As you may or may not be aware, I’ve got a bit of a thing for philosophy of humour. It’s occasionally pointed out that I engage with more philosophy of humour than actual humour, which I think is correct and fine, because the philosophy is more useful for what I’m actually trying to do, which is to better understand the human condition and how to enjoy it.
I thought I’d talk a little bit about that today, and explore what humour does for us, and why it’s an important part of enjoying ourselves and flourishing in the messy world that we find ourselves in.
Don’t even talk to me about Mondays
Let me show you an example of two programmers bonding:
“Hey did you hear the US Senate passed a bill to make Daylight Savings Time permanent?”
“Oh no is this going to be like Jordan? When does it change?”
“It’s not changing until 2023. What happened in Jordan?”
“Oh didn’t you hear about this? Back in 2012 they decided to stay on daylight savings time, but they decided two days before the switchover.”
“Oh no! That must have been chaos.”
“Yeah! Apparently it was a big problem for flights. They ended up scheduling things as if they had done the winter time switchover after all because they had to coordinate with other countries…”
“God, time zones are the worst.”
If you ever want to make friends with a programmer, just share awful time zone and calendar facts with them.
Do you know about Sweden’s switchover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar? They decided to just skip leap years for 40 years until the two were in sync. Except they forgot some of the years! And then they got bored and switched back to the Julian calendar in order to make the change over easier. At which point they introduced a 30th of February to make it work! Every time you need to represent a historical date you must ask “Where was it?” and if they say “Sweden”, you are legally entitled to demand a bottle of aquavit from them before accepting the task.
The Jordan situation is far from unique, but my favourite fact from this link has to be:
Another such place [where whether you are currently using DST is determined by announcement rather than on a fixed schedule] is Morocco, where the schedule for the first start of DST and last end of DST are adequately defined, but every year since 2012 there has been a "DST suspension period", such that DST ends before the start of Ramadan, and is restored sometime after. Not only does this mean that the clocks need to be changed four times in a single calendar year, but it also means that nobody is fully certain of when the middle two transitions will occur until the government makes an announcement. Part of the reason for this is that the dates for Ramadan are based on the observed sighting of the new moon.
Contrary to what you might assume, time zones are not necessarily whole hour offsets from UTC, and can come in quarter and half hour offsets.
Do you know about leap seconds? As well as years, sometimes we need to add or remove a second from the year, because it turns out that giant spinning balls of rock are not terribly precise clocks. Computers don’t like this very much because it leads to confusing scenarios where time seems to move backwards.
Further awfulness abounds, and programmers love talking about these horrors, and when you listen to them it’s hard not to notice that yes this is awful and we hate it, but there’s a distinct note of glee in our voices.
It’s awful and we hate it, but it is also hilarious, and perhaps it is also wonderful and we love it.
Noticing the world
A key part of why we enjoy these stories is that they are funny.
I mostly hold to EB White’s observation when it comes to jokes: Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.1
So, I don’t intend to explain exactly what it is that makes time zone switchovers that depend on the phase of the moon funny, but I do want to ask what it is these stories are doing for us.
A book I cannot quite recommend but personally found very useful is “Inside Jokes” by Hurley, Dennet, and Adams. It’s one among many books that attempts to provide a comprehensive theory of humour and, like all such books, probably doesn’t quite work but does its best to fit everything into its pet theory, and at least produces something interest in the course of doing so.
The Inside Jokes theory of humour is that humour is a superstimulus to some underlying reward mechanism, in much the same way that candy is a superstimulus to a reward mechanism designed2 for encouraging us to seek out useful calories, porn is a superstimulus for a reward mechanism designed to encourage reproduction, and shouting at people on Twitter is a superstimulus for a reward mechanism designed to encourage the formation of group moral norms. There is some underlying thing that feels good because feeling good makes us seek out things that are broadly beneficial for us, and humour is a way of activating that reward mechanism very strongly.
What is humour superstimulating? They suggest that we are being rewarded for noticing contradictions in our currently active beliefs. They have a bunch of technical machinery that makes it more precise and makes a bit more sense of that than this, but I’m not sure it really helps understand why e.g. “What’s yellow and equivalent to the axiom of choice?” “Zorn’s Lemon” is a funny joke3 or, especially, why it stays funny even after you know the joke.
