humor posts

Dark Patterns for Interviewing September 14th, 2012

How to Win at Conversation is a humorous New Yorker article that frames conversation as a competition and offers up strategies (including Seed of Doubt, Barrage of Interruptions, Intentional Mishearing and Unfulfilled Intimations of Actual Gossip) for winning. You’ll likely recognize when you’ve been on the receiving end, or maybe when you’ve done it yourself. The piece can be read as a set of dark patterns for good interviewing.

OPPONENT: We just got some pretty good news.
YOU: I can’t believe it! They finally gave you a five-hundred-thousand-dollar raise, didn’t they?
OPPONENT: Er…no.
YOU: Oh. Sorry. So what’s the good news?
OPPONENT: Our little Jimmy just got into his first-choice preschool.
YOU: Oh. That’s good, too. Certainly nothing to sneeze at!

Strategy used: Intentional Overstatement of Expectations.

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ChittahChattah Quickies March 7th, 2012

‘Brogrammers’ challenge coders’ nerdy image [SF Chronicle] – It’s a bit of a silly story that turns a catchphrase into a cultural trend, but of course there’s something happening to drive the growth of the catchphrase. Sad that flipping the nerd stereotype reveals a sexist one.

Tech’s latest boom has generated a new, more testosterone-fueled breed of coder. Sure, the job still requires enormous brainpower, yet today’s engineers are drawn from diverse backgrounds, and many eschew the laboratory intellectualism that prevailed when semiconductors ruled Silicon Valley. At some startups the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it’s given rise to a new title: brogrammer. A portmanteau of the frat-house moniker “bro” and “programmer,” the term has become the subject of a Facebook group joined by more than 21,000 people; the name of a series of hacker get-togethers in Austin, Texas; the punch line for online ads; and the topic of a humorous discussion on question-and-answer site Quora titled “How does a programmer become a brogrammer?” (One pointer: Drink Red Bull, beer and “brotein” shakes.) “There’s a rising group of developers who are much more sociable and like to go out and have fun, and I think brogramming speaks to that audience,” said Gagan Biyani, co-founder and president of Udemy, a San Francisco startup that offers coding lessons on the Web.

Mr. Peanut’s Alter Ego Leads Kraft Into Planters Butter [Bloomberg] – Surprising not to see any mention of Kraft Peanut Butter, the Canadian product that pretty much defines peanut butter in that market.

Mr. Peanut has a stunt double. Sporting a goatee, aviator sunglasses and overconfidence, “Doug” performs death-defying feats that always end the same way: with him getting crushed and turned into peanut butter. Doug’s daredevil act is part of Kraft’s move into the crowded U.S. peanut butter market. In what may be the most overdue brand extension in history, Kraft is using the 100- year-old Planters brand to spark growth in its mature grocery business. Kraft is targeting adults, who consume two-thirds of the $1.8 billion of peanut butter sold in the U.S. each year, Kraft was looking for an adult mascot and settled on Doug, voiced in Web ads by Kevin Dillon in an homage to the hapless Johnny Drama character he played on HBO’s “Entourage” series. “Peanut butter was a natural extension,” Schmelter said. The new spread and Peanut Butter Doug, as he is formally known, are signs Kraft is getting more aggressive with the grocery business, said Alexia Howard, an analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York.

Internet Archive’s Repository Collects Thousands of Books [NYT] – Digital technology allows rapid content creation, and creates interesting archiving challenges. First all the digital data was worth preserving. Then digital was a method to archive the physical world. Now we’re going all-in and trying to archive the physical world itself. Seems like a setup for a Steven Wright joke (didn’t he describe his full-scale map of the US and the problems he had folding it?).

“We want to collect one copy of every book,” said Brewster Kahle, who has spent $3 million to buy and operate this repository situated just north of San Francisco. “You can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of a culture.” As society embraces all forms of digital entertainment, this latter-day Noah is looking the other way. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune selling a data-mining company to Amazon.com in 1999, Mr. Kahle founded and runs the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving Web pages – 150 billion so far – and making texts more widely available. But even though he started his archiving in the digital realm, he now wants to save physical texts, too. “We must keep the past even as we’re inventing a new future,” he said. “If the Library of Alexandria had made a copy of every book and sent it to India or China, we’d have the other works of Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides. One copy in one institution is not good enough.” Mr. Kahle had the idea for the physical archive while working on the Internet Archive, which has digitized two million books. With a deep dedication to traditional printing – one of his sons is named Caslon, after the 18th-century type designer – he abhorred the notion of throwing out a book once it had been scanned. The volume that yielded the digital copy was special. And perhaps essential. What if, for example, digitization improves and we need to copy the books again?

