Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

06 JUNE, 2014

Amusingly Cryptic Warning Signs from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Autotuned


A serendipitous adventure in science communication.

When artist, designer, and educator David Delgado first arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work with the artist-in-residence there, he was immediately struck by the strange signs around the space, often cryptic and seemingly nonsensical. He found himself captivated by the disconnect between the dry, mundane language of these cautions and the immensely interesting processes, materials, and operations they were trying to describe. A solitary keyhole, almost alien in its arbitrary placement, bears the label “lazer bypass” — something partway between Alice in Wonderland and Alice in Quantumland, or the set of a science fiction movie.

When his friend Lee Overtree, Artistic Director of the wonderful arts education nonprofit Story Pirates, came to visit, he too took amused notice of the signs. Using Delgado’s photographs, he decided to compose a song using the app Songify to autotune his reading of the warning text from the various signs.

I recently bumped into Delgado at the World Science Festival, where he told me the story of their sign-turned-song, as an aside to an unrelated conversation about Ray Bradbury’s conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. I was instantly smitten with this geeky labor of love. So, with high permission all the way up from NASA’s Media Office, here is the end result for our shared delight:

More of Delgado’s original photographs of the signs below:

Complement with NASA’s formal Art Program, featuring Serious Art by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Norman Rockwell, then take a tour of JPL’s predecessors with these gorgeous vintage photos of NASA facilities.

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16 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Humor and the Humor of Science: A Brilliant 1969 Reflection on Laughter as Self-Defense Against Automation


“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”

What, exactly, makes a joke funny? How does an intelligent joke remain a joke without diluting the intellectual and remain intelligent without compromising the funny? From the altogether fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — a compendium of comments, both lighthearted and serious, by scientists that “reveal their intensely human ambitions, frustrations and elation” and that “record some changing attitudes within science and mirror the interaction of science with society” — comes an essay titled “Keeping Up with Science” by Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki, adapted from his 1969 paper published in UNESCO’s journal Impact of Science on Society. Feleki explores the role of humor — specifically educated humor and scientific humor, even more precisely — as a sort of cultural defense mechanism against the incomprehensibly fast-paced technological progress of modern society. Revisiting Feleki’s words more than four decades later — after then-unthinkable developments like personal genomics, 3-D printing, advanced robotic space probes, and the world wide web — gives them all the more amplified resonance. He writes:

With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke loose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Considering the question of humor to be one of “extraordinary importance,” Feleki notes that “to laugh at a joke without analyzing it is work half done” and sets out to explore what humor actually is:

The term “humor” itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humor is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humor.

Still, Feleki concedes that one of the hallmarks of humor is how it eludes definition. He outlines, instead, “some partial truths about humor”:

It is evident that humor is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not “light” literature.

Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original.

The basis of acid humor is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers.

Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh.

The greatest blessing of humor is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh.

Feleki goes on to demonstrate the tenets of the science of humorology through a single joke, which he himself told to an acquaintance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences:

Two geologists converse in a cafe. One of them says: “Yes, unfortunately fifteen years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish.” A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: “What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool?” “Fifteen billion years,” the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: “Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million!”

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria, about half a million years old. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from her project 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But as Feleki awaits an outburst of laughter, or at the very least an amused smile, from the professor, he is faced with nothing but “brown study — rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes.” Just as he began to wonder whether his companion had understood the joke, the professor gave an appreciative nod, which he substantiated with a romp through the history of philosophical theories explaining humor:

The joke is good… If we accept Aristotle’s definition according to which the comic, the ridiculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate.

And, then, what about Hobbes’s hypothesis? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride, as seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority.

The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time.

In Schopenhauer’s terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike the cold.

Nor is Bergson’s theory of automatism left out of account, because the protagonist is jolted out of the mathematically induced natural time sense that measures human life.

To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it.

With this, the professor burst into uncontrollable laughter “so hard that tears flowed and he held his sides.” Faleki returns to the heart of the matter:

It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved the Little Idiot, the two traveling salesmen, someone’s mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of scientific humor requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need to future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humor in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the process of science.

Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: “Can’t you move straight? You must be drunk again!” The other photon protests vehemently: “What do you expect? Can’t you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field?” Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.

