Category Archives: humor

Deceptive Status Signals

This essay on deceptive status signals (aka DSS) is delightful for the
collection of tricks people use to look higher status than they really

  • Pulled over for using a cell phone, but it turns out to be a toy.
  • Filling your grocery cart with high-priced goods, and then abandoning it.
  • Driving with the windows closed, signalling that you have air condition.
  • Shirts with no backs.
  • Expired credit cards
  • Packaging for luxury goods
  • Carrying Fast Food packaging
  • Wearing just the cap of a pen in your pocket
  • TV antenna, but no TV
  • Using infant formula
  • Houses with brick fronts, but otherwise made of mud.

If your into it the jargon in this essay is fun. “A related
DSS strategy is the display of a cheap item that is complementary to a
prestigious consumer good.” helps explains the TV antenna, luxury good packaging, …

So, I wonder: could I hack the stream of Ads
appearing in my browser to create a deceptive status signal.

The Modern Gentlemen’s club

I inherited from my father an affection for cartoons.  I still have his books of Punch, and a complete set of New Yorker cartoons.  One of the standard tropes in these collections is set in a gentlemen’s club.  Two large cigar smoking elderly gentlemen recline in leather arm chairs.  One says something to the other.  Such as: “I think I’ve acquired some wisdom over the years, but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for it.”

old_fartsMen’s clubs seem to be rare in America.  We used to have lots of them.  The suburbs and television sucked the life out of the, or so I’m told.  And the term “gentlemen’s club” now has become a euphemism.

But, for the rich, the men’s club solved a problem.  It got them out of the house.  Which is a serious problem if your a type A over achiever, since chances are you married a type A over achiever.  Imagine the trouble.  You sell your startup and decide to spend more time with the family only to discover there isn’t really room at home for two over achievers 24×7.

In the good old day’s you’d join a good club.  And added bonus: you could sit around and whinging about who the youth of today are going to hell in a hand basket.

But of course capitalism is very good at filling demand, particularly when those who have the need happen to have disposable income.  And thus we have the venture capital firm.  It’s actually better than the classic gentlemen’s club.  You can still have the comfortable digs, the high end dinning room, the subscription to all the daily rags.  But it’s better!  Instead of complaining about the young you get to invite them in and give them advise!

That’s an old joke of mine, though it’s not entirely clear if it’s a joke or a deep insight into some aspect of the venture capital firm’s value proposition for it’s partners.  Memory is an untrustworthy beast, but I’m pretty sure I came up with this joke after hearing of a VC firm in the valley that had a wall down the middle; one one side it was pure luxury and on the other it was standard spartan office space.  As I remember the story the partners would always meet the entrepreneurs on the spartan side of the wall.

And so, it was with great delight that I read an article in today’s paper.  A friend of mine, having recently exited from his last of a series of successful entrepreneurial activities appears to have taken my insight to heart.  He is setting up a startup incubator here in Boston.  And make no mistake: that’s is honorable work.  But this was the sentence that delighted me:

English says he’s planning an “outrageous” workspace that will transform into a club at 6 PM, with regular events that “celebrate creative people” like dancers, sculptors, and clothing designers.

That is definitely an improvement on my original insight.

Reveal that your coworkers are incompetent

I recently read my way through a few dozen posting’s of Bob Sutton’s blog Work Matters.  Lots of fun stuff there if your interested in coordination problems.  I particularly  liked this one  about how you can reveal that all your coworkers are incompetent, malingering, and untrustworthy fools.

A pair of interesting studies on sleep deprivation were published in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal by  Michael Christian  and  Aleksander Ellis.  In both a field study with 171 nurses and a more controlled laboratory study with students, they found that when people suffered sleep deprivation, they suffered both a loss self control (measured with items like “my will power is gone” and reverse-scored “I feel calm and rational”) and to feel more hostile (measured with items like “scornful” and “disgusted”).  In turn, these foul emotional states led the nurses to engage in more workplace deviance, things falsifying receipts for reimbursement, dragging out work to get overtime, used drugs or booze on the job, said something hurtful to someone at work, and intentionally working slower.  The ugliness observed in the workplace was replicated in a more controlled experiment with 75 students” half the students were kept awake by the experimenters for a night in the lab and the other half arrived from a good night’s sleep in the morning.  The results were replicated in the lab study, and the added twist was that the experimenters created a situation where there was an incentive for students to steal an answer sheet for a test they took, and there was more stealing by the sleep deprived students.

So, to reveal your coworker’s incompetence I prescribe: hard work!  They will then stay up late.  For increased efficacy be sure everybody in your organization is sleep deprived.

Widening Gyre


When I was doing my reading on standards, identity, and highly skewed distributions one of the many places they all come together is around names.  Names powerlaw distributed, and there are some amusing stories of about extreme cases.  For example at one point in England so many males came to be named after the King that they had to introduce last names just to be able to differentiate.

Brad DeLong caught a good story of this kind today.  The remains of Super Typhoon Melor, brought unseasonable rains to Berkeley.  Classic blog posting material.  But then he gets this single comment.

kaleidescope said…

Typhoon Melor. During the Thirties, scores of Soviet citizens named their children Melsor, which stood for Marx, Engels, Stalin, October Revolution. After Khruschev’s 1956 speech to the 20th Party Conference, the Melsors changed their names to Melor.

