis that this is another effect of average-IQ difference seems pretty tempting. Say we’ve got three crowds: gentile non-hackers averaging IQ100, Jews averaging IQ110, and hackers averaging (say) IQ120. Would this not neatly predict the things you’ve observed?

    It would also explain why I’m something of a connoisseur of Jewish humor. Er, no joke.

  48. Another possibility is that more elaborate Jewish satires exist, but neither of us have run across them. A great deal of Jewish culture isn’t in English.

  49. well, unless you count “kluge”, and my best guess is that although that sounds like a Yiddishism it’s actually from gentile German

    That seems to be the consensus opinion:

    kludge (kluːdʒ) Also kluge. [J. W. Granholm's jocular invention: see first quot.; cf. also bodge v., fudge v.] [2]
    ‘An ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole’ (Granholm); esp. in Computing, a machine, system, or program that has been improvised or ‘bodged’ together; a hastily improvised and poorly thought-out solution to a fault or ‘bug’. …
    The word ‘kludge’ is…derived from the same root as the German Kluge…, originally meaning ‘smart’ or ‘witty’…. ‘Kludge’ eventually came to mean ‘not so smart’ or ‘pretty ridiculous’.

    FWIW, the pronunciation of the German “Kluge” is “clue guh”.

  50. >That seems to be the consensus opinion

    Interesting that the OED hasn’t caught up with my discovery that ‘kluge’ and ‘kludge’ have separate origins. No, they’re not just spelling variants of each other: “kludge” is a separate word derived from Scots “kludgie” (toilet). The circumstances under which they became confused are described in the Jargon File.

  51. >Assuming we’re going to take IQ seriously, does anyone here know anything about Chinese humor?

    One thing. There is, as you might expect, a category of pun based on tonal confusion.

  52. Jocelyn,

    I’m a professional copy editor, specializing in scholarly and technical material, and I don’t try to copy edit my own writing. The problem with seeing what you know you meant to write, and not what you actually wrote, affects copy editors as much as anyone else. There may be people who are exceptions to this, but I’ve never met one personally.

    As to personality types, I’m INTP, but the T is by only a percentage point or so. On the other hand, the N is quite extreme.

  53. >There may be people who are exceptions to this, but I’ve never met one personally.

    I’m a partial exception. I turn in copy grammatically so clean that copy editors think they’ve died and gone to heaven; I’ve watched jaws drop. But I don’t catch everything, the odd typo will slip through. Every once in a great while there might even be more than one correction mark per page. :-)

  54. > Scissors “Sharpened” Here

    Can someone explain this to me? Seems to have a clear and unambiguous meaning. Why the quotes?

  55. techtech: I don’t get the joke, but I suspect that the quotation IS the joke in some contorted copy-editor sort of way :^). Librarians have this same kind of weird word humor, and I’m as completely baffled by that as I am by this.

  56. Yep. There’s the use quotes to indicate ‘anything but’ — as in Nancy’s “Fresh” Shrimp example.

    It’s also funny/ironic because of the sense of the word “sharp” meaning “astute”. The person who made/designed the sign was obviously anything but astute.

  57. In the sign

    Scissors “Sharpened” Here

    what is meant is, as Nancy says, emphasis on the word “Sharpened.” But that’s not what quotation marks are used for in standard written or printed English. They have several other functions, but the one that applies here is their use to disavow a word—sort of like saying “so-called.” In effect, the sign, when read that way, says “We call what we do here to scissors ‘sharpening,’ but it doesn’t really make them sharp; we just call it that.” The incompatibility between what the sign is meant to convey, and what a literal reading of it conveys, is what’s funny.

    I must say, I’m always surprised to encounter someone who needs that joke explained; I just involuntarily laughed and pointed at it in amazement when I first saw it. Different people take different sorts of knowledge for granted.

  58. > Less literate people sometimes use quotes for emphasis

    Afaiu, the use in “Sharpened” or “Fresh” is not emphasis, it is quoting an anonymous person, where it is implied that just because someone said so, does not make it true. It is a cultural euphemism. I don’t think that makes it illiterate, maybe it could be classified as slang?