A Random Walk in Science is a fantastic read from cover to cover. In the introduction, editor Robert L. Weber captures the volume’s spirit perfectly by citing something he read in the Worm Runner’s Digest, a publication that began as one researcher’s “personal joke with the Scientific Establishment” and evolved into a bona fide journal without losing its sense of humor:

We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

The collection is thus the Establishment’s effort to inhabit the spirit of the humorist. The result is infinitely delightful.

Complement this particular meditation with Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor works.

Thanks, Lucinda

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27 MARCH, 2014

Rejection as Creative Catalyst: A Lesson in Entrepreneurship from New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff


A tale of finding art in the absurd and entrepreneurial spark in the rejected.

“Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity,” Anthony Lane wrote in the introduction to the impossibly delightful Big New Yorker Book of Cats. Incidentally, the same can be said of both cartoonists and entrepreneurs, but especially of entrepreneurial cartoonists.

In his new memoir, How About Never — Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons (public library), titled after his cartoon-turned-pop-culture-classic, Bob Mankoff, who founded the New Yorker’s wildly successful Cartoon Bank and has been the magazine’s cartoon editor since 1997, peels the curtain on how he reverse-engineered the machinery of a successful cartoon and turned his side project into a trajectory to the top. Embedded in his story is a testament to the power of self-education, tenacity, and the gift of seeing rejection not as a deterrent but as a springboard for entrepreneurship — something we’ve seen again and again in the psychology of failure and mastery.

Mankoff, who dropped out of his psychology Ph.D. in the 1970s to pursue a career in cartooning, decided to educate himself in the intricacies of the New Yorker aesthetic by spending countless hours at the New York Public Library, which he calls his “cartoon college.” There, he closely studied every single issue of the magazine since its inception in 1925 to understand what made cartoons work. This self-initiated learning was something Mankoff modeled after his father, an erudite man with little formal schooling who had educated himself at the New York Public Library — a heartening testament to the power of alternative education. He encapsulates his learnings from his systematic ethnography of the New Yorker cartoon:

I later learned that The New Yorker doesn’t call a cartoon a cartoon. The material of interest is referred to as a “drawing.” And because it’s a drawing, not a cartoon, it doesn’t necessarily have to be funny. Interesting is enough, if you’re as interesting as William Steig or Saul Steinberg. But whatever the form or content of the cartoons, the one common thread that ran through all of those I studied in the New York Public Library was that they made the reader think. You had to be a participant in the experience, up-to-date on the latest trends and buzzwords, aware of the world around you, and possessing a mental flexibility able to appreciate different comic visions, techniques, and talents.

Mankoff adds a note on his two greatest influences, Saul Steinberg and James Thurber:

Steinberg appealed to my rationality and Thurber to my whimsicality. Steinberg’s cartoons didn’t cause an outward laugh or even an inward one, but they made my mind smile. Each one was a philosophical mediation in ink.

Thurber, for him, provided two different kinds of inspiration:

First, his flavor of funny wasn’t like the traditional gag. His captions didn’t make sense of the image. Instead, the caption made what was going on stranger and, if you were on the Thurber wavelength, funnier.

Thurber’s jokes were not the type you “get” in that classic way where you suddenly put two different frames of reference together and therefore are able to understand why the former Mrs. Harris is up there on the bookshelf. And trying to figure out where the midgets came from or, for that matter, why they made you giggle, wasn’t going to get you anywhere. It was go-with-the-flow humor in which you enjoyed absurdity by giving yourself over to it.

That approach appealed to my wacky side and encouraged me to, well, have a whack at it. My absurdity was different from Thurber’s because weirdness by definition, if truly weird, needs to be idiosyncratic.

What was especially intriguing about Thurber, a man who knew how to transmogrify the absurd into the humorously philosophical, was his apparent lack of drawing skill in the traditional sense, which offered a kind of assurance for Mankoff:

Look, if the requirement for admission to The New Yorker was that I would have to draw as well as Addams, Arno, George Price, “Watch out, Fred! Here it comes again!” or Charles Saxon, well, that was going to be too high a bar for someone who couldn’t even make the Music and Art honor roll. But Thurber’s drawing ability was considerably less daunting. It looked amateurish by any academic standard, including that of my old high school. In fact, to get into M&A I’d had to submit a portfolio that included drawings of the human figure, and if those figures had looked anything like Thurber’s homunculi, I never would have been admitted.

