Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

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All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of a Fine Magazine

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

Note the “u” in “watercolour” — this is an article about an extraordinary magazine published in Europe. If I happen to show up at a well-stocked Barnes & Noble store in the U.S., I might catch the 15th issue, but so far, my success rate has been inconsistent. Yes, $15 is a lot to pay for a magazine, and no, this magazine is not printed on special paper or especially thick (about 100 pages per issue). It’s just, well, a very good magazine about a subject that interests me. It was interesting to write that sentence because I am interested in lots of different things, but this is among the few magazines (in the world, I guess) that would win that kind of recognition. (I enjoy Pastel Journal, for example, but I would rate it only “good” in comparison with The Art of Watercolour’s “very good.” As a rule, The New Yorker is very good, but most weekly issues would probably score a “good-plus” if there was such a rating.

So what makes a magazine “very” good? Of course, it’s helpful to offer an abundance of good stories and wonderful illustrations that are specifically intended to delight a very distinct target audience, in this case, the thousands of artists who call themselves “watercolourists.” The magazine assumes a relatively high level of familiarity with the medium, the artists with a national reputation, and a high level of interest in the work of many different types of watercolour artists throughout the world.

Take, for example, the recent issue #14. It begins with a report on the very first World Watercolour Competition which drew nearly 2,000 participants and 82 nationalities. Turn the page and there’s a spread about the Narbonne 2014 Watercolour Biennial (the magazine’s home base is France, so that country gets more attention that others, which makes me feel very international when I have the magazine in my hands). I love finding out about U.S. watercolor events in a French magazine—a blurb about the IWS competition coming up in May (now past), for example. Letters that matter—questions about the leading watercolour paint brand (Winsor & Newton) and whether it has changed its formulation; how to sign a painting; the Munsell color system. Serious discussion, nicely presented, far more up market and smarter than the discussions in, for example, Watercolor Artist in the U.S.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

And then, there are feature stories about artists. The warm-up is called Revelations, and several artists are featured, each with his or her own page. Turn the next page and there’s a fabulous spread, a watercolour of an old New York City apartment building complete with fireplaces and elaborate window wells, a six-page spread including an artist’s career timeline, lots of juicy images, and a demonstration, by American-born Sandra Walker. Next is a four-page spread celebrating Australian painter Ron Muller’s atmospheric landscapes, followed by the Japanese artist working en plein air in Venice. And then, the extraordinary portrait work of Stephen Scott Young, Hawaiian-born, with an extraordinarily eye and a sensitive, realistic way of painting the lives of dark-skinned people living in the Bahamas and Florida. The next profile—the profiles are worth the price of each issue—is a feature about an abstract artist named Mark Mehaffey, which includes some very useful guidance about the composition and building of a nontraditional painting. I have a friend who paints cityscapes and especially enjoys the challenge of reflections and store windows—and in this issue, there’s a feature about David Stickel, whose opening pages attest to his abilities with his nearly realistic image of the clear box Apple store on Fifth Avenue near Central Park.

I’m still going—and this is a typical issue. There’s an instructional piece by American art teacher about color harmonies, followed by another long instructional piece about getting colors right (not easy because some colors are native and some are affected by light and nearby objects, and by the way the eye perceives contrast). And then, another meaty instructional feature, again dealing with a fairly sophisticated topic in an elevated way: it’s all about shadows, light and reflection. The consideration of these tricky issues as a single idea makes the article work, but it goes further, allowing for a sidebar about color temperature and the nuances of semi-transparent surfaces. Finally, there’s yet another instructional piece on the very difficult challenges associated with all prima watercolour portraiture (that is, capturing the human face—here, a young child) created by dabbing color onto wet paper which is notoriously impossible to control without extreme practice and polished technique.

So there! I just wrote hundreds of words about a magazine. I don’t think I’ve done that before. In fact, I’m so taken with what I’ve been browsing for the past hour, I’m going to order some back issues, direct from Europe.