  59. My best guess is that those amusing signs are are using quotes for emphasis, though I admit I haven’t checked. My just-so story about why people use quotes for emphasis is that to imply “I’m really saying so” or maybe “everyone would truthfully say so”.

    I don’t think it would be a bad use of the punctuation if it weren’t for the strong pre-existing meaning of “so-called, but not really”.

  60. I must say, I’m always surprised to encounter someone who needs that joke explained

    And yet, the fact that so many people use quotation marks in advertising in this way indicates that many people don’t get it. I have even seen people in speech make “air quotes” with their fingers to emphasize a word or phrase.

    As a Grammar Nazi, I cringe at the comments I read on most blogs. This one attracts a higher level of commenter, so the blatant errors aren’t nearly as common. The one that I even see here is the Gratuitous Apostrophe, which is so rampant that I am convinced that schools simply don’t teach the rules, and allow people to randomly precede an “s” at the end of a word with an apostrophe.

  61. It is supremely hilarious that apparently the joke is on those self-proclaimed “very smart people” who thought they were laughing at the misuse of quotes but are apparently culturally inept, when in fact the “air quotes” are not typically for emphasis, but rather to proclaim that a cultural euphemism, e.g. “put your tooth under your pillow so the ‘Tooth Fairy’ can exchange it for a nice reward” is more polite than saying “put your dead bone under your pillow so your parents can pretend you are stupid and bribe you”. In this example, “Tooth Fairy” is a quote of what your parents say.

  62. Has anyone here read the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss? It’s sort of a cross between an introductory grammar textbook and the life story of a grammar nazi, and it included many of the same sort of copy-editor jokes (which I found quite amusing). Things like:

    “Student’s Entrance” (at a very selective school, presumably)

    …people wonder why, when they put up a sign reading “GIANT KID’S PLAYGROUND”, people stay away (answer: everyone is afraid of the Giant Kid)

  63. >Has anyone here read the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss?

    Read it and loved it, despite the fact that Ms. Truss and I are in opposed punctuational camps. It’s nice that someone still cares about good English usage that much, and even nicer that there’s a mass market for a book about it.

  64. Indeed. I mentioned it because it seemed a good example of the kind of copy-editor humor that was mentioned earlier; I had never thought to refer to it mentally as ‘copy-editor humor’, because I was sensitive to that aspect of written text (and would have gotten that kind of joke) from a young age (it helps to have grown up without any TV or video games, and read books rather obsessively).

    The common ground between that kind of ‘copy-editor humor’ and hacker humor in the more traditional sense seems to be tied up in concern for details and syntax, obviously, but I can’t seem to elucidate it further. They do definitely have a connection. Perhaps there’s a connection with a joke I once saw that showed the Hitchhiker’s Guide question in C; it went something like this:

    #define SIX 1 + 5
    #define NINE 8 + 1

    printf(“Six times nine is: %d\n”, SIX * NINE);

  65. Jocelyn,

    Your interpretation as “quoting an anonymous person, where it is implied that just because someone said so, does not make it true” seems to imply that a business that puts up a sign that says

    Scissors “Sharpened” Here

    WANTS passersby to think that some anonymous person has said that the business sharpens scissors, but that it’s not necessarily true—in other words, that the scissors may not get any sharper. I can’t see how a business could possibly gain any advantage by asserting that, or by getting its customers to think that. Do you have some way in mind that they would be better off that way than if they had just said that they do, in fact, sharpen scissors (which presumably is actually true)?

    I can see a linguistic history in which what you’re thinking of is a plausible earlier phase. A restaurant puts up a sign that says “The best steak dinner in Denver.” They put it in quotes to imply that they are quoting something a customer said, rather than just saying it themselves, because the opinion of a customer would carry more evidential weight; they don’t attribute it either because the specific customer who said it has no name recognition value, or because no specific customer actually said it—it’s the kind of thing their customers say, or they want the passerby to think it is. And then the use of quotes generalizes as a way to provide authority to claims. But when it reaches the point where you are applying it to things that are not matters of taste, opinion, or personal judgment, but matters of fact—such as whether scissors are sharpened or not—that original set of implications has been entirely lost. All you have left is a sense that putting quotation marks around a statement calls attention to it, and that you put quotation marks around your selling point.