Myq Kaplan Gives Birth to a Stand-Up Joke [NYT] – The prototype/test-with-users/iterate process of designing a joke.

The first week is arguably the most creative in the life of a joke. For Mr. Kaplan it’s all about generating ideas. What could explain this jacket convention? Maybe, he speculated, jackets were once very cheap and, as he would later say onstage, “men wore seven coats out, hoping it wasn’t an eight-puddle day.” He also decided that the modern equivalent was leaving the toilet seat down. All these ideas were transformed into jokes as the bit expanded. Setups shrank. Punch lines multiplied. The jacket over the puddle soon became one of several examples of chivalry that began with his pantomiming opening a door after asking the audience: “Does it detract from chivalry if, when opening a car door for a lady, I say, ‘Chivaaalry!'” He dragged out the last word in the self-satisfied voice of a magician introducing his assistant. A coarse joke about chivalry during sex replaced the homeless-man line. By early January Mr. Kaplan’s rhythm became more assured and moseying, lingering on pauses, finding extra laughs between punch lines. His typical stage pose – leaning back, his free hand placed gently on his stomach as if he were pregnant – became looser, adding touches of showmanship. It didn’t matter where he performed (clubs, restaurants, even a hostel), chivalry always worked. The focus now was on getting the right laughs. It was important, he thought, to get a big one right at the start with his car-door opening, and in paring it down, he turned a question (“Does it detract from chivalry…”) into a statement. Later, he brought back the question. Laughter marginally improved.