To close, something more from Stephen Scott Young, from his website.

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Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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Karin, Hard to Find

karin_forsideIn 1969, most people, even those who were following the progression from jazz to fusion, hadn’t yet heard the work of a British guitar player named John McLaughlin. That was the year that he recorded his first album, “Extrapolation.” At the time, it was wildly experimental, but as I listen to it in the background while writing this article, it’s really delightful, gentle, meditative, not at all explosive. McLaughlin is a gifted guitar player and composer. He shares the stage with an another young British musician, a man who plays the somewhat unusual combination of soprano and baritone sax. His name is John Surman. At the time, Surman was already recording on his own for the Deram label (later famous for Moody Blues LPs). As a guy who tended to read album liner notes, I probably made a mental note about how much I enjoyed Surman’s work, but that’s didn’t amount to much.

Jumping far forward in time, all the way to 1995, I was writing a book for Billboard about the story of jazz, told through about 500 of the best jazz CDs. I worked with every jazz label, and welcomed their suggestions. Some of the most intriguing jazz CDs came from a European label, ECM Records. The music on ECM differed from the work on other labels: it was sophisticated, experimental, as much a soundscape work of art as a record album. One of the most intriguing of the ECM recordings was made by the Nordic Quartet, led by John Surman. I’m listening to the first track, and I can easily understand why it caught and captured my attention. Surman and his electric guitar partner Terje Rypdal had so thoroughly updated the explorations of the “Extrapolation” era. Weaving through the first track, UnknownTraces, there is a deep female voice whose sound more closely resembles an instrument than an upfront vocalist—and she’s singing phrases that feel more like poetry than lyrics. She was not credited as a singer, but instead, as “voice.” Her name is Karin Krog.

By this time, I was very well organized, and my note about finding more Karin Krog music stayed with me for (yikes) nearly twenty years. I liked what I heard, but in time, I forgot where I heard her voice. I’d visit my favorite deep inventory record stores, and nobody had ever heard of her.

Over time, I continued to collect John Surman CDs, and loved most of them. (Note to myself: I need to update my Surman collection because all of the CDs I just fetched from the shelf pre-date 2003), but there was no mention of Karin Krog on any of them.

Krog_4_lresEarlier this year, late at night, I decided to do a Google Search on Karin Krog. Bingo! She released her first single in 1963! (Clearly, I have missed a very good story that spans lots of decades.) We connected, and she was kind enough to send a few CDs. While the package was in transit from Europe, I found an LP called “Some Other Spring” in a used record store, copyright 1970, by Karin Krog and the brilliant Dexter Gordon (with the equally formidable Kenny Drew on keyboards, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass—they were working together in a Copenhagen jazz club). I was impressed by the good company, but I was a initially disappointed because the magical soundscape I had so enjoyed on Nordic Quartet was absent here; then, I listened more carefully, and with more of an open mind, and began to understand her versatility (it was her plaintive version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” that won me over). As the CDs were making their way to me, I explored the depth and breadth of a discography that includes dozens of albums.

The CDs arrived. I decided to listen in chronological order, so I started with what I now understand to be a work from the mid-1970s (fitting nicely into my story), an album called “Cloud Nine Blue.” Gosh, it’s rich! (The liner notes from the modern re-release mention something about remixing—completely unnecessary!). So here’s the incredible depth of John’s bass clarinet intermingled with lines of synthesizer and the siren qualities of Karin’s voice, accents and filagree from John’s soprano sax, a kind of avant-garde meets religious exaltation on “Eyeless in Movement,” no lyrics, just sonic expression, then a half-spoken, half-sung song from Karin. Gee, this is interesting music, the kind of work that makes a top-quality sound system worth the investment so each of the artists’ ideas are allowed to fully show themselves (listening on a lesser system is fine, but you’re missing half the show).