    This kind of fading of original meaning is one of the commonplaces of linguistic history. Look up “grammaticalization” for some spoken-language examples.

  66. >Look up “grammaticalization” for some spoken-language examples.

    Thanks for that hint. I’m fairly literate in linguistics, but I was missing that concept and it’s an important one.

  67. > This kind of fading of original meaning is one of the commonplaces of linguistic history.

    That is a plausible but unlikely intent and illiteracy of the storefront owner, because…

    > Scissors “Sharpened” Here
    >
    > WANTS passersby to think that some anonymous person has said that the business sharpens scissors, but that it’s not necessarily true

    I was contemplating the more likely possibility that the owner has a really boring business and astutely wanted to differentiate to amplify brand recognition by injecting humor, with the humor not being illiteracy but rather gaining brand association in the mind of a customer to what a stand up comedian might say. A lot of upside without too much risk that potential customers really believe their scissors will be dulled. Likely because it is very unlikely the owner hasn’t been whispered to already by copy editors.

    I had a friend who did very well in fast food by running humorous promotions. Remember “Where is the beef?” from Wendys. In this case, I am tuned to think like a marketer, rather than a copy editor. Truth is relative to Q. Either of us may be correct, perhaps Occam’s Razor heuristic leans to my interpretation?

  68. Likely because it is very unlikely the owner hasn’t been whispered to already by copy editors.

    I disagree. The very fact that people who care about grammar, punctuation, etc. are called “Grammar Nazi’s[sic]” indicates how succesfully these things have been marginalized as “uncool” and “rude”. Correcting people’s grammar is not considered polite. I think it’s very unlikely that the typical small retailer has had the benefit of a grammar teacher who actually explained the rules logically. Instead, they learn by being told they’re wrong, and guessing at the rules.

    The next time you hear a sports reporter say something like “the coach said the matter was between he and the players involved”, you’ll know you’re dealing with a person who imputed a rule like “The word ‘he’ is good grammar; ‘him’ is bad grammar” rather than “‘He’ is nominative and ‘him’ is objective”. Sadly, most “teaching” is about getting students to memorize isolated facts rather than building systematic, rules-based knowledge.

  69. The Monster is absolutely right. On one hand, even if I had not been in a car driving by, I would never have thought of going in and explaining about the bad grammar of the sign; I would not have expected to get to talk with the owner, but only with some employee who woudn’t have understood what I was saying and might not even have bothered to try to tell the owner. In any case, as the Monster says, copy editors who tell other people about the alternate parsings of their sentences or phrases learn to expect hostile responses. It’s much more entertaining to remember the sign, and go away to tell other copy editors about it, so we can enjoy the humorous misreading. And it isn’t even as if I didn’t know that, in fact, the owner meant that the store engaged in the actual sharpening of scissors. . . .

    As to how people learn grammar, I have to agree on that too. I spent several years of my career training other copy editors. Perhaps THE hardest thing to do was to get them to understand that the rules of standard English are all context-dependent: You cannot just say “him bad, he good” but have to understand the grammatical and semantic context. Even people who are somewhat good at grammar was rigid rules rather than understanding, and fall into overcorrection. I believe, in fact, that that’s the cause of the error the Monster points to, which I think of as the “with John and I” error: Most people are most often corrected about pronoun forms when they say things like “me and John are going on the seesaw,” and the correction takes the form of just saying “John and I!” and so they learn that “John and I” is right and “John and me” or “me and John” is wrong—and that’s all they learn. Getting them to ask “What’s the author actually trying to say here?” is surprisingly difficult.

    as to esr’s comment, I recommend Hopper and Traugott’s Grammaticalization, and Bybee et al.’s The Evolution of Grammar, next time you have several hours to spend in recreational reading. It will tell you interesting things about how natural human languages change over time. I started out reading linguistics years ago with Nichols’s Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time, and acquired quite an addiction to reading comparative grammar and linguistic typology for pleasure. You describe yourself as “fairly literate in linguistics” so I think there’s a fair chance you would experience a similar pleasure.