I love the Internet, Surely some revelation is at hand.

Joking == Industrial Revolution

Asked what the earliest known joke is Robert Mankoff, here in this long geeky video on cartoon humor, spins a tail saying:  Shortly after the Civil War.  He tells a two awful early proto-jokes, one from the Greeks along with another from the century before the Civil War.  He’s wrong about this as you can see from this article from last May reporting the discovery of a Roman joke book.

We are talking here about jokes, not humor.  Obviously Pride and Prejudice and much of Shakespeare is hilarious, but the jokes are nonexistent.  Let’s give a joke by example to help clarify, lifted from the that article on the Roman joke book:

a barber, a bald man and an absent-minded professor taking a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it’s the barber’s turn, he gets bored, so amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says “How stupid is that barber? He’s woken up the bald man instead of me.”

A joke is very brief, even one line; and it’s not really the same as a quip, like say the amusing rye observations that Jane’s father makes in Pride and Prejudice.  A joke is a little stand along machine designed to trap it’s audience into laughing.

But obviously Mankoff’s version must have some grain of truth in it, since watching the video it’s clear that he has deep familiarity with the history and theory of humor.  I can accept that the discovery of an ancient joke book is in fact an extremely exceptional event.  Which I find entirely bizzare.  If asked to guess I’d have presumed that joke books would be close on the heels of pornography as one of the first things an entrepreneurial  book printer would print up for his customers.  And, I gather, that many great Universities have significant collections of dusty books of porn; so why no similar collections of jokes?

That says something,  I’m just not sure what.  Joking seems to fundamentally human that I can’t help but presume that some serious social controls censored the behavior so it was extremely exceptional for the behavior to get up enough steam that joke books survived.  Maybe something about the state of the art in joking, which is largely consistent with Mankoff’s model.  Maybe something about the nature of self censorship, e.g. maybe joking was treated as more sinful than pornography and or the demand for porn displaces the limited time for making possibly sinful books for resale.  Maybe it says something about archivists.  Maybe all these and others?

All this reminds me of another example of human activity unknown until modern times, i.e. political demonstrations.    For which similar questions could presumably be asked.  I joke that it’s my right as an American to complain, and apparently it is in fact a very modern right.  Maybe the right to joke is similarly modern.  There are days when I think modern human culture really is entirely different from what passed prior to say 1750.

Are all these modern activities fundamentally out of scope, i.e. sufficiently suspect as to be worth vigorous suppression, for a true conservative?

New search engine makes you look fat

Brett Porter wrote up a nice summary of his first impressions of that new search engine, Cuil.  He had exactly the same  experience  I had, and my wife had.  You ego surf only to discover they have a very odd model of your internet presence.  Feeling disappointed you then wander off.  We learn from this is that any new search engine better make us all appear even more above average than we already do.

Only $69.95!

What are you worth?  The Bush EPA thinks we are worth $6.9 Million each.    10% less than the Clinton EPA.  No doubt that makes lots of regulations less, ah, necessary.    I want to assure you; I think you are worth a lot more than that.

Meanwhile I gather that boffins think that a 10% rise in fuels prices drops the highway deaths by 1%; or in other terms that 4$ gas will reduce highway deaths by a thousand a month.

Oh boy.  Arithmetic:  12 months a year; 1,000 deaths a month; $6.9 Million/person … or $82.8 Billion a year.  That’s just the deaths of course, no doubt the injuries, loss of capital equipment and other costs mean we can multiply that by a another 3.  With around a 100 million households in the US, and 365 days in the year that’s $6.81 per household per day.  Feel free to spend the savings on gas.

On the other hand some people think these numbers are just numerology.


Sitting in the small Vietnamese restaurant in Western Massachusetts an ominous dark cloud slowly delivered one of those marvelous downpours that sometimes end hot summer days. For the woman at the next table the sky was bright one moment; the next the windows were sheeted with water. A young man walked across the square, hood up, jacket unbuttoned, tee shirt glued to his chest.

The woman spoke of global warming to her companions: a friend and a husband. She mentioned that she thought such storms were becoming more common. She mentioned hurricanes. His counter point was that we don’t know much about hurricanes, maybe a few decades. No doubt this was only idle conversation; but I quietly leaned across my table and whispered to my wife. “This is important. Somebody is wrong on the Internet!”

I’ve been haunted by this conversation. He’s wrong. She’s right.

Finally the ghost of the stairwell was sufficiently frustrated to manifest himself, at least in virtual form. Fresh off the presses “Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate” – From the Brochure: “More frequent and intense heavy downpours and higher proportion of total rainfall in heavy precipitation events.” – “Very Likely.” From volume 3, chapter 2 of the final report: “Paleotempestology is an emerging field of science that attempts to reconstruct past tropical cyclone activity using geological proxy evidence and historical documents.”

Ah, if only. I could have leaned over and said “Paleotempestology!” Well, as we like to say around my house “Oh, tell it to the blog!”