But arguably the most interesting aspect of Mankoff’s career was how he came to found the magazine’s now-legendary Cartoon Bank, a simple but at the time incredibly innovative online database from which one could license a cartoon or buy a print. In 1990, when the web as we know it was but a half-conscious infant, Mankoff came up what he thought was a “million-dollar idea” — to do for cartoons what stock-photo houses had long been doing for photography, making cartoons available for licensing to publishers and general-public fans alike. He originally thought he’d populate the bank with cartoons published in The New Yorker — it seemed like a simple, brilliant, win-win proposition.

Alas, the magazine rejected it, which neither surprised Mankoff nor deterred him:

I was just a cartoonist with an idea, and The New Yorker was quite comfortable rejecting ideas from cartoonists—it did just that by the hundreds every week. This experience with rejection gave me an idea for Plan B. The New Yorker was getting many more cartoons than it could possibly use. No matter how funny your batch was, necessity demanded that most of it be deemed not funny enough. Why not create the Cartoon Bank from all the cartoons The New Yorker was rejecting every week? That would amount to thousands every year.

While some of the rejects, Mankoff points out euphemistically, “fell short of great,” the majority “weren’t half bad, a quarter bad, or bad at all” — in fact, they were pretty fantastic, which makes sense even as a purely statistical probability: Some of the best cartoonists in the world submit a total 500 cartoons to The New Yorker per week, of which the magazine prints, on average, only 17. Driven by the belief that the remaining 483 couldn’t all be “stinkers,” Mankoff decided to forge forward with the Cartoon Bank idea — a concept that would not only help the cartoonists themselves by giving their work wider exposure and enabling them to make money from the rejects, but would also help The New Yorker in the long run.

But bringing the idea to life would take two things: an understanding of cartoons, both creatively and commercially, and some computer skills. Fortunately, Mankoff had both — not only that, but also had incredible foresight about the future of social technology. In 1982, more than two decades before Facebook was born and even before Mark Zuckerberg was conceived, Mankoff drew the following cartoon:

The Cartoon Bank idea was also very much shaped, as most cultural innovations, by the available technology at the time. To think that Mankoff pulled off what he did in that context gives one pause amidst the modern technologies we take for granted:

MacPaint wasn’t good for drawing cartoons, but once you had drawn one, it was good for tinkering with it. Now if only you could draw the cartoon on paper and get it into the computer! Trying to stuff them into the disk drive didn’t work, but I discovered an early handheld scanner that you would drag across what you wanted to scan. It wasn’t wide enough for cartoons; you needed two passes to scan one, and then the software would stitch the image together.

As scanners got better and Macs more powerful, I began storing all my cartoons on the computer. From this it was not much of a leap to think that I could store all my friends’ cartoons, too, and sell them, which is how the idea of the Cartoon Bank was conceived.

From that point on, a lifelong pattern emerges in Mankoff’s story as his creative and entrepreneurial journey becomes largely propelled by women. First, his wife, Sarah — a business entrepreneur herself — not only supports Mankoff unconditionally as he pursues “what many thought to be a hairbrained scheme” (how’s that for a homonym pun), but she also teaches him the practicalities of running a business. Meanwhile, Mankoff was busy convincing the other New Yorker cartoonists of the project’s value. By 1997, seven years after its conception, that derided “scheme” had come to life and quickly proved to be a brilliant idea. But Mankoff needed one last push — it was still a catalog of rejected cartoons rather than an official archive of The New Yorker’s licensable drawings.

