April 2019

Volume 34 Number 4

[Don't Get Me Started]

A Laughing Matter

By David S. Platt | April 2019

David S. PlattI use a lot of humor in my teaching and writing. I find that readers and students remember a good joke or anecdote far better than any pontificated principle. But my most recent course on Xamarin included eight students with limited English skills. They mostly followed my code presentations, but I had to explain all the jokes. (“Elephants don’t really wear sneakers, see?”). I lent one of them Garrison Keillor’s “Pretty Good Joke Book” as background reading, but he got lost somewhere in the “Ole and Lena” cycle.

Lena: “Ole, the car won’t start because it has water in the carburetor.”

Ole: “You don’t even know what a carburetor is. I’ll check it out. Where’s the car?”

Lena: “In the lake.” [See bit.ly/2UbJQEI.])

I could never figure out if those students’ (restrained) laughter was real, or just a polite “no-soap-radio-now-get-the-hell-on-with-it-Plattski” (see bit.ly/2Ek1DTr). I’m determined to do better this year, but I needed some help. For this April Fool’s Day edition of Don’t Get Me Started, I decided to see how our computer assistants were progressing with their attempts at providing humor.

Well, I tried. I asked Alexa, Cortana, Siri and OK Google, “Tell me a joke.” All of them did a terrible job—beyond terrible. For example: “Why was the chicken afraid of the chicken?” Answer: “It was chicken.” I won’t tell you which service produced that groaner; the others were just as bad.

I then tried asking, “Tell me a funny joke.” The results still stunk. Alexa offered a small ray of hope when she asked if I wanted Jimmy Fallon to tell me one. I accepted with high hopes, but had them quickly dashed. Question: “What did the horse say to scarecrow?” Answer: “Hay!” Hey (sorry), Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google: You have to do better than this to call yourself an AI. Do you need me as a consultant?

Science fiction shows us computers dealing with humor, most notably in Heinlein’s superb novel, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” (Putnam, 1966). Set in 2076, Earth’s moon is a penal colony. The supercomputer owned by the Lunar Authority somehow wakes up and becomes self-aware. He befriends his repairman, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis, who names him Mycroft Holmes, or Mike for short. Mike develops a sense of humor, albeit a sophomoric one. “His idea of a thigh-slapper would be to dump you out of bed—or put itch powder in [your] pressure suit.”

Mike extracts a list of jokes from human literature, and Manny promises to explain to Mike which ones are funny and why. The battle for lunar independence intervenes and takes center stage, but I’ve always enjoyed the hyper-intelligent Mike’s struggles to grok this element of humanity.

The earliest literary reference I can find to computer analysis of humor is Asimov’s short story, “Jokester” (Infinity Science Fiction, 1956). A brilliant scientist named Meyeroff is caught feeding jokes into the supercomputer Multivac. The computer eventually learns enough to tell Meyeroff that humor is a study tool imposed on humans by extraterrestrials. This revelation destroys the value of the experiment to the aliens, who turn it off as fast as a modern company’s HR department stomps out unauthorized levity. Nothing is ever funny again for all of humanity. So let’s be careful out there.

Perhaps humor is one of those topics that remains eternally incomputable, as I postulated in my February 2019 column (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/mt833276). I’d be really surprised to see the publication of “Truly Tasteless Jokes, Volumes 1-27,” by Mike Holmes, anytime soon.

I’m announcing a new program: Pick Plattski’s Brain. Inspired by a similar service at Balsamiq (bit.ly/2XuqMUk), I’m setting aside two hours per week during which anyone can reserve a Skype call and ask me anything. Working from home gets lonely sometimes, so meeting readers for an hour is a great way to make new friends, and give back to the community. Contact me at Skype name dplattipswich, and we’ll set up a time. I won’t sign an NDA, but I won’t share anything we discuss outside my company (meaning me). First come, first serve. See you soon.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should have taped down two of his daughter’s fingers so she would learn how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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