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ChittahChattah Quickies October 26th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Lessons from the 50s Housewife Experiment [Jen But Never Jenn] – [Jen chooses to spend a week doing like a 50s-era homemaker would have done, writing about the experience as it happens. Here's where she wraps it up] I'm not sure if it's residual resentment from societal expectations / limitations like the one above, a new set of expectations that you're not really contributing (to society / your home / womanhood, even) unless you bring home a paycheck, or new standards of living that insist we need to be making more money – but the appreciation for the homemaker has dwindled along with the number of people who actually earnestly take on the role. You don't hear of many people who have chosen a career in homemaking. Yes, there is the stay-at-home mom (although of the stay-at-home moms I personally know, all but one brings in some revenue through at-home businesses, part-time work or consulting – so even she often wears a career hat). But the stay-at-home wife (and not the trophy-wife-with-a-maid variety)? She's officially on the endangered list.
  • [from steve_portigal] Sears.com for Zombies – [When you think of the Sears brand, you probably don't think of edgy, humorous, ironic, or meta. But this landing page for their e-commerce site is full-on zombified, with all the product and model shots replaced by zombies, benefit statements, messaging, navigation, etc. all tweaked to suit the undead. There's even a multi-language option, replacing English with Zombian gahhhrs and gaaahks. This is very much the type of parody humor we find online, but we never see a major retailer all-in like this. It's really refreshing. Probably won't be active much past Halloween.]
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ChittahChattah Quickies September 29th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Homeless World Cup – [An interesting reframe of sporting championships and an interesting reframe of 'charity'] The Homeless World Cup is an annual, international football tournament, uniting teams of people who are homeless and excluded to take a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent their country and change their lives forever. It has triggered and supports grass roots football projects in over 70 nations working with over 30,000 homeless and excluded people throughout the year. The impact is consistently significant year on year with 73% of players changing their lives for the better by coming off drugs and alcohol, moving into jobs, education, homes, training, reuniting with families and even going on to become players and coaches for pro or semi-pro football teams.
  • [from steve_portigal] In Scholastic Study, Children Like Digital Reading [NYTimes.com] – “I didn’t realize how quickly kids had embraced this technology,” Ms. Alexander said, referring to computers and e-readers or other portable devices that can download books. “Clearly they see them as tools for reading — not just gaming, not just texting. They see them as an opportunity to read.”… “The very same device that is used for socializing and texting and staying in touch with their friends can also be turned for another purpose,” Mr. Chen said. “That’s the hope.” But many parents surveyed also expressed deep concerns about the distractions of video games, cellphones and television in their children’s lives. They also wondered if the modern multi-tasking adolescent had the patience to become engrossed in a long novel. “My daughter can’t stop texting long enough to concentrate on a book,” said one parent surveyed, the mother of a 15-year-old in Texas.
  • [from steve_portigal] Get a Geek in Five Easy Lessons [AMD at Home] – [AMD tries for humor on their corporate blog but ends up with an awkward, dated, false, sexist and generally alienating tone. Was this wise?] It’s hard to find a good man, but not impossible if you’re willing to make a little effort. Working in high tech, I’m mostly around guys all day. And I can tell you that – in general – technical guys are pretty cool. If nothing else, they will always be able to fix the TV, your PC, and the sprinkler system in a pinch. Yes, they have way too many gadgets, but come on, how many shoes do you have? How about just the black ones? So, if you’re single and find yourself at a TweetUp chatting with the cute geek in a backpack, here’s how to speak his language, appreciate his hobbies, and potentially snag a date at Fry’s. (Leslie Sobon is corporate vice president, product marketing at AMD. Her postings are her own opinions and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions.)
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ChittahChattah Quickies August 7th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] MOBA : The Museum of Bad Art – Art Too Bad To Be Ignored – [The web is full of snark, but this manages to make fun of the “bad” while keep the tone fun and somehow inclusiveThe Museum Of Bad Art (MOBA) is the world's only museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms. The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent. [Thanks, Mom!]
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ChittahChattah Quickies August 6th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Thoughts on Maslow’s Hierarchy [lunchbreath] – [Wonderful cartoon that looks at the hierarchy as reflected in Tony Hawk, the dog, and robots]
  • [from steve_portigal] The user experience of hot dog buns [FatDUX] – [Eric Reiss in a light-hearted consideration of hot dogs, buns,and global culture] Now here in Denmark, I’ve never seen anything except side-loaders (Gosh, who knew there was a technical term for this). That is until yesterday when I discovered the “Grab Dog” form-fitting hot-dog holder from the Danish bakery, Paaskebrød. An innovative solution? Absolutely. But a good solution?
  • [from steve_portigal] First World Probs Launch – [The definitive reference] FirstWorldProbs.com was launched as a sounding board for those who are privileged and still suffering. With unemployment at 10% in much of the Western world, and the rest of the world in far worse financial conditions, it's sometimes necessary to tacitly acknowledge that the "problems" we tackle on a daily basis in the first-world aren't so severe in a greater context – even though they can cast a dark shadow on our everyday lives. "Patrick Moynihan wrote a great piece…in the early 1990s about 'defining deviancy down' – at the time, some communities were so overrun with crime that they had to adjust their standards to ignore many petty violations to allocate their manpower to tackle the serious issues. However, it's also possible sometimes to see that the inverse is true. When all your basic needs are satisfied, it can be downright depressing to break a heel or spill your latte on your favorite suit. You could call it 'defining deviancy up', if you will."
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Page Not Found July 29th, 2010

I was fixing broken links on our blog today and had the opportunity to look at many different versions of the “Page Not Found” page in fairly rapid succession.

Here of course is the basic version; with its classic minimalism, one imagines how it would look in Helvetica.

Many sites provide some form of what the Montreal Gazette offers – “we didn’t find what you wanted, here’s a way to search our site.”

But one stood out…

Penguin Books, Australia, takes this little corner of their site – a place where mere arrival already means something has failed – and offers users an unexpected dose of humor, acknowledgment of the situation of being there, and a full set of choices about where they’d like to go next on the site. It was a little spark of delight, and it made me want to buy a book from them.