Similarly, I don’t think it quite explains the humour we programmers find in time zones. It’s not really about contradictions, it’s about irregularities and the unexpected.
My personal theory here is something you might call the deliciousness theory of humour. Whether something is funny is like whether something is delicious - there are a number of related but somewhat independent things we are appreciating, and it is the combination of them working together that makes something delicious or funny. Any sort of simple theory of humour that tries to account for everything that we find funny is like saying that something is delicious because it contains sugar - not wrong, but incomplete.
I suggest that one of the ingredients that goes into humour, and that shows up particularly in programmers’ horrified delight about time zones and other similar professional war stories, is something that we might call delight in the imperfect. We see that the world is flawed, and rather than recoil from it we are drawn to those flaws in order to regard them better. Thus we see parts of the world that we would not otherwise be drawn to, and are rewarded in regarding these flaws by delighting in them.
Laughing in the darkness
People have a complicated relationship with humour, because they think that it is opposed to treating something as important, or trivialises the bad things about it. Delight in the imperfect is particularly vulnerable to this critique. How can you delight in something bad?
Very easily, it turns out.
I want to be clear, the time zone problems we delight in discussing were probably incredibly stressful on the ground. I bet the people at Royal Jordanian had a very bad few days, and they have my absolute sympathies. This doesn’t stop me from finding the whole thing very funny, nor lessen the appeal of time zone horror stories.
People laugh at horrible things all the time, especially when they’re in the middle of them. People in the USSR made a whole art form out of jokes about how terrible everything was. e.g.
A the time of the Stalinist terror, a family was awakened late at night by a loud pounding on the door. Everyone jumped out of bed, terrified.
“Take all your belongings with you!” shouted a voice from outside. “For God’s sake, don’t be alarmed! It’s only me, your next-door neighbor. Don’t panic, I’ve only come to tell you a thing of minor importance: your house is burning down!”
(From “Forbidden Laughter (Soviet Underground Jokes)” by Emil Draitser)
There are many other jokes like this. You can see some others here. All of them paint a fairly dark picture of the society from which they come, but nevertheless people (presumably) still found them funny. It’s hard to imagine that seeing the humour in this situation would suddenly make them OK with the Stalinist purges.
This isn’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. You can pretty much see these sorts of jokes cropping up in every country, with the level of bitterness tracking roughly how bad the country’s politics is.
Here’s a recent example:
Boris Johnson visited a village in Cornwall and asked the inhabitants what the government could do for them.
“We have two big needs” said the village spokesman. “First, we have a health centre but no doctor.”
Boris whipped out his mobile phone, spoke for a while and then said “I have sorted it out. A doctor will arrive here tomorrow. What is your other need?”
“We have no mobile phone reception at all in our village.”
Programmers love date and time horror stories because this sort of thing is a significant part of our job - almost any sufficiently experienced programmer has a story about that time they got screwed over by something to do with dates and times. If it’s not dates and times, it’s some other source of horrifying complexity like numbers or text. Computers try to make precise the horrible messy details of the world, and really you’ve got to laugh about it.
Seeking out imperfection
I think part of the difficulty in allowing ourselves to properly delight in the imperfect, comes from conflating delighting in something with wanting it to happen. This isn’t the case. You can appreciate something as it exists while acknowledging its problems. You can see that a fire is beautiful without becoming a pyromaniac, and you can appreciate the absurdity of your political situation without thinking it’s good.
Even if a delight in the imperfect causes you to want more imperfection in your life (and it should), there is no shortage of imperfection to seek out. The imperfect is not scarce, it’s abundant. If you find imperfection delightful, you will never be short of things that delight you, even if you fix any given problem. Solving problems and smoothing out imperfections doesn’t remove the source of delight, it merely opens up new vistas for it. You could give yourself over totally to delight in the imperfect and never run out of things to explore, even without creating your own.
More, this delight will draw your attention to the problem in a way that allows you to understand it without feeling paralysed by fear. People aren’t (usually4) laughing at horrible situations because they like that the situation is horrible, they are laughing at them because it is good to draw your attention to the details of that horrible in a way that feels pleasant rather than aversive. It improves your ability to deal with these situations and to communicate about them.