Karin-Krog-Oslo-CallingJumping to “Oslo Calling,” it’s now 2008. The execution is cleaner, more modern (heck, it’s more than thirty years later!), somewhat more traditional in its jazz arrangements. Karin’s voice has gained luster in the lower ranges, and boundless confidence. When a song is a soundscape, it’s slicker, less experimental, and I miss the freer thinking of the earlier work (but musicians must evolve, and the range of both John and Karin has been remarkable, over so many years). I especially enjoyed “Three Little Words,” a Kalmar-Ruby tune that’s been forgotten by too many performers—her interpretation is sassier than the others I’ve heard.

mr20_smallKarin_5_tbnOf the three CDs, the most interesting is also the most experimental, a cycle of songs originally composed for a 2010 jazz festival. It’s called “Songs About This and That,” and I like it because it recalls my earlier interest in their exuberant experimental side, but places it in a more artful, more carefully arranged setting. There is a sense of open time and space to explore, to allow for long lines, an ease with the maturation of Karin’s voice. On this CD, I think my favorite track may be “Cherry Tree Song” because the poetic lyrics wind so gracefully around John’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, a warm combination of electric guitar, vibraphone, and John’s bass recorder. In fact, I jotted down some other favorite tracks, and found the list was too long to manage, but I will mention the vibe solo that begins “Moonlight Song” and Karin’s waking-up voice, looking backward on memory. Wrapping up an article I’ve so enjoyed writing, I happened to notice that Karin’s credit on this CD is what it was so many years before, not “vocals” but simply, “voice.”

A lifetime of work. So much fun to discover, to listen attentively because there is so much to hear.Thanks, John, thanks, Karin. I want to hear more.

 

 

From Abe to Apple

Here’s an interesting new tool from the R&D labs at The New York Times. It’s a chronological graphing tool that maps search terms against dates from 1860 until the present day.

So: Abraham Lincoln—he appeared in 1 or 2 percent of all NY Times articles during his presidency (and in its aftermath), and long-term, he’s been a fair stable presence.

Abraham-Lincoln

George Washington preceded The New York Times, but the newspaper has been more interesting in George than in Abe about a century and a half. Lots of interest in the 1930s (I wonder why), but a good solid plater through the second half of the 20th century. Tall man, long shadow.
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According to The New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick didn’t produce much long-term interesting, so I tried FDR instead. I suspect there’s something wrong somewhere—FDR should have been represented with much more coverage in the 1930s and 1940s than the graph allows. I guess that’s why this is still an R&D effort—George should not outpace FDR during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

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Apple Computer made a splash in the 1980s, and seems to have peaked in the early 1990s, with the combination of iPhone and iPad causing a second peak just a few years ago.

 

Apple-Computer

How does Apple compare with Microsoft? Not even close—Microsoft’s coverage was much, much greater. If the graphs are correct—which, again, I question because Apple has been so prominent in the past two or three years, especially when measured against the snooze of Microsoft news.

Microsoft

Add Google to the mix (green line) to the mies, and things look about right. The orange line is IBM, which was, somehow, interesting around 1865 or so, more interesting than any time in the 20th century.IBM

These are percentages—the more articles the Times published, the less value for each individual article. So what about the raw numbers? Just for fun, I added Teddy and also John F. Kennedy. There isn’t a huge difference between the percentages and the raw numbers, not for this set of searches, but it’s worth flipping the $ / # switch for every graph to see anything there is to see.

So: next time there’s a rainy afternoon and you don’t feel like doing anything useful (or you’re deep in analysis of historical trends), The New York Times Chronicle is a tool worthy of your time and attention. And, by the way, if you click on any point on any graph, the Times provides a list of relevant articles that you can read online. For even the most casual researcher, this is a terrific tool, one that would be SO MUCH BETTER if every newspaper followed the lead of the NYT, and then shared their databases for combined graphing! But this is a wonderful first step.

