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The Ignoble Programmer

Two programmers are taking a break from their work, relaxing on a bench in the park across from their office. As they discuss their weekend plans, a group of people jog past, each carrying their laptop in a yoke around their neck and furiously typing as they go.

“Oh, there goes the Smalltalk team,” says the senior of the two programmers on the bench. “They have to do everything at run-time.”

I love jokes. And not just because they’re sometimes funny, though that helps: I certainly find I enjoy a conversation and can relax more when at least two of the people involved are having fun. When only one person is joking, it gets awkward (particularly if everyone else is from HR). But a little levity can go a long way toward disarming an unpleasant truth so that it can be discussed openly. Political leaders through the ages have taken advantage of this by appointing jesters and fools to keep them aware of intrigues in the courts: even the authors of the American bill of rights remembered the satirist before the shooter.

I also like jokes because of the thought that goes into constructing a good (or deliberately bad) one. There’s a certain kind of creativity that goes into identifying an apparently absurd connection, exactly because of the absurdity. Being able to construct a joke, and being practised at constructing jokes, means being able to see new contexts and applications for existing ideas. Welcome to the birthplace of reuse and exploring the bounds of a construct’s application: welcome to the real home of software architecture.

But there’s a problem, or at least an opportunity (or maybe just a few thousand consulting dollars to be made and a book to be written). That problem is this: everyone else puts way more effort into their jokes than programmers do. Take this one, from the scientists:

Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon

They didn’t just joke about doing a brain scan of a dead fish, they did a brain scan of a dead fish. And published the (serendipitous and unexpected) results. But they didn’t just angle for a laugh, they had a real point. The subtitle of their paper:

An Argument For Proper Multiple Comparisons Correction

And isn’t it fun that some microbiologists demonstrated that beards are significant vectors for microbial infections?

Both of these examples were lifted from the Annals of Improbable Research’s Ig Nobel Prizes, awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think”. The Ig Nobels have been awarded every year since 1991, and in that time only one computer science award has been granted. That award was given to the developer behind PawSense, a utility that detects and blocks typing caused by your cat walking across your keyboard.

Jokes that first make you laugh, and then make you think, are absolutely the best jokes you can make about my work. If I conclude “you’re right, that is absurd, but what if…” then you’ve done it right. Jokes that are thought-terminating statements can make us laugh, and maybe make us feel good about what we’re doing, but cannot make us any better at it because they don’t give us the impetus to reflect on our craft. Rather, they make us feel smug about knowing better than the poor sap who’s the butt of the joke. They confirm that we’ve nothing to learn, which is never the correct outlook.

We need more Ig Nobel-quality achievements in computing. Disarming the absurd and the downright broken in programming and presenting them as jokes can first make us laugh, and then make us think.

N.B. My complete connection to the Annals of Improbable Research is that I helped out on the AV desk at a couple of their talks. At their talk in Oxford in 2006 I was inducted into the Luxuriant and Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.