(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘humor

“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out”*…

That most quotable (well, after Shakespeare) of wits…

More enduring epigrams in the entertaining infographic “And the Oscar goes to…” (full and larger) from @guardian.

See also “Oscar Wilde Will Not Be Automated, ” from @benjaminerrett.

* Oscar Wilde

###

As we chortle, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, by the way, Fibonacci Day) in 1644 that John Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England.  A prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship, it is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defenses of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.  The full text is here.

409px-Areopagitica_1644bw_gobeirne

source

“Curiosity has its own reason for existence”*…

This is, as nearly as I can tell, the 5,000th (Roughly) Daily post (4,505 blog posts, preceded by 495 email-only pieces). On this numerologically-significant occasion, my deep thanks to readers past and present. It seems appropriate to devote this post to the impulse that has powered (Roughly) Daily from the start, curiosity– free-range curiosity…

Recently I read a terrific blog post by CJ Eller where he talks about the value of paying attention to offbeat things.

Eller was joining an online conversation about how people get caught up in the “status and celebrity game” when they’re trying to grow their audience. They become overly obsessed with following — and emulating, and envying— the content of people with massive audiences. The conversation started with this poignant essay by the author Ali Montag; she concludes that rabidly chasing followers endows your writing (and thinking!) with “inescapable mediocrity.” (It also tends to make you miserable, too, she points out)…

Instead of crowding your attention with what’s already going viral on the intertubes, focus on the weird stuff. Hunt down the idiosyncratic posts and videos that people are publishing, oftentimes to tiny and niche audiences. It’s decidedly unviral culture — but it’s more likely to plant in your mind the seed of a rare, new idea.

I love the idea of “rewilding your attention”. It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me… social behavior can influence our attention: What are the high-follower-count folks talking/posting/arguing about today? This isn’t always a bad thing. We’re social animals, so we’re necessarily (and often productively) intrigued by what others are chewing over. But as these three writers note, it’s also crucial to follow your own signal — to cultivate the stuff you’re obsessed with, even if few others are.

On top of the social pressure from people online, there’s technological pressure too — from recommendation systems trying to juke our attention… Medium’s algorithm has deduced that … I’m a nerd. They are correct! I am. The other major social networks, like Twitter or YouTube, offer me the same geek-heavy recommendations when I log in. And hey, they’re not wrong either; I really do like these subjects.

But … I’m also interested in so many other things that are far outside these narrow lanes. I am, for example, a Canadian who’s deeply into Canadian art, and a musician who spends a lot of time thinking about composition and gear and lyric-writing and production and guitar pedals, and a father who thinks a lot about the culture my kids show me, and I have a super-snobby fanboy love of the 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

You’re the same way; you contain your own Whitmanian multitudes, your pockets of woolly-eyed obsession. We all do.

But our truly quirky dimensions are never really grasped by these recommendation algorithms. They have all the dullness of a Demographics 101 curriculum; they sketch our personalities with the crudity of crime-scene chalk-outlines. They’re not wrong about us; but they’re woefully incomplete. This is why I always get a slightly flattened feeling when I behold my feed, robotically unloading boxes of content from the same monotonous conveyor-belt of recommendations, catered to some imaginary marketing version of my identity. It’s like checking my reflection in the mirror and seeing stock-photo imagery.

The other problem with big-tech recommendation systems is they’re designed by people who are convinced that “popularity” and “recency” equal “valuable”. They figure that if they sample the last 15 milliseconds of the global zeitgeist and identify what’s floated to the top of that quantum foam, I’ll care about it. Hey, a thing happened and people are talking about it, here’s the #hashtag!

And again … they’re sometimes right! I am often intrigued to know the big debates of the day, like Oscar Wilde peering into his daily gazette. But I’d also like to stumble over arguments yet more arcane, and material that will never be the subject of a massive online conversation because only a small group of oddballs care about it.

You’re the same way too, I bet. We’re all weird in different ways, but we’re all weird.

Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins— i.e. how their remorseless lust for “engagement” leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s interesting. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.

That’s why I so enjoy the concept of “rewilding”… For me, it’s meant slowly — over the last few years — building up a big, rangy collection of RSS feeds, that let me check up on hundreds of electic blogs and publications and people. (I use Feedly.) I’ve also started using Fraidycat, a niftily quixotic feed-reader that lets you sort sources into buckets by “how often should I check this source”, which is a cool heuristic; some people/sites you want to check every day, and others, twice a year.

Other times I spend an hour or two simply prospecting — I pick a subject almost at random, then check to see if there’s a hobbyist or interest-group discussion-board devoted to it. (There usually is, running on free warez like phpBB). Then I’ll just trawl through the forum, to find out what does this community care about? It’s like a psychogeographic walk of the mind.

Another awesome technology for rewilding my attention, I’ve found, is the good old-fashioned paper book. I go to a bookstore, pick up something where it’s not immediately obvious why it’d appeal to me, then flip around to see if anything catches my eye. (This works online, too, via the wonderful universe of pre-1923, freely-accessible ebooks and publications at the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books. Pre-WWI material is often super odd and thought-provoking.)…

Step away from algorithmic feeds. In praise of free-range curiosity: “Rewilding your attention,” from Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99).