 

 

 

High-Flying Book Report

Alaska_Airlines_Boeing_737Three across, seats A, B, and C in a exit row. All three of us reading a book. The ten year old girl who happened to sit in the window seat: a fat novel by Rick Riordan. My wife: The One Hundred Mile Walk, now being released as a Helen Mirren motion picture. Me, a terrific long novel by New York City newspaper legend Pete Hamill, who writes about his city with street smarts and an appealing sense of mysticism.

I never sit through an entire transcontinental flight. I always stretch, and always take a good slow walk. I like to see what other people are doing to occupy their minds during a flight that lasts a few hours or more. I didn’t write down the precise numbers, but here’s a reasonably reliable survey based upon a hearty attempt at serious snooping:

There were about 200 passengers on the plane (3o rows, 6 per row, plus some additional people in first class behind the curtain). About 50 people were fast asleep, many for the entire flight (I’m always impressed by people who can sleep more than two or three hours on a plane). About 25 were playing video games on their phones (as screens become larger, this becomes easier to do, and more fun, too). About 50 were watching movies, maybe half on tablets and the other half on portable computers (I would have expected a higher percentage of tablets). Maybe 25 were awake with blank stares. Add another 25 who were doing some work on their computers (few on tablets), and another ten eating while I was walking the aisles.

Here and there, somebody was reading a magazine (I think I remember two people reading the airline magazines—I wonder how much long they’ll exist.) How many were reading books? I counted the three of us. All in the same row. Maybe I missed another two or three book readers, but there weren’t ten on board. I suspect I selected an odd flight, but I also detect a what may be a trend. Digital devices offer more options—they play music, display the text of a book, show movies, enable videogame play, and help to get work done. Books are just books. For the price of an inexpensive tablet—say, $199—you could buy twenty good used books, but it still wouldn’t be able to play music, show movies, or help you get work done.

Still, books are lightweight and relatively inexpensive (and you can share them with friends, something you can’t [yet] do with music or an e-book). Books are wonderful traveling companions–they tell a good story and they communicate only when you’re interested). I cannot imagine traveling without at least one book in my carry-on bag. When we take forever to lift off or maneuver to the gate, I keep reading. When the flight crew requires all digital devices to be shut down, I just keep reading.

I guess I’m surprised that so few people (or, perhaps, simply fewer and fewer people) do the same.

Hard at Work in 2025

What does 2025 look like?

Lots of grey hairs, that seems likely. Americans are living longer, and working longer, too. If we plan to live to 90, then 30 years is a mighty long time to live without the intellectual stimulation, social interaction, sense of accomplishment and financial security that a good job provides. This is a very demanding population, many well aware of the importance of good food, fitness, mental health, recreation. By 2025 (about ten years from today), the 60-plus population in the US will increase by 70 percent.

That’s only part of the story. Forget about work as a series of repetitive tasks. These will be done by machines, or they will be outsourced. This type of work simply won’t be done by humans. And that raises the question, “what kinds of work are best done by humans, and not by smart machines?”And don’t think in terms of what machines, or computers, or devices can do today. Instead, think in terms of a decade ago (no YouTube, few phones with cameras, no tablets), and assume that the technology will advance at two or three times the current rate. Machines will be much, much smarter than they are today. And they will communicate with one another, often without human involvement. Much as I love reading, it’s clear that video and animation are going to occupy an ever-increasing share of everyone’s media diet. Cultural norms are changing. If you want to learn to fix a toilet, you no longer read about it—you watch a video. We are connecting data with an intensity and velocity never before imagined. This, plus a globally connected world, will make 2014 seem real old, real fast.

Add these trends to the longevity trend and the contours of 2025 begin to take shape.