You see similar things with people with particularly difficult jobs. e.g. paramedics and other frontline medical professionals often have very dark senses of humour. This can seem callous (and is, if they indulge in it in front of patients), but I think it serves a similar function to the political humour - it brings people together in shared enjoyment of the details of their otherwise bleak experience, and lets them build a shared understanding of it through that.
It’s possible to frame this sort of humour as purely a kind of coping strategy, and I think to some degree that is true, but I think it is not purely a coping strategy. It drives us not just to cope with the world, but to flourish within it.
In a perfect world, everything would be simple and well coordinated, time zones would work smoothly, the earth would rotate at a sufficiently constant speed, everything would be nice and regular and operate smoothly. We don’t live in that world, and the world we live in instead is flawed and imperfect in so many ways, that go far beyond comparative trivialities such as time zones, and humour does indeed allow us to cope with that.
But I think humour provides more than mere coping. Without a sense of humour, we will find the imperfections of the world annoying, or horrifying, and this is real and fair and valid, but if that was all there was to it and we could do nothing but cope, we would be inclined to disengage from and hide from these ugly realities. Instead, our sense of humour allows us to find this imperfection delightful.
This is often the better response because, rather than driving us to avoid these imperfections in the world, we are drawn to seek them out and behold them instead, appreciating them as they are.
Delight in the imperfect drives us to engage with the world as it is. It rewards us for seeing the world in its true detail, and beholding it in all its delightful, hilarious, flaws.
Playing with imperfection
Although delight in the imperfect need not drive us to create imperfection, especially when the imperfection would otherwise be bad, it certainly can do, and it is often worth leaning into this.
One of my favourite things is doing things in ways that are wrong and bad. As such, I consider the following the pinnacle of art:
This is in fact a very useful skill to develop. I’ve talked about existence proofs as a general strategy before, and it’s come up again here on the newsletter in Costing up solutions, but the general idea is this: It’s often very useful to know that a problem is solvable, and often the best way to know that you can solve it is to start by solving it in a really dumb way that you wouldn’t want to use in practice. After that, you can ask how to solve it well.
But even if you don’t adopt a dumb solution in a particular case, enjoying dumb solutions is a great way to get you to think about problems and problem solving more, because it provides a reward for doing so. In general, the more you think about things and see how they fit together, the better you will get at working with them.
You can get something similar with playing with argumentation. A favourite pastime over on the Overthinking Everything discord is arguing over whether things are sandwiches or not. This includes further meta-arguments between proponents of the simpler Sandwich/Salad/Soup/Meat system and the more thoroughly developed yet perhaps overfitted cube rule.
These arguments are fun in large part because they are bad and pointless, allowing us to play with and poke at their flawed nature in the absence of serious consequence. By taking joy in the argument itself - rather than in some particular end, either practical or victory, we can develop our skills and understanding of the world in enjoyable low effort ways that spill over into our broader engagement with the world.
Tinkerers and tricksters
You can see similar tendencies in people much smarter than me. I enjoyed the book “A Mind At Play”, a biography of Claude Shannon (who invented information theory, which provides a lot of the theoretical underpinnings of modern computing and networking), and it contained the following list of some of Shannon’s later projects:
An electronic, maze-solving mouse named Theseus. An Erector Set turtle that walked his house. The first plan for a chess-playing computer, a distant ancestor of IBM’s Deep Blue. The first-ever wearable computer5. A calculator that operated in Roman numerals, code-named THROBAC (“Thrifty Roman-Numeral Backward-Looking Computer”). A fleet of customized unicycles. Years devoted to the scientific study of juggling.
And, of course, the Ultimate Machine: a box and a switch, which, when flipped on, produced a whirring of gears and a mechanical hand that emerged from the box, flipped the switch off, and disappeared again.
Here’s the Ultimate Machine in action:
Although Shannon’s work does have a few practical consequences such as the entirety of modern technological infrastructure, it’s hard to escape the sense that a great deal of Shannon’s core motivations for working on what he did was this that he enjoyed solving problems immensely, and given the projects he picked up out of choice much of this must have been some sort of delight in the imperfect - a desire to find the edges of things and see how they fit together.