This is when another pivotal woman enters the scene: Media mogul Tina Brown had just been hired away from Vanity Fair to helm The New Yorker, and Mankoff set out to sell her on the Cartoon Bank idea. In one of the most intriguing asides in the book, especially given the context of Brown’s media stature today, Mankoff writes:

At a luncheon Tina held for the cartoonists, she told us … that she thought the Cartoon Bank was “a million-dollar idea.” All of this was exhilarating but also frightening. Here I was on the cusp of becoming an overnight success at the age of fifty. I had luck and Tina on my side, so what could go wrong? Everything, I feared. What Queen Tina wanted, Queen Tina got, and as long as I was golden, that boded well. Right now, Tina was blowing hot, but she could just as easily blow cold, and then off with your head as well as your headline. Golden boys, under Tina, could turn to lead very quickly.

But Brown was, and is, above all a shrewd businesswoman, so the Cartoon Bank was a go:

By 1997 the Cartoon Bank was up on this newfangled thing called the Internet and was among the first, if not the first, to, in today’s jargon, “monetize” cartoons.

And yet the Bank remained an archive of rejected cartoons — that is, until a third woman steps in: Deputy editor Pam McCarthy, who had come to The New Yorker along with Brown from Vanity Fair, became a champion of the project’s potential and set out to convince, Si Newhouse, the owner of The New Yorker, to buy the Cartoon Bank and expand it to include not only rejects but actual published cartoons.

Once the offer was on the table, Mankoff agreed to sell his baby on two conditions — that he would remain president and that he would be made cartoon editor of The New Yorker — the latter was a bold proposition, which he didn’t think the magazine would buy but when, by fluke or politics, then-editor Lee Lorenz announced his retirement a few months later, Brown immediately gave Mankoff the coveted job. He writes of the change with just the right balance of good-guy self-consciousness and entrepreneur’s confident ambition:

Look, I was very grateful to Lee for having brought me into the magazine, but not so grateful that I didn’t want his job. In other words, I was an ingrate. It wasn’t that I thought I could do it better, but I did think I could do it differently, by evolving the tradition, bringing in new comic sensibilities, and using the combined positions of president of the Cartoon Bank and cartoon editor to make cartooning more economically viable. So when push came to shove, I guess I did think I could do the job better.

I actually didn’t expect them to meet the second condition and I knew they wouldn’t, but I felt it couldn’t hurt to have my ambitions, both for myself and the expanded nature of the job.

Lo and behold, they did, and Mankoff became the magazine’s editor in 1997, seven years after he envisioned the Bank of Rejects — the once-fledgling idea that went on to become of The New Yorker’s most successful offshoots. In a New York Times article about Mankoff’s new position, Tina Brown was quoted as not only extolling his “edgy, contemporary kind of humor,” but also his role as “a passionate curator of and defender of and promoter of the art of cartooning.”

But the tragic nature of business is such that once creative venture tips into a scale large enough to tickle the commercial interests of those involved, those interests begin to warp the integrity and heart of the venture — a perilous pattern of which E.B. White admonished in 1976. What was originally primarily a way to get cartoonists exposure and help them make a living from their art now became a showcase for Condé Nast’s products. Mankoff notes wryly:

The fun stopped for me about ten years into it, when the focus shifted from the Cartoon Bank to using the online platform to promote Condé Nast’s photos, covers, and illustrations from other magazines, such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, and Golf Digest. Nothing wrong with doing that from a corporate point of view, but from a personal perspective it was clear that someone who has no interest in fashion, never reads celebrity profiles, is unglamorous, and agrees with Mark Twain that golf is “a good walk spoiled” wouldn’t be a good fit to head such an entity.

So Mankoff stepped away from the Cartoon Bank — because, as Kio Stark memorably put it, “a gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing” — but remained cartoon editor of the magazine. It’s a position he still inhabits with his singular sensibility and inexhaustibly refreshing kind of humor — he, who educated himself in the ethos of cartooning at the public library and who took himself to the top of a legendary cultural institution by scrapping together its rejects and sculpting them into a crown jewel.

In the rest of How About Never — Is Never Good for You?, Mankoff goes on to explore how he found his voice as an artist, what role luck and timing play in success, what makes a successful New Yorker cartoon, and how to win the magazine’s coveted caption contest. Complement it with the wonderful Blown Covers, a collection of rejected New Yorker covers we were never meant to see.

For a teaser-taste, see Mankoff’s fantastic TED talk exploring the anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon and touching on Arthur Koestler’s seminal theory of how humor and creativity work:

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