CirclesSo what are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to think about 2025? Some of the answers are in a report prepared by the Institute for the Future for the (yes, I was dubious, too) University of Phoenix Research Institute. It’s good work. And it goes on to look carefully at ten skills for the future workforce that are worth browsing here and worth reading about, in greater detail, here. More or less (with some of my own interpretation added), they are:

  1. Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed. These are higher-level thinking skills related to creative and critical thinking, decision sciences, environmental scanning, extensive knowledge of environmental factors, and much more.
  2. Social Intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense reactions and quickly assess emotional impact, and then, rapidly adapt or lead to achieve the optimum result.
  3. Novel and Adaptive Thinking: This set of skills expands upon the two above, “the ability to respond to unique unexpected circumstances of the moment.” Routine solutions are useful, but those who can combine the routine with the new, those who are naturally resourceful, are most likely to succeed.
  4. Cross-cultural Competency: This goes far beyond tolerance and equality. It requires an ease in working across generations, across what was once called an organizational chart, gaining and contributing insights to an extraordinarily wide range of stakeholders, coworkers, clients, competitors, vendors, customers, participants and much more.
  5. Computational Thinking: What’s the point of all of that computing power if you don’t know what the machines can do, should do, and might someday do? This is akin to buying a fabulous car—you’re paying for the most extraordinary performance, but it’s yours only if you demand it. In other words, to succeed, you’ll need to understand how and why it all works (and not from a technical point of view, but from a high-level perspective instead).
  6. New Media Literacy: Critical assessment of videos, understanding of the techniques used to shape and deliver messages, how to write and speak and produce. Forget about PowerPoints—they were the 1990s. We’re entering the era of widespread transmedia, where text, graphics, photos, interactivity, connectivity, video and games are only the beginning.
  7. (I love this made-up word!) Transdisciplinarity: Not sure that this needs any commentary.
  8. Design Mindset: Or, more commonly, a skill in design thinking. What’s that? Planning based upon community, customer or participant needs—these come first, and old ways of thinking, such as profitability, flow from these decisions. There is a lot of information about design thinking on the web, including a good Wikipedia introduction, and a blog by Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, and the author of “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.”
  9. Cognitive Load Management: Yeah, I like this phrase, too. More or less, it’s thinking about ways to avoid a “overload” light from blinking inside your brain. Learn to say “no” to the junk that attempts to fill the media diet; learn to discriminate, to dig deep, to contextualize, to become a “sufficient expert” (I just made that up;  the phrase makes sense to me).
  10. Virtual Collaboration: To work productively on you own (never give your boss or client a reason to worry about time spent away from the office), and to do so with lots of other people to generate and maintain high levels of productivity. Use Skype, use other forms of technology to do great things (and some routine things) with people who you have never met, and never will meet in person.

I think that’s a great list. And with it, two (REALLY IMPORTANT) suggestions:

First, score yourself. On each of the ten items above, score yourself 1 (the worst) through 10 (the best). If your score is 85, 90 or better, you will be welcome in 2025. If your score is a lot lower, you’ve got some honest work to do.

Second, reconsider school. If school isn’t nourishing you on these ten points, you should begin to ask some very serious questions about your investment of time and money, and you should immediately focus your school’s administration, faculty and curriculum advisors that the world will change sooner than they believe possible. Work with them. Or, learn without them. But get moving!

Goodbye Charlie

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Several days after his passing, bassist Charlie Haden’s website hasn’t heard the news. But I know. And a few minutes before midnight during the week after his death, I feel it in my heart. I suppose the sense of loss struck me when I listened to the first track of one of my two favorite Haden CDs. The track is a spare version of “Here’s Looking at You” from an album celebrating the songs of the 1940s, in contemporary settings. I especially like the track because it opens the album with lush strings, the simplicity of Ernie Watts’ plaintive, lovely, long tenor sax reaching from the past, nostalgic, perhaps the best thing that Haden and Quartet West recorded. Alan Broadbent, the pianist who arranged the strings, is every bit as lovely for his solo. And there’s Haden, subtle but always there, just enough bass for me to follow his line as Watts comes in for his second theme. Not quite visible, but always a presence.

Haden recorded in a lot of settings, but I think I liked him best when he played an album of spirituals with Hank Jones. Just the two fo them, sounding as if they’re in an old church in South Carolina or Mississippi instead of Radio Canada’s Studio B in Montreal. “Steal Away” is an album of “spirituals, hymns and folk songs.” It’s one of my very favorite albums, and after , their work together on “We Shall Overcome” gets me every time.