  70. >You describe yourself as “fairly literate in linguistics” so I think there’s a fair chance you would experience a similar pleasure.

    I think the chance is better than fair :-). Thanks for the recommendations.

  71. William H. Stoddard: Have you read Empires of the Word? If not, I heartily recommend it. It’s a world history in which the actors are language groups rather than populations. The author’s goal is to develop a predictive understanding of why some languages and language groups readily spread beyond their original heartland (English, Chinese, and Malay are the star performers here) while others fail to do so despite large political and religious advantages (Germanic languages other than English and Arabic are the type cases of this).

  72. No, I’ve never heard of it. It sounds like a fascinating topic. Thanks!

    Sfnal application: A mad genius deliberately designs a language to have all the traits that favor linguistic colonization in hypertrophied form. . . .

  73. If the emphasis interpretation is more likely, there should exist a plurality of examples of quotes on the web that are unambiguously for emphasis only, and exhibit implausibility for the “laughing at the situation” explanation– an explanation which so far I have always experienced to be the case where the quotes otherwise wouldn’t have any other logical interpretation. I have never seen someone mis-use quotes with the only plausible explanation being emphasis. Afaics, the “air quotes” satire fad has become quite popular in American pop culture, nearly competing with “totally” in frequency.

    Probably due to some bad habits I learned as the only white person in my all Negro elementary school in Baton Rouge, LA, in later years numerous people corrected me both verbally and in written forums throughout my life, e.g. “atleast is not a word”, “irregardless is not a word”, “between the ‘a’ and ‘t’ of ‘at’”, “ain’t when the Saints go marching in”, etc.. Although a total stranger is less likely to interject, if we assume that all the friends of someone who has a private grammar, also share that same grammar, then the private grammar is no longer incorrect.

    I prefer to eliminate complex binding rules (contracts), because to the extent they can be eliminated, their natural existence is unjustified and temporal. Thus for example I sometimes to use “myself and John”.

    I also found I must employ a different grammar and language in different demographics to achieve maximum communication. For example, Mr. Raymond, although often able to compact more information into fewer words, especially his enviable vocabulary, also appears imho to sometimes (not all, perhaps not even a majority of) unnecessarily complicate analysis and bury the most significant generative essence, and will thus lose the attention span of the some demographics (and that may be intentional). Language and grammar are not constant, and thus I a re-iterate that afaics information (mass) and communication (Q) are relative.

  74. Jocelyn,

    I see it regularly, but not on the Internet; I see it on business signs that I pass on the street.

  75. I don’t find Myers-Briggs predictive enough, I always test as INTP (although I only get the “I” at 100% the rest is weaker), which should mean I’m something sort of a math nerd. Nothing could be further from the truth, I’ve always found everything that requires you to be precise about tiny details extremely boring while I’m very good at intuitively grasping the general “hang” of the big picture of things, in zooming out and smelling towards which direction things are generally drifting towards while avoiding zooming in to details.

    I only find the introvert/extrovert part predictive, which may be subjective (that’s the only part where I got a strong score, the rest are 30-40%), but actually I think this is the only part that can be measured objectively. Introverts prefer forums, blogs, blog comments, stuff where people can and are supposed to write long and hopefully meaningful stuff, extroverts prefer chats where there is hardly anything else but socializing going on. This is well measurable. The rest? I don’t see how the difference between intuition and sensing for example is predictive. Thinking and feeling is obviously interconnected and co-dependent. And so on.

  76. The Monster:

    “Sadly, most “teaching” is about getting students to memorize isolated facts rather than building systematic, rules-based knowledge.”

