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A Eulogy For Schadenfreude

The quality and quantity of humor in society are inversely proportional to its well-being. Case in point: can you name a famous humorist from Switzerland? Well, with the exception of Patrick Chappatte, who arguably made a bigger splash on the pages of The New York Times than on those of Le Temps or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. On the other hand, Argentina is known (if not worldwide, at least in Latin America) as a fertile ground for cartoonists, comedians, and authors of satire. After all, what is a humorist to do in a happy world? Not much.

Orson Welles famously said once:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Ouch.

Following the reasoning that opens this article, we can argue that the computer software industry is, indeed, an insufferable place; and I know that many of you, dear readers, will agree with this assertion. This magazine exists, to a large degree, as a means to exorcise the various ailments we endure day in and day out, every time we compile, debug, run, or maintain code, in one way or another.

Hence, humor.

Software engineers struggle in various ways, and each of those is a valid channel for a funny anecdote: the social awkwardness, the esoteric nature of code, and the neverending questions of our mothers and fathers trying to understand what we do for a living. We have long ago realized the strange situation in which we evolve every day, telling a computer what to do in languages more or less arcane and more or less usable.

The good news is that such a struggle begets humor. And the software industry has plenty of it, and laughing about oneself is a healthy practice. As long as there have been computers, there have been attempts at making fun of what we do, starting with Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who named bugs after… well, an insect that was at the origin of a faulty program.

Computer and “geek” humor come in all media and shapes. Let us enumerate some classics. The first medium for humor was plain text, as was the first age of the Internet. There are Usenet groups entirely dedicated to jokes, such as rec.humor.funny or alt.humor.best-of-usenet. It was through those pre-web media that some classics were published first, like the epic Bastard Operator From Hell (BOFH) series, or the DEC WARS! storyline, a parody of Star Wars adapted to the world of UNIX and VMS minicomputers.

(By the way, if you are a Star Wars fan and a terminal user, $ telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl. You are most welcome.)

Printed magazines such as Byte and Dr. Dobb’s also included funny content, anecdotes, and even regular columns that have become absolute classics. Comes to mind the insuperable Verity Stob, first on paper (Dr. Dobb’s) and later online (on the satirical publication The Register,) a staple for all developers dealing with Microsoft technologies for a living. Dilbert, the first mass-produced parody of the software industry, started in 1989 as a syndicated comic printed in various newspapers across the US.

The World Wide Web brought countless ways for funny content to spread: from Geocities to Blogspot, from WordPress to Tumblr, and from Medium to Dev.to. Among lots of funny technical posts we got James Iry’s Brief, Incomplete, and Mostly Wrong History of Programming Languages, then Soheil Rezayazdi’s Nihilistic Password Security Questions, to name a few out of millions of pages making developers laugh in between C++ builds or cloud deployments. Steve Yegge falls into a different category; a blogger (first on Blogspot and then on Medium) with both truth and style: whatever Steve writes, one is sure it will be noticed, and it will be funny.

Let us not forget about some RFC documents that have become classics of their own: The Twelve Networking Truths, A View from the 21st Century, Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP/1.0), Remembrances of Things Past, On Consensus and Humming in the IETF, Suggested Additional MIME Types for Associating Documents, and RFC 2235 – Hobbes’ Internet Timeline.

Research papers can be funny, too; let us enumerate them using the standard Elsevier-Harvard citation style:

(OK, the last one has not really much to do with computers but it is funny nevertheless.) If you wanted to generate your own funny paper, the SCIgen generator (no longer working at the time of this publication) was your easiest bet. The creators actually presented papers generated with this thing in actual conferences, and were accepted…

Speaking about conferences and laughter, SIGBOVIK by “The Association for Computational Heresy” (where the McMillen & Toady paper above was presented) stands out from the others. Its description says it all:

SIGBOVIK (Special Interest Group on Harry Quicksand Bovik) is an annual multidisciplinary conference specializing in lesser-known areas of academic research such as Artificial Stupidity, Computational Archaeolinguistics, and k-Armed Bandits. (…)

We especially welcome the three neglected quadrants of research: joke realizations of joke ideas, joke realizations of serious ideas, and serious realizations of joke ideas. (In other words: SIGBOVIK is an evening of tongue-in-cheek academic presentations, a venue for silly ideas and/or executions.)

It will sound obvious, but they publish their records of proceedings around April 1st every year, except in 2017, when they published them on April 0th, and in 2018, when they did it… on April -2nd. I should attend this conference one day.

Going back to our subject, in 1994 Netscape brought animated GIFs to the masses through the <IMG> tag, which begat the era of webcomics: xkcd by Randall Munroe, UserFriendly by J. D. Frazer, PhD by Jorge Cham, Geek & Poke, CommitStrip, Comic Agilé by Luxshan Ratnaravi and Mikkel Noe-Nygaard, and so many more. You can even add the aforementioned Chappatte to the list.

But it was the release of YouTube in 2005 that heralded a new era on the web, that of video, and its cohort of “influencers” many of which are frankly hilarious. Don McMillan, who appeared in America Got Talent merely three months ago, was one of the first to use this new medium to build an audience around geek humor. But there is so much more out there, we cannot possibly list it all. Just as a treat: Jason Dixon’s hilarious BSD is Dying talk at NYCBSDCon 2007; a compilation of Booms! by Steve Jobs; Bill Gates’ Last Day At Microsoft and his legendary BSOD on stage; and of course ads for MS-DOS 5.0 and the 1999 Apple PowerMac G4 Weapon commercial. Speaking about advertising, the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” series deserves a chapter of its own.

If you speak French, you will surely enjoy Jérôme Commandeur explaining to his audience in 2009 what Facebook was, or how to use the iPhone App Store.

Even closer to each one of us, the #off-topic channel in your company chat is a source of anecdotes, memes, geek jokes and all sort of joy. We can brew install, choco install, or sudo apt install many tools to make our terminal a bit funnier: asciiquarium, cmatrix, cowsay, ponysay, fortune, lolcat, artii, sl, and the list would be too long to continue.

Speaking about software, there was a time when Easter Eggs were a thing; weird behavior or even games hidden in the about box of many big titles. From the first easter egg on a PDP-6, to the flight simulator in Excel 97 subsequently forbidden by Microsoft because of “Trustworthy computing,” now we have to peruse old archives and remember those days thanks to the Easter Egg archive.

To close this dissertation, this author admits that in the 30 years he has spent among Swiss people, he has seen an increase in both the quality and quantity of its humor, together with a (sadly) certain degradation of its quality of life. Not even peaceful Switzerland is immune to the Zeitgeist represented by the rise of right-wing extremism, economic mayhem, and war.

The word Schadenfreude denotes the capacity to enjoy somebody else’s suffering; as a species, we must slowly realize that somebody else’s suffering is, indeed, our own, and act consequently. Viewed from this angle, laughing is only a temporary palliative treatment for the symptoms, not for the disease itself.

Cover photo by Quino Al on Unsplash.

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