Some of his devices are more obviously humorous than others, but all of them show a kind of playing with the possibilities that I think would be hard to manage if he weren’t having a lot of fun doing it.
How to delight in the imperfect
Hank Green had a great video recently about experiencing things as complex and both good and bad at the same time:
Taking delight in the imperfect requires embracing this dual vision of the world. The imperfections of the world are often bad, and we can fight against that while still taking delight in them as imperfections. We see something bad, but can we also notice the things about it that we delight in without detracting from that badness.
And we can share that delight with each other. I started with examples of programmers sharing war stories for a reason: A lot of the delight in the imperfect is that we get to discover horrible things and tell them to others, and they tell us new ones in turn. This is a bonding experience, a moment of shared intimacy where you connect over your joint experience of some aspect of the world, and take delight in it together.
One of my earliest newsletter posts was about how good and useful complaining is. This is still absolutely true, but oddly I missed something when writing it: A lot of why you should complain about things is that it’s fun, and it helps you take delight in the imperfect nature of the world we all find ourselves in.
So, go forth, and notice the weird and wonderful details of the things around you and, when you do, take a moment to appreciate their flaws. And then point those out to your friends.
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My day job isn’t actually helping people understand humour, but it does involve helping people understand how to have a better and more productive relationship with their colleagues and their work. Which is to say I do consulting - I come in to companies, talk to people, and help them understand their problems better and come up with ways to tackle them. If that sounds appealing, you should get in touch. My expertise is primarily with software companies, but I’m happy to talk to people in other industries too.
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If delight in the imperfect sounds appealing, it’s a good place to be. We have lots of conversations about how terrible computers and time zones and such are, and also lots of arguments about whether a dumpling is technically a type of calzone.
That being said, I do find over-explaining jokes hilarious. You see, the thing is, you’re not supposed to explain jokes, and as a result explaining the joke automatically calls attention to the fact that the joke wasn’t funny. By belabouring the point long past where social etiquette demands you stop, you demonstrate that you are aware of this and deliberately are playing up to it. This subverts the expectations of the listener, using the original joke as fuel for the absurd. At some point in the process of explaining the listener is both laughing and also increasingly annoyed with you, calling to mind the mix of amusement and pain that is present in the performance of a good pun. It is important that throughout all of this you remain completely deadpan. This allows for a dual form of amusement which plays on a subtle disconnect between two dominant theories of humour - on the one hand, you have the incongruity theory of humour which is brought into play by the very dry approach to explaining your initial seemingly minor joke, forming an incongruity between the technical import which is attached to your words and the light-hearted witticism of the original. On top of this, by playing at superiority by adopting the didactic role of a teacher explaining to a slow-witted student, you are also bringing into play the superiority theory of humour. This contrast between the two different and seemingly incompatible theories of humour is of course a further incongruity, contributing yet more to the humour of the experience. This can be played with further, in that you are simultaneously amusing yourself by adopting the superior role, and also by pantomiming pompous performances, playing the pedant as it were, you perform an additional source of comedy for the listener. The sophisticated reader will of course notice that this contrast between the liveliness of the humorous performance with the technical dissection of the material brings to mind Henri Bergson’s notion from “Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic”, which suggests that the essence of humour is “The mechanical encrusted on the living”. I could go on to show how this contrast between theory and praxis provides the essential germ of comedic brilliance, but shall alas brevity is the soul of wit, and one should always leave the reader wanting more.
Properly “designed” here means evolved, but “evolved to” is also wrong, evolution doesn’t actually target specific goals like that, and on top of that design is a form of evolution anyway and, arguably, vice versa. I think “design” conveys the idea better than “evolved” here. Please don’t nitpick this.
Yes it’s a funny joke. Shut up.
There are a bunch of different theories of humour, some of them nastier than others. The “superiority” theory of humour suggests that humour is a dominance behaviour, and you laugh at people you feel superior to. This definitely happens, and when that happens you usually are delighting in the bad thing for being bad. This is cruel. A good rule of thumb is that gallows humour is only for people on the gallows, not those in the crowd. As with all rules of thumb this is imperfect, but it’s worth paying attention to.
What doesn’t come up until later in the book is what the first wearable computer was for. It was for cheating at roulette.
I guess technically that makes the cover image for this post a CIA asset.