    IMHO you are ignoring a third possibility, experience gained from sheer exposure to large quantities of (preferably copy-edited) online and offline texts. Read 500 books or the equivalent and your grammar will be good even if you have no idea about the underlying theory of grammatical rules… as a general rule, in what we might call human matters – as opposed to the natural sciences -, and when are talking about _doing_ stuff as opposed to reasoning about stuff, experience almost always beats theoretical knowledge.

  77. >Read 500 books or the equivalent and your grammar will be good even if you have no idea about the underlying theory of grammatical rules

    True, but theory can help you systematize and sharpen the edge. My grammar and usage achieved high quality early because I read those 500 books before I reached my teens, but I do remember learning some things from grammar textbooks in elementary school. In the late 1960s there was a brief vogue for grammar textbooks directly based on the (then-current) version of Chomskyan transformational grammar; I took to this approach like a duck to water and learned how to introspect about the way I generated sentences. This improved my command of English from excellent up to competitive with A-list professional writers, as I eventually demonstrated by writing a minor bestseller.

    So don’t sell theory and formal instruction short. I don’t think it can make a good writer by itself – you need both immersion in good examples and some native talent for that, and a lot of practice (I’m pretty sure the ten-years-to-mastery rule applies here). But somebody who is already well immersed can use it to pick up a few percentage points that will convey an important advantage near the upper end of the bell curve. It did that for me, anyway.

  78. BTW could someone interested in formal grammar tell me the official name of the “it might work, but nice it is not” structure? (I.e. the unusual word order in the second subsentence) I like to use it, because it sounds elegant and kind of archaic, but it just doesn’t sound really English, more like a loanstructure from somewhere else, possibly Latin.

  79. ESR,

    I have no problems with that, the loads of practice/experience/exposure first, then lean theory to sharpen it lagter on when you already have pretty of patterns to match the theory agaisnt, I have nothing against that. But I have a lot against theory first, practice or exposure second kinds of teaching methods which have penetrated modern teaching not just in language but in practically everything, which is really a misunderstanding how the human brain works. You can see it everywhere, up to and including teaching programming: learn concepts and definitions first, then go on to hands-on work, which is plain simply a teaching method for machines and not for people. Modern culture has a tendency to treat clearly-defined theoretical thinking as a sort of fetish or religion which has lots of uses on high levels but virtually none on low levels, teaching everything on beginner levels should begin with the realization is that our brain is first and foremost a pattern-matching machine inherited from the animal kingdom and the theoretical/rational aspect should always be a second, advanced stage of it… The worst culprit is probably foreign language teaching, the ratio of effectiveness of “use it, no matter how bad, just use it already and we’ll refine it later on” vs. “shut your mouth until you can pronounce a _correct_ sentence” is probably about 10:1.

  80. Shenpen: There isn’t a formal name for the “nice it is not” construction in traditional English grammar, as I use it in copy editing. A linguist would probably call it word order inversion for emphasis. Specifically, what you are doing is fronting (that’s a linguistic term) the predicate adjective (that’s a traditional grammar term; I think the linguistic term is “adjective complement”).

    Latin does that trick more often than English, because it has word ending markers of case, where English mostly uses word order markers; but I think that particular idiom actually owes more to Yiddish than to Latin.

  81. >I think that particular idiom actually owes more to Yiddish than to Latin.

    I concur. Constructions parallel to this are a feature of dialectal English in central Pennsylvania not far west of where I’m typing. That dialect, and these constructions, is influenced by the archaic German of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (the second word is misunderstood “Deutsch”), anabaptist Protestant settlers from the Rhineland and Switzerland. Yiddish is also grammatically a dialect of German, though heavily infiltrated by words derived from Hebrew and other sources. I don’t know German well enough to be sure, but I think in both cases (Yiddish influence and Pennsylvania Dutch influence) we’re seeing a shadow of the way German handles negation of its end-of-sentence verbs.

  82. Well, there’s Einstein’s “Raffiniert ist der Herr gott, doch boshaft ist er nicht.”

  83. Pingback: Coding Freedom: a review • bring back unix

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