From the liner notes: “They were called ‘Sorrow Songs’ because ‘they tell of death, suffering and an unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways…” yet (W.E.B.) DuBois…knew that ‘through all of the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.”

I listen to “I’ve Got a Robe, You Got a Robe (Goin’ to Shout All Over Heav’n)” and I find comfort in the music that Haden and Jones made twenty years ago. I listen to “Steal Away” and I hear the soul of a good man, a provocative artist whose range of experimentation spanned so many forms, a family man who carried a show business tradition, someone who made me think and gave me pleasure.

I hope you will be inspired to listen, first in a quiet room to the whole “Steal Away” CD, then to the joy-filled “Now is the Hour” by Haden and Quartet West.

Finishing up the article, I wandered over to the website. And I smiled. Two reasons why. First, it caused me to remember the dozen or so Haden CDs that are sitting on my shelves, and I want to listen to them all, again. Second, I realized that there were at least a dozen more CDs that I’ve never bought, never heard. So there’s more of Charlie Haden for me to discover. And that makes me very happy.

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On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

2B or not 2BOn Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bob Mankoff rejects most everything he sees. He works as the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, a magazine whose sense of cartoon humor is famous, but extraordinarily difficult to define. This is not a new problem. In fact, the New Yorker has always suffered from a rough case of not being able to explain itself (the problem goes back to the 1920s when Writer’s Digest asked the New Yorker’s editors to advise writers interested in the magazine; in essence, the New Yorker editors could not).

“Well, we needed the rain.”“How About Never – Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons” is a kind of small-scale coffee table biography, half text and half cartoons. As with the New Yorker magazine, it’s difficult not to be attracted to the cartoons, but I was good: I read the whole book including all of Mankoff’s confessional text and all of his chosen cartoons. What surprised me: only a few of the cartoons made me smile or laugh. And that got me to thinking about how difficult it must be, to select from the stack of 500 cartoons from regular contributors and an equal number from wannabes. Mankoff writes, “eventually, I cull the pile down to fifty or so, which I’ll take to the Wednesday afternoon cartoon meeting…” where the stack will be winnowed down to just seventeen, maybe eighteen cartoons that will be published in the magazine. (There are, and have always been, so many rejects, Mankoff started a new venture called Cartoon Bank to give exposure to the rejects—and earn some money for himself [before he joined the magazine as cartoon editor] and for other working cartoonists.

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So what’s funny? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does the New Yorker believe to be funny?

I just read a book about that topic and I still don’t know the answer. But I know a good New Yorker cartoon when I see one.

There are good ones on page 148.

The first shows a pair of snails with large spiral shells on their backs. They are staring at a plastic Scotch tape dispenser which resembles them. The caption: “I don’t care if she is a tape dispenser. I love her.” Very spare, right to the point, softly funny.

The second shows a man about to lose his head to a guillotine. The executioner offers a choice of two baskets to catch the head. The caption reads, “paper or plastic?”

On page 156, a cat is being instructed about litter box use by his owner: “Never, ever think outside the box.”

On page 251, under the sign, “Horse Play,” a horse is up on his hind legs shouting to a horse in the barn loft, “Stella!!”

On page (I lost count and they’re not all numbered), a croissant and tea on one side of the breakfast table and a whole lot of bacon, pancakes, sausage, eggs, juice, coffee, and the caption, “Welcome to America, bitch.”

On 284, a man has been murdered, and he is lying face down as two detectives look on. The room’s walls and floors resemble a crossword puzzle. One detective says to the other, “any clues?”

 

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So what have we learned? It’s no easier to write a book about cartoons than it is to select cartoons for the magazine. What’s funny is just funny—once again, there is no science to any of it. Which leads back to Mankoff on page 4, where he writes, “I’ve ignored E.B. White’s famous admonition, ‘analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

BTW: The statement about the dog that titles this article

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