My Kind of Humour

I thought I’d start my stories with some funnies, just to break the ice, but then I got sidetracked into being philosophical about funnies, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer for the laugh out loud moments. I like to laugh, including at myself (it’s that, or miss one of the best jokes on Earth). In my spiritual life, humour is one of my “gods” – it’s an amazing thing that we have life, but to also have things that we can laugh at, so hard that we cry, sometimes… I’m glad we evolved this way, and I also like that we are apparently not the only species on this planet with a sense of humour. I am reminded of David Brin’s “The Uplift Trilogy” – humour was recognised as a distinct phenomena of sentient thought and expression. I read the series probably in the early 90’s, and I still form mental glyphs for “What boys do” and “Mourning for a good joke gone unappreciated”.

I love clowns and YouTube for lots of reasons, including the laughs they deliver (I have started my journey to be a clown), and I like people who make me laugh. I like watching kittens chase laser dots, and listening to children tell stories of how the world works. There are different levels of humour, that appeal to different audiences, but people who allow themselves to become jaded, and no longer able to get pleasure from or appreciate something because it’s common, or they have experienced it before, what do they gain? Is there really so much joy and pleasure in the world that we can afford to disregard and discard the known sources? Or do we become bitter, cold and haughty in our worldliness?

I’m really enjoying modern animated movies that have so much adult level humour. There’s a wicked joy in recognising a joke that goes over someone else’s head. I once saw a juggler busking in Auckland. He was doing a routine where he juggled in the style of various art movements: Cubism (very angular), Impressionism (not juggling, but it looked like he was), Romanticism (sweeping movements with soulful eyes)… Then he put one hand in his pants pocket and continued the juggling with the other: “Lonely Romanticism… It’s OK to laugh – the kids don’t get it… or if they do, that’s not MY fault.”

Wicked and amused are very complimentary feelings, at least for me and people I associate with. I don’t like comedians who get their laughs cheaply by embarrassing members of their audience, but I do like satirists who bring the powerful back to Earth. I intend to do another story on the power of clowns. I like it when everyone comes out feeling amused, but we should also respect the value of bad taste jokes. Us Westerners tell them to break the ice on otherwise hard to discuss topics. See the Darwin Awards or if you haven’t yet played Cards Against Humanity, I highly recommend it. I have seen Germans play the Auschwitz card, and black people play the Black people card (more about that later). I like this definition of Politically Correct thinking: “The idea that one can pick up a piece of sh*t by the clean end”. We have to be able to talk about these things.

This coping mechanism is cultural, not universal. When Michael Jackson died it took about five minutes before people were telling bad taste jokes in the office. Q: “When is it time to go to bed at Neverland?” A: “When the big hand touches the little hand.” My Chinese colleague was appalled. She told me how, when she was a little girl, she went to a family funeral and was excited to see so many of her favourite people. She was running around and laughing, and she was spanked until she cried because it was wrong to show any happiness when someone has died. I’m sorry if, in reading this blog, my sense of humour offends. I do not intend any disrespect.

I think many of us can actually relate a bit to the discomfort of humour found in bad circumstances – it’s not as though these bad taste laughs are guilt free. Laughing in surprise or nervousness can make good people feel terrible. The Germans have a word: “schadenfreude” – pleasure derived (by someone) from another person’s misfortune. How often do we admit to feeling this? Watch Shakespeare comedies or American romantic comedies and almost all the laughs come from people doing horrible things to each other. While I love good slapstick there is a whole entertainment industry based on the published recordings of animals and people accidentally hurting themselves, and I don’t like that, but sometimes it’s hard not to laugh when you see it. It would be comedy gold if it was deliberate and no-one was hurt, and I do appreciate it when someone puts their own pratfall forward to amuse others and as a way of laughing at themselves. I certainly do a lot of that.

Smiling is a well known technique for mood control: when you’re feeling down, deliberately put a half smile on your face. The smile will lift your mood (really), and it will soon be real. Laughing is good for your health – easy to verify on Google. I am going to dedicate a lot of my blog to funny stories, because if you’re serious about loving humanity you must spread the joy, delight and laughs of life, even if some of them are a bit wicked.

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Curiosity Killed the Computer

OK – the title might be overstating it a bit, but I’m a test analyst, and we get tired of hearing about how “automated testing” replaces the need for manual testers.

I recently saw this TED talk about machine deep learning.

I was somewhat surprised about how much the process for teaching machines was so akin to one of the fastest ways to teach expertise to humans – the exposure to 200-300 excellent examples in a short time, with a small amount of expert guidance, and seen in this presentation by Kathy Sierra.

I was thinking, it might not be so long after all, before machines are doing all our observational jobs, if they can learn pattern recognition like that (and they are more accurate and much faster and never forget…)

And then I saw this wonderful talk about aliens (or maybe not aliens). Even though number crunching is one of the primary uses for computers they could still miss evidence that humans could pick up, and more significant than that, they don’t see what we don’t program them to see. That is, we can see things that are not expected, but because we don’t expect an anomaly, we don’t make our computers see it. The pattern recognition a computer uses might throw a wobbly when confronted with a 3-wheeled car, or a wrecked car, but we would still see it is a car. Computers look for recognisable or definable characteristics. Humans characteristically have 2 arms, but we recognise that there are exceptions… We might be able to teach a computer the pattern recognition to sex chicks, but it won’t cope with a hermaphroditic or mutated example (unless we thought of that possibility ourselves, first).

Humans have observational skills that cannot yet even be explained, like the amateur astronomer that Bill Bryson talks about in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. Reverend Robert Evans can see supernovas…

To understand what a feat this is, imagine a standard dining room table covered in a black tablecloth and someone throwing a handful of salt across it. The scattered grains can be thought of as a galaxy. Now imagine fifteen hundred more tables like the first one—enough to fill a Wal-Mart parking lot, say, or to make a single line two miles long—each with a random array of salt across it. Now add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. That grain of salt is the supernova

We may not all be exceptional, like this, but these examples show there is an argument yet to justify the inclusion of human observational skills on top of machine pattern recognition and deep learning even when the machines get good at it and are in common use. We learn new things when someone sees something they don’t expect, and says “WTF?” and follows the lead. Test wisdom says “the difference between what we know and what we need to know is why we test in the first place”. Machines might be able to take care of the things we know, but it will need a true AI before the need for complementary human analysis can be questioned.