See also “Before Truth: Curiosity, Negative Capability, Humility, ” from Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson)

* “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” — Albert Einstein, “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64”

###

As we revel in rabbit holes, we might send insightfully-humorous birthday greetings to William Penn Adair Rogers; he was born on this date in 1879.  A stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator, he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.  By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid Hollywood film star.  He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was a Cherokee citizen, born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma).

“I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”- Will Rogers

220px-Will_Rogers_1922

source

“I am sorry I have not learned to play at cards. It is very useful in life: it generates kindness and consolidates society.”*…

Day after tomorrow– this this Wednesday, the 27th– Sotheby’s will be auctioning the late, great Ricky Jay’s remarkable collection of magic publications and artifacts…

… You have the rare opportunity to get your hands on a complete guide to the base practices of highwaymen, sharpers, swindlers, money-droppers, duffers, setters, mock-auctions, quacks, bawds, jilts, etc. in eighteenth-century London. 

That text is part of The Ricky Jay Collection, perhaps the world’s greatest assemblage of books on magic, deception, and trickery. As detailed in this enjoyable New York Times report, the Sotheby’s sale is a cornucopia of oddities from the late conjurer.

What’s really for sale — beyond the Houdini posters, guides to card tricks, and beautiful landscapes painted by armless entertainers — is the source material for Ricky Jay’s storytelling.

Jay (1946-2018) was, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest practitioners of legerdemain, a word that literally translates as light of hand [see here for its amusing etymology]. In other words, he did card tricks. But not just any card tricks: His 1977 book Cards As Weapons (available for free here!) begins with a letter to the Secretary of Defense explaining just how valuable his skills might be:

Drawing on techniques developed hundreds of years ago by ‘ninja’ assassins, I have developed my own system of self-defence based solely on a pack of cards,” he wrote. “I believe I have discovered a viable method of reducing the defence budget while keeping a few steps ahead of the Russkies.”

And Jay could indeed pierce the skin of a watermelon with a playing card from across a room. But when you came right down to what he did with his 52 assistants, the man was famous for moving pieces of waxed paper around on a table. The gulf between collating stationery and  “the theatrical representation of the defiance of natural law” was filled by his deep knowledge and ready wit.

One of his signature tricks was The Four Queens, in which the waxed rectangles with the Qs in their corners are blended into the pack and need to be reunited. Or as Jay framed it, “I have taken advantage of these tenderly nurtured and unsophisticated young ladies by placing them in positions extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities.”

You can really see the storytelling taking shape here in his Sword of Vengeance trick. What do shogun assassins have to do with cards? That’s exactly what you forget to ask until it’s too late:

Jay’s ability to unspool a story was clearly infectious, as his profilers couldn’t resist taking flights of erudition.

“He’s like someone carving scrimshaw while surrounded by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day dirigibles,” wrote Tom Carson in Grantland.

“His patter was voluble, embroidered with orotund, baroque locutions; he would describe the watermelon rind, for instance, as the ‘thick pachydermatous outer melon layer’,” wrote Mark Singer in The New Yorker.

To include him in the pantheon of Great Wits is to recognize why he amassed The Ricky Jay Collection and what he learned from it. The shaggy dog story, as previously detailed in GWQ #101, is a psychological non-sequitur: You follow it at great length to eventually learn it goes nowhere. But in Ricky Jay’s dexterous hands, the story was an ideal way to distract you from his dexterous hands. His words were how he could really transport the audience into a world of wonders. It’s as if he harnessed the shaggy dogs and mushed them through the Iditarod… 

The wit that powered the tricks: “Ricky Jay’s slight of tongue,” from Benjamin Errett (@benjaminerrett)

* Samuel Johnson

###

As we riffle and cut, we might send accomplished birthday greetings to Marion Eileen Ross; she was born on this date in 1928. An actress with a long history in film (e.g., The Glenn Miller Story, Sabrina, Lust for Life, Teacher’s Pet, Some Came Running, and Operation Petticoat), she is best remembered for her role as Marion Cunningham on the sitcom Happy Days, on which she starred from 1974 to 1984 and for which she received two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. (That said, your correspondent will always remember her for her remarkable performances as Grandma SquarePants in SpongeBob SquarePants.)

source

“Comedy too can sometimes discern what is right”*…

What’s old is new again…

When​ Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released ‘WAP’ in August 2020, ‘conservative’ commentators such as Tucker Carlson expressed outrage that the song might corrupt ‘your granddaughters’; Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post celebrated it as an ‘ode to female sexual pleasure’. The video featured the two long-lashed goddesses twerking their way through a gilded McMansion in fabulous candy-coloured outfits, like bethonged Disney princesses. The lyrics create a cluster of ambiguities: are the speakers supposed to be sex workers struggling to pay their college tuition and running in fear from ‘the cops’, or wealthy A-list celebrities? Or are they, as Black women in a white man’s world, both? Do they really want anyone but each other? Do they own the house through which they strut? The song mocks its listeners and viewers for yearning for these superior beings in their state of limitless desire. At the same time, its sly laughter invites us to feel, for a couple of minutes, part of their glittering, multicoloured world.