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ChittahChattah Quickies July 21st, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Woody Allen Records His Stories As Audiobooks [NYTimes.com] – The discovery I made was that any number of stories are really meant to work, and only work, in the mind’s ear and hearing them out loud diminishes their effectiveness. Some of course hold up amusingly, but it’s no fun hearing a story that’s really meant to be read, which brings me to your next question, and that is that there is no substitute for reading, and there never will be. Hearing something aloud is its own experience, but it’s hard to beat sitting in bed or in a comfortable chair turning the pages of a book, putting it down, and eagerly awaiting the chance to get back to it.
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ChittahChattah Quickies July 18th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Taking Web Humor Seriously, Sort Of [NYTimes.com] – [Another great Rob Walker piece deftly unpacks Internet culture] The more traditional pundits and gurus who talk about the Internet often seem to want to draw strict boundaries between old mass-media culture and the more egalitarian forms taking shape online ­ and between Internet life and life in the physical world. Sometimes the pointless-seeming jokes that spring from the Web seem to be calling a bluff and showing a truth: This is what egalitarian cultural production really looks like, this is what having unbounded spaces really entails, this is what anybody-can-be-famous means, this is what’s burbling in the hive mind’s id. But the real point is that to pretend otherwise isn’t denying the Internet ­ it’s denying reality. Trickster expression, intentional or otherwise, doesn’t propose a solution but jolts you to confront some question that you might prefer to have avoided. Like what, exactly, am I laughing at?
  • [from steve_portigal] Microsoft’s proprietary BlueTrack™ Technology works on more surfaces than both optical and laser mice – [Technology solves problems we didn't know we had, like, mousing on carpet! Thanks, Microsoft!] Now track more accurately on: Granite, Carpet, Wood.
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ChittahChattah Quickies April 12th, 2010
  • Chinese Comedian Gets Laughs in U.S., But Puzzles People in China [WSJ.com] – Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong draws from his experiences as an immigrant to get the crowds laughing. China Central Television, the biggest TV network in the country, deemed his success in the U.S. curious enough that it dedicated a special program to him in December. The peg: He's the Chinese scientist who makes Americans laugh. While CCTV declared that Mr. Wong's success proves "humor has no boundaries," it concluded the program without showing any of his jokes. Mr. Wong's first live gig in Beijing, in late 2008, was "not successful," he says. In America, he says, it's funny to poke fun at yourself. But in China, there's no humor in misfortune. Back home, Mr. Wong's dad is among those puzzled by his success. Huang Longji, who lives in an industrial city near China's border with North Korea, says he is proud of his son, but a career in comedy isn't what the retired engineer expected for his son. "It's just like a black hen lays a white egg," he said.
  • Atlanta transit system MARTA changes “yellow” line to “gold” [Gold Dome Live] – Moving to tamp a controversy that has reached the national news, MARTA CEO said in February that the transit agency would change the name of its “yellow” train line, which goes to Doraville, home to a large Asian-American community. She said MARTA had never intended to offend anyone with the re-naming, which went into effect Oct. 1, along with other color names for the rest of the system, and that it was making the change out of “an abundance of caring for this community.” A MARTA employee who dealt with diversity issues warned the agency a month before the change that it could offend some in the Asian-American community.
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ChittahChattah Quickies February 21st, 2010
  • DEVO – Focus Group Testing the Future [YouTube] – Filled with brilliantly sarcastic soundbites, this is definitely pushing on post-modernism/post-irony. DEVO doing focus group testing (or so they say) on every aspect of their 2010 offering (brand, logotype, instrumentation, clothing). Interesting also to see how this appears in the press with varying amounts of the irony removed.
  • Theater Preshow Announcements Take Aim at Cellphones [NYTimes.com] – In a production of “Our Town” the director, David Cromer, who played the Stage Manager, took a minimal approach because he wanted to stay true to Thornton Wilder’s desire to forgo conventional theatrics. “In that show we had this issue, which is that there was to be no theater technology. The whole act of my entrance was that you were supposed to think it was someone from the theater,” Mr. Cromer explained. “We didn’t want the Stage Manager to come out and say, ‘Please turn your cellphones off,’ because that would be rewriting Wilder.” Instead Mr. Cromer simply held up a cellphone upon entering at the beginning of each act and then turned it off and put it away, casually showing the audience what to do without talking about it. “The first time I was watching another actor take over in the show as the Stage Manager,” Mr. Cromer said, “he came out, held his cellphone in the air, and the woman next to me said, ‘Oh, someone lost their cellphone.’ ”
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ChittahChattah Quickies December 11th, 2009
  • Medieval helpdesk – How do I use this thing called a "book"? This video has been around for a while, but it's some good Friday fun. (Thanks, Julie!)
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ChittahChattah Quickies March 29th, 2009
  • Harley-Davidson: You Can File Our Obituary Where The Sun Don't Shine – Passionate and 100% on-brand response to rumblings about Harley not making it through 2009. Seen as full-page ad in today's New York Times and presumably elsewhere
  • Very slight story on how and why we use lines from movies in regular conversation – It also turns out that using movie quotes in everyday conversation is akin to telling a joke and a way to form solidarity with others, according to a researcher who has actually studied why we like to cite films in social situations.
    "People are doing it to feel good about themselves, to make others laugh, to make themselves laugh," said Richard Harris, a psychology professor at Kansas State University.
    Harris decided to ask hundreds of young adults about their film-quoting habits after he and his graduate students realized it was a common behavior that no one had looked at closely before.
    He found that all of the participants in his study had used movie quotes in conversation at one point or another. They overwhelmingly cited comedies, followed distantly by dramas and action adventure flicks.
    As for horror films, musicals and children's movies, "fuh-get about it." They were hardly ever cited.
    When asked about their emotions while quoting films, most people reported feeling happy.
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ChittahChattah Quickies March 2nd, 2009
  • Everything's amazing, nobody's happy – Thanks to John Zapolski for this one. Louis CK on Conan ranting with disgusted amazement against the dissatisfaction that he sees with what are clearly amazing new behaviors enabled by technology. Once again standup comedy provides some articulate-as-hell cultural observation. I don't encourage producers to take on Louis' attitude (basically, get over it) themselves, but it does provide a provocative point of view
  • My latest column for interactions: Interacting with Advertising – There’s a famous saying (attributed to John Wanamaker, the retailing pioneer): “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” And while that’s still true, we propose this corollary: Half our encounters with advertising are dripping with evil; the trouble is, we don’t know which half.
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Catch Your Dreams Before They Slip Away March 15th, 2007

Last weekend I went to an audition for a newly forming troupe from Blue Blanket Improv. I had done a full two hours of improv games for a really long time, and I was definitely rusty, but it was a lot of fun. I was hesitant to attend because there’s a pretty strong focus to the group – non-profit community events, and performances. I’m not sure I care that much about either. With that emphasis on performances comes a need to be funny for an audience. When I interviewed Chris Miller about improv and creativity, he noted the difference between improv and improv comedy, and this is definitely about improv comedy. But Chris also encouraged me to go to the audition, simply for a chance to play. I’m glad I did, because it was absolutely a chance to play, but it also clarified something for me: that I am fascinated by the problem-solving aspect of improv games…the need to follow the constraints of the game (i.e., a one-minute scene that is improvised, then repeated in 30-second, 15-second, 7.5-second and 3 second versions), be collaborative, and be creative. I love the laughter that comes from the participants in the activity (and even if you aren’t in the scene, you are going to get up and do it yourself next, so you share in that creative act) but I’m not so turned on by improv as a form of entertainment for those on the other side of the proscenium.

I got the call last night telling me that I passed the audition and was invited to join the troupe. I had to decline; I love the process and the way they’ve set up a structure for trust and creativity and collaboration, but I can’t go down the road of committing to performing for others right now.

It was sort of a stunning decision to make; I can imagine at various points in my life I would have given anything to be part of something like this, especially at this nascent stage (essentially they are building a new troupe from scratch in our community).

The day before that call I had seen a posting up at CCA for writing classes at
Killing My Lobster

This class is a six-week boot camp where the main requirement is for you to write funny and keep writing funny. If you’ve always had a curiousity [sic] for comedy writing, had funny ideas and have wondered “what would happen if I actually took this to the next level,” and enjoy learning and creating in a fun environment this may be the class for you. The class will culminate in a live reading of your favorite material.

I really enjoy sketch comedy as an audience and this class (sadly already in progress) sounds really cool. It’s another set of creative problem solving tools with some very different constraints and philosophies than improv, but perhaps a valuable exploration in expanding storytelling skills.

And finally, a piece about laughter and social context in the NYT today.

The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group. But it wasn’t just because these underlings were trying to manipulate the boss, as was demonstrated in a follow-up experiment.

This time each of the women watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who was ostensibly going to be working with her on a task. There was supposed to be a cash reward afterward to be allocated by a designated boss. In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape.

When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

“Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy,” says Tyler F. Stillman, who did the experiments along with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall. “When I tell the muffin joke to my undergraduate classes, they laugh out loud.”

Mr. Stillman says he got so used to the laughs that he wasn’t quite prepared for the response at a conference in January, although he realizes he should have expected it.

“It was a small conference attended by some of the most senior researchers in the field,” he recalls. “When they heard me, a lowly graduate student, tell the muffin joke, there was a really uncomfortable silence. You could hear crickets.”

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