The song’s genius lies in its inventiveness: its mastery of rhythm, and its innovative abundance of metaphors for the ‘wet-ass pussy’ of its title. You come for the nasty, but you stay for the poetry. The two artists celebrate the power of their bodies to express desire and joy, but more fundamentally, they celebrate their gushing waterfalls of linguistic ‘flow’. The joke of the title hinges on the fact that language is both literal and metaphorical: one body part is used as a linguistic modifier for another. The most memorable lines contain no words that would be unsuitable for a nursery school sing-along, but provide brilliantly funny images: ‘Swipe your nose like a credit card’, ‘Get a bucket and a mop’, or – climactically – ‘Macaroni in a pot’. It’s wild and down to earth at the same time, and for ever changes the way you think about cooking spaghetti.

Ancient Athenian comedy of the fifth century BCE – mostly known to us through the work of Aristophanes – can be usefully compared to a number of different modern genres. Like traditional TV sitcoms, it featured typical or stereotypical characters, and showcased their ridiculous lust, avarice, stupidity and ambition. Like modern stand-up comedians or late-night TV hosts, comic poets included speeches in their plays in which they railed at the audience about the state of society and their personal grievances. Like Saturday Night Live, comedy in fifth-century Athens included caricatures of people who might well have been in the audience – such as Socrates, Euripides or the politician Cleon. Like The Simpsons or 30 Rock, the dialogue had a high rate of jokes per minute, and catered to multiple different audience sensibilities, including a taste for lavatory humour. As in Broadway musicals or on the Disney Channel, characters in lavish costumes were liable to burst into song and dance at any moment – although, unlike on Hannah Montana, the male characters wore large strap-on phalluses. Old Comedy anticipated modern sci-fi, and shows like The Good Place, in its willingness to carry out fantastical thought experiments (talking frogs, a city of birds, a singing chorus of metaphysically inclined clouds, or, weirdest of all, women with real political power), and considered their social and political repercussions. Like pantomime or Punch and Judy, it included formulaic riffs on falling over, violence and cross-dressing.

But the lush comic hip-hop of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B is one of the most useful modern analogues, because it illustrates the core element of Old Comedy that is most often obscured in contemporary Anglophone translations – the flow. Aristophanes, like the creators of ‘WAP’, was a musician, songwriter, choreographer and poet, and his linguistic effects depend, like theirs, on the artful manipulation of rhythm and sound in words and imagery. The poetic affinity between rap and Old Comedy is explored in Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, a hip-hop adaptation of Lysistrata set on the South Side of Chicago…

Aristophanes and rap: “Punishment By Radish,” from Emily Wilson (@EmilyRCWilson), the translator of a wonderful edition of The Odyssey.

* Aristophanes

###

As we LOL, we might we might send dramatic birthday greetings to Nathan Field; he was born on this date in 1587. A contemporary and colleague of Shakespeare, Field was– like the Bard– both a dramatist and an actor.

As an author, Field wrote alone (e.g., the comedy A Woman Is a Weathercock), and in collaboration with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger (e.g., the tragicomedy The Knight of Malta). As an actor he ended his career in the Kings Men, working alongside Shakespeare, where he appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and in Ben Jonson‘s Volpone and The Alchemist, among other productions.

source

“I like boring things”*…

What’s not to like?…

A Youtube video titled “THE MOST BORING VIDEO EVER MADE (Microsoft Word tutorial, 1989) has accrued over 1.5 million views despite its self-proclaimed boringness. The video, an hour and forty-seven-minute computer tutorial, appears to have been recorded in one long take. It’s a time capsule to the early days of home computers and despite the monotonous, sleep-inducing narration, the instructions are quite thorough. In the video’s comments, viewers point out the mind-blowing drama at minute 59 and the charming quote “no ‘command m’ for ‘miracle.'”

1989 Microsoft Word tutorial is ‘the most boring video ever made’,” from Annie Rauwerda @BoingBoing

Pair with this 1984 video of Stanley Kubrick discussing his favorite software manuals:

* Andy Warhol

###

As we take on tedium, we might send qualified birthday greetings to Edward William Bok; he was born on this date in 1863. An editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, he is best remembered for his 30-year stewardship of the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Bok’s overall concern was to promote his socially conservative vision of the ideal American household, with the wife as homemaker and child-rearer. At the Ladies Home Journal, Bok authored more than twenty articles opposed to women’s suffrage, women working outside the home, woman’s clubs, and education for women. He wrote that feminism would lead women to divorce, ill health, and even death. Bok viewed suffragists as traitors to their sex, saying “there is no greater enemy of woman than woman herself.”

(See here for a glimpse at his ambitions and impact.)

source

%